Ahead of writing this column on Tuesday afternoon, I was on an Africa news aggregator site.
The headlines were strikingly gloomy with two or three cheerful ones. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kenya’s colossal National Youth Service scandal was there. “Court tries suspects in Kenya’s biggest corruption case,” read a headline. And some of the usual fare: “Five-storey building collapses in Ruaka, one person injured” and an opinion piece, “Violence, the media and elections in Kenya”.
From Tanzania, a piece on President John Magufuli’s now well-publicised iron first: “Tanzania’s latest clampdown takes decades of repression to new lows”. Uganda offered up the unusual: “Uganda turns to its dark history for tourism”.
From north to south, the picture wasn’t cheerful. “As politicians bicker, cash crunch has Tunisia looking abroad”, we heard from Tunisia. Across the border in Libya, “ISIS resurrection: Libya attacks foreshadow terror to come”.
South Sudan had to be in: “South Sudan: Oxfam calls for urgent action as famine worries loom”. And Nigeria, needless to say: “Nigerian soldiers ‘rescued’ women, then starved and raped them, Amnesty International says”.
There’s a lot of bloodletting in Cameroon: “Cameroon’s ‘quiet’ Anglophone crisis keeps escalating with killings, detentions mounting”. And up the road northwards: “Militant attack in Mali’s north leaves more than 20 dead”.
South Africa had a high number of nasties: “Femicide in South Africa: Why men kill women”, “Indian-origin girl killed in South Africa botched car hijacking” and a strong opinion piece, “Killing of [South African] children, women needs to stop now”. Next door, “Suspected Islamists behead 10 in Mozambique: local sources”.
From the Horn of Africa:“Somaliland authorities arrest demonstrators, journalists covering protest”. Not to forget Central African Republic: “Bongo bids to entrench power in Gabon before parliamentary vote” and “War crimes court due to start probes in Central African Republic — UN”.
But there was a sprinkling of uplifting headlines too. For example, “Twenty-six countries sign commitment to AU’s Single African Sky”, “African e-retailer Jumia has Wall Street’s attention” and “Ms Geek Africa competition rewards women’s brains instead of their beauty”.
You get the drift. No, this is not going to be call for positive coverage of Africa. Rather, it is to ask how people who live in a world where these headlines describe their daily reality respond.
In some countries, such as South Africa, they like to protest. In others, they take up arms to fight the Establishment. In parts of West Africa and the Sahel, they get up and walk through dangerous lands to Libya and get on rickety boats to Europe, drowning in the Mediterranean in their hundreds. In the Horn, they cross over to war-ravaged Yemen and leg it to the Gulf.
However, the most intriguing is what one might call “digital/virtual secession”. Most Africans don’t get on boats or make treacherous journeys across borders. They stay put but leave their countries, or at least the space controlled by corrupt governments, via the internet.
Take the example of Nigeria’s Lola Omolola, founder of an invitation-only Facebook group “Female in Nigeria”. She founded FIN in 2015 as, to use one description, “a movement of women focused on building compassion and providing support for one another with the goal of having up to 1,000 members”.
Before she knew it, FIN had ballooned to over a million members with “women [who] come to talk about everything, from marriage and sex to health issues and work problems”, one report observed.
These closed groups are thriving remarkably on WhatsApp. Not too long ago, an article painted an apocalyptic picture of South Sudan as a country that, if it didn’t end its brutal conflict and the stream of people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, would end up as a place where President Salva Kiir would be holed up in Juba with no people left to rule over.
This virtual secession, from an emotional point of view, means many African leaders rule mostly over the bodies of their subjects, not their souls. Look at all the recent batteries of laws trying to regulate use of the internet.
In Tanzania, the government passed a law requiring anyone who posts a blog or is active on social media, or runs an online platform, to pay for a licence that costs $900 and can be revoked by the State. Users face 12 months in prison, or a $2,300 fine.
This represses free speech, yes, but the actions are also attempts by African governments to export the apparatus of State control in the mortar and brick world, to the virtual breakaway territories where beleaguered citizen have fled. It is a furious State building contest.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher, Africa data journalism site Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]