On May 1, 2014, Chris Brown tweeted a sepia-toned photo of a sad-looking Black girl with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The message was supposed to call attention to the 276 female students in Nigeria who had been kidnapped that April by the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram. The BBC and other social media users also shared the image.
The problem was that the young woman in the photo was not even Nigerian; she was from Guinea Bissau. She had never been abducted, nor did she have anything to do with #BringBackOurGirls. But the photo was reposted thousands of times, drawing accusations of “slactivism” — the practice of righteous posturing on social media in lieu of taking the time to really understand the facts.
However, despite its drawbacks, hashtag activism has been used to great effect in Africa in the past six years. In 2020 alone, hashtags fueled campaigns in Nambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, once again, in Nigeria, as movements took their messages to social media, to the streets, and onto the radar of untold numbers of people around the world. Most importantly, they forced governments to pay attention.
In Namibia, security agents arrested and detained 25 peaceful anti-femicide protesters — but in a soaring victory for free speech, the charges against them were dropped when, following a concerted campaign that was amplified by social media, a public official refused to prosecute them. In Nigeria, in direct response to the #EndSARS demonstrations, which called out violence by officers working for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a supposedly elite arm of law enforcement, governments in 28 of the country’s 36 states have set up judicial panels to hear testimony from people who have experienced police brutality.. In Cameroon, the national government has already begun holding talks with secessionists to negotiate a ceasefire in the four-year conflict known online as the #EndAnglophoneCrisis.
In most cases, these campaigns have been run by millennials and Gen-Zers. They want the world’s attention, but they aren’t asking for the West to come in and solve their problems. Africa is teeming with young people who want revolutionary change in their countries, and who see social media as a step towards that change—this time, the revolution will be hashtagged.
On October 17, I opened my TweetDeck, and my attention was caught by a photo of a young woman with Fulani braids holding up a poster with the chilling message: “Words cannot truly explain how terrified I am to exist as a woman in Namibia.”
I looked beneath the image and saw the #ShutItAllDownNamibia hashtag. I Googled “Femicide Namibia,” ”gender-based violence in Namibia,” “sexual harassment Namibia,” slipping down a rabbit hole that took me from story to story to story; each one, displayed across the 15 inches of my laptop, shook me to my core.
There was Gwashiti Ndahambelela Tomas, the 27-year-old woman whose throat was allegedly slit by her boyfriend when she tried to break up with him. Thirty-year-old Monika Florin’s husband cut her body into pieces, cooked some of them in an oven, boiled others in a pot, and threw the rest down drain pipes. A few months ago, a man stabbed accounting student Rejoice Shovaleka in the neck as she was on her way home from a party. And around this time last year, Eliakim Matthews shot and killed his wife, Ndinelelo Haidula, in front of their children during an argument at their home.
Between 2016 and 2019, the Namibian police received more than 3,000 reports of rape and 209 of domestic-violence-related murders. While most of the victims were children, 37 women were killed from January to September of 2019. Even though national action plans were devised in 2016 and 2018 to tackle the epidemic of violence, officials in the country say the situation is deteriorating.
Namibia, on Africa’s southwestern coast, has been hailed for its stable democracy and consistently ranks as one of the least corrupt countries on the continent. But its shocking rate of violence against women is now making international headlines, thanks in part to #ShutItAllDownNamibia, which was boosted by young Namibians, including photographer and digital content creator Lebbeus Hashikutuva and university student and public speaker Bertha Tobias, who were enraged after the body of a young woman named Shannon Wasserfall was found buried in sand dunes in the port town of Walvis Bay. “It feels like Namibia is at war with women,” Tobias said.
The first public demonstration, calling for Nambians to hear Wasserfall’s story and “Say Her Name”, was organized in a few hours; afterward, #ShutItAllDown took off in a way that Tobias could never have expected. The campaign galvanized street protesters across the country and drew unprecedented social media attention to femicide in Namibia. The prime minister herself said the campaigners’ demands would be prioritized.
The campaign continues; activists are insisting the Namibian government declare a state of emergency in order to tackle femicide and rape. They want the minister of gender equality to leave her post and a public sex offenders’ register to be created. None of these demands, so far, has been met, though lawmakers are investigating the proposal for a register.
Elsewhere on the continent, politically conscious young people are using hashtags to highlight entrenched social problems. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the #CongoIsBleeding campaign called attention to the historic ongoing turmoil in the country and, in particular, to the rampant sexual violence against women and exploitation of child laborers that have accompanied the deadly strife between armed groups fighting for access to lucrative minerals in the country’s eastern regions.
In July, about a thousand miles southeast of the D.R.C., campaigners rallying under the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter gathered to demand the release of the journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who had been arrested after investigating government corruption. The hashtag, which went viral the week of August 5, began circulating after security forces cleared people from the streets to prevent protests against media censorship, poor economic planning, and human rights violations.
In Cameroon, #EndAnglophoneCrisis has been used to draw attention to a forgotten conflict. The country’s English-speaking citizens, who make up 20% of the population, have long been marginalized and discriminated against by the Francophone-dominated federal government, headed by President Paul Biya, a France-backed octogenarian who has been in power since before I was even conceived.
In Nigeria, social media has been used to do more than just raise awareness. The #EndSARS protests have unfolded live on cell phone cameras and been posted to YouTube channels and Facebook and Instagram pages. These images and videos have helped to expose official lies and a massacre that might otherwise have been hidden from view.
No one knows exactly how many people were killed in Lagos on October 20. Amnesty International recorded at least 12 deaths when Nigerian military personnel fired into a group of protesters; some of the surviving campaigners on the ground put the number closer to 30. But the Nigerian federal government said no one died, the governor of Lagos State said just two had, and the army initially denied that there were even soldiers at the protest site.
Raw and revealing footage streamed straight onto social media has made it hard for officials to sustain this fiction. Eventually, the army changed its story and said that soldiers were there, maintaining that they didn’t fire. Later, a military-intelligence brigadier general admitted to a judicial panel that soldiers had opened fire, but only with blank rounds. On November 21, that same commander acknowledged security operatives had live ammunition as well as blanks.
One of the most striking things about these new protest movements is their apparent leaderlessness. In the past, Africa’s freedom struggles and sociopolitical upheavals have almost always had a prominent leader. Women like Wangari Maathai played significant roles, but the faces propped up in the media were usually male: Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Opposing forces targeted those leaders relentlessly; many were assassinated or imprisoned. With that in mind, today’s activists on the continent, inspired by #BlackLivesMatter, are doing things differently. #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, #ShutItAllDown, #EndSARS, #CongoIsBleeding, and the #EndAnglophoneCrisis movements are all decentralized campaigns with no single figurehead. Instead, every supporter involved is a leader; no one person can be whisked away into backroom negotiations or thrown into jail in order to decapitate the movement.
Within this structure, campaigners have devised increasingly clever ways of financially supporting each other, and of organizing. Fundraising is democratized by crowdsourcing initiatives divvied up among different organizations that support the cause. I saw a lot of this in Nigeria, where the Feminist Coalition, a pressure group, turned to Bitcoin after being blocked by other payment systems and traditional banks. The coalition raised more than 74 million naira (about $200,000) to support #EndSARS protesters and victims of police brutality.
Namibia’s anti-gender-based-violence activists organized through Twitter, and through unrestricted access to a Google Doc that further expands on their campaign agenda. The document, which records the names of the users who edit it, exemplifies a digitized, highly transparent, and collective approach to grassroots organizing.
The decentralized structure has become an issue for some governments. When Namibian authorities asked for a leader they could “consult” following the protests, campaigners said no.
The interconnected dynamics of social media have fostered a spirit of Pan-African unity, a widespread feeling that “we’re all in this struggle together.” Activists and influencers across national borders are joining together in solidarity, tweeting campaign hashtags that draw attention to movements in other countries.
Africans living outside of the continent are lending their voices too. Student members of Harvard University’s African Law Association released a statement to support #CongoIsBleeding, #EndSARS, and #ShutItAllDown. I’m curious to see how these international sociopolitical alliances budding among young Africans will be channeled in the future, perhaps filling a gap left by the African Union (AU), a body that is supposed to be a voice for the continent, but that seems out of touch with everyday African youth. The AU has remained silent throughout many conflicts and human rights abuses, opting to respect the sovereignty of African heads of state rather than condemn them directly. And it has not been involved with these recent youth-led campaigns at all, which feels like a missed opportunity.
These movements have already made an offline impact. The Zimbabwean court released Hopewell Chin’ono on bail. On October 13, Namibia’s government responded to each of the requests of #ShutItAllDownNamibia, and days later, some protesters, including Bertha Tobias, met with President Hage Geingob. A SWAT team has been set up in Nigeria to replace SARS, and its members are undergoing training; the police chief said the force would work toward conducting psychological evaluations of its officers, just as protesters demanded. In a move toward decentralization that may enable members of the Anglophone minority to represent themselves in government, Cameroon held its first ever regional elections on December 6.
Others, though, have struggled to overcome systemic problems. The governments of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo have not made any significant efforts to stop human rights abuses.
Though social media has given activists opportunities to decentralize their leadership, it still does not protect them from intimidation and other forms of violence. Governments monitor social media activity to determine whom to target. Because their cell phones are tracked, activists must use VPNs to browse the internet and shut off their phones for hours on end. Can the government switch off the internet? Well, partially, yes. For a year and four months, the Chadian government blocked access to social media platforms including Whatsapp, Twitter, and Instagram.
The government of Sudan has ordered sweeping internet restrictions at least twice in the past couple of years. Last June, during a brutal crackdown by government forces on sit-in demonstrations, Sudanese pro-democracy activists began noticing internet blackouts. The Ethiopian government disrupted Wi-Fi and broadband internet access for two weeks earlier this year following calls for justice in the killing of the singer-activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. The Ethiopian people have experienced these types of shutdowns more than 12 times, and the people of Zimbabwe are facing them too, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Such extreme measures show that authoritarian regimes and heavy-handed governments are befuddled by social media and the decentralized movements that they engender. Throughout 2020, many young people across the continent defied government intimidation. Their collective voices will grow more resilient as their demands for more accountability and better governance rise.