In mid-July Chad lifted its 16-month social media ban. This ended the longest social media blockage seen in any African country. The government argued that the lengthy ban was necessary for security reasons.
The Chadian case highlights the way social media has increasingly been framed as a threat, especially by authoritarian leaders. Since the beginning of 2019 at least nine other African countries have also experienced government ordered internet shutdowns.
A recently published volume jointly edited by us digs deeper into this pattern. We explored the various ways social media has been entangled with politics and security. Social Media and Politics in Africa: Democracy, Censorship and Security includes cases from nine African countries. The 18 contributors to the volume include academics in Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. Journalists and practitioners in the field of international development also contributed.
Political leaders often view social media as a threat because it can provide the public with greater access to information. It also has the potential to mobilise and challenge leadership. Some authors found ways in which digital platforms were creatively used to expand political participation.
But many authors found the opposite to be the case. In researching cases in Kenya, Stephanie Diepeveen and Alisha Patel demonstrated how social media contributed to reinforcing existing power structures and dominant narratives.
Similarly, a study by Jean-Benoît Falisse and Hugues Nkengurutse found that public political discussions on Facebook and Twitter in Burundi generally didn’t include ordinary citizens. Instead, they were dominated by a small number of elites who acted as brokers.
In recent years Africa has seen the world’s highest internet penetration growth rates. This means that we should expect social media to play an increasingly prominent role in politics and security on the continent.
This book helps us understand the diverse and complex ways social media is shaping political engagement.
Social media and elections
Three chapters are devoted to social media and elections. In them, the authors show how social media helped develop spaces for engagement and debate.
The first, by us and Jamie Hitchen, found that WhatsApp was an especially important avenue for smaller political parties and new voters in Sierra Leone. The two others – one on Senegal by Emily Riley, the other by researcher and lecturer Nkwachukwu Orji focusing on Nigeria – show the ways civil society organisations use social media in the hope of adding transparency to the electoral process.
Yet, these chapters each warn of the problems of “fake news” on social media. For example, Orji cautions in his Nigerian study that the absence of a strategy to address misinformation can incite election-related violence.
In addition, many government attempts to limit social media occurred during election periods or at unanticipated moments of instability. This happened in Ethiopia during the internet shutdown following the “coup attempt” in June 2019.
Other states have taken more sustained measures to curtail the use of digital platforms. Tanzania, for instance, outlaws the spreading of “false” information under its Cybercrimes Act. UK academic Charlotte Cross explores the law’s origins and implementation. She also highlights the heavy burden that individuals have paid for criticising the government on social media.
Traditional and new media
Social media’s complex symbiotic relationship with mainstream media is still evident in powerful ways.
Somalia specialist Peter Chonka, for example, argues that the blurring of public and private boundaries inherent in the country’s social media environment can be disruptive. It has resulted in a lack of coherence in political communication by state actors. This further challenges their legitimacy. Tensions between traditional and modern forms of communication are reflected in the online clash of views over “appropriate” online content, moral values and perceived threats to national security.
Media scholar Brian Ekdale highlights the debates around “morality” in social media content. He researched a Kenyan government official’s attempts to block a local art collective’s music video that had been uploaded to YouTube. Ekdale then considers what this shows about the ongoing tensions between global media technology giants and local users and regulators on the continent.
Looking beyond the digital
Social media is more than views and opinions shared online. The technology can also help orchestrate protests that move beyond the digital realm. Two studies look at this. One is by George Karekwaivanane and Admire Mare on the #ThisFlag campaign’s efforts to remove Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe. The other is Tanja Bosch’s analysis of the #ZumaMustFall movement’s attempts to remove Jacob Zuma from the presidency of South Africa.
Both detail the role that social media can play alongside physical demonstrations on the streets. They each also draw attention to the numerous challenges that these movements faced. In doing so, they contribute to Bruce Mutsvario and Kate Wright’s argument that a better understanding is needed about the preconditions of effective digital activism.
Finally, Denis Galava argues that increased social media legislation in East Africa is part of a wider historic pattern of systemic state surveillance of the region’s citizens.
These contributions highlight an important point made in this book. Any credible research into social media should be permeated by an acute awareness of how the past informs the present.
The Nigerian central bank held a treasury auction on Wednesday to try to lure foreign investors, traders said, hours after it was announced that the president told the bank to ban access to dollars for food imports to curb demand.
Pressure has been building on the naira currency as oil prices drop and foreign investors book profits on local bonds in response to falling yields. Crude sales account for 90% of foreign exchange earnings and two-thirds of government revenues in Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer.
Banking stocks fell 1.26% on Wednesday, to help drag the main share index to a more than two-year low as negative sentiment persisted on the stock market.
Traders said the central bank asked them to increase their rates at a bills auction on Wednesday compared with rates that the bank paid at the last sale in July.
The move led to a spike in yields on the one-year treasury bill which rose to 12% on Wednesday from around 10% on Friday after the bank told dealers to bid higher rates at its auction, traders said.
Traders said the central bank wanted to offer bills at higher rates to attract foreign investors to boost liquidity on the currency market, which would help support the naira.
On Friday, the naira eased to 364 per dollar, from a quote of 363.50 as falling oil prices tightened liquidity on the currency market.
A dollar shortage was initially caused by a slowdown of foreign inflows after local debt market yields declined.
"As the naira came under increasing pressure ... stepping up demand management policies in the foreign exchange market furthermore suggests that the central bank faces increasing problems propping up the currency through open market operations," said Malte Liewerscheidt, vice president of Teneo Intelligence.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday told the central bank to stop providing funding for food imports, his spokesman said, in a further sign of pressure on the currency.
A spokesman for the central bank, which is an independent body, has not responded to text messages and phone calls seeking a comment on whether or not the request will be heeded.
Traders said the market was waiting for more information on how such a ban would be implemented, especially for importers with existing lines of credit.
"This adds to the level of uncertainty in the market. How the central bank would implement this remains unclear," one trader said. "Some of the items may already be included in the earlier ban."
The central bank in 2015 banned access to foreign exchange for 43 items in a bid to curb dollar demand, though it continued to sell dollars to offshore investors to boost confidence.
Nigeria, which has Africa's biggest economy, operates a multiple exchange rate regime, which it has used to manage pressure on the currency.
The official rate of 306.90 is supported by the central bank but the traded rate of 364 is widely quoted by foreign investors and exporters.
British authorities said on Wednesday South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd has agreed to pay the National Health Service (NHS) 8 million pounds to resolve concerns related to overpayment for a treatment.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said the settlement follows an investigation into arrangements Aspen made with rival pharmaceutical firms in 2016, to keep them out of the market for the supply of Fludrocortisone 0.1 mg tablets.
The prescription-only treatment is paid for by the NHS in the UK, and the state-run health service had to pay higher prices for it because of Aspen's arrangements, the CMA said.
Fludrocortisone is mainly used to treat Addison's disease, in which the body's adrenal glands fail to produce sufficient hormones.
Britain's competition regulator said Aspen could also have to pay an additional 2.1 million pounds in fines as part of a wider package, if the investigation concludes that the company broke the law.
The regulator said it was also looking at two other companies that were involved in dealings with Aspen.
In a separate statement on Wednesday, Aspen said it would dispose its right to ambient Fludrocortisone in the UK to an independent third party, and would reintroduce cold storage versions of the treatment into the country.