Is Social Media the new threat to the political stability in East Africa?

Guest post by Stephen Obeli Someday

Unlike the Arab world that is still nursing wounds of revolutions powered by social media in 2011, East Africa so far does not have a case against the fast-growing internet service in the region.

All combined, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi have just under 60 million internet users with Kenya and Uganda taking more than 69% of that total.

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July 2015, American broadcaster CNN aired a story under the tagline ‘Obama heads to terror hotbed’. Armed with the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN, Kenyans on twitter (KoTs) ridiculed the broadcaster and the American people forcing executive vice president Tony Maddox to fly to Kenya and apologise on behalf of CNN.

A few months later when the Pope was slated to visit Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), Fox News was treading the same path. Their headline story on the subject was; ‘Pope heads to war-torn Africa’ and as you would expect, the reaction was sour; #SomeoneTellFoxNews led the fight for Kenya’s image.

That was just a tip of the ice: as Uganda went to the polls to elect a new president and over 400 members of parliament on February 18th 2016, the government was preparing a shocker for its citizens; Mobile Money and the most popular social media networks Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were blocked by all ISPs in the, six hours before voting started.

Asked why access to the services were restricted, the communications regulator (Uganda Communications commission) reasoned that they, together with the electoral commission and intelligence services had intelligence information to the effect that a section of the public intended to use the services to disorganize the democratic process and cause mayhem, bribe voters and campaign beyond the time allowed under the law.

There were mixed reactions among analysts with some saying the act was justifiable and others calling it non-sensible: As it turned out, citizens were not able to access mobile money until the ban was lifted 3 days later but within 12 hours of the restriction, most social media users had broken through the government barrier and illegally got back online using third party applications (VPNs, Opera Mini and UC Browser on their mobiles).

As I write this, something has swallowed the nation; the streets are worryingly quiet yet online, people are promising the incumbent an uprising for stealing their victory. The police are threatening to arrest whoever continues spreading information that can fuel anarchy but in a country where citizens do not consider the internet as an extension of the ordinary life, such warnings do not move them and the messages are still spreading.

Mr. Uhuru Kenyata, the Kenyan president was the first head of state to congratulate Mr. Museveni upon being declared winner of the highly contested poll but Kenyans had no kind words for him either: One KoT tweeted thus, “Disclaimer: the statements made by Kenyatta do not represent those of the Kenyan people but him and his family”. Soon, both Kenyatta and Museveni were trending topics on twitter and Facebook in both Uganda and Kenya

Kenyans have in the recent past used social media to name and shame corrupt public servants and their extravagant president (#UhuruInKenya) effectively fighting the vices. Radical austerity tales of the new Tanzanian president John Pombe Magufuli though the tagline #WhatWouldMagufuliDo already had a big impact on the Ugandan election, Kenyan president and watered down the repute Rwandan leader Paul Kagame’s had solely enjoyed in the region over the years.

The hashtag, #NoRailaNoPeace is already making rounds in the Kenyan twitter-sphere, a year before the largest economy and most active country on the internet in the region goes to polls to elect a new government.

With over 28 million people on the internet, could this be a signal of a possible repeat of the 2007 post-election violence that claimed hundreds of lives with barely any virtual mobilization tool other than FM radios in Kenya? With internet penetration of over 33.7%, could social media be as powerful as to hand Uganda it’s next president or sponsor the next political conflict or revolution? Well, only time will tell.

Stephen Obeli Someday is a digital and content marketing Pro, start-up entrepreneur, Creative Designer, Writer and Business Blogger.

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