Today marks the 5th Annual Social Media Day, a global event started by technology news site Mashable to celebrate the beauty of communication via social media and the internet. Although the event will be marked in low-key events across most of Africa, it is increasingly becoming clear that African leaders cannot ignore the power and might of social media.
A report that preceded the annual event indicated that the most followed African President on Twitter is Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta. Although he became an avid user during his presidential campaigns early last year, he has amassed a greater following than his peers. Part of his victory came from his campaign team branding his party, Jubilee, the ‘digital team.’ The team rolled out a lethal, effective and impressive social media campaign over the course of the campaign, eventually presenting Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, as digital-savvy users.
The most active president on Twitter is Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. He is a prolific social media user, using it to interact with his constituents and to answer questions from other users. He adopts an informal approach to the process, using text speak and engaging in prolific conversations with people. He also shares his email address to anyone who wants to speak to him directly. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has been a sporadic Twitter user since 2012. He tweets in pure Kiswahili, making use of the 140 characters to keep his messages concise and succinct. He has over 150k followers.
It is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni who takes the spot for viral content long before his peers understood the potential of social media. In his 2010 presidential campaign, Museveni released a song titled “You Want another Rap?” on YouTube. The video went viral, aided by his seeming ease with rap as well as the ingrained campaign message. According to a tweet posted on April 26th 2014, President Museveni only replies takes questions every two weeks.
The four presidents have been busy online outside campaign periods. In Burundi, the president is present on Twitter but has never posted anything. It is likely that as more East and Central Africans get internet access, social media will grow to become the central tool through which presidents can demystify themselves to the electorate. The question, however, is whether the interaction and communication on social media amounts to anything significant for the populace.
To assess this, we have to see how a Kenyan governor has perfected the use of social media to sell his agenda. Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua is a communications specialist who served as Kenya’s first and only effective government spokesman. A master of spin and propaganda, he perfected the use of frequent interviews and a bamboozled face to sell the government position. Criticised during his time in office, his genius became clear when his successor failed miserably at the job. No one has been able to be as effective as Mutua once was.
Elected as governor in 2013, Mutua seems to have found the perfect mix between development and propaganda. If his Facebook page is anything to go by, he has launched and achieved more projects than the national government. He is looked upon with awe and jealousy by his peers as he carves out the Kenyan youth vote without overtly asking for it. He doesn’t need to; by making sure he does his work thoroughly before touting it, he ensures that he has control over the message and steers the brand voice.
A good example is the recent launch of what he dubbed ‘the fastest built road in Africa’, a 33 km stretch that was built in 3 months and at a third of the estimated cost. On the day of the launch, his digital team flooded his Facebook page with photos and captions, as well as statistics and ‘secrets’ of how he did it. The number 3, the number of completion, appeared in most statistics. On and off social media, Mutua now commands more respect than his bosses in opposition, and is seen as being a better leader than all his peers and seniors. His politics is bipartisan despite being elected on an opposition ticket, and everyone, including the president and his deputy, clearly respect the work the man is doing.
It is plausible that there are other Kenyan governors and leaders who are doing more and better work than Alfred Mutua but none of them is in better control of the information flow. The secret seems to be that perfect recipe, actual work and how to present it to the masses not only those who directly benefit but countrywide. Currently, the presidents on Twitter and Facebook use it as a peripheral communication system instead of a central one. Granted, most of them are old school in their approach to information flow, and do not appreciate the merits of proper branding.
The future lies in Mutua’s form of leadership on social media. Rhetoric is important but it needs to be grounded in actual roads, electricity, food security, less corruption, and better healthcare. Propaganda need not be a flurry of lies fashioned to inflame the masses; it needs to be actual policies spun so the thirteen-year-old African boy in Bujumbura using Twitter knows what it means for his present and future. Social media is no longer a foreign tool, it is now a necessary evil that everyone must learn to love or else wither away into oblivion.