Africa's Silent Revolutions: what the headlines missed. An interview with Charles Onyango-Obbo

What are the aspirations, role models and key concerns of the African youth? How has the concept of citizenship evolved over the last decades in Africa?  How are people and society impacted by the surge of the new technologies? In this interview Charles Onyango-Obbo, journalist and executive editor for Africa & Digital Media, at the Nation Media Group’s, tells us  about the silent revolutions that are undergoing in Africa outside the squares of the Arab spring, providing an inspiring and interesting view of the today’s African lifescape.  

Interview with Charles Onyango-Obbo

Q.: African citizenship: What does the concept of citizenship mean to the average African? How has this been evolving over the past decades and to what effect? How do you see this changing in the future?

A.: I see most Africans defining citizenship in highly contextual and modest terms, revolving around small social gains, and tiny steps in peace. Until a decade or so ago, in many African countries hunger, flight from one's land into refugee camps into neighbouring countries, and rogue government soldiers knocking on your door to rob, rape, or murder you, were a constant. Freedom from these oppressions is an essential element of citizenship for most ordinary Africans. In Uganda the people say ‘at least these days we sleep in peace’. The government can cheat elections or be corrupt, most of people are willing to make that trade off. In the last few years many African countries have introduced free primary school education, so you hear the same sentiment: ‘at least today our children go to school’. The fact that a lot more Africans are secure on their land has contributed to a reduction in hunger, and the fact that they are less likely to starve today also defines citizenship for them. On all these issues, they feel that their countries are working better for them, and that brings with a little and new sense of belonging.

Q.: Youth power: The Arab Spring and other movements  have clearly showed the youth's will and power to influence society.  The Formal definition of youth in East Africa takes into account conventional issues such as education, access to health and jobs (See: SID Trend Monitoring Report) while issues such as the social dimension of youth and the transition to adulthood, and the perception of it, are not captured.

To what extent are the youth agents of transformation in Africa? How are they contributing to overturn the stasis of past decades? How can a real inter-generational dialogue be established and sustained? Which are the spaces that can contribute to this?

A.: I have looked at opinion poll data from several African countries in the last three months, and it is striking that in none of them is unemployment the youths' top concern. Fear of  dying at the hands of criminals or contracting some horrible sexual disease is more important to them. About three years ago a survey in Kenya showed that for the first time, parents are no longer the leading role models for young people. US President Barack Obama bested parents, as did footballers like now Real Madrid's Christiano Ronaldo and Manchester United's Wayne Rooney. Also, strikingly, apart from Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela, apart from footballers, and parents of course, no other living people made the top ten role models. My sense is social freedoms; the freedom to hang out, to party, to date the boy or the girl of your choice, not to be religious, are equally important for young people, and it is the denial of opportunities AND social freedoms that is explosive. The one area where today's African youth are different than their parents is that they see opportunities in regional and global terms. Thus the majority of them say they would like to emigrate and explore.

This is a source of tension, as there is a rising crisis in Africa - especially among the middle class - of children who want nothing to do with family businesses, who don't think they should have children just so their parents can have grandchildren to play with, or are not bothered that after their parents have forked out a fortune to put them through an expensive law or business school, they should become professionals. Quite a few choose to be musicians, or decide that they prefer to be web designers. The gap between generations is much wider today, I think, so the inter-generational dialogue confronts a bigger gulf. Fortunately, there has been an explosion of single parents, nay single mother families, where the dynamics are different. These single parent families in Africa tend to be marked by very close parent-child relationships, so it is not all bleak.

Q.: Technology revolution: As you have pointed out at the SID World Congress (July 2011), the dominant narrative  and the real revolution taking place in Africa today is the collective use of technology (namely social networks and new media) which is able to disarm any governments attempt to control public opinion and shut down communications. Which are the main challenges and opportunities? What kind of evolution should we expect for the future? How does such a 'revolution' relate to the digital divide and the exclusion of the poorest and weakest section of youth, for instance?

A.: The most interesting things in the new technology space in Africa are happening outside the headlines. There are incredible things happening in universities, and small creative communities. When businesses and institutions begin to look for meaningful solutions to problems, and we get beyond the fads, the two will meet, and that is when we shall see really interesting things. Social media and blogs are important because they have given people not just the ability to circumvent government censorship, but a voice that is not channeled through other more subtle institutions of control - some of them reactionary, really; the churches; corporations; NGOs; mainstream media; political parties; Rotary Clubs, and so on. Groups that were totally shut down by everyone, like gays and lesbians, for example, can now organize thanks to digital platforms, and they are throwing a surprising and totally unexpected view of the hitherto invisible aspects of African societies. Because they were simply too many no-go areas in most African societies, technology is causing a revolution not just in the anti-government or conventional non-state areas, but in culture, spirituality, economics, gender rights, and family - the fact that technology had reduced distances, means that if you are an African emigrant struggling in Europe or North America, you don't have to wait 3 or 5 years to visit and speak to your relatives, you can do that daily today via cellphone, for example.

It is valid to raise the issue of people who are too poor and are locked out. However, the bigger problem today is network coverage, not the affordability of cellphones. The people who are too poor to afford the very cheap cellphones one sees all over Africa are increasingly few. I have travelled in the remotest villages, and found hundreds of people charging their solar mobile phones in their yards. In Kenya, in the space of about three years, M-Pesa, the mobile-phone money transfer and banking system, has reached more people than all the banks combined have in the last 40 years. In countries like Kenya, more people own phones, than have ever seen, let alone use, a TV set. Depending on which country you are looking at, the digital divide - at the basic level - is fast disappearing.

Q.: Transparency 2.0: The web is a great way of accessing to knowledge and information, making possible for people to participate (ex. Wikileaks, Global Voices, etc..). What is the experience to date in Africa with regards to making higher degrees of transparency and accountability achievable?  What is the flip side of this and how is it damaging African societies today?

A.: We have many groups coming up, and setting up websites that track the use of government grants to their districts; alumni associations that fundraise online and campaign for the improvement of their old schools; environmental groups protecting forests. In Uganda, in 2007 an SMS campaign forced the government to back down from giving away Mabira Forest to a sugar company that was planning to clear it for and grow more cane. Online protests have forced media to apologise over insensitive coverage of some stories, the examples are endless. The downside is that these technologists have been a boon for merchants of hate and ethnic chauvinism. The Kenya election violence of 2008 was fanned to a significant extent by hate blogs, and SMS. Social media has allowed ethnic groups to organise narrowly, and to target other national groups. Governments are also able to pay armies of bloggers and Tweets to repackage their propaganda, hence polluting cyberspace. The good guys are often not as organized in Africa, or if they are, they can't match governments in cash. Nevertheless, it is a better contest than using guns and machetes, and more and more people and contending forces will get better and sophisticated, and the space will balance itself out.

Q.: Privacy for me, information for the public: as a journalist and a blogger, what is your point of view about  tensions and contradictions of  privacy vs transparency?  Can they be resolved? Who really gains and who loses? Why?

A.: At a personal level, I lead a life which virtually has nothing I would like to hide. I can't imagine anything I would want to be secret other than my credit card numbers. That is why I don't write anonymously. I think most things on the Internet written anonymously are useless, because you cannot shine a light on the author and see if he/she has the credibility to say the things they are saying, and you can't really scorn someone you don't know if they make a mistake or mislead people. A person born today will not have our sense of private by the time they are 28 in 2040. There will be no resolution to the conflict we see today. We shall evolve beyond it. We shall either become extremely smart at hiding things we don't want the world to know, so it won't come out, or we shall evolve a high avoidance culture. There will be cameras and mics everywhere, so people simple won't go to places they don't want anyone to know that they frequent. Privacy is very much an issue of this age. I remember as a young man I was radical, and found bottled mineral water ideologically offensive. Our daughters however have no concept of what a time when there was no mineral water looked like and cannot imagine going to school without a bottle of it in their bags. And I have moments when I ask myself why I fussed about bottled water ages ago. The ideological and other problems around bottled water have not gone away – they are probably sharper. What has shifted is that we have acquiesced and bottled water has become a part of the daily lifescape.

* Interview by Angela Zarro (SID) for DevelopmentPLUS, as a follow up of Development 55.2 'Citizenship for Change', produced in partnership with Hivos. Click here to read other articles on the same topic. 
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. He blogs at naked chief 'an irreverent take on all things African - and non-African'. Twitter: @cobbo3
Photo: The_Vikkodamus/flickr