Since the turn of the century, the mobile phone and the growth of the internet is changing how Africans interface with power. Scholars on Africa have shown how local participation in governance issues has been energised through these developments.[i] The Arab spring, which began in Tunisia in 2010 has stimulated increasing interest in how social media mobilises people and convenes publics in Africa.[ii] With visible shift in social media, especially in the explicit ‘convoking logics’ such as ‘liking’ ’friending’ and ‘following’, the convergence of social media and mobile telephony is central to new debates on how digital publics are constituted in Africa. In the book, “Mobile Phones: The new Talking Drums of everyday Africa” the term ‘revolution’ is deployed to characterise the massive changes in Africa occasioned by the use and rapid spread of mobile telephones in the continent.[iii] These transformations are not merely limited to communication, but can also be observed in multiple domains such as the political, where they mediate between social individuals and groups, creating new forms of social mediation, where various kinds of agency emerge.
In Africa today, the use and impact of the social media are huge, to say the least. This situation has been bolstered by the increase in mobile telephony which has made access to the internet convenient and easy. According to a British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) report, the number of subscribers on the continent has grown almost 20 percent each year for the past five years, and it is expected that there are more than 735 million subscribers today in Africa. Meanwhile, huge submarine cable infrastructure has seen an increased growth of internet access in the entire continent.
According to the latest statistics from the Communications Commissions of Kenya, mobile phone subscriptions stand at slightly over 38.9 million out of a population of about 43 million people (87 percent). Additionally, a similar number of Kenyans have access or subscriptions to the internet (87.9 percent) and slightly more than half this number access the internet through their phones.[iv] It is the mostly younger subscribers in this category that have facilitated the meteoric rise of the social media in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The combination of social media and smartphones have ‘liberated’ and emancipated mediated communication from the centre (state and institutions) and given more agency to ordinary individuals insofar as political debate and action is concerned. In a context of political devolution, social media has become an important aspect of how citizens in Kenya mobilise, and how they, through both discourse and social action, imagine and reconstruct their relation to the state. Today, besides connecting friends and groups, social media has become an integral aspect of Kenya’s social and political dynamics and has been effectively used in driving positive change like community policing, galvanising and channelling public discontent, grassroots political mobilisation.
In this article, I wish to highlight how social media has been deployed in the county of Nakuru, in central Kenya first, by state actors to support community policing and second by ordinary citizens for the non-formal political deliberation at the grassroots. In both cases, I argue, social media provides specific affordances previously not available, which affects agency, grassroots empowerment and reproduces a more accountable local governance.
Social Media, Chiefs and Community Policing in Nakuru
The 2008 post-election violence in Kenya marked a watershed moment for forty-year-old Francis Kariuki. The school where he served as a head teacher was badly affected by the violence and he felt working directly with the locals would be a much better challenge. When a chief’s job fell vacant in Lanet Umoja location, Nakuru County, he quickly turned in an application. But he was least prepared for the sudden shift from dealing with honest, innocent children to the rigours that comes with being in charge of the entire location of more than 30,000 residents. His job now includes chairing the local security committee with village elders, assistant chiefs, and opinion leaders. With two administration police seconded to him to ensure he executes his mandate he is loved and loathed in equal measure depending on who you talk to. He reports to the District Officer (DO) every other week although hardly a day passes before he makes or receives a call from the DO. More important, he must hold a baraza (open public meetings) at least twice, in a month. The more barazas he convenes the better for his resume. His adoption of Twitter as in interactive platform with members of his location was accidental. According to Chief Kariuki, the initial idea of getting onto Twitter was merely to send notifications of upcoming baraza meetings without the inconvenience and expense of pinning up public notices.
Chief Kariuki began constituting his initial Twitter ‘followers’ with the handful of baraza attendees who would occasionally peak at 150 people. At the baraza, he would show residents how to ‘follow’ him on Twitter. He assured them that the new initiative would allow access to the chief at all times with no costs on their part. While a few managed to subscribe to the micro-blogging site, the lack of internet enabled smart phones and the difficulty of navigating the social media for first time users was a challenge. But since almost everyone had access to a mobile phone however simple it was, he negotiated with a mobile network provider, who linked his Twitter account to a unique four-digit number which allowed his tweets to bounce off this number and instantly appear as a short message (SMS) to anyone linked to the four-digit number. Subscription to the four-digit number proved easy and practical. Villagers would only be required to send the message ‘follow @Chief Francis’ to this number and from then on would receive the Chiefs’ tweets in the form of an SMS. Later, all his three assistants, Florence, Mundia and Maina joined Twitter (@AsChief Florence, @AsChiefMundia@ AsChiefMaina), and using the same code, all these platforms formed a network that changed local administration.[v] At present, Chief Kariuki has over 56,000 followers on his twitter handle. The assistant Chiefs have a combined following of over 3000 followers.
The use of Twitter and mobile phones for community policing in Lanet Umoja is a huge success. Usually, once a crime or an emergency occurs, the victim or a neighbour informs one of the chiefs through a text message, the Chief in turn, retweets to other chiefs and it is instantly shared. Twitter produces a space, or a ´digital baraza´ where speed, simplicity and immediacy converge to make potent tool for community policing. The platforms show a pattern of crimes and related emergencies that are reported and addressed instantly through group action. In the texts below for instance (in Kiswahili), the chief posts that a house belonging to one mama Gathoni is being burgled, he calls out the public to help, singling out those living in the area known as ‘murunyu’, then the burglars, having most probably received the texts on their phones too, hurriedly leave the scene (Figure 1). Members rise from their sleep to help a neighbour in the full knowledge and assurance that a significant number of people will respond.
WhatsApp, Tweet-ups and Public Participation in Nakuru Local Governance
At well over sixty-years-old, Elijah Kinyanjui hardly fits the stereotype of the typical African blogger. A native of Nakuru town, Kinyanjui is a veteran journalist who has worked for all the notable media houses in Kenya as a print journalist and has, depending on who you ask, established himself as one of Nakuru County’s most prominent bloggers. In early 2013, he set up the news blog ‘Nakuru County Online’, whose focus was primarily news relevant to the county of Nakuru. His experiment with local county news was in the spirit of Kenya’s new constitution of 2010 that primarily sought to devolve the formal and informal structures and discourses of governance. According to Kinyanjui[vii], the newspaper failed due to technical issues. He transferred the blog to a Facebook page and renamed it the Nakuru Analysts, a name that suggested the deliberative objective of the page, and also its socio-political scope. Although the Facebook version of Nakuru Analysts still runs, it is not as politically sharp as its WhatsApp affiliate. According to information on the group profile, Nakuru Analysts was constituted as a WhatsApp group on 23 January 2015, with Elijah Kinyanjui, and Jane Kinuthia (Jenny) as administrators of the group. Following its successes in convening and bringing into being a digital public, where members engaged in what they felt were deliberative acts on the affairs of the county government, Nakuru Analysts was registered as a community based organisation (CBO) in December 2015 and interim officials were elected to run the social arm of the organisation. A man named Hamisi Mutura was appointed Chairman, Jane Kinuthia became the group’s treasurer, and Patrick Kinyua was its secretary.[viii] Elijah Kinyanjui remained the chief executive officer (CEO) of Nakuru Analysts in a non-electable capacity. According to interviews with the original founding administrators of the group[ix], the new CBO was to act as a bridge between discourse and action, or what is sometimes known broadly as ‘Tweet-ups’, where digitally convened publics meet face-to-face with the intention of actualising specific action (In Nakuru this includes such things as urban protests, fund raisers, and meetings summoned to encourage and ‘anoint’ specific political aspirants).
The Nakuru Analysts was envisioned as a digitally-convened space where ordinary citizens had an equal chance of posing relevant questions and getting the answers from the county officials concerned. Using his networks, Kinyanjui collected the contacts of the Governor,´County officials, County Cabinet Secretaries and elected members of the County Assembly, and linked them together with those of several opinion leaders, future political aspirants, business people, and professionals to form the Nakuru Analysts. Whilst the group comprised of a specific social category, the vast majority of current WhasApp members are ordinary engaged citizens of Nakuru County.
In the Nakuru Analysts WhatsApp group, debate is informed by both argument and comparisons with other counties that are perceived to be doing generally well, as a basis for evaluating the performance of the Nakuru county government. For instance, on 30 August 2016, a participant posted a picture of a famous refurbished public market in Mombasa County. The picture elicited praise for Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, but also prompted debates on unfulfilled campaign promises in Nakuru County:
Mike: Comparing Kongowea Market and Nasher (local Nakuru county market) is like comparing day and night.
Elijah Kinyanjui: Wow…it really puts Nakuru County government to shame for lack of a similar project.
Miguel: Kongowea market used to be dusty place for campaigns and drug peddling, amazing transformation.
31 August 2016 (Nakuru Analysts, 20:32-2038)
Often, the convergence of online news and social media, and the convenience of mobile phone nourish local debates and stimulate further comparisons between counties. These comparisons aid in the energising of local debates, and for calling to account of the county government.
Gitau: *Can Nakuru Learn from Kiambu County? * The Kiambu government’s Youth Affairs department has launched a mobile loan service called Mobiloan. Applicants will access it using mobile phone money transfer services. Governor William Kabogo on Wednesday said the county, through its Biashara Fund, has partnered with the Kenya Commercial Bank to make the service possible…Kabogo said the service will allow the youth, women and persons living with disability easy access to money to grow their businesses…..
Nono: This is what we need in this county, but with an allocation of Kes. 65 million for youth and all this go to the construction of polytechnics it will remain a mirage unless KM is interdicted (sic)
01 January 2016 (Nakuru Analysts, 1:57 -2:02 pm)
Nakuru Analysts remains a powerful space for the formation of a prototype digital public that is able to engage in the critical debates that matter to the locals. Often, not only does it call the county government to account directly through its dialogue with members of the county government, but the platform uses the digital space to explain and debate how county governments work.
While the constitutionally recognised spaces of participation and meaning making for ordinary citizens with regard to County governance and accountability are public participation forums, the popularity and vibrancy of WhatsApp groups like Nakuru Analyst, shows how digital publics are complementing, and often outdoing, other traditional, formal spaces of deliberation. At the same time, the affordances of digital media and the attribute of convergence allows Kenyan chiefs to repurpose and refashion the classic baraza and mobilise it for social action. In the case of Lanet Umoja in Nakuru, Twitter routinely summoned a public that acted corporately (to a degree) to the substance of the texts that constituted it. This active ‘social action’ went beyond a mere perfunctory attention, but imposed an urgent responsibility and obligation on citizens.
Thus, the use of Twitter by local chiefs in Nakuru and the powerful role played by WhatsApp groups in Nakuru town show how the affordances of social media combines with the convenience of internet enabled smart phones to empower ordinary citizens. This is attained through the capacity of social media to convene groups for specific action, and at the same time, the possibility of social media in facilitating a continuous conversation among a dispersed audience. This quality of social media, according to Clay Shirky, qualifies to be labelled a revolution.
Dr. Duncan Omanga is a lecturer at Moi University, Kenya and the head of the department of Publishing and Media Studies. He holds a Doctorate in Media Studies from the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Dr. Omanga was an African Peace Network (APN) Grantee in 2014. His research interests are on social media, democracy and digital publics in Kenya. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Gagliardone, Iginio et al. “Stability: International Journal of Security and Development.” In Search of Local Knowledge on ICTs in Africa 4, 2015; Mudhai, Fred, Wisdom Tettey and Fackson Banda, ed. African Media and the Digital Public Sphere. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; Lopes, Abreu, and Sharath Srinivasan. “‘Africa’s Voices: Using mobile phones and radio to foster mediated public discussion and to gather public opinions in Africa’.” CGHR Working Paper University of Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights, 9 2014.F
[ii] Meraz, Sharon, and Zizi Papacharissi. ” Networked Gatekeeping and Networked Framing on #Egypt.” The International Journal of Press/Politics, 18, 2013: 138-166; Tully, M, and B Ekdale. “Sites of Playful Engagement: Twitter Hashtags as Spaces of Leisure and Development in Kenya.” Information Technologies & International Development 10, 2014: 67-82.
[iii] de Bruijn, Mirjam and Francis Nyamnjoh. Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa. Oxford: African Books Collective, 2009.
[iv] Sector Statistics Report 2016/7, Communications Authority of Kenya, 2017
[v] Lanet Umoja Location is headed by a Chief who is supported by three assistant Chiefs. These three oversee 3 specific sub-locations (Umoja, 2 sub location; Muronyo Sub-Location and Kiamunyekei Sub Location).
[vi] There is a scream near the PCEA church in Baraka…There are thieves at Gathoni’s mum. Her house is near the corner towards Murunyu. Kindly come out and help…People of Murunyu please help, police are n the way. Let us all wake up….The thieves have run away.
[vii] Interview with Kinyanjui, 5 August 2016.
[viii] Phone Interview with Elijah Kinyanjui, Feb 2017
[ix] Interview with Kio Kinuthia and Elijah Kinyanjui, 2 Nov. 2016, Nakuru