Africa’s Millennials Using Technology to Drive Change

Young people are using technology to change society. Credit: Alamy

By Eleni Mourdoukoutas

When some 276 teenage girls were kidnapped from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria in April 2014, Oby Ezekwesili, a civil society activist and former World Bank vice president, was disheartened by the lacklustre response of her government and local television stations.

Ms. Ezekwesili and others decided to take to social media to demand action from the government. They emphasized their point with a march to the national assembly in the capital, Abuja.

Within three weeks, the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign put the girls’ kidnapping front and centre on the world stage: the Twitter hashtag had been used over one million times, including by notable influencers former US first lady Michelle Obama and girls’ rights activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. The grassroots movement proved instrumental in pressuring the Nigerian government to acknowledge the kidnapping and to commit more resources to rescuing the girls.

Technology and young people

Beginning with the Arab Spring in 2011, young Africans have been using technology to mobilise around issues affecting them. Images of young Africans assembled in protest, mobilising around hashtags, are now commonplace on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

Professor Alcinda Honwana, inter-regional advisor on social development policy at the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), cites the immediacy of social media as a key factor in mobilising large numbers of people and catalysing change.

“Without the internet and social media, it would be very difficult to organise a huge rally in 48 hours,” Prof. Honwana told Africa Renewal in an interview. Social media enables organizers to have a major impact on society, she said, “because you can assemble large numbers of society very quickly and differently from what you would do when you had to go to the streets or knock on doors or put up flyers.”

Young people’s political activism probably safeguarded the integrity of the 2016 election in The Gambia. They began using the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided when former president Yahya Jammeh refused to vacate his office and hand over power after suffering electoral defeat.

In addition to spreading the word over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the anti-Jammeh campaign also encouraged citizens to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan. “Social media has forever changed the dynamics of politics in Africa,” Raffie Diab, one of the campaign’s founding leaders, told Africa Renewal.

In October 2014, young people organised over social media against Blaise Compaoré, then president of Burkina Faso, who was planning to change the constitution to allow him to run for another two terms, thereby extending his 27-year tenure.

The emergence of the movements Ça suffit (That’s Enough) and Le balai citoyen (the Citizen’s Broom) marked the first time since the Arab Spring that popular movements managed to unseat an African president.

Driving transparency

Likewise, young people in Senegal have drawn attention to the country’s high unemployment rate over social media, and their protests galvanised the population to vote out President Abdoulaye Wade in the 2012 election.

Just as citizens broadcast the abuses of government with video and photographic evidence during the Arab Spring, Africa’s younger generation is taking advantage of tech-based strategies to drive accountability and transparency.

One example of this is Livity Africa, a South Africa–based nonprofit organisation whose aim is to amplify authentic youth voices and concerns, in part through its nationwide media channel, “Live Magazine” SA.

Launched in 2011, the channel highlights issues that are overlooked by mainstream media, and it encourages government accountability via its weekly “Live from Parliament” segment.

Similarly, the Nigeria-based SMS and web platform “Shine Your Eye” facilitates public engagement with parliamentarians and other elected officials by providing access to their track records.

By sending a free SMS message to the platform’s dedicated number or visiting its website, anyone can get detailed information on the record of a public official. African leaders themselves are also now using technology to attract young people to their campaigns.

Voters under the age of 35 made up 51% of the entire electorate in the 2017 election in Kenya, and the number of voters in the 26–35 age range had more than doubled since 2013, according to data from the electoral commission.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta maintains active Facebook and Twitter accounts, and his supporters say his modern communication tactics are “demystifying the presidency.”

In an unprecedented break from his predecessor Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa has wasted no time in engaging directly with Zimbabweans over social media, regularly posting comments on Facebook that address concerns raised by his constituents. Mr. Mugabe famously did not own a smartphone.

Mr. Mnangagwa is gaining popularity for posting short videos on his Facebook and Twitter accounts in which he encourages citizens to message their thoughts as part of a “new national dialogue,” maintaining that leadership is a “two-way street.” The digital approach is exciting many Zimbabweans who are eager to get the president’s attention.

While young people in recent years have become the most politically engaged on the continent, their involvement has been primarily through protests and activism rather than voting.

Negative effects

Youth engagement with social media also has its negative effects. “Sadly, [social] media is not often used wisely by youth,” notes the Africa Alliance of the Young Men Christian Association, a leading pan-African youth development network.

It adds that, “Instead, increasing reports reflect that young people use these virtual spaces as platforms for cyber bullying, violence and intimidation.” The association maintains that this is “an age of unprecedented access to explicit images and videos” that can have a harmful influence on the youth.

In 2016, the African Development Bank, a multilateral development finance institution, reported that by 2050 Africa will be home to 38 of the 40 youngest countries in the world, and that all 38 will have median populations under 25 years of age. Experts believe that the youth vote will determine election outcomes in a few years.

Campaigns encouraging young people to vote span the continent. In 2014, South Africa’s electoral commission launched the “I Voted” campaign, which encouraged voters to take a picture of their marked thumb and post on social media with the hashtag #IVoted. The hashtag boasted more than 30,000 uses on Twitter.

Not a cure-all

However, Prof. Honwana warns that social media is not a cure-all for apathy. In the case of South Africa, the national South African statistical service reported that young people accounted for only 18% of total voters in the 2016 local government elections, despite those under the age of 35 making up 66% of the total population.

She asserts that while social media can be a useful tool for conveying the importance of voting, young people will not take up ballots over mobile devices unless they believe that their votes will bring about real change in their lives.

In the 2016 presidential election in the Gambia, for instance, young people largely supported Adama Barrow, who challenged Mr. Jammeh, because they thought Mr. Barrow would bring about a change in governance. “I just know Barrow will be different. He’s listening to us,” 25-year-old Gambian voter Haddy Ceesay told The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper.

Still, Prof. Honwana does not see social media as just a trend. “If we are talking about young people, I think everything that will happen from now on is going to be through social media. That’s where they live,” she said.

*Africa Renewal is published by the UN’s Department of Public Information

The Nowhere People: Rohingyas in India

Rohingya refugees in India face discrimination and threats of deportation back to Myanmar. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Rohingya refugees in India face discrimination and threats of deportation back to Myanmar. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Apr 25 2018 (IPS)

A devastating fire in a shanty at Kalindi Kunj, a New Delhi suburb, that gutted the homes of 226 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, including 100 women and 50 children, has trained a spotlight on India’s ad hoc policy on international migrants.

Already persecuted in their country of origin, Rohingyas — the largest stateless population in the world at three million — have found shelter across vast swathes of Asia including in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh alone, who now face the onset of the monsoon season in flimsy shelters.”As a big regional player, the refugee crisis presents India with a unique opportunity to set an example and work out a long-term resolution to this humanitarian crisis.” –Dr. Ranjan Biswas

Demographers note that the Rohingyas’ displacement, while on a particularly dramatic scale, is illustrative of a larger global trend. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is witnessing the highest level of displacement on record with 22.5 million refugees, over half of them under 18, languishing in different parts of the world in search of a normal life.

Often referred to as the boat people – because they journey in packed boats to escape their homeland — around 40,000 Rohingyas have trickled into India over the past three years to cities like New Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Jammu where their population is the largest. Some had settled in the Kalindi Kunj camp that was set up in 2012 by a non-profit on a 150-odd square metre plot that it owns.

The camp’s occupants worked as daily wage labourers or were employed with private companies. A few even ran kirana (grocery) kiosks near the camp. Most of these refugees had landed in Delhi after failed stints in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh or Jammu (a northern Indian city), where they were repeatedly targeted by radical Hindu groups.

Nurudddin, 56, who lost all his belongings and papers in the Kalindi Kunj fire, told IPS that he has been living like a vagabond since he fled Myanmar with his wife and four children in 2016. “We left Myanmar to go to Bangladesh but we faced a lot of hardships there too. I couldn’t get a job, there was no proper food or accommodation. We arrived in Delhi last year with a lot of hope but so far things haven’t been going too well here either,” said the frail man with a grey beard.

Following the Kalindi Kunj fire, and public complaints about the government’s neglect of Rohingya camps, the Supreme Court intervened. On April 9, the apex court asked the Centre to file a comprehensive status report in four weeks on the civic amenities at two Rohingya camps in Delhi and Haryana, following allegations that basic facilities like drinking water and toilets were missing from these settlements.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the Rohingyas told the court that the refugees were being subjected to discrimination with regard to basic amenities. However, this was refuted by Additional Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta who, appearing for the Centre said there was no discrimination against the Rohingyas. The court will again take up the matter on May 9.

A Rohingya campsite in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

A Rohingya campsite in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

The Rohingya issue entered mainstream public discourse last August when the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government abruptly asked the country’s 29 states to identify illegal immigrants for deportation –  including, the guidance said, Rohingya Muslims who had fled Myanmar.

“As per available estimates there are around 40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country,” India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju then told Parliament: “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”

In its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the Centre claimed that Rohingya refugees posed a “serious national security threat” and that their deportation was in the “larger interest” of the country. It also asked the court to “decline its interference” in the matter.

The Centre’s decision to deport the Rohingyas attracted domestic as well as global opprobrium. “It is both unprecedented and impractical,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told “It is unprecedented because India has never been unwelcoming of refugees, let alone conducting such mass deportation,” she said. “And I would call it impractical because where would they [the Indian government] send these people? They have no passports and the Myanmar government is not going to accept them as legitimate citizens.”

Some critics also pointed out that the Rohingyas were being targeted by the ruling Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party government because they were Muslims, an allegation the Centre has refuted.

Parallels have also been drawn with refugees from other countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have comfortably made India their home over the years. However, to keep a strict vigil against the Rohingyas’ influx, the Indian government has specially stationed 6,000 soldiers on the India-Bangladesh border.

Activists say that despite thousands of refugees and asylum seekers (204,600 in 2011 as per the Central government) already living in India, refugees’ rights are a grey area. An overarching feeling is that refugees pose a security threat and create demographic imbalances. A domestic legal framework to extend basic rights to refugees is also missing.

Since the government’s crackdown, Rohingya groups have been lobbying to thwart their deportation to their native land. In a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India titled Mohammed Salimullah vs Union of India (Writ Petition no. 793 of 2017), they have demanded that they be allowed to stay on in India.

However, the government has contented that the plea of the petitioner is untenable, on grounds that India is not a signatory to the UN Convention of 1951. The convention relates to the status of refugees, and the Protocol of 1967, under the principle of non-refoulement. This principle states that refugees will not be deported to a country where they face threat of persecution. The matter is now in the Supreme Court of India which is saddled with the onerous task of balancing national security with the human rights of the refugees.

However, as Shubha Goswami, a senior advocate with the High Court points out, while India may not have signed the refugee convention, it is still co-signatory to many other important international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the principle of non-refoulement, and it is legally binding that India provide for the Rohingyas.

There’s growing public opinion as well that the government should embrace and empower these hapless people.

“Rather than resent their presence, India should accept the Rohingyas as it has other migrants,” elaborates Dr. Ranjan Biswas, ex-professor sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “As a big regional player, the refugee crisis presents India with a unique opportunity to set an example and work out a long-term resolution to this humanitarian crisis which will usher in peace and stability in the region.”