December 17th, 2010, the Tunisian police force confiscated 26 year old Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi’s fruit cart because he did not have a permit. Bouazizi was an educated man who struggled to support his family by selling fruits on the streets. Adding salt to injury, the young man was further humiliated when the police refused to return his cart, and beat him publicly on the street. A frustrated Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office in protest of the corruption and ill-treatment by the police. That singular act of self-immolation ignited a revolution, and thus, the Arab Spring was born, the success of which was hugely fuelled by social media.
On the 26th of February 2012, tragedy struck Sanford, Florida; 17 year old Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen was fatally shot dead by a white Hispanic neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman. There was quelled anger amongst blacks, and in the black community for what clearly appeared as a racial profiling and killing. Hence, when on Saturday July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, there was an outburst of supressed anger and emotion, and the first port of call was social media. This was when Patrisse Cullors reposted a friend’s Facebook message regarding the acquittal with “#blacklivesmatter,” the hashtag caught on immediately, followed by a series of protests on and off social media with the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter, and consequently the birth of a movement – Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Besides the BLM protests and movement, late last year, the United States witnessed a wave of student protest at the University of Missouri challenging the school administration’s poor management in dealing with issues of race and inclusion. The protests arose after a Facebook post by Payton Head, the student government president of the University went viral a few months prior. Head had gone on social media to complain about racism, bigotry, anti-gay and anti-transgender sentiment that existed around the college campus. What followed was a pool of protests in different forms – marches, encampment, and hunger strikes – which climaxed when the members of the school’s football team refused to practice and play until the school’s president was fired. Both the president and school chancellor eventually quit.
Around that same time, university students in South Africa made international headlines for the #FeesMustFall protest. The hashtag which took social media by storm was a protest highlighting issues of inequality and government’s poor investment in education. South African students kicked against a proposed 10 to 12 percent increase in tuition fees that was slated to commence this year, and demanded a decolonization and democratization of SA’s higher education owing to the contrast in black-white representation in tertiary institutions. The protests which started in one university, quickly spread to others, with students marching to, and occupying SA’s historic Union Buildings, the seat of the South African government for a week. President Jacob Zuma budged eventually, agreeing to freeze tuition fees at the nation’s public universities. There was also the #Zumamustfall protest, to which President Zuma conceded yet again and upturned what critics described as a foolish decision, the sack of his highly respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene.
In 2012, Nigerians dared to revolt the removal of fuel subsidy by former President Jonathan with the hashtag #OccupyNigeria. Protests took place across the country, and outside the country with Nigerians in diaspora joining in. #OccupyNigeria was characterized by strike actions, demonstrations, civil resistance, and social media activism. Though the goal(s) of the protest was not achieved, according to Collins Olua, it was the first time “Nigerians took advantage of social media with the view to increase the effectiveness of their protest, raise their voices beyond the limits of the local traditional media, and rewrite their history,” However, in spite of this, I would argue that within Nigeria most of our online conversations are riddled with gaffes and memes, suggesting that we enjoy too much of making light of important issues.
Last year alone, Twitter Nigeria recorded quite a number of trending hashtags and social media conversations beginning from the 2015 general elections #Nigeridecides, to major corruption scandals like #Diezanigate #Dasukigate, and very recently, #Ekitigate. Issues surrounding governance, the economy, and the insurgency also made viral conversations in Nigeria’s Twittersphere with #BabaNowThatYouAreThere, #BringBackOurGirls, #AintNobodyGotFuelForThat, BuhariOptics, and just last week #Dalori. Yet, in spite these hashtags, and social media conversations very few significant change and policy reforms have been made. What then is the goal of having these conversations?
Journalist and Strategic Communications Adviser to the Minister of Industry, Trade & Investment, Tolu Ogunlesi, who has quite a social media presence told Ventures Africa that it is a misconception to say that the country’s online conversations are mere ramblings, “We have recorded success and effected change from social media conversations,” he said referencing #OccupyNigeria, #SaveShikira, #Nigeriadecides, and #groundnutgirl. “I don’t believe that our social media conversations are not as effective as those in other countries.”
However, I would suggest that Nigeria’s online conversations have remained, and will remain just that if they do not go beyond social media platforms. It is high time we ask ourselves, “What do we want?” If the objective of creating viral hashtags and having these really important conversations is to effect changes in various sectors, and issues that affect us, then we need to go a step, several steps further – the battle is not on Twitter, neither is it on Facebook. The BLM movement, the Arab spring movement, and #Feesmustfall are to a large extent, successes, because they transcended social media. African Americans did more than tweet on social media with hashtags; they occupied the streets, held conferences, formed organizations, and created mediums through which police brutality could be monitored. Black lives matter became a national conversation with presidential aspirants having to address the issue of racial inequality, injustice, and police accountability during their debates. Since the establishment of the BLM movement, laws to tackle police brutality and encourage accountability are being proposed, passed and signed at all levels of government.
Had SA university students merely tweeted #Feesmustfall, chances are they might have succeeded in getting the attention of the government, but not the international media, and certainly not the concession of President Zuma. The same goes for the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East, and the Occupy movement in the United States. Social media has served as a catalyst for revolution, but not alone. People in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were able to come together and topple dictators with the help of social media, backed by marches, strikes, demonstrations, and rallies. Successful movements cannot happen online solely; Nigeria needs to learn and embrace this. It is about time we moved past the constant gaffes and hilarious memes, and advance towards a revolution like we did with #OccupyNigeria in 2012.