The 2011 uprisings that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes—and sparked the regional firestorm known as the Arab Spring—are commonly called “Twitter revolutions”. Protesters were not predominantly the poor and the marginalised; rather they were frustrated middle-class youths who used social networking sites to rally, react and mobilise.
This is part of a trend identified by Francis Fukuyama, an American political economist and writer, who contends that protest movements around the world today share a common origin: the emergence of “a new global middle class”.
Since the middle class tends to pay the bulk of the taxes, its members have a direct interest in holding government accountable, Mr Fukuyama argued in a 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal.
Political protest in recent years “has been led…by young people with higher-than-average levels of education and income,” he wrote. “They are technology-savvy and use social media…to broadcast information and organise demonstrations.”
No wonder that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, analysts began to examine the potential for similar uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa, where incomes and access to social media are both increasing.
Africa has the fastest-growing middle class in the world, according to the African Development Bank (ADB), which affords middle-class status to anyone spending between $2 and $20 a day.
About 327m people, or 34% of Africa’s population, belong to this group, a doubling in less than 20 years, according to the ADB. By 2060, middle-class Africans will grow to 1.1 billion, or 42% of the predicted population, according to another 2011 ADB report.
While many analysts have argued that a $2 daily consumption rate is too low for middle-class status, even those in this bracket can afford the technology that enables social networking.
Sceptics who doubted social media would have a significant impact in Africa due to low internet penetration which have been proven wrong.
Africa will top 300 million smartphone connections in 2017, according to 2014 projections published by Informa, a research, publishing and events company based in the UK. Cheap mobile broadband, a proliferation of smartphones and internet-connected hardware means information can be disseminated quickly.
While the African spring has not materialised, social media is already reshaping the sub-Saharan political landscape by creating an environment where an increasingly tech-savvy middle class can hold officials to account.
Social media played an important role in ensuring Nigeria’s 2011 national elections were transparent and credible. Alleged vote rigging had marred the country’s two previous elections, in 2003 and 2007, according to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog.
During the 2011 elections Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) collaborated with Twitter and Facebook activists to ensure that incidents of electoral malpractice were quickly reported.
Nigerian civil society groups worked with Georgia Tech’s Technology and International Development Lab to set up the Social Media Tracking Centre (SMTC) in Lagos, which monitored how citizens used social media to discuss, observe and report the elections.
Voters across the country photographed registration lists and texted any anomalies to the centre. Nigeria broke the continent’s record for most tracked reports of social media use during an election, with nearly 500,000 examples catalogued by the centre. On the day of the presidential election alone, the SMTC collected more than 130,000 tweets and public Facebook posts.
Observers expect a repeat in the 2015 elections. “Social media should play a positive role in next year’s election as it will ensure that the matters of current importance to Nigerians remain at the fore,” said Femi Badeji, a Nigerian banker.
“Issues such as the Chibok girls’ kidnappings, Boko Haram, the government’s handling of the Ebola crisis and corruption will be thoroughly discussed in both newspapers and social media,” he said.
With 73 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people, according to 2014 figures from the International Telecommunication Union, and thousands of internet cafes across the country, greater connectivity has created an environment conducive to the deepening of Nigerian democracy.
Similarly in Kenya, tech-savvy young Kenyans monitored last year’s elections civic-journalism style via their accounts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Government and civil society groups such as Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony”), a Nairobi-based non-profit organisation that creates open-source software, tracked reports from Facebook, Twitter, SMS and e-mail for warning signs that Kenya's March 2013 elections would unleash the same ethnic violence that took the country to the brink of civil war in 2007.
Countless companies in the private sector use social media to solve problems in “real-time”. If government applied this service-oriented principle, it could address middle-class frustrations and aspirations.
With a simple tweet or text, potholes, broken street lights and other issues could be reported and fixed, as is happening in many US states and cities, such as San Francisco’s emergency 311-Twitter service.
Social media has opened up new possibilities for a more inclusive political process. “Easy access to accurate, real-time information stands to help citizens make much more informed political decisions,” said Sid Wahi, Vice President Strategy & Business Development for CNBC Africa.
Numerous studies—including “Diplomacy 2.0” published in Exchange: the Journal of Public Diplomacy in 2013—have shown that citizens who engage with government departments online have a more positive view of government because it allows them to understand the complexity of problems and their solutions.
Governments in sub-Saharan Africa should not be scared of social media. Embracing it, and the growing legions of middle-class Africans who use it, might even help to forestall uprisings such as those that shook the Arab north.