10 June 2018

Africa's Big Men Are Crashing 'Digital Secession'

Photo: Pixabay
social media, twitter, facebook, instagram.
opinion

Nearly everywhere in Africa, there are a battery of laws being passed, or in the pipeline to control social media, blogs, and citizen use of the Internet. On one extreme Tanzania, the government recently passed a law requiring anyone who posts a blog or is active on social media, or runs an online platform, to pay for a licence to keep their sites running. The licences cost $900 and can be revoked if the State doesn't like the content of the site. Users face 12 months in prison, or a fine of up to $2,300.

In Uganda, the government has gone about this in a less hammer-and-tongs fashionly - stealthily. It has passed a law that has globally been mocked as a "gossip tax". The Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill slaps a daily levy on people using Internet messaging platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and Twitter, following President Museveni's complaint earlier in the year that social media encouraged gossip.

The law, scheduled to come into effect on July 1, in addition to levying a daily Sh200 tax on social media use, also introduces a 1 per cent levy on the total value of mobile money transactions. Critics have argued that it is an attack on the poor, who after decades of being neglected by financial institutions, used mobile money wallets as their "bank" and are able to transact beyond the local areas where they live.

For people like Museveni, who has an active online presence, this means poor people living on the edge, will also pay for his social media indulgence as president.

Generally, the people, who will most feel the pain of the tax, are the unemployed youth in Uganda, who drive most of the targeting.

It will hit many young people who use Facebook and Twitter to "hustle", to sell small businesses like cleaning, baking, tutoring, fitness training, repairs, where they had retreated in a country where some estimates put youth unemployment at a mind-boggling 80 per cent.

Having failed to create an enabling environment for youth employment, Kampala is snatching even the morsel of food that a "good tech Samaritan" far away in America had put in their mouths.

But, perhaps, that is the point. There is a potentially existential struggle on social media in Africa that threatens power in fundamental ways.

There is the more political element that we are familiar with. For example, in the past, authoritarian regimes could shut the Opposition down by refusing them permits to hold public rallies. Remember, under Uganda's counter-terrorism law, even a lunch meeting of two or so people and your child's birthday party, can be constructed as unlawful. Social media made permits for assembly irrelevant, because if you are smart, you can organise millions without getting out of bed.

But that is not the main side benefit some governments expect to harvest from punitive social media laws and taxes. It is something bigger. They are trying to stop what one might call "digital/virtual secession".

Around Africa, there has been a massive exit by citizens from the spaces controlled by corrupt governments, via the Internet.

Take the example of Nigeria's Lola Omolola, founder of an invitation-only Facebook group "Female in Nigeria". Ms Omolola founded FIN in 2015, to use one description, as "a movement of women focused on building compassion and providing support for one another, with the goal of having up to 1,000 members in the group".

Before she knew it, FIN had ballooned to more than one million members, with "women [who] come to talk about everything from marriage and sex to health issues and work problems", one report observed. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was sufficiently impressed to invite her over for a meeting.

These closed groups are thriving remarkably on WhatsApp. Not too long ago, an article painted an apocalyptic picture of South Sudan as a country that, if it didn't end its brutal conflict and the stream of people leaving the country for neighbouring countries as refugees, would end up as a place where President Salva Kiir would be holed up in Juba with no people left to rule over.

This virtual secession, from an emotional point of view, means that already many African leaders today rule mostly over the bodies of their subjects, but not their souls.

The laws regulating and taxing social media are repressing free speech, yes.

But they are also attempts by African governments to export the apparatus of state control in the mortar and brick world, to the virtual breakaway territories where beleaguered citizen fled to try to make a different life for themselves.

A part of this article was published recently in Daily Nation.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa datavisualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. 

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