From #EndSARS to #AmINext: How Young Africans Used Social Media to Drive Change in 2020
Editor’s note: This article contains references to violence and sexual violence.
This year, Africa's young people have stood at the forefront of the continent's fights for social and civil justice. With hashtags in one hand and a will to defend the defenceless in the other, young people have propelled the crises of Africa's injustices to the world stage.
This year has seen social media play an important role in elections, stimulating much-needed conversations, and dealing with the pandemic; and because social media has this much influential power, many African governments have made attempts to regulate it — typically for the wrong reasons.
In the wake of the #EndSARS protests, the Nigerian government has publicly considered regulating social media through the reintroduction of the anti-social media bill — legislation that was initially introduced and then withdrawn in 2015 — which the government claims is a means to criminalise false or malicious information. Human rights’ activists and the Nigerian public however, have publicly opposed this bill, regarding it as a tool to limit citizens’ right to free speech.
Meanwhile in Uganda, the government introduced a social media tax in 2018 that requires citizens to pay a daily levy fee to access popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. This tax on social media limits some of the population from accessing vital information and discourages virtual social interaction.
However, in 2020, Africa’s young people were not having it, as they took to social media across the continent to demand change and accountability from their leaders through online campaigns.
Here are just a few of the key social movements that have been driving change and raising awareness of injustice and inequality across the continent this year.
#EndSARS — Nigeria
Driven by young Nigerians motivated to demand better of their police, the #EndSARS hashtag has become a symbol of much more than the fight against police brutality. It now represents broader calls for institutional reform and government accountability in Nigeria, where more than half the population live in poverty, and police officers are the most likely government workers to accept bribes.
Following the Lekki Toll shooting on Oct. 20, young Nigerians retreated from the 17-day-old #EndSARS protests on the streets of Nigeria to strategise, remobilise, and devise new ways to achieve their demands.
At the time of writing, the protests remain digital and it has sparked a new conversation across Nigerian politics, economy, and everyday life.
#EndAnglophoneCrisis — Cameroon
Cameroon’s long-running, neglected Anglophone Crisis (and the #EndAnglophoneCrisis hashtag) came back into the global spotlight in October after unidentified men armed with assault rifles stormed the campus of Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, and opened fire on the schoolchildren who were on average under 14 years old. Six children were reportedly killed in the attack.
Thanks in large part to the Cameroon diaspora calling out and condemning the attack on social media, the attention of the world was drawn to this crisis, which the Norwegian Refugee Council considers the world’s most neglected crisis. The crisis originally started in 2016 as low-level protests over the real and perceived marginalisation of Anglophones by the Francophone-dominated government — modern-day Cameroon is an amalgamation of former British colony regions of neighbouring Nigeria with the France-colonised regions of Cameroon.
Through the #EndAnglophoneCrisis hashtag, and other coverage of the crisis, the world has been able to learn about the terrible things the people in Cameroon’s Anglophone region have been through in the past three years.
#RapeNationalEmergency — Liberia
After three days of protests and pressure to declare rape a national emergency, Liberian President George Weah officially agreed to the demands of protesters and made the declaration on Sept. 11, alongside the first set of new measures to address the increase in violence against women.
The measures include designating a specific prosecutor to handle rape cases, setting up a national sex offender registry, and allocating $2 million to address the issue.
The anti-rape protests were in response to a 19-year-old boy allegedly performing female genital mutilation on a 3-year-old girl before planning to rape her. During the pandemic, sexual violence against women and girls in Liberia increased by 50%, and the Ministry of Justice recorded more than 600 reported rape cases between January and June alone. In comparison, Liberia recorded 803 rape cases in the whole of 2015, according to a UN report.
Liberia’s battle with sexual violence goes way back, with many women subjected to abuse during a 14-year civil war from 1989 to 2003. Now, anti-rape campaigners hope to keep the momentum and use the hashtag to keep President Weah accountable for his promises.
#ChildTrafficking — Côte d'Ivoire & Ghana
The increase in use of child labour on cocoa farms in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire in the last decade has drawn a lot of attention from the US and Europe. More so, after an independent team of academics commissioned by the US Department of Labour conducted a new study that found that an estimated 1.6 million kids across the two countries are victims of child labour.
“Despite the efforts made by the governments, industry, and other key stakeholders in combating child labour and hazardous child labour during the past 10 years, the child labour and hazardous child labour prevalence rates did not go down,” the report said.
Though the Ghanaian government has disputed the study, the #ChildTrafficking hashtag has become a tool to call global attention to these issues. Côte d'Ivoire has accepted the study and agreed to work towards better practices in the cocoa industry.
The hashtag seems to be having some effect too, as chocolate manufacturing giant Mars told Reuters in a statement in October that it had committed $1 billion to a responsible cocoa sourcing strategy, and called for legislation that would put an end to child trafficking and labour in West Africa. Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire produce two-thirds of the world’s cocoa, the base ingredient for making chocolate.
#AmINext / #StopGBV — South Africa
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a persistent crisis in South Africa and has even been called the “second pandemic” by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The year 2019 was defined by several high-profile deaths as a result of GBV, and young women across the country gathered together to tell the presidency that enough was enough. They first took to social media to tell their own GBV-related stories, using the hashtag #AmINext to bring awareness to the crisis. Later that year, they also made international headlines by marching to protest in front of parliament to call for an end to GBV and femicide.
While Ramaphosa swiftly responded to these protests by putting in place a budget and a formal committee to handle the crisis, 2020 saw South Africans’ anger rise again after a young woman, Tsegafatso Pule, was murdered by her boyfriend while 8-months pregnant.
This saw the hashtag reappear on the trending list, accompanied by #StopGBV as young South African women pleaded with the government and South Africa’s men to stop harming the country's women. The hashtag continued to trend during lockdown as Police Minister Bheki Cele reported that cases of domestic violence rose significantly during the national quarantine period.
#ShutItAllDown — Namibia
At the beginning of October, Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek, erupted with protests from women demanding an end to gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide. The #ShutItAllDown protest called on the country to shut down the patriarchal system that has allowed Namibian women to fear for their lives, and recognise the increasing cases of GBV and femicide as a national state of emergency.
Namibia has long been dealing with GBV, incest, and femicide, and in October, citizens decided that enough was enough. Young women shared the national demonstration on social media and called on the world to hear their cries for change in the hopes that their government would take action.
The women of Namibia called on their government to consult with GBV experts to tackle the problem and to prioritise the urgent review of sentencing laws for sex offenders and murderers. They also demanded the resignation of Doreen Sioka, minister of gender equality who, in the midst of the protests, distastefully commented on the sexual abuse of a young boy.
#ZimbabweanLivesMatter — Zimbabwe
In 2017, Zimbabwe was ablaze with jubilation and excitement as the country was finally free of the late President Robert Mugabe’s authority. In his place came Emmerson Mnangagwa, who promised democracy and fair leadership.
Fast forward three years and citizens believe that life in the country is worse than before, sparking the rise of the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, an anti-government protest against human rights violations and media censorship. Much of the protest has taken place online as citizens fear being targeted and assaulted by national authorities.
Zimbabwe is plagued by an economic crisis that has resulted in increased poverty and a higher cost of living in the country. Reports by journalists Hopewell Chin’ono and Mduduzi Mathuthu, released earlier this year, exposed alleged corruption by senior officials in the face of the country’s ongoing economic struggles. These reports became the source of outrage among citizens, and fueled national protests.
Chin’ono was arrested as a result and Mathuthu was forced to flee his home. According to AllAfrica, other journalists who reported against the government have also been arrested as a means of intimidation by the military to cultivate a culture of self-censorship. Protesters around the country also became victims of police brutality and mass detainment.
In response to #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, Obert Mpofu, a senior leader in the ruling party, Zanu-PF took to Twitter with these sentiments: "Hashtags come and go, but Zanu-PF endures beyond the 'trending.’”
#AmharaGenocide — Ethiopia
Ethiopia has been dealing with ethnic discrimination and civil unrest that this year, which has resulted in the reported deaths of an estimated 54 people in the Western Region of Wollega. According to Amnesty International, the majority of these were women and children from the Amhara region.
The regional government has pinned this alleged violence on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a group that has been blamed for kidnappings and bomb attacks in western and southern Ethiopia.
News of this violence quickly spread on social media at a time when hashtags from Africa that called for justice in different countries dominated the trending list. Ethiopian locals populated timelines by sharing different accounts of ongoing ethnic unrest in the country.