BusinessDay

As social media restrictions grow, African democracy dies in silence

In the 18th century, a movement began in Europe that would shortly sweep the world and permanently alter the course of modern human history. It was not recognised as one singular, cohesive movement, but its tenets were irresistibly compelling and interlinked. Rather than military force and inherited power, reason and consensus were fronted as the new ultimate source of authority and legitimacy. Rather than focusing the state around diktats and commandments issued by a tiny political elite, there was a newfound emphasis on individual liberty and technological advancement.

More importantly, rather than the state being a micro-ethnic institution ruled over by a monarchy or theocracy, this movement prioritised the creation of a constitutional government with separation of powers and separation of church and state. Known in later years as the ‘Enlightenment Period,’ this period’s impact on the subsequent advancement of humanity can be boiled down to the popularisation of one societal paradigm – sharing and mainstreaming knowledge instead of hoarding it.

It took another 3 centuries for Enlightenment ideals to achieve their finest moment with the advent of social media and the rise of global real-time information sharing. Whereas for 10,000 years of known human history, human society in Africa and elsewhere had been structured around restricting the flow of information to a tiny elite in order to maintain a pyramidic social order. Social media had totally upended this order.

For the first time, a university student in Xiangjing could communicate and socialise extensively, cheaply and in real-time with a counterpart in Miami. It is no exaggeration to say that the opportunities for cultural and political evolution created by social media are the culmination of the 18th century Enlightenment. So naturally, certain anti-progressive regimes were having none of that.

Read Also: Misinformed about the information age: The existential crisis of online social media

The Anti-Enlightenment: Africa leads the way

While Senegal has become the latest country to block access to social media including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in response to protests over the detention of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, it is merely the 64th country to impose similar restrictions over the past 5 years. The data below from Surfshark describes the situation better than words can.

The continent that has led the way in this reversal of enlightenment ideals and throttling of global convergence by restricting or cutting off access to social media is by far and away, Africa. The two tables below illustrate the extent to which African governments have pursued this goal over the past 5 years in comparison to the next most repressive continent – Asia.

Surprisingly, Nigeria is absent from these statistics, with the Buhari government so far managing to resist its instincts. Despite this, it would be a mistake to think that Nigeria is a haven of intellectual and cultural freedom in Africa. Rather, it is more useful to think of the present administration as a chameleon. There is no frontal top-down social media restriction because of how politically difficult it would be, but there are a plethora of regulatory and legislative attempts to achieve the same effect through the back door. Instead of simply banning access to social media, the Buhari government prefers to adopt a policy of illegal arrests and prolonged detention to create a chilling effect via self-censorship.

Refuelling the enlightenment in Africa

There is no easy answer for what it would take to reverse this dangerous trend on what is already statistically the continent most prone to dictatorship and regression to the 17th-century mean. Some have suggested that internet access that is out of the postcolonial African state’s control would fix the problem of the state throttling access to information. That does not account for the inherent risk of potentially exchanging one hostile ruler for another, if ever, African interests were not aligned with those of the entity controlling internet access.

It also does not account for the sheer technical difficulty involved in putting such an infrastructure together. Even if it were possible, why would such a mammoth investment be justified? What does Africa offer to make such an undertaking worthwhile from a commercial standpoint? If the solution is to get funding from the aid/NGO sector, then such solutions cannot be expected to be any bigger than the Radio Kudirat/SW Radio Africa Zimbabwe template, which is to say, geographically limited.

So what is the answer? For once, I must admit that I actually have no idea.

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