We hear a lot about the ills of social media and how it’s leading to a more emotionally disconnected populace, as we’re all buried in our phones. But it’s also been responsible for some pretty amazing things, including acting as a catalyst for change. And one country in the Horn of Africa is crediting social media with fostering some pretty significant political change actually.
Troubled Past, Promising Future
In Ethiopia, for the past few decades, it was dangerous to be a journalist attempting to report on politics. Legislation, like the country’s anti-terrorism law, found many who dared to report on (or attempt to run against) those in power thrown in jail with little recourse.
“Critical media was being decimated one way or another, and journalists were leaving the country,” says Tsedale Lemma, the editor-in-chief of Addis Standard. “We became at some point, the second-largest country producing journalist asylum seekers.”
And there were the Omoros and Amharas, two very large – and very subjugated – groups, faring even worse than reporters. Despite protests and uprisings, they were invariably silenced. That is, until 2015 – when protests went viral on social media.
Social Media Heralding A New Way
As the Ethiopian government sought to extend Addis Ababa’s borders into Oromo territory by whatever means necessary and peaceful protestors were increasingly injured or killed, images like the one below were amplifying their distress online, and building nationwide support for their message:
Twitter and Facebook lived beyond the country’s restrictive censorship and were instrumental to changing the country’s political tyranny. “You cannot imagine this revolution, this change without social media,” says Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromia Media Network based in Minnesota in the United States.
And suddenly, the Amnesty International Report detailing widespread oppression of peaceful Oromos and opposing political party members, was making its way around the web as well. And the world was shocked into awareness. Not only awareness though, it empowered those peaceful Oromos to take more vocal roles in reimagining how their government could be, and to pursue active roles in this new model.
All of this paved the way for Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed – the country’s first Oromo leader. And he seems determined to create a lot of “firsts” during his tenure.
“Since April, he has officially ended two decades of hostilities with Ethiopia’s longtime rival and neighbor, Eritrea; started loosening a tightly controlled state-run economy and opened up major industries to foreign investment; pledged multiparty elections; released thousands of political prisoners; and allowed leaders of a previously outlawed opposition group to return to the country.”
And he’s not stopping there.
He’s also appointed Ms. Sahle-Work to President – the country’s first female president.
Sahel-Work Zewde, 68, is “a seasoned diplomat who has held positions in the United Nations and worked in peacekeeping operations in Africa . . . [and] a relative outsider to the inner politics of the ruling coalition . . . [intended] to pacify critics worried about ethnic or political affiliations poisoning effective leadership.”
Ceremonial, but Significant
Although her role in the administration is largely ceremonial, it’s still a big deal when considering the patriarchal society, she’s serving. It’s a place where everything is inherently male, and she’s not only the first woman president, but also the only female acting as head of state.
“Ethiopia still is, despite all the development, a conservative culture on average. It’s still mostly rural, and many women don’t have equal opportunities as men.”
The excitement around this historic achievement is palpable. The net social sentiment is at 99%.
Abiy Ahmed has made additional unprecedented female appointments to lead the Defense Ministry and the secret intelligence agency, which is now called the “Ministry of Peace.” And despite its 1984 sounding name, this is intended to be a good thing.
And you can be sure if it isn’t, the social media voices that helped him attain power will be just as swift when it comes to taking him down!
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