BY EZEKIEL MUTUA
It is now beginning to dawn on political pundits the world over that the recent ICT-driven political happenings in North Africa and the Middle East can happen anywhere on earth – even in North Korea and the United States of America, to cite only two societies at the extremes of the community of nations, respectively the world\’s most closed and most open.
But an even more damning reality is the fact that the difficult-to-regulate new media are what have stirred the revolutions. And, knowing that such new-media-driven revolutions do not require a physical or mortal leader, despots everywhere should be afraid, very afraid.
The Egyptian uprising\’s Facebook page which triggered and sustained the onslaught against strongman Hosni Mubarak, was initially maintained by faceless online activists hiding behind codewords. Indeed, the vast protest itself was basically leaderless. Yet it achieved what Kizza Besigye has not been able to and, perhaps, never will, despite the sensational rallies he held in the lead-up to the recent elections in neighbouring Uganda.
There is nothing governments hate more than faceless, leaderless opposition formations, particularly on the mass-action scale.
The Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan intelligence and communications specialists in those countries and elsewhere were caught flat-footed. It took a while before they realised that what they were faced with were genuine people power protests accelerated by social media networks – mobiles, laptops and the Internet – not internal factions or foreign infiltrators moving ahead of invading armies.
The man who said that one can stop an army of a thousand but not an idea whose time has come might have put that dictum differently – that one can stop an army of a thousand but not when the men are riding on modern technology!
The question for the vast majority of states on all continents where uprisings have not occurred is whether matters should reach the tipping point before the need for fundamental change is acknowledged by all and substantively acted upon.
Kenyans, for instance, simply have no idea just how lucky we are, even in the middle of our sometimes too-noisy Constitution implementation process. At least we are at the implementation phase – neighbouring Tanzania, which used to dazzle us with its dexterity in changing presidents like clockwork, is only now reaching that tentative point – which we attained 20 years ago – concerning the need for a new Constitution.
Here in Kenya we have used SMS texting, which we pay for, as a social media networking tool for almost a decade now, so much so that a legislative framework does actually exist prohibiting hate speech, for instance, through that medium. Millions of Kenya\’s young people are much more versatile users of global social media networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype, than their parents or other concerned seniors are aware of.
Some of them are part of the international blogging and micro-blogging elite that have sparked the civil uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
The power of social media networks to mobilise for both good and evil has yet to become fully clear. But the potentialities are immense on both sides. Can you picture the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, right in the heart of Europe, accelerated by the use of the Internet (then in its infancy in America), mobiles, laptops and social media networking sites freely open to and operable by anyone.
The crisis that split up Yugoslavia would have been even more violent – but also attracted more eyewitnesses to, and documentation of, the crimes against humanity of that conflict.
This has certainly been the case with the unravelling and shaken regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan uprising has reached a tipping point but the Gaddafi Government has refused to either negotiate or budge.
Whatever the content of Mr Gaddafi\’s nightmares, the whole world, is now discussing him and, by the time he quits, he will have put himself on the same pedestal as Adolf Hitler, who murdered six million Khazari Jews. Around the world, people exchanged photos and soundbites, both electronic and print, of events in Libya and choice quotes from Col Gaddafi\’s speeches – for instance, his take on how China suppressed the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrators.
Said he: "People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China was more important than those people on Tiananmen Square. When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It\’s not a joke. I will do whatever it takes to make sure part of the country isn\’t taken away". Long after he is gone, Col Gaddafi will be remembered for both his defiance of democracy and vast generosity.
For instance, people familiar with the matter say that a Kenyan delegation to Libya received by the Colonel in 2010 came home Sh100 million richer, with the promise of a balance of Sh400 million for development projects of their choice.
They will be among the Colonel\’s many philanthropic orphans from around the world on whom he has lavished his country\’s oil largesse for decades. Revenues from national resources have been used as his own to dispose of as he wishes.
The leaders who will survive into the future are the ones who learn how to harness the power of the Internet, particularly its social media networks and handheld ICTs, to their own and their societies\’ democratic agenda.
The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke