Think African presidents popular on Twitter have high approval ratings? Think again

Also, contrary to the perception they are accessible and open to scrutiny, none of their countries are on the top 10 of key governance rankings.

TWITTER may be having it’s own internal problems with shareholders and investors questioning it’s long term growth trajectory, but It’s clout in popular culture; shaping opinion, informing the public and powering discourse is unquestionable. 

Consider the following scenarios. Faced with disapproval to the nuclear deal it brokered with Iran, in the USA the Obama administration took to Twitter and created a handle @TheIranDeal to give facts about the nuclear agreement and answer any questions concerning the deal. 

Another compelling case for Twitter’s growing influence would be CNN’s Global Executive Vice President and Managing Director, Tony Maddox’s journey to Nairobi to deliver a personal apology to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta following his network’s portrayal of Kenya as a “hotbed of terror” ahead of Barack Obama’s visit. This prompted Kenyans to rally on Twitter behind the hash tag #SomeoneTellCNN—a campaign that resonated globally.

Now, the Twitter revolution has in recent times been powering on  full-steam. From, musicians, athletes, entertainers, journalists and even business leaders, Twitter has become the medium of choice in disseminating information and stirring public engagement not just in Africa, but the world. But how have African political leaders embraced the power of Twitter and just how big is their influence on the social media platform?

A basic metric to use would be the number of followers Africa’s most respected leaders have on Twitter. To put some context into it before looking at how African leaders fare, below are the world’s most followed leaders:

1. Barack Obama (USA) @POTUS-63 million followers.
2.*Pope Francis (Vatican) @Pontifex – 19.5 million followers. (*All the Pope’s 9 language accounts have been tallied)
3.Narendra Modi (India) @NarendraModi – 14.8 million followers.
4. Racep Erdo?an (Turkey) @RT_Erdogan 6.9 million followers.
5. David Cameron (UK) @David_Cameron 1.16 million followers.
6. Shinzo Abe (Japan) @AbeShinzo 523,000 followers.

Most African leaders do not have active Twitter accounts, especially the “old guard” including, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for instance. But this trend is noticeably different with the new-age leaders on the continent who have readily adopted Twitter. Below is a list of Africa’s most followed leaders.

1. Paul Kagame (Rwanda) @PaulKagame – 1.17 million followers
2.  Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya) @UKenyatta - 1.06 million followers.
3. Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria) - @MBuhari 422,000 followers
4. Jacob Zuma (South Africa) @SAPresident – 391,000 followers.
5.Jakaya Kikwete (Tanzania) - @jmkikwete 319,000 followers.
6. Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) @KagutaMuseveni – 145,000 followers.
7. John Dramani Mahama (Ghana) @JDMahama – 133,000 followers.
8. Macky Sall (Senegal) @ macky_sall – 89,500 followers.

Twitter is a tool that has got the potential to amplify a message by cutting across a wide spectrum of people. Be that as it may, these statistics, when put into the context of Africa’s population demographics shows that the reach of African leaders could potentially be higher. Africa has a very youthful population with a higher technological readiness who spend more time online, spurred on by the surge of smartphone usage.

Judging by the numbers however, one might think that African leaders generally lack the charisma needed to garner a large following online at best, or that at worst, Africa’s online community (mostly youth) is generally apathetic towards the continent’s brand of politics.

Another possible explanation in this debate would be that Twitter, though a powerful social media tool, lags behind other social networks particularly Facebook in Africa. This would be consistent with the findings of a September 2014 Pew Research Center survey which found out that Facebook remains by far the most popular social media site. While its growth has slowed, the level of user engagement with the platform has increased globally.

Tool for voters
Twitter however with its 140 character limit has become an important additional arena for politics. It is a resource for political news, information, finding likeminded issue-oriented people, and a tool for voter outreach especially in the run-up to elections. As the years go by, it will be interesting to see if Africa’s leaders gain more influence on Twitter by attracting more followers.

Interestingly, this huge following on Twitter for some of Africa`s leaders has not always translated to high approval ratings with their citizens. Only Kagame has had rising approval ratings which now stand at 98.7% although some question the authenticity of such a figure and argue that Rwandans are too cautious to dissent. 

Kenyatta`s approval ratings reportedly fell to 66% from 76% following the Garissa University massacre earlier this year. Still new on the job in Nigeria, Buhari`s approval ratings stand at 70% and it remains to be seen if they will rise further. For Zuma and Mahama, their approvals stand at just 34% and 44% respectively as they battle with slowing economic growth as well as other domestic problems of their own. 

So, in Africa, a huge following on social media does not always translate to approval by the electorate, a fact that is compounded by the fact that the “masses” who form the core of most leaders’ support are not on Twitter.

But far from just attracting more Twitter followers, has there been a marked difference in the governance practices between these African leaders who garner a significant following on Twitter and those who are not active on social media? 

The reasoning would be that, those leaders who have made themselves accessible on social media have opened themselves up to more public scrutiny and critique of their policies, with the tacit implication being they are for public accountability and transparency. Using this logic, countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria must rank high on good governance scales given their leaders’ Twitter presence.

No correlation
Take the 2014 Ibrahim Index for African Governance for instance, both Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria, countries with the most followed leaders on Twitter in Africa, fall outside the top 10 in ranking. This may highlight the point that accessibility and a strong online presence does not always translate to good governance and transparency rankings at times, for social media can be subverted and used for propaganda. 

Essentially, as a relatively new phenomenon in Africa, a direct correlation between social media and good governance practices cannot easily be ascertained as the African continent is still trying to grasp how to effectively use this medium.

At the moment, then, there is just no telling if there exists a direct link between social media presence and good governance. 

Nonetheless, though once can’t accuse leaders without a social media presence as bad leaders without accountability, by merely looking at Africa`s demographics, they would do good to immerse themselves into an electorate spending more and more of their time online.

-The author is a Harare-based Finance student and regular contributor.

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