‘Ngozi’ means ‘danger’ in ChiShona.
What do #ENDSARS, #CongoIsBleeding and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter all have in common? Whether you know one or you know them all, just know that each of these viral movements have captured the world’s gaze at some point this year. These campaigns exposed a plethora of government-sanctioned human rights abuses across a number of African countries to a more or less clueless global audience. These campaigns, also known as ‘hashtag movements’, have increasingly shown how social media can be harnessed for social change – particularly in the absence of mainstream media coverage.
It is clear that the use of these movements as a method of civil disobedience is gaining traction and is quickly becoming an favourable alternative to traditional methods of protests. In 2020 alone, at least eight African countries (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana) have participated in online activism. As their popularity increases, it is important to consider the efficacy and merits of hashtag activism in the developing world. Urgently. So, are these campaigns actually worth it?
Well, it depends. Online activism in the Western world has a bad reputation, as demonstrated by its rather tongue-in-cheek nickname ‘armchair activism’ – because it’s often associated with laziness and inaction in the real world. Whilst this may be the rule, there are some serious exceptions. One only has to look at the recent progress of #EndSARS, how this has attracted international attention to policing abuses in Nigeria, and how this has resulted in the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This campaign clearly shows the influence of negative international attention in forcing change. African governments are generally more sensitive to global perceptions of their countries than western countries, as it often influences the amount of foreign aid and investment obtained from international sources. The amount of foreign direct investment a country receives can have a significant influence on the growth of an economy, and more broadly its people. Thus, too much negative attention around human rights abuses can force the hand of those in power – even if reluctantly. Whilst it is not yet clear what the end result of the campaign will be, the current progress of #EndSARS has been a powerful demonstration of the strength of hashtag activism.
Plus, these battles are rarely fought exclusively online. Africans risk their lives, both in the real world and online, by supporting and championing these movements. Whilst we (the audience) is fixated on the outrageousness and sensationalism of the events behind these movements, the protestors take to the streets document how their lives are endangered by fighting for their rights: whether that is through police spraying bullets into a crowd, being tear gassed or being sprayed with jets of water from water cannons. This only sustains the attention given to these countries and further pressures the government into some resolution.
Kindly used with the permission of Lewis Semakula
Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
Unfortunately, like most good things in life, it’s just not this easy. African governments are rather clever. Whilst we may view the corruptive and brutal practices of government agencies with disdain – don’t be fooled, there are stakeholders who have a lot to lose, if things were to change. Unsurprisingly, most of these people are already in power and will try what they can to make sure things stay the same – even if they appear different to the outside world. This is why #EndSARS continues, even though the agency has been disbanded. The Nigerian President (Muhammadu Buhari) initially announced that all the former members would be dispersed to other units – which effectively would just move the problem elsewhere, not solve it. Moreover, this was the fourth time that SARS has been disbanded in four years. As expected, protestors were not convinced and continued as they were. In truth, #EndSARS was always about ending police brutality and it really seems that Nigerians won’t ease up until they get what they deserve. As an outsider, it’s quite difficult to see Nigerians accusing their own governors, who supposedly support this movement, of sabotage by sending thugs to destroy and burn things to justify curfews and protest. Whether this is true or not, it speaks to a greater distrust of government and a belief that those in power will fight any lengths to stay in power.
Hashtag movements are a dangerous game. The complexity of their efficacy only deepens if a government is not at all bothered by negative press, or if foreign interests play a significant role in the current conditions of a country, then international outcry will do very little to save them.
This article shows that hashtag movements aren’t useless and fickle movements from people who are too lazy to fight their own battles, it shows that more often than not, Africans are tired and desperate to get away from what feels like an impossible problem. But the bigger picture is much more complex and may not deliver the results that we’d all hope for.
For more information on current African movements, click the links within this article.