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The rapid adoption of social media by the African continent’s leaders

July 10, 2023

By Michael Rubenstein, Head of Africa at Aprio Strategic Communications



Governments, political parties and businesses can now effectively broadcast their agenda’s and inspire followers, and in so doing, may fundamentally alter the political communications landscape.


The obvious question is to what extent social media can influence African political and business campaigns and strategies? First let us consider these facts, issued by the GSM Association, which expects unique mobile subscriptions and SIM connections in Africa to rise to 615-million and 1.12-billion respectively, in 2025. Today 46% of the population is connected and subscribed to mobile services, of which 40% are adults.


By no means should we be comparing the continent’s social media and internet usage to that of the US or Europe but Africa does have the youngest population worldwide, according to Statista, meaning that the future of social media will be ever more ubiquitous as more affordable broadband and mobile data services are rolled out, particularly 5G solutions.


As social media platforms become a major part of life for the majority of the continent’s citizens, those in leadership positions, whether in politics, business or non-profit sectors, have adopted, or  will quickly adopt, platforms like Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, and not just purely for canvassing support for their ideas or agendas but as channels through which they can proactively account to their constituencies and communities.


A majority of those in African political leadership, be that state presidents, prime ministers or royalty, have set up pages and handles across social media platforms for the primary purpose of regularly updating citizens on their activities and agenda. This includes showcasing delivery on political campaign promises such as recruitment of more teachers and health workers or making good on commitments around a reformed national legislative framework.


Their active presence has given wider and immediate access to ordinary citizens to directly engage with their national leaders on matters close to their hearts or of importance to their communities. A cursory look at conversation threads points to two-way engagement, itself a break from the past where engagement with political leaders was mostly one-way and top down. Thanks to social media, citizens of African nations can now even directly challenge their political leaders on a range of issues, from unfulfilled election promises to poor service delivery in their communities.


This serves Africa well because it strengthens transparency at a time when economies are rebuilding and attempting to attract much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). However, while the power to amplify content may seem attractive, there is also the inherent possibility that information can be distorted, manipulated, and reposted without context.


This is not to say that leaders and high-profile individuals shouldn’t be directly engaging on social media platforms, but there is a need to carefully consider how they word their content. Successful use of these platforms is evidenced by Egyptian President, Abdelfattah Elsisi (as per Africa No Filter), with 5.5-million followers, as has his counterpart in Kenya, Willian Ruto, who can boast some 4.4-million. Alongside are the Presidents of Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, with followers up to the 4-million mark. Together the top 10 most influential serving African politicians have a combined following of some 27 million on Twitter alone, up from 24-million in 2021.


The power they wield can be very influential but equally so too can the voice of the people. We’ve witnessed a number of African nations either enacting or threatening a social media shutdown, for fear of incitement, such as was the case in South Sudan, where, after years of conflict, urban youth began to voice frustration by criticising their government across social media. Africa remains the most restricted region in the world in terms of social media censorship according to a 2021 analysis by cybersecurity company SurfShark, with 53% of the worlds 2021 social media restrictions playing out in Africa!


What leaders have to carefully consider is that social media postings have become somewhat of an art form. If leaders don’t ensure clarity, they are most likely to be challenged, which is why I highly recommend that internal and external professional social media professionals are engaged. At Aprio, for example, we do not recommend social media postings that have not been tested or analysed for potential reactions.


Myths in Africa are prolific, as are conspiracy theories, which under normal circumstances threaten the foundation of democratic governments. The added fuel of social media postings can seriously compromise the standings of even the most honest and genuine leaders. With that said, if African leaders do not embrace this rampant social communications tech, they will be at risk to lose:  not just the loss of support of constituents or customers, it could also be their professional reputation and future careers.


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