2013 promises to be a very significant year for the African continent. According to Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, 20 African countries will go through elections. With this pivotal moment at our doorstep, we’ve got to wonder how far technology has brought us since the last election and what there is to learn from others across the continent.
This question, along with a few others, are what sparked #Next4Africa a monthly Twitter chat experiment I launched months ago to see what some of the continent’s leading lights in digital activism thought. Reaching out to activists and colleagues across the continent I pursued what teachings a digital activist or any African digital citizen would be able to gain from an area that has seen the most growth over the last decade. Still, the question remains, have we begun to see an African technology bubble where perception far outweighs reality? A great sense of anticipation and expectation is being created globally based off of Africa’s newfound technology readiness and capability for developing solutions for emerging markets but is that being matched on the ground? Creating political and economic change is only possible if the online efforts are translated into offline action. To look at some of the best practice of this we turned our head West to Abuja.
Amara Nkwanpa describes himself within 140 characters as an “IT strategist and advocate for good governance in Nigeria”. And surely his track record has testified to this. Responsible for the #LightUpNigeria movement that gained steam both online and offline in raising awareness, reporting disruptions in supply chains and eventually influencing public policy. He along with a team of digital citizens helped create a feedback loop where Nigerians could voice their thoughts on improving what’s been described by industry expert and engineer D.J. Obadote as a “diesel generator economy”. Amara’s next challenge was the Nigerian elections in 2011. Being Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria also holds a substantial critical mass with access to technology.
Describing the situation beforehand, Amara admitted “Nigeria’s democracy was going nowhere. Citizens were apathetic. Change looked inconceivable.” The good news for them is that, due to the success of the #NigeriaDecides Twitter hashtag during the election, the influence on public servants and officials (in offices as high as the president) has been significant. “Since then, social media advocates and activists have been mainstreamed into the national dialogue.” he remarked. And according to tweets online, there were lives saved as first responders to #Nigeria Decides used Twitter to alert the authorities on outbreaks of violence and unrest. The sum total of the #Next4Africa discussion was to build context on the past and present in each respective country to come to the question around what’s next. And a big part of the answer evolves around how we translate the online activities into collective action on the ground.
Asked to describe how technology accelerated the “offline” feelings of the nation during #Occupy Nigeria, Amara shared that, “[Technology’s] motivation can embolden you to get on the streets. You become the government.” Seeing citizens all collectively share their frustrations and organise an offline way to demonstrate this brought them together. Similarly since then Kenya’s seen similar action during demonstration against members of parliament and their wishes to increase their wages and perks. From Cairo, Egyptian writer Sahar El Nadi’s emphasized the role of those online to go offline to show, share and organise citizens.
In Egypt TweetNadwa which was a grassroots movement to take the most potent tweets during the revolution and debate them while projecting them on buildings or in public spaces and areas for other citizens to take note and take part. With a year of great expectations ahead for the continent, we can only hope that Kenya and certainly the rest of Africa builds on the teachings and reflects on what we’ve seen in other countries to put that to work here. Much like the African proverb, technology allows us to go together like never before. Let’s hope that this rings true in the years to come.
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By Mark Kaigwa