Political tweeting in Africa
What’s trending in Tanzania?
Poking fun at African leaders on social media
WITH his campaign slogan “work and nothing else”, you might think John Magufuli, Tanzania’s new president, would be a poor subject for satire. Yet austerity can provide a few laughs. In his first few weeks, the new president cancelled independence day celebrations, went litter-picking and turned up at the ministry of finance to make sure staff were actually coming to work. The result, on Twitter, was a hashtag, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, full of pictures of money-saving ideas: a wooden cart acting as a wedding limousine; a vanity mirror attached with duct tape to a car to replace a broken wing mirror.
The joshing was mostly affectionate: Mr Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive is popular. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, comes off rather less well. The joke about Mr Kenyatta—who is known for his many foreign trips—is that when he is in Kenya, he is an important foreign statesman visiting. When the Pope visited Kenya in November, tweeters captioned pictures with jokes about the pontiff welcoming the president.
Twitter thus illustrates the fortunes of two of east Africa’s rulers, at least in the view of the middle classes in their countries. And just as in the West, the internet is changing political conversations in Africa. Not all the hashtags are humorous. In Kenya anti-corruption campaigners have begun organising on Twitter. When they are arrested or mistreated by police, the world soon knows. The potential for influencing politics is enormous. In Tanzania’s recent election, over 60% of eligible voters were under the age of 35; almost all sub-Saharan African societies are as young. In countries where age is revered, social media allow young people to make themselves heard.
Sadly, change is not happening everywhere. In democratic Kenya, 37% of the population had access to the internet in 2014, according to the International Telecommunication Union. In autocratic Ethiopia, however, the figure was just 2%. When Barack Obama visited both countries in July, Kenyan Tweeters produced a flurry of commentary, much of it mocking their own government. Ethiopia’s produced barely a tickle tweeple need connections to flourish.