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How can social media help assert citizenship rights?

By Olusegun Ogunleye, on 5 March 2015

The use of social media by people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands of their government has been enabled through the emergence of a variety of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, change.org and avaaz.org.

This can be traced back to incidents such as the Arab Spring, and the ‘Occupy’ movements seen in some western countries such as the United States of America (Occupy Wall Street being perhaps the best known). More recently political crises in Spain and Greece, and significant campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls and Je Suis Charlie have found a global audience online. Social media as a mobilising tool continues to gain in currency.

The successes of social media have varied from locality to locality based on different factors and contexts. What cannot be denied is that such practices have increased the ability of citizens to rally around solidarity not only locally but global issues.

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

#bringbackourgirls: Global visibility shrouds local action

One recent incident that is especially close to home for me, as a Nigerian, has been the #bringbackourgirls campaign. This originated in Nigeria due to the kidnap of 276 girls by the Boko Haram sect from a school in Chibok located in North-eastern Nigeria on April 14, 2014.

Reflecting on the #bringbackourgirls campaign: its gains were its ability to solicit global support and situate the blight of those impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency into the international consciousness. However, its key pitfall has been the inability to elicit concrete response and action from the Nigerian government.

My conclusion is that the reason for this can be attributed to several factors among which is the fact that the global support garnered was not matched by sustained local pressure. Additionally the politicisation of the issue by both the government and the opposition has meant that in the process the voice of the victims been muted somewhat.

Silencing the victim’s voice

Before delving further into reasons for the limited success of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, I would like to expand on this critical issue; the silencing of the victim’s voice, which came to the fore. This is not particular only to the #bringbackourgirls campaign but its reflective of various mass movements of activism in the developing world.

Vyncent Elvin Eebee highlighted this in an article titledFor Whom Does the Speaking Woman Speak?, where she concluded that rural women’s voices are submerged by the voice of urban female advocates, which result in rural women becoming invisible due to the articulation of their voices by the other.

She further stated that when the rural woman participates in action, it is upon trumpeted and highly advertised invitations, which are not conducive to effective participatory mass movements.

To me this was visible in the #bringbackourgirls campaign, because these trumpeted and highly advertised invitations were tools utilised by the campaigners, government, and the opposition to publicise themselves while the plea of the victims was not concretely tackled.  

Segun pic 2

The ‘digital divide’

In my opinion key factors that contributed to the limited success of social media in Nigeria and developing countries as a whole relate to the digital divide.

This is not only in terms of penetration but also with regards to access and understanding of how to utilise these tools and platforms, especially when the literacy rates in many countries are taken into consideration.

This was reflected upon by Merridy Wilson who acknowledged that

“the problem of the growing technology and/or knowledge gaps between and within countries, places certain groups of people further in the shadow regions of global information flows. These gaps persist both at the level of access to ICT infrastructure, and in terms of the form of information conveyed and who is able to use, understand and produce the information and knowledge which ICTs potentially make accessible.”

We need conscious, strategic approaches to effectively use social media for change

My conclusion therefore is that social media can become an enabling and transformative tool for people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands in developing countries, such as Nigeria. But it calls for prudent adaptation of techniques and tactics for effective strategies towards mass mobilisation.

This can only be attained by being conscious of local realities in the African continent, as in other climes, and supported by concerted and sustained pressure on ground to match the global support a social media audience provides.

What this therefore requires, as put in the words of Andrew Burkett,

“are much more difficult, time-consuming and probably not as glitzy as ICT development efforts – that is, political will, recognition of personal and social responsibilities, and ultimately action on the part of governments and civil society.”


Olusegun Ogunleye is a development practitioner with several years working experience in the field of town planning in Nigeria. He has also taken part in urban-based research in Nigeria, London and, Dar es Salaam. His passion lies in the area of urban governance as he sees it as a veritable tool to ensure and enhance the wellbeing of citizens. He also believes in the potential inherent in community-led development as a means of ensuring sustainable development. Olusegun graduated from the MSc Urban Development Planning in 2014.

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