By Elie Smith
Editor’s Note: On Saturday March 19th the Ministry of the Interior of the Congo ordered telecommunications companies to cut all mobile phone, text message, and Internet service for at least 48 hours in order to prevent “illegal” reporting of election results.
The people of the Republic of Congo will be going to the polls on the 20th of March to elect a new president. This presidential campaign has propelled Congo into the digital world, full throttle. Indeed, it could be first time in Congo’s democratic history that a presidential outcome could be dictated by social media. This may be an opportunity for the world to see, with the help of social media of course, the degree of electoral fraud that may be orchestrated by the regime.
The Central African state is one where there is currently no independent press. Most media outlets are either controlled by the president of the republic, his family members, or people close to his inner circle. Recently the government has severely mistreated both members of the press and foreigners, especially people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The heavy hand on the press and citizens of the DRC was in prelude to the controversial October 25th referendum, which has enabled President Denis Sassou Nguesso to seek a third mandate. In the Republic of Congo, journalists have either been expelled, as I was, or have lost their lives, simply for doing their job. Yet, while the situation may seem bleak, the increasing use of social media may be slightly expanding the media and information landscape.
Social media was not a major factor in either of the last two elections in 2002 and 2009. In the upcoming presidential election, however, it appears to be playing a major role. In fact, almost all presidential candidates are using at least one of the popular social media platforms in the country such as Facebook, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The most widely used in Congo is Facebook. Some candidates also have blogs and websites. Interestingly, the only candidate who is present on almost all social media platforms is the incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso. Sassou Nguesso has been in office since 1997 and was last re-elected in 2009 when the opposition boycotted the elections which they considered fraudulent. Nonetheless, in this presidential campaign his use of social media demonstrates that the current president understands the power that social media is having in framing the electoral process.
Mobile Phones are Key to Citizen Outreach
According to OAfrica, an online mobile telephony tracking magazine, mobile phone penetration in Congo stands at 98 percent. However, the former minister of Post and Telecommunications and Digital Technology, Thierry Moungalla puts mobile phone usage at an around 80 percent in urban areas, while only around 60 percent in rural ones. These mobile phones, in most cases, provide some form of Internet access. In an interview I did for MNTV in Congo in 2014, Martin Che, an executive of UBA Bank Congo, said many Congolese have at least two sim-cards or two mobile phones from different operators. And according to mobile phone companies operating in the Republic of Congo, their clients are primarly based in the cities and towns of Brazzaville, Pointe Noire, Dolisie, Nkayi, Sibiti, Owando, Oyo, Boundji Gamboma, Impfondo, Ouesso, and Mossaka. These localities possess almost 90 percent of the Congolese population. This is why mobile phones are now one of the primary technologies used by candidates to reach voter and spread their messages.
Political parties mindful of the high penetration of mobile phone culture in Congolese are using two methods to reach out to their supporters–images and text. Reaching out using images, which requires more Internet bandwidth, has it limits because it is accessible to mostly young people who reside in the cities of Pointe Noire and Brazzaville, and to a limited degree, those in more remote towns such as Dolisie, Nkayi, and Impfondo. Because of this text messages (SMS) are still widely used. Importantly, text messages are accessible to both those who have smart phones as well as those with standard cell phones, hence they are able to receive campaign messages from all the 9 candidates in the race. And while most messages are in the form of SMS text messages, video messages are being used for the first time now too for electoral purposes.
Social Media Used to Create Public and International Pressure
The public pressure that social media can help create has had a real impact in the Republic of Congo. For example, the government has backed down on its attempts to arrest retired General Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, Sassou Nguesso’s main challenger in the March 20th elections. This was because the information of his imminent arrest went viral online before it happened, and the government, not wanting to upset the international community, decided not to jail Mokoko, who had become quite popular on social media. And more recently, when two opposition candidates, Charles Zacherie Bowao and Andre Okombi Salissa were blocked by government forces at the Brazzaville international airport from boarding a plane to campaign in remote regions, a message sent on Facebook and synchronized on Twitter by Zacharie Bowao quickly went viral. That message on social media mobilized supporters to go to Maya-maya airport in Brazzaville and to the Imphondo airports to support the two men. The crowds defied government orders to disperse. This defiant public posture by the population forced the government to back down and eventually both candidates were allowed to travel–and it all started on social media.
Social media is playing a crucial role as an aide to activists on the ground, but it will not singlehandedly stop the government from rigging or committing abuses. At least government leaders now know that there are witnesses to the things they are trying to get away with. This has emboldened activists on the ground who know that, whatever the outcome, the world will be able to see what is going on.
The government does have one more trick it could use to limit the power of social media; its capacity to cut off all Internet traffic and suspend telecommunications networks as they did last October with the help of Chinese experts and technology. However, activists have a response. They have a proprietary software called FireChat that can be used to create mesh networks to connect mobile devices even when connection to the global Internet is suspended. According to one activist I consulted, in order for FireChat to work and to be able to circumvent the government ban, it must at least have 200,000 users in the country. Hence there is a current call by pro-democracy activists via Facebook for social media for users in the Republic of Congo to download FireChat.
While the government certainly is digitally savvy, as the president’s social media presence attests, it may not be able to overcome the overwhelming popular rejection after years of corruption and misrule in the oil rich country. Whether social media can spur an opening up of the media space in the country is something that has yet to be seen, but may come soon depending on the outcome of Sunday’s election.
Elie Smith currently a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is a Cameroonian journalist, reporter, and translator who has worked with a number of Central African and French media outlets, including Télésud, France 24, Canal France International, and Radio France International. He served most recently as director of the MNTV television station in Congo-Brazzaville, where he encouraged the practice of investigative journalism and helped promote free speech by providing a safe space for politicians and civil society activists to express their views.