Social Media in West Africa: A Security Quagmire?
Social media has emerged as an indispensable tool for accelerated globalization and development in the 21st century. It has created spaces for more interconnectedness among individuals and states. Like other regions in the world, in West Africa, increased internet penetration, mobile services, laptops, and other technological gadgets, have increased interactions and amplified people's voices in the governance landscape. While social media has become an instrument for social, political, and economic development, it also provides an avenue for potential threats to regional security. Social media has become a channel for terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks to scale-up their operations in the region. However, key stakeholders from within the states and regional security apparatuses have paid little attention to social media threats and their impact on regional stability, focusing only on traditional military response strategies. This missing link continues to undermine the effectiveness of resilience strategies to mitigate threats to security in the region.
Social Media as a Tool for Regional Development
While West African states have made progress in some aspects of the democratic process, including free and fair elections, rule of law, respect for human rights, and freedom of the media, there are still challenges with transparency, accountability, and participation in governance. The increased usage of social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Twitter have provided spaces for citizens to participate in the governance processes. Hashtags (#) are a common mechanism that citizens utilize to express themselves through mobilization to protest human rights violations, corruption in government, policies, and other institutional ineffectiveness. In Nigeria, due to the mainstream press's reluctance to report sensitive issues, or critique the conduct of government officials, social media has been encouraged as an alternative medium to expose such issues. A notable example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which gained global attention, seeking the release of 276 Chibok school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Again, following the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, social media was used to create awareness
In fact, social media has contributed to opening up the political space for participation, increased awareness among citizens on both domestic and international issues, and promoted the rights of vulnerable groups particularly women, children, the physically challenged, and other minority groups. Indeed, social media has revolutionized human interactions and given a voice to ordinary citizens in various polities in the region.
Beyond the above, social media channels are also avenues for promoting economic development in the region. Members of communities both within a country and diaspora often create common social media groups and launch social initiatives to support development in communities. Through this, community members make financial contributions to carry out developmental projects such as schools, hospitals, clinics, portable water, and other socio-economic activities that support livelihoods. Similarly, community agitations for social amenities including road infrastructure, electricity, quality education, and environmental protection policies are mostly organized on social media platforms. This has given youth a voice and the belief that they are agents of change in their communities. In addition, the sale and marketing of products and employment opportunities are also advertised on a variety of social media channels to afford job opportunities to users, especially the youth. Closely related to the economic sphere is the fact that the overwhelming majority of West African social media users are youth. Apart from providing avenues for youth to foster social networking, social media such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are commonly used as a medium for equipping them with skills training and entrepreneurial development to enhance their livelihoods in communities within the sub-region.
Threats to Regional Security
Despite its utility as a force for change, emerging trends suggest continued exploitation of social media by known terrorist and violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State (ISIL), and Ansaru for violent operations in Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp as well as other online avenues serve as mediums for the radicalization and recruitment of vulnerable youth, the spread of propaganda narratives, the mobilization of funds, as well as through the communication and coordination of violent attacks in the region. A recent UNDP report has noted that:
''Boko Haram strategy has shifted in recent times. It initially made use of more traditional types of media, including public statements, leaflets and open air lectures. However, since 2015, the group has favored utilizing social media platforms including You Tube, Twitter and Facebook to disseminate its messages.''
Thus, providing the impetus for the unprecedented terrorist-related violence currently in the region. According to Muhammed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative of West Africa and Sahel (UNOWAS), in a speech delivered at the UN Security Council, terrorist-related casualties in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have leaped five-fold since 2016, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone compared to some 770 three years earlier. He also noted that displacement has grown ten-fold to half a million, while 25,000 have sought refuge in other countries. He further observed that the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening coastal communities including Ghana, Togo, and Benin.
Given the above, coupled with growing internet access in the region, social media offers a viable space for terrorists, violent extremists, and criminal networks to strengthen their operations in the region. Additionally, increased access to social media has given rise to misinformation and fake news, the spread of hate speech, cybercrime including money laundering, as well as the kidnapping and sexual abuse of young girls and boys in West Africa, posing an enormous threat to human security in the region.
Mitigating the Threats
To stem the threats to security, African governments and ECOWAS should consider prioritizing citizens' education as a key component of resilience strategies at the local, national, and regional levels in West Africa. Educating the citizens on threats of violent extremism, terrorism, and organized crimes through social media awareness and training are critical in enhancing awareness necessary for building public resilience. Equally, states and regional security policymakers should consider capacity building training to produce more experts with requisite skills to counter terrorist and transnational organized criminal activities in the cyberspace of the region.
Osei Baffour Frimpong is a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program during the spring 2020 term. He is a Regional Researcher and Conflict Analyst with the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), a member organization of the SVNP.
About the Author
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more