Politics and activism are driving Africa’s Twitter conversations to new highs

Twitter provided a platform for #ZumaMustFall protests in South Africa
Twitter provided a platform for #ZumaMustFall protests in South Africa
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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In past decades, older generations of Africans had to be tolerant of oppressive governments, which were often dictatorships—if only for their own safety. But the younger generation is more vocal, critical and demanding of their leaders, and unwilling to allow their questions to be left unanswered.

Those higher expectations have been voiced on the streets of African cities from Bujumbura to Cape Town in the last year, but increasingly the murmurings of protest and criticism start via social media apps on mobile phones. And Twitter, with its relatively low bandwidth consumption, good for the slower networks and 3G phones of many African consumers, has played a leading role as a platform for raising political awareness on the continent.

Data from the latest How Africa Tweets report conducted by Portland shows Twitter continues to provide an important platform for political discourse in Africa. The report analyzed 1.6 billion tweets and 5,000 hashtags from 2015 and found that politics-related tweets in Africa, while behind entertainment and commerce, were very much on the rise, and generally topped the rates of political tweets in the United States and United Kingdom.

Mirroring internet use and smartphone penetration across the continent, the report also shows that since 2012, the use of Twitter has increased several-fold across the continent. The most tweets in Africa came from Egypt—almost half a billion. With the censorship rife and civil rights reportedly infringed on by the government, social media provides a ready outlet for dissent. South Africa and Nigeria, two of the continent’s most advanced economies, feature in the top five.

Those two countries count English as their official language, which helps explain the dominance of English tweets in the survey.

With a number of African countries going to polls in 2015, elections dominated political conversations on Twitter. In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, the general elections last March dominated the conversations of the continent. The #NigeriaDecides hashtag was the most prominent on Twitter.

A combination of civil engagement and smart use of Twitter saw Nigerians collate votes at local polling booths and share those numbers publicly as they went from the booths to local offices of the electoral commission to reduce the chances of inflated voting numbers in the final count.

In South Africa, president Jacob Zuma, who this week faced impeachment hearings in parliament, has been under immense pressure to resign since December when South Africans protested his tenure with the #ZumaMustFall hashtags on social media. That hashtag evolved from the #FeesMustFall movement and originally started out as #RhodesMustFall earlier. None of this calling for the resignations of leaders is new, of course. Back in 2011, during the Arab spring in Egypt, a series of vociferous protests were coordinated using Twitter, resulting in Hosni Mubarak quitting office after 30 years.

Africans also find a humorous side to Twitter. After John Magufuli emerged as president after elections in Tanzania, his immediate austere approach to governance stood out as Africans found the funny side to his penny-pinching ways with the #WhatWouldMagufuliDo hashtag.