‘Digital Democracy’ Turns Average Citizens into Influencers in Africa

From cashless payments to smartphone apps offering everything from taxis to take-out food – Africa’s digital revolution is gathering pace as average citizens take an active role in public discourse.

“You’re seeing a lot of the people changing the way they live their lives,” says Maria Sarungi, founder of the #ChangeTanzania platform. “And also creating for themselves wealth, jobs, opportunities. But also to engage politically on a very different level.”

Sarungi’s #ChangeTanzania platform began as a social media hashtag but ballooned into an online social movement with an app and website listing dozens of petitions and initiatives ranging from demands for security cameras at bus stops to a community beach clean.

“Before [it] used to be people sitting on the streets just talking a lot about politics,” says Sarungi. “But today they have become influencers. With the social media platforms, your voice can be amplified.”

In Uganda, the website Yogera, or ‘speak out,’ offers a platform for citizens to scrutinize government, complain about poor service or blow the whistle on corruption.

Kenya’s Mzalendo website styles itself as the ‘Eye on the Kenyan Parliament,’ profiling politicians, scrutinizing expenses and highlighting citizens’ rights.

But the new platforms for political engagement also risk a backlash.

“We are seeing governments trying to control as much as they can the virtual space,” says Sarungi.

The founder of whistleblowing website Jamii Forums last year fell afoul of Tanzania’s Cybercrimes Act and was charged with failing to disclose users’ data.

“We are not against the government, nor judges, nor the police forces,” says Maxence Melo, co-founder of Jamii Forums. “What we are against is the Cyber Crimes Act, which seems to oppress the people.”

Melo’s trial is due to take place next month.

Meanwhile, authorities in Cameroon cut off internet access for millions of people earlier this year following anti-government protests in English-speaking regions on the country. The French campaign group Internet without Borders warns that African governments are increasingly using internet blackouts to stifle political opposition.

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