Monday, January 17, 2011

A Twitter Revolution in Africa?

Africa is a large continent with more than four dozen countries. It is difficult for any government to keep track of what is happening in all its countries. That is, of course, quite obvious, but it also is an explanation for why surprising things happen so suddenly on the continent. Such was the case a few days ago in Tunisia.

Tunisia has been an American ally in Africa and was considered safe enough to host the African Development Bank when Cote d’Ivoire became too turbulent. Little has been said publicly about Tunisia’s government being unstable. In fact, Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali was only the second president in the country since independence from France came in 1956. He had governed the country since 1987 and was most recently re-elected in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote. Yet Ben Ali has been forced to step down as president and flee the country.

So how did he come to be deposed within weeks of street protests and anti-government Internet activity being launched?

Corruption was perceived to be rampant in the Tunisian government. I use the term “perceived” because the government has been quite successful in keeping a lid on information. The media has not reported much of the negative side of Ben Ali’s rule and has made a strenuous effort to clamp down on the Internet, especially social media. Despite leading North Africa and the Arab world in the level of Internet access, Reporters Without Borders ranks Tunisia 164th out of 178 countries in its press freedom index. Tunisia is listed as one of the group’s “15 enemies of the Internet” and says it has established a “very effective system of censoring” the web.

However, its system apparently was not effective enough. BBC News reported that a steady flow of protest videos, tweets and political manifestos have made their way into Tunisian homes and offices in a variety of languages: Arabic, the Darija Tunisian dialect, French and English. In addition to informing Tunisians of the depth of misrule by their government, social media were used to coordinate demonstrations. Most of this activity was generated by Tunisians, though some came from abroad. Moreover, while unions and opposition political parties have played some role in the uprising that has now deposed the President, much of the anti-government content has come from average citizen bloggers.

In yet another example of unrest insufficiently tracked by Western governments, an ally was forced out without warning. I give credit to our intelligence services who may well have known how bad things were, but if their information was taken seriously by those who make our foreign policy, they surely kept it to themselves. The U.S. government now has issued a travel warning, but if the situation was looking as dire as it now is, why wasn’t there some prior warning for tourists and business people caught in the midst of the current unrest? A group of Swedish wild boar hunters were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Tunisia, and I’ll bet they wish there had been some prior warning for them.

Ironically, some North African leaders, such as Libya’s Muammar el-Quaddafi, believe American intelligence services deliberately leaked information detrimental to the Tunisian regime to Wikileaks in order to bring it down. This belief also is catching on within the remaining government operatives within Tunisian. This conspiracy theory comes despite the American government’s battle with Wikileaks on other leaked cables that have proven embarrassing to the Obama Administration. Those who buy into this conspiracy don’t say why America wanted Ben Ali deposed and
Tunisia thrown into chaos; they just believe America is too all-powerful to get caught unaware by an Internet site.

Arab and North African leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that the Internet and social media could lead to their downfall as well. But little is said about how sub-Saharan Africa leaders may be taking the Tunisian example. Governments like Zimbabwe’s have made every effort to crack down in the Internet and social media for some time. The Tunisian example and the Wikileaks tales about U.S. views of their government leaders will undoubtedly lead to more repression on freedom of speech elsewhere in Africa, but we have gone past the time when that could be completely successful, as Tunisia has now shown.

Wireless Internet allows video and commentary to be distributed worldwide immediately, forcing transparency on government dealings when none is wanted. So if our intelligence services uncover weaknesses within foreign allies, those who execute American foreign policy need to take heed. Governments who replace those overthrown by the release of secret information will not be so friendly to an America complicit in their misery.


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