It appears that tragedy will bookend yet another year rich in remarkable events in the world of French-speaking citizen media.
The month of January set the tone for the rest of the year with the traumatic fallout from the earthquake in Haiti, the attacks against the Togolese football team at the African Cup of nations in Cabinda and the firing of tear gas against protesters in Madagascar. The end of the year did not provide much respite from violence as the ongoing political crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has already claimed close to 173 lives and social tension sparks riots in Tunisia.
The year 2010 was also marked by the 50th anniversary of the independence of many African countries, highlighted by a controversial military parade at the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the hosting of Young African Leaders Symposium by US president Obama. Throughout the year, citizen media in Francophone countries was once more at the forefront of information dissemination and often found itself under duress for exercising their right to free speech.
An Ominous Start
The earthquake took everyone by surprise but despite the frequent interruptions of phone services and generally poor access to internet, Haitian citizen media responded to the challenges and provided frequent updates and a much needed on the ground perspectives regarding the recovery effort.
In the midst of the tragedy, a francophone “show of solidarity” was discussed at length when Senegal's president Wade offered free land to Haitians earthquake survivors. The offer was met with a mix of skepticism and support by Senegalese, Haitian and citizen media worldwide.
On February 18th, a coup took place in Niger in which President Mamadou Tandja was captured after a gun battle in the capital, Niamey, led by led by Col. Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna. The general sentiment of the Nigerien citizen media seemed to go from “blasé” to “good riddance”.
The financial crisis also affected the African continent; African bloggers reacted to the apparent differential treatment from the IMF when it comes to helping countries like Greece compared to some African nations.
From financial to natural crises, The northern and western African regions were plagued by prolonged period of rains and severe floods. Morocco, Mauritania, Benin, Nigeria and Togo were amongst the most affected by floods with initial reports often provided by citizen media.
The security and stability of the west African region was also on the mind of bloggers when AQIM made headlines repeatedly by taking hostages in Mali and killing Michel Germaneau in July and again capturing several employees of AREVA hostages in Niger later that year.
Celebrating Independence in Francophone Africa
Despite the weary start, the year 2010 was also supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of independence and a critical election year for many African nations. Yet given the delayed human development progress, questionable governance and mismanagement of natural resources, many African bloggers wonder whether there is really a cause for celebration in Africa so far.
Yet the celebrations went on, sometimes quite lavishly as seen in Brazzaville, Congo.
None of these celebrations caused quite the stir that the military parade of African soldiers on Bastille Day at the invitation of French president Sarkozy provoked. With the growing exposure of the corrupt nature of “La Françafrique“, refering to the relationship between some African leaders and French lobbying groups, many observers pointed out that the presence of African armies at the Champ-Elysees was condescending and awkward at best, not unlike Sarkozy's Dakar speech. [Another speech by the French president in Grenoble this summer about delinquents of foreign origins and the forced expulsions of Roma people also provoked intense reactions in the francophone blogosphere.]
A different approach was taken by the US administration in marking the multiple independence anniversaries in Africa. In early august 2010, US President Obama held a three-days symposium for Young African Leaders to exchange ideas on how to foster development, human rights and democracy. The emphasis on the youth of Africa was in clear contrast with the presence of the old guards of African leaders showcased on Bastille Day.
Hoping for Transparency
Year 2010 was also supposed to be the year when some African nations would make important strides towards free and transparent elections.
That hope quickly faded away.
The electoral process in Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Madagascar and Rwanda were all at some point subject to major question marks, marred with missed deadlines, suspicions of massive fraud and acts of violence.
Yet one has the feeling that citizens in those countries are eager to move forward and prove that mediocre leadership cannot hold countries back forever. The rise of a burgeoning civil society and local citizen media provide hope that progress are being made, often in spite of proper governance.
The impact of online citizen media has become evident enough that authoritarian African governments have taken major steps towards increasing censorship of digital media. Ivorian bloggers and journalists were arrested in July for publishing documents on corruption in cocoa and coffee trade. Since the Ivorian political crisis broke out in December, many bloggers and twitter users have withdrawn from their online activities and are no longer posting updates on the situation because of personal threats.
In Madagascar, a slew of journalists and political opponents were arrested for alleged threats against national security and voicing their dissents online. Steps towards more control of online content in Madagascar are also being taken, highlighted by a proposal that all Malagasy digital content are to be be managed by a single private provider (fr).
It is yet to be seen whether this year's lessons from some African nations’ electoral hardships will be learned by their neighbors. Senegal and Cameroon among others will face important electoral deadlines in 2011. Cameroonian bloggers do not appear overly optimistic about the upcoming elections. As for Senegal, local citizen media has already been quite vocal about perceived nepotism and corruption inside the current administration.
It would be a refreshing sight in 2011 if the streak of dubious electoral results and post-electoral violence were to be halted for a change. African leaders owe that much to their resilient population.