Senegal's “Soft Revolution” Makes Change in Digital Space
BY Antonella Napolitano | Tuesday, June 25 2013
It all started with this sentence: “A president of the republic has much power. It would be a shame to choose him unwisely.”
That is how Senegalese activist and blogger Cheikh Fall explains the motivation behind Sunu2012 (“Sunu” means “Our” in the Wolof language), a participatory platform that he developed in 2011 to monitor the electoral process during the presidential election in his home country in February and March 2012. Fall, also known as @cypher007 is one of the creators of the hashtag #kebetu or “to twitter," that is now used by Senegalese citizens and the Senegalese diaspora who want to discuss their country’s politics.
Fall was one of the speakers at PDF France, held on June 13th in Paris, where he described how the citizen initiative was important, especially for young citizens that use social media and microblogging platforms, to engage in a cultural and political change of their country, a “soft revolution," as Fall calls it.
Why Senegal Needed Sunu2012
In 2012, political tensions arose when two-time president Abdoulaye Wade decided to engage in an unprecedented third, controversial run by allegedly taking advantage of a Constitutional amendment.
In 2001, the Constitution was amended to reduce a presidential term from seven to five years and to limit a president to two-terms. The term was then restored to seven years in 2010.
Wade argued that his first term as president in 2000 fell under the pre-2001 constitution, and therefore, the term did not count towards the two-term limit. The Constitutional Court decided in Wade’s favor just a month before the election, causing several citizens protests to erupt in the capital of Dakar.
Even though Senegal has made significant strides in media freedom, rising to 59th on the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index from 79th the year prior, the mainstream media still failed to provide crucial information on the political candidates during the months before the election in March of 2012, declared Fall at PDF France. This lack of media coverage and the controversy over Wade’s third run for president were the fuels for developing Sunu2012.
As the popularity of the platform grew, Senegalese presidential hopefuls felt compelled to participate. They created their own profiles on the Sunu 2012 site, sharing their campaign program, agenda and other information.
ABOVE: The profile of then-candidate Macky Sall on Sunu2012. He was elected with 65 percent of the votes.
Sunu2012 on Election Day
On the day of the election, Sunu2012 relied on volunteers to map election results, particularly through mobile texts. “The #sunu2012 team could count on the mobilization of around one hundred “E-observers” who had put themselves forward voluntarily to relay information from polling stations and especially from various strategic polling stations,” Fall explained in an interview to French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
The activists then broadcasted live via Twitter the news and results emerging from polling stations, as a way to ensure transparency in the electoral process. As reported by France 24, “many net users [...] simply decided to make known their opinion at the polls, to attempt to oust President, Abdoulaye Wade. And by publishing photos of their fingers marked with indelible ink, proving they have voted, many Senegalese people showed pride in accomplishing their citizen’s duty.”
The election was a peaceful one and also gave Sunu2012 a boost in credibility. In a video filmed during the night of the elections, Fall declared that Sunu2012’s projections of the election results were 67.65 percent in favor of Sall and 32.35 percent for Wade. Many journalists used the projections to declare Sall a winner and to announce the projected results the evening of election day. The final results turned out to be remarkably close to Sunu2012’s projections: 65.80 percent for Sall and 34.20 percent for Wade.
ABOVE: Senegalese journalist Pape Alé Niang talks with two Sunu2012 activists on 2stv, the country's second largest TV channel [in French]
Sunu2012 After the Election
After the election, the activists behind Sunu2012 decided to continue in their watchdog role, turning the platform into a monitoring tool to fact check the political program of the new president and the government, though, at the moment, the fact checking seems limited to voting on the fulfillment of campaign promises.
People can vote and comment on the President's proposals, deciding whether they have been fulfilled or not. In the screenshot below, you can see an example of a vote on one proposal that sought to create a Priority Investment Guarantee of 50 billion Senegalese francs per year. This fund would allow citizens to access bank loans to improve their agricultural and poultry businesses. The proposal has been considered “utopian” by more than 60 percent of voters. According to an African Development Bank report released this month, however, Senegal ranks 166 out of the 185 of the countries measured for business performance. Even if Senegal’s 50 billion investment fund is unrealistic, the platform does not necessarily provide an alternative proposal to boost productivity in its private sector.
Nevertheless, the platform provides key contact information for each Ministry and videos of speeches made in Parliament. With a population of nearly 13 million, 2.3 million of which are Internet users (17.5 percent of the population), Sunu2012 could prove to be a powerful platform for civic engagement. Already, Senegal has more than 675,000 Facebook accounts, according to Internet World Stats
Sunu2012 eventually branched out into Sunucause, a participatory web project that uses social media to address social issues in the country.
The objective is to raise awareness and fundraise for social issues particularly when the government is too slow to respond or does so ineffectively.
“Sunucause, as with Sunu2012, has no operating budget. The first resource of these initiatives is the community first,” wrote Fall in a blogpost, in August 2012. Later, however, the group created Sunucause T-shirts to sustain the platform. The platform still remains largely unbudgeted and sustained by volunteers.
The Sunu2012 project is not just a phenomenon within Senegal alone. This culture of political participation is evident in other African countries, like Kenya, where increasingly, political battles are being fought in digital space and so far, it’s working.
“We did not fight in the street,” Kenyan technologist and blogger Mark Kaigwa said about last elections in his native Kenya.
Kaigwa explained at PDF2013 in New York that one way Kenyans have effectively battled online is in protesting Western media bias, which still uses a narrative of violence and conflict when characterizing Africa in general.
When a grenade exploded in Nairobi in March 2012, for instance, CNN quickly framed the situation as yet another terroristic attack in troubled Kenya, even though it had been four years since such violence. Kenyan citizens used Twitter to protest wildly against the mischaracterization and CNN eventually issued an apology.
ABOVE: Kenyan activist Mark Kaigwa addressing the audience during PDF 2013
Internet use has exploded over the last decade, revealing even greater potential of the Internet in spurring political action. According to ITU stats, Kenya has over 12 million Internet users (about 25% of the population), while in 2000, only 200,000 citizens had access to the Internet.
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Editorial Note: Quotes from Spanish and French articles were translated by the author