Back in November 2019, Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey tweeted wistfully. He had just wrapped up his first high-profile trip to Africa, across Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa. “Sad to be leaving the continent…for now. Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!) Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid-2020.”
In the grand scheme of things, it might not have been surprising that Dorsey didn’t keep to his suggested timeline during the year of the pandemic. But he has kept the promise (partly so far) to “move to Africa” after Twitter announced on April 12 it was establishing a presence on the continent by opening an African headquarters in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.
Much of the excitement and controversy across the African tech community has revolved around the decision to pick Ghana as Twitter’s Africa HQ: a snub to its larger West African neighbor, Nigeria, with its booming tech ecosystem in Lagos. Adding salt to the wound, several of the roles in content and curation Twitter is advertising in Accra are aimed at employees whose jobs will be to focus on Nigeria.
For San Francisco–based Twitter — which has found itself caught between pro-democracy activists and authoritarians around the world, and even at home with former president Trump — it seemed a simple choice. It said as much in a press statement: “Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.”
Ghana is indeed often cited as Africa’s “beacon of democracy,” because of its political stability, fair elections, and peaceful transitions of power between opposing parties.
However, Twitter’s presence on the continent is unlikely to hinder internet censorship and social media crackdowns by autocrats who oppose free speech. It’s worth remembering that Facebook and Google, owner of YouTube, have had a more robust presence on the continent for a few years now — with little support shown for free speech or pushing back against governments’ censorship practices.
Africa’s most recent social media censorship imbroglio occurred earlier this year in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, shut down the internet for nearly a week and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, for slightly longer, to coincide with the country’s general elections in January.
Uganda is not unique in this sense; Burundi, Togo, and Guinea have also resorted to similar digital censorship tactics to restrict elections over the past months.
Altogether, from 2015 to 2020, 27 African countries have carried out some form of social media ban, including 15 election-related ones, says Surfshark, a privacy protection company. Another report by Access Now, says internet shutdowns on the continent grew by 47% in 2019, with 25 recorded incidents.
But it’s not just about elections. As more and more young Africans come online every day via smartphones, they are using social media to express frustration at inept and complacent governments, pointing to massive unemployment, corrupt leaders, and poor social services. Last October’s #EndSARS protests in Nigeria captured the world’s imagination, as young Nigerians started a movement on Twitter to denounce rampant police brutality and took to the streets.
Dorsey controversially threw his weight behind the #EndSARS movement by retweeting the hashtag and supporting the protesters’ use of bitcoin to power the protests, after the Nigerian government asked the central bank to stop banks from allowing the movement’s leaders to access their funds. The Twitter founder’s support infuriated people in power, according to reports in the Nigerian press, so much so that one former presidential candidate filed a lawsuit against Dorsey for his supposed role in the protests.
The #EndSARS controversy is one of the reasons that Twitter might have been turned off from establishing its offices in Nigeria. There has also been plenty to suggest that Ghana’s government leaders courted Dorsey and his team as well.
With about 26 elections taking place in different countries across the continent this year, more internet censorship is doubtless on the horizon, say longtime watchers.
“It’s going to be business as usual,” said Cindy Chungong, director of the Africa program at International Alert. Governments “were doing this even when Twitter did not have a physical footprint in Africa, so I don’t see that changing much. For some of the countries that are more repressive, nothing is going to change.”
Chungong says the continent’s large market and other economic opportunities are of great interest to tech giants like Twitter, who would make sure to be on the good side of these governments for patronage.
“The biggest challenge is how do we make sure that these tech giants are not bending their own standards and then become accomplices to autocratic governments,” she said.
Some Africa media watchers are also skeptical about Twitter’s move and see it as nothing more than a “business decision” with little impact on the realities of ordinary African activists dealing with authoritarian leaders.
“The government will do what they have to do when they see that the organization is overstepping its bounds or influencing the citizens in a way they feel is detrimental to their interests,” said Chido Onumah, coordinator of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy.
Twitter also suggested that Ghana’s recent appointment to host the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was another reason for choosing the country, because it “aligns with our overarching goal to establish a presence in the region that will support our efforts to improve and tailor our services across Africa.”
It’s not clear whether Twitter needs to be in Ghana to tap into any of the perks secured by the AfCFTA agreement, which is expected to lower tariff barriers, stimulate billions of dollars in trade, and enable much easier business transactions between more than 50 African countries.
Bosun Tijani, the founder of Nigeria’s influential CcHub, which has been leading a pan-African tech and creative group around the agreement, posted: “AfCFTA will challenge attractive economies with weak and hostile business environments. Companies in these economies will also be challenged as their competition will be global businesses with offices in friendly and more productive African cities/countries.”
Along with its political stability and free trade, Ghana has also rightfully earned its tech credibility, argue players in the local tech ecosystem. Kofi Owusu-Nhyira, who runs Nsano, a leading fintech company in Ghana with operations across the continent, said Twitter’s presence is not the biggest tech event to have happened to Ghana. Rather, it is an endorsement of a growing tech ecosystem that is positioning itself to be able to accommodate a lot of other new tech players.
Owusu-Nhyira believes that Ghana has been deliberate about creating an ecosystem that encourages the development of technology through high-speed internet, competitive telecom space, and a vibrant financial services market.
“It shows that this market is good,” he said, “and that, in itself, can bring a lot of focus on the country and can invariably translate into opportunities for persons in the tech space and other fields.”