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West African panel puts value of social networking into perspective

By Tony Buitrago
On November 14, 2011

A panel of 14 West African journalists convened Tuesday, Nov. 1st to talk about how social networking can be used to overthrow the government. Sponsored by the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalism, the group multiple topics, but stressed two major themes: Never underestimate the power of the internet, and never underestimate the power of people.

Drawing comparisons to the "Arab Spring" revolution that took place in the Middle East this year, panelists told stories of movements formed throughout their countries over social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Benjamin Honore Nahum says that only the brave take to the web to criticize the government in Benin, where social media sites are closely monitored for anti-state messages. In Gabon, Ruth Elvire Mygnolet Sandzhou says that there are only two heavily-followed Twitter accounts in the country- one for the country's president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, and another account run by members of his opposition, most of whom are exiled from the country.

Some countries, like the Central African Republic and Guinea, still take steps to stamp out the popular dissent, but they lack the resources to effectively censor it. The servers for the social media are located outside of African borders and the countries lack the content-control software and organization that countries like Iran and China possess to block the websites, so they cannot be regulated. They put up their own government-sponsored social networking sites and counter the attacks in state run newspapers, but informed citizens know that they are being fed misinformation.

Perhaps the most profound movement took place in the Ivory Coast. President Laurent Gbagbo lost his most recent election by a ten percent margin in 2010, according to the Commission Electorale Indépendante, an independently run commission that presides over the elections in the country. However, the Ivory Coast's Constitutional Council nullified votes due to allegations of voter fraud in nine northern regions of the country where opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara had most of his support.

Gbagbo secured the support of the military and was sworn in for a second term. Civil war ensued. The country's borders were closed and foreign media organizations were banned from the country, leaving the Ivory Coast's state controlled media as the only source of public information. Death squads were sent to terrorize Ouattara's base in the northern part of the country, leaving his supporters with only one viable way to organize themselves: the internet. That, coupled with international support and an eventual withdrawal of support from the Constitutional Council, led Ouattara's to forces to fight off Gbagbo, overturn his regime, and eventually arrest him in April 2011.

Like many of the countries that took part in the "Arab Spring," West Africa has grown sick of the post-colonial dictatorships that have suppressed opposition through force and state controlled media since the mid-20th century, but the panel seemed confident that democracy was finding its place in Africa. "Though we cannot expect an African Spring," Honore Nahum said through an interpreter. "We can hope for a lot of rain."

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