Francophone Social Movements and the Challenges of Cyber-Monitoring
On May 31, 2020, agents of the Division of Criminal Investigations, an elite unit of the Senegalese national police, burst into the house of a Senegalese activist named Assane Diouf while he was live on Facebook chastising President Macky Sall’s regime. Hundreds of citizens witnessed the activist being violently wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by police officers.
Three years prior to this arrest, Assane Diouf was living in New Orleans, Louisiana where he was organizing daily Facebook Lives to insult President Macky Sall and high-ranked members of the regime, denounce corruption and mismanagement of fund, and share sensitive and private information about members of the Senegalese government. In retaliation, the Senegal government used those Facebook videos to accuse Assane Diouf of being a “terrorist” and proceeded via its embassy in Washington DC to denounce him to the FBI. After days of detention and interrogation, The FBI found no evidence of the Senegalese government’s accusation but still proceeded to place the activist under Immigration and Custom Enforcement custody due illegal entry to the US territory. Subsequently, in August 2017 Diouf was deported to Senegal, where he faced multiple arrests and police harassment. In February 2021, Diouf was arrested again by the Division of Criminal investigations along with two other Senegalese activists named Guy Marius Sagna and Clédor Sène following the interception of a Whatsapp audio message deemed subversive by the government.
It isn’t only Assane Diouf. In August 2022 the cofounder of the formidable Senegalese cyber-activist group, Mafia Kacc Kacc, Outhmane Diagne, was detained for sharing caricatured newspaper headlines taunting the Sall regime and the presidential coalition Benno Bok Yakkaar on Facebook. These cases are examples of the rampant monitoring of social activists’ digital footprints not only in Senegal but also in the Francophone West African region which has seen an increase of contentious politics through digital platforms. This phenomenon triggers several questions: Why do Francophone West African activists increasingly rely on social media platforms to engage with the public and antagonize power establishments? What are the benefits and disadvantages of using social media platforms for social activism in contrast to traditional mass media? How effective is the use of social media for mass mobilization and mass action in Francophone West Africa? And then finally, how can the use of digital technology facilitate cyber monitoring and governmental repression in the region?
By focusing on Senegal’s Y en a marre (YEM) movement, this essay unpacks the growing resort to digital technology to defy Francophone African governments and the ensuing state repression and monitoring of online activism. The term Y en a marre (Enough is Enough) is a Senegalese social movement that came into existence in 2011 as the result of prolonged power outages that paralyzed the country’s economy. Upon its inception, YEM rapidly became a prototype of activism on the continent, especially in Francophone Africa. Its cofounders (Sophia Denise Sow, Fadel Barro, Aliou Sané, Cyrille Touré) continue to play a central role in African and diasporic activism. They denounce the policing of internet which has paused a severe threat to African cyber-activism, thus driving many movement participants into an existential precarity. Despite this hurdle, young Africans continue to weaponize digital platforms against their governments while acknowledging that the profound structural changes they are seeking will inevitably come from the offline confrontation.
Growth of African Social Media
Social media has transformed politics in Francophone Africa over the past decade. Techsavvy young people turned social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp into alternative communication tools and mediums to express grievances and mobilize masses for political action, particularly in urban areas. Simultaneously, political candidates, political parties, activists and social movement participants used social media to engage with various audiences, fuel political conversations, and inspire social change. Political analyst André-Michel Essoungou highlights the pervasiveness of social media in African social activism. He writes:
Social activists have been using social media to campaign on critical political issues. Across the continent, they have exposed human rights violations which would have remained hidden otherwise. On Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, they have kept the important conversations at the forefront. In North Africa, the Arab Spring was spurred, in no small part, by their use of these platforms (Essoungou 2019).
Essoungou’s statement captures social movements’ predilection for cyber-activism and shows the results it can yield when used during protests, as in Tunisia and Egypt during the 2011 uprisings. Contrastingly, in his book Antisocial Media (2018), media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan remarks that social media, more often than we think, produces the opposite effect for which it was intended. His theory is applicable to protest movements in Francophone West Africa, where social media can be counterproductive, exclusionary and predatory under certain circumstances. The more movements become comfortable with digital media, the more they are tempted to shift the mobilization efforts online. By resorting to online mobilization efforts, social movements might inadvertently exclude people who cannot read or lack internet access. Despite the positive results online activism can yield, African activists such as those of the Y en a marre movement recognize the limits of internet and strive to find a balance that could provide them with the best of both worlds (online and offline activism).
Y en a marre and the Use of Traditional and Social Media
While many Francophone West African social movements employ social media as a substitute for mainstream media, YEM adopts social media to supplement its already strong media arsenal. The Senegalese activists have never regarded social media as the only means to an end. Though they acknowledge the mobilizing power of Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter, they never relied on them exclusively to conduct mass actions. YEM’s quest for traditional and social media equilibrium could partially be explained by the fact that the movement was co-founded by two professional journalists, Fadel Barro and Aliou Sané, who previously worked for well-established Senegalese press outlets. Not only do they understand effective communication methods, they also possess strong connections in the Senegalese media environment which encourage a kind of sympathy for the YEM cause. Media coverage is therefore not an issue for the movement, especially when it organizes press conferences, solicit interviews, or need event coverage. YEM undoubtedly benefits from more local and international airtime than any other social movement in Francophone West Africa due to the size and socio-political impact of the movement. International media corporations such as BBC, TV5, and The New York Times continue to show interest in its activism.
With these advantages, since its inception in 2011 YEM has managed to impose itself as an opinion leader when it comes to the daily political affairs of the country. Leaders of the organization are solicited by the media to comment on current political issues or participate in televised debates. However, this proximity with the media sphere can sometimes be a double-edged sword because certain outlets owned/co-owned by government officials or pro-regime journalists often negatively portray the movement or fail to accurately present the position of YEM activists. The fact that the Senegalese government provides annual financial resources to all major Senegalese media outlets could ultimately be detrimental to the movement’s coverage. The Senegalese press is not entirely free. Since organizations like YEM partially rely on it to project their messages and popularize their political actions, powerful government officials could compel certain media outlets to deny them coverage or even lead slander campaigns against the movements.
For these reasons, YEM launched its web TV channel, LTC (La Télé Citoyenne), formerly YEM TV in 2018 thanks to the availability of Internet and the will to democratize the media in Senegal. In an interview I conducted with YEM co-founder Fadel Barro in 2019, he argued that “the internet constitutes a tremendous opportunity for social movements because classic media will not always relay their discourse. With the availability of internet, we now have the possibility to create our own media outlets”. Not only does Barro articulate the significance of the internet in contemporary African activism, he also expresses the desire to emancipate social movements from their dependence on classical or traditional media. In this respect, LTC epitomizes the result of a movement’s will to remain independent from traditional media.
Furthermore, it translates the activists’ desire to relay reliable information about state mismanagement and corruption and provide a platform for thousands of marginalized voices. YEM co-founder Aliou Sané expands on this idea when he argues that: “YEM TV is a participatory media grounded in citizen-journalism that allows citizens to share videos about their daily struggle” (Aliou Sané 2018). To Sané’s declaration, Fadel Barro (2018) adds that creating their own internet TV channel “is a possibility to do raw journalism which means giving truthful and objective information. We remain impartial and we will not allow censorship”. Sané and Barro reignite the notion of resistance journalism which thus represents a resource of communication that empowers ordinary denizens and movement participants to construct unique narratives or viewpoints.
Through their web TV, YEM activists embody the role of citizen journalists who “question established media roles of journalists and raise publicity for everyday citizens as alternative experts and creators of reality” (Vincent and Straub 2017, 3). The use of the internet and social media allows activists to totally control their narrative and free them from the dependence on classic media.
However, while mobilizing the masses through the Internet has proved to be successful in more industrialized countries, it may not translate well in African settings for multiple reasons, especially since many African cultures place significant value on interpersonal relationships and community links. Fadel Barro (2019) understands this phenomenon when he asserts that “Internet is extremely important for social movements, but it cannot replace the action on the ground”. Whereas ground action (or offline activism) and physical interactions with the public can reinforce symbiosis, social media can create an unwanted distance between activists and movement participants. The virtual interactions can also lead to participant disengagement in the long run.
Furthermore, not everyone can read social media posts in local languages (Wolof, Pulaar, Joola, etc.) or in French or English. Additionally, not every potential movement participant has the means to access a reliable internet connection. As of October 2019, only 39.6% of the African population had internet access in comparison to 62.7% in the rest of the world. In Senegal, 58.2% of the population have access to the internet versus 18.2% in Burkina Faso, 12.4% in Togo, 18% in Guinea and 32% in Benin. Given these relatively low rates of internet access in Francophone West Africa, internet-based mobilization campaigns might prove inefficient for social movements in the region and from one country to another, and activists might face more obstacles reaching out to people via digital technologies.
Consequently, cyber activism in Francophone West Africa may not always guarantee the strengthening of the social capital that movements manage to build through physical interactions and traditional means of communication such as TV, radio, flyers, tours, concerts, door-to-door interactions, etc. Furthermore, internet-based activism can be exclusionary in the sense that it does not reach people in rural areas with unstable internet access and the urban proletariat. Additionally, precarious access to electric power in many African countries makes cyber activism unreliable. By using this medium, social movements might only reach citizens of the middle class and the diaspora who might not constitute a critical mass to foster successful political actions. Not only does this form of activism generate an access issue, it can potentially widen the class divide as well, thus reinforcing Lisa Mueller’s arguments that African social activism remains the domain of the middle class (Mueller 2018).
A good example of this can be seen in the number of people who engage with Y’en a marre’s Facebook event posts. For example, on August 2, 2019, the movement created a Facebook event asking people to join them in protest against the arbitrary detention of Guy Marius Sagna, a fellow activist who was arrested for posting a “false terrorist alert.” Only 26 people shared the post, 57 said they would attend, while 176 people said they were interested in participating. Similarly, Balai Citoyen’s past Facebook events and online calls for mobilization also show low numbers of engagement. Its April 2019 online attempt to gather protesters against the Burkina Faso national telecommunication company reveals that only 150 people clicked the “Going” button while 21 Facebook users hit the “Interested” icon. These numbers are low considering that approximately 108,000 people follow Y’en a marre on Facebook on a daily basis and nearly 55,000 people follow Balai Citoyen’s Facebook page. The users who engaged with these Facebook posts include direct movement members, which means that the campaigns reached even fewer people than intended.
What the data demonstrates then is that engagement with the social movements’ Facebook posts is low on average (less than 1% of the total Facebook page followers). Social movements’ Facebook post engagement is even lower in Benin and Togo where the populations have less internet access. Therefore, we could argue that participants tend to better relate to movements that approach them to inquire about their daily struggles rather than to cyber protesters. Despite being tech savvy and having relatively easy access to mobile internet, Burkinabé and Senegalese youth are not always receptive to social media calls for mobilization. Y’en a marre has however seen well-attended rallies when it used a combination of more conventional methods of communications like text-messaging, flyers, concerts, bus tours, and other forms of mass communications.
In the African context, the power of social media in mass actions may therefore be overstated. In the wake of the “Arab Revolts”, Many political analysts and commentators in Western mainstream media held on to the Western-centric notion that political changes in the Global South are always directly or indirectly influenced by technological tools or socio-economic policies from the North. Contrastingly, many African activists and scholars have pushed back against this type of narrative. They remind the public that social media are a strong vector for mobilization and denunciation, but we should never forget that ultimate change will come from the actions on the ground, the physical confrontation, the pressure the masses exert on the state apparatus. When analyzing social insurgencies, one should therefore dissociate the mobilization tools (social media and traditional media) from the actual physical confrontation while acknowledging that they are not mutually exclusive. The way Francophone West African social movements engage with social media, as shown in the essay, effectively debunks the “Facebook Revolution” theory. Mobilization, revolts and political change in Africa or elsewhere can exist independently from the influence of social media and digital technology. The latter had minimal to no effect in the political changes that took place in Senegal and Burkina Faso between 2011 and 2015. Barro reinforces this idea when he says:
Social media cannot replace action on the ground. I have been saying that there exists a western trend which is arguing that “if there exists enlightenment in the world, it is thanks to us because we have created the internet which allows African youths to be awakened.” It is as if all of these [revolts] would not have happened if the internet had not existed, that is not true! (Barro 2019).
Barro rejects the “Facebook Revolution” theory and minimizes the power of social media in contemporary insurgencies on the African continent. His sentiment does not echo African leaders who have developed a legitimate phobia about social media over the past decade due to its capacities to mobilize, disseminate information and help expose corruption. Cyber activism also compromises government communication strategies, hence African governments’ unbridled efforts to clamp down on or police social media.
Many African activists understood early on that a successful mobilization of resources does not depend on social media, especially knowing that they have no control over the availability of the internet. Governments can unilaterally cut power lines, disconnect internet devices and phone, radio and tv signals to the detriment of protesters. More importantly, they have accentuated surveillance activities against opponents of the regime.
“Facebook has grown into the most pervasive surveillance system in the world” is how Vaidhyanathan describes the “Big Brother dimension” of the picture, video, and message sharing platform. Whereas social media and ICTs in general enable protest movements to have a shared control in the political discourse, it makes government surveillance easier and poses a serious threat to cyber activists and social movements.
In 2019, several Senegalese activists were located and arrested due to sharing their whereabouts on Facebook and/or posting messages the Sall regime deemed subversive. On February 25, 2019, former Y en a marre member and founding member of the movement Nittu Dëg Abdou Karim Guèye was arbitrarily arrested at Independence Square in Dakar while he was live on Facebook. He was calling for people to join him in protest against the provisional results of the presidential election that intended to declare Macky Sall’s coalition winner. Guèye was again arrested under similar circumstances on June 19, 2019 due to sharing his location on Facebook Live and calling for a mass mobilization against what he called the dilapidation of Senegal’s natural resources. Guèye is known for sharing provocative Facebook lives with his followers in which he chastises the Sall regime. His overzealousness leads him sometimes to publicly share his location thus facilitating his own arrests by law enforcement.
Guy Marius Sagna was also the victim of government surveillance when law enforcement placed him in custody due to a Facebook post criticizing the fact that members of the government always go to France to seek medical care. This post came after the announcement of Oumane Tanor Dieng’s death in a Paris medical facility. Dieng had been Premier Minister under President Diouf and Chairman of the High Territorial Collectivity Council under Macky Sall. In reference to his death, Sagna published on Facebook: “Dying in a hospital of the former colonial power though they had 59 years to endow this country with medical facilities worthy of the name. What a pity!!! What a waste!” (Manon Laplace, Jeune Afrique, July 19, 2019). Sagna was interrogated following this post though law enforcement later reported that his arrest emanated from a different Facebook post on the same day in which Frapp-France Dégage, a movement co-founded by Sagna published the following message: “La France prépare un attentat terroriste au Sénégal” (France is preparing a terrorist attack in Senegal). However, Sagna’s lawyer, Aly Kane counteracted the police report by arguing that investigators questioned his client only about the first Facebook post.
These examples demonstrate that law enforcement and regimes are carefully watching every movement activists make online and will not hesitate to use that against them. It is not a secret that African governments have been trying to sophisticate their cyber surveillance techniques and technologies. In 2015 Quartz Africa reported that “African countries are entering the world’s newest arms race, for cyber weapons and surveillance at a rapid pace. According to recent Wall Street Journal report, an estimated 29 countries around the world now have formal or military units dedicated to cyber warfare, and 63 countries have used cyber surveillance on their own citizen or abroad. Of those, four were in SubSaharan Africa.” (Lily Kuo, Quartz Africa, October, 16, 2015). This report reveals that cyber spying is becoming more pervasive on the African continent. In 2015, BBC and Privacy International obtained leaked classified documents detailing the existence of a Ugandan internal surveillance program called Fungua Macho (Open Eyes in Swahili). The operation uses a software called Finsher Technology developed by the Gamma Group International, a firm based in the UK. The surveillance system “can covertly be deployed in buildings, vehicles, computers, mobile phones, cameras and any other equipment deemed worthy for information extraction or surveillance”. More importantly, the document revealed that the same program “is being used by countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, and most recently Kenya” (Nick Hopkins and Jake Morris, BBC News, October 15, 2015). From the BBC and Privacy International report, it is clear that political opposition and activists in Senegal and other African countries are primary targets of government cyber espionage. Y en a marre member Djily Bagdad seems to understand the seriousness of cyber espionage when talking about the mobilization against the Wade region between 2011 and 2012. He stated: “we used to do the meetings in some very anonymous places that nobody would know. We stopped using our regular phone numbers, we started buying sim cards, using them for two days and then disposing of them because you might have your phone tapped. It was pretty hectic” (Djily Bagdad 2015). While they were being hunted down by the Wade regime for instigating massive protests against the change of the Senegalese constitution and Wade’s candidacy for a third term, Y en a marre members worried about their movements and communications. Out of fear of being monitored by government intelligence services, they strategically restrained their online presence.
In summary we can say that media constitute a vital resource for movement mobilization. In the Francophone West African context, social activists are conscious that access to traditional media can be an uphill battle given the bifurcation of the press and government control of information. Thus, the advent of social media and mobile technology has provided them with opportunities to control the narrative around their political actions, revolutionizing the ways protest movements mobilize masses to support activism. However, as cyber skeptics, argue, online activism cannot necessarily replace the offline mobilization efforts. Virtual or online mobilization efforts can de-socialize/disengage movement participants who seem to better engage with ground action and in-person interactions with social activists. Nevertheless, the biggest issues with cyber activism remain government espionage which is becoming more and more pervasive on the African continent. In addition to media challenges, Francophone African social movements struggle with financial resources.