Kenya’s noisy Twitter community has been on a roll lately. Earlier in the week, a senior CNN executive flew into Nairobi to deliver an apology for the network’s breathlessly excited, tabloid-style coverage of the Obama visit following outrage expressed online.
At around the same time, the Internet locally was aflame with a debate on whether President Paul Kagame of Rwanda should stay in office or not.
What is Twitter? In our (relatively) youthful, urban-based arrogance, we tend to write articles about things like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter without context, forgetting that many Kenyans are actually living a blissful existence outside the world of these forums and know little about them. More, many of these fellows are actually the people who buy newspapers.
The print newspaper still brings in more revenue and pays the salaries of all the other people employed in broadcast or digital platforms in many parts of the world, a fact too often ignored or forgotten in the excitement of the digital age.
So for the benefit of those still enjoying peace outside the technological bubble, it’s worth explaining that Twitter is, according to the Internet, “an online social networking service that enables users to send and read short 140-character messages called ‘tweets’.”
But you might prefer the definition of the majestic British actress Helen Mirren who described it thus: “Twitter is like a greasy, horrible stinky old man in a corner of a bar, and you go up to him and say ‘Hi’ because you want to be polite, then he starts being horrible. Ugh! I can’t believe people spend their lives writing horrible things about other people!”
Anyway, Kenyans on this thing called Twitter turned on President Kagame during the week. It all started when a chap called Levi Kones replied to an unrelated post by the Rwandan president in these terms:
“I really hope sir, you will not ruin your legacy by being President for life.” (A debate is going on in Rwanda as to whether to abolish term limits and effectively keep the current president in office for a long time).
President Kagame shot back with a tweet of his own: “Worry more about your own legacy … if you got any at all to think about!”
A tweef (a war on Twitter) was soon born with people tweeting under the category #SomeoneTellKagame.
What the debate showed, however, is that Kenyans and many East Africans are sharply divided on perhaps the greatest question facing Africans today.
Which is the better model of governance: Is it the East Asian “developmental” state seen in countries from China to Singapore which takes away your liberties but delivers measurable economic progress, the path the Ethiopians and Rwandans have chosen?
Or is it better to adopt the Western model in which you have a noisy and open society like Ghana’s or Kenya’s where you have relatively free institutions such as the press and judiciary but in which some say economic progress comes more slowly than in the developmental states?
Twitter users fell on both sides of the debate. The view of financial analyst Aly Khan-Satchu, clearly in the developmental camp, was widely echoed:
“I think President @PaulKagame is the type of leader who would surge SSA (Sub-Saharan Africa) GDP to over 10% #SomeoneTellKagame.”
Another prominent Twitter user, Cyprian Nyakundi, countered, quoting President Obama: “Nobody should be president for life. And your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas.”
The debate centred around two competing facts. That Kagame, on the one hand, has unquestionably been one of the most successful presidents Africa has known for the last half a century. Rwandans enjoy a better quality of life than many of their compatriots on the continent. The police don’t demand bribes, the streets are clean and the investment environment the best in Africa.
But Rwanda is also a closed, many say politically repressive society, in which the vibrant, free debate that characterises, say, Uganda or Kenya is absent.
The #SomeoneTellKagame tweef may seem like a trivial, passing joke. But whether the future of Africa will look more like Kenya and Ghana or like Ethiopia and Rwanda is the great debate that will shape Africa in the next half century.