Dar es Salaam. It is nearly impossible to count the number of times that the government of Tanzania had to reverse a particular decision just a few hours after it was announced or to clarify a specific action it had previously taken, following strong opposition from citizens on social media, particularly those on Twitter.
Recently, Twitter can be said to have taken the place left by street protests in raising the voices of the people on various national issues to the extent that it has become difficult for those entrusted with the leadership of the country to ignore what is raised on the platform.
It was against this background that many followers of Tanzanian affairs were not surprised when President Samia Suluhu Hassan appeared in public and recognized the existence of what is known as the Twitter Republic, a name that citizens who use Twitter, especially those focused on governance issues, have given themselves.
Samia was talking to the players of the National Women’s Team under 17, Serengeti Girls, on July 5, 2022, at an event to congratulate the team for qualifying for the World Cup after defeating the Cameroon women’s team.
“There is a Republic of Twitter on the internet,” said President Samia during the event held at the State House in Dar es Salaam. “Now, let us build a Republic of Fighters in sports too.”
Dr Aikande Kwayu is not only a citizen of the Republic of Twitter but has also spent her time researching the use of the platform among opposition political parties who told The Chanzo that President Samia’s acknowledgement of the existence of the Republic of Twitter is based on his recognition of the power the network has.
“It’s because she knows how Twitter has been contributing to the debates that bring changes to society and helps many people,” said Dr Kwayu during the interview. “Social media, especially Twitter, has greatly helped citizens to be able to speak and express their opinions freely and to reach out and hold their leaders accountable.”
Examples of how the Republic of Twitter has shaken the United Republic are too many to be pointed out here. The most recent example, however, is the government’s decision to introduce levies on all electronic transactions, a decision that continues to be strongly opposed by many citizens.
While it will be difficult to conclude that the government’s action to reduce, on two separate occasions, the amounts of levies charged on the pressure it has received from Twitter, it would also be wrong to dismiss the network at all in the government’s decision to do so.
Even the Minister of Finance Mwigulu Nchemba, while speaking at a joint ministerial press conference on September 1, 2022, aimed at providing clarification on the levies, touched on the criticism he receives from social networks.
Also, the decision by Minister of Health Ummy Mwalimu to stop the implementation of a new procedure by the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), three days after its implementation started, can be linked to the opposition that the arrangement received on Twitter.
The new procedure, if it would be able to go ahead, would prevent an NHIF customer from getting treatment from another hospital, apart from the one they have been treated, unless after 30 days or after getting permission from the fund.
President Samia’s acknowledgement of the presence of Twitter Republic, however, does not mean that senior government officials have been happy with the platform and its contribution to the country’s governance issues.
Several times the leaders have been heard complaining about the networks.
Perhaps one of the most famous statements ever made, for example, by the late fifth-term President John Magufuli is the one about his annoyance with social networks, saying: “I wish one day the angels would come down and turn off all these [social] networks.”
This was in 2017 and until 2020 the angels had not come down to shut down those networks. The government did the work. For the first time in the history of Tanzania, the government shut down social media for about several weeks before and after the October 28, 2020, General Election.
And even after other networks were opened, Twitter continued to be unavailable in Tanzania, a situation that led many to use VPN technology to access the network.
President Samia herself is not a stranger to making statements that show her disagreement with what is happening on social networks. In April 2021, for example, about a month after assuming the reins of the country’s leadership, Samia accused social media of “massive hypocrisy.”
“If you go to social networks, there is massive hypocrisy,” said President Samia, who was sworn in as the sixth President of Tanzania on March 19, 2021, after the death of the late John Magufuli. “Everyone makes up his or her own thoughts. Everything he or she thinks in their heads they put it there [on social media].”
A nest of discussions
Martin Maranja Masese is a member of the opposition party CHADEMA who has gained many followers due to his comments on Twitter about politics and governance issues in Tanzania.
Masese is urging the government to abandon any intention it may have to fight Twitter, calling the network “a nest of national debates,” and that the only thing the government can do is monitor and implement what is being discussed there.
“Twitter is a very big platform,” said Masese during an interview with The Chanzo. “It is a platform that allows us, Tanzanians, to be able to speak with our voices and convey our information quickly to the public and the government.”
“Big debates are being discussed on [Twitter] and information is quickly reaching the public,” added the politician-cum-activist. “And Twitter has become like a nest of [discussions] whereby what is discussed there then spread to other networks like Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram.”
It is difficult to find official statistics on the use of social networks among Tanzanians. Available data, however, show that Twitter has very few users in Tanzania compared to other social networks.
According to Datareportal, a website that provides information about people’s online activities, until January 2022, Tanzania had a total of 6.1 million social media users.
Among them, only 470,000 people, equal to 1.2 per cent, use Twitter. Other networks it is as follows: Facebook (4.3 million); Instagram (3.1 million); Facebook Messenger (1.1 million) and LinkedIn (nine hundred thousand).
Freedom of expression
Kennedy Mmari is the CEO of Serengeti Bytes, a company that provides consulting services in the areas of public relations, who links the emergence of the Republic of Twitter and the freedom that Twitter has been giving citizens to express their thoughts.
“[Twitter] removes the blocking of thoughts,” said Mmari who is also a good user of the network. “[Twitter] gives people the freedom to express themselves without fear that their thoughts will be blocked from reaching where they need to go.
“If you go to the mainstream media, they have a policy on what issues people can talk about and what they can’t talk about. They have guidelines and interests that can be affected if something is said.
But also [there is] great responsibility on the legal issues set here in Tanzania, especially on media laws.”
Despite recognizing the great contribution of Twitter in the area of citizen agency, Dr Kwayu thinks that in order to build an accountable society, it is not enough to fight only online.
“[Twitter] has helped in a way but I don’t think the leaders are scared enough,” says Dr Kwayu. “These social networks are supposed to be a communication tool and a place to organize, but people have to work on the ground and keep pushing for accountability.”
Lukelo Francis is a correspondent for The Chanzo from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.