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Is digitalisation de-Africanising African public diplomacy? A philosophical reflection

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Is digitalisation de-Africanising African public diplomacy? A philosophical reflection

Floribert Patrick C. Endong

20 Oct 2020

7min min read
  • Electronic industries
  • Information technology
  • Technological innovations--Economic aspects
O O

ver the years, Black African scholars, critics and politicians have popularised the belief that digital cultures are essentially western forces contributing to the westernisation of the African continent. This belief follows from at least two somewhat arguable claims. The first is that digital cultures first emerged in the west before proliferating in other parts of the world, including Africa. The second is that these digital cultures seem primordially conceived or structured to thrive in western social systems. To put it briefly, digital cultures are, by the above myth or belief, typically meant for the west; and Africa is simply trying to grapple with them. In tandem with this frame of thinking, Kehbuma Langmia argues in his 2016 book titled Globalisation and Culture: An Afrocentric Perspective that “as it stands, the cyberspace public sphere activities follow canons crafted and executed in the west by westerners with little or no input from other non-developed regions of the world like Africa”.

Elsewhere in the same book, Kehbuma contends that:

“Dependency is the tapeworm that keeps crawling through the veins of Africa to make her look up to Europe and America for communication help. It would appear that in-person communication that characterized communication between Africans prior to the arrival of the west was not effective so too were the drums, the bells, and the gongs to widen communication geo-cultural scope for all Africans. New media emergence from the west has become the welcome relief. That relief has infringed on African cultural space and swept her off her feet.”

In line with the above, a number of African diplomats and diplomacy scholars have hastily been regarding digitalisation not only as a westernising force but also as an agent of the de-Africanisation of public diplomacy in the “Black” continent. For instance, in a 2018 study focused on Kenyan digital diplomacy, Irene Nyambura Waithaka reviewed the positions of many Kenyan diplomats who describe the digitalisation of diplomacy as a cultural revolution led by the West and an idea still not fully understood and/or accepted by the African continent’s diplomats and intelligentsia. It has become common to find scholars of African descent who describe digital diplomacy as a purely Western or westernising paradigm. Such observers even doubt the possibility of “Africanising” digital diplomacy. If this line of argument has a degree of pertinence, it is not totally faultless. It may be safer to argue that digitalisation promotes the de-Africanisation of public diplomacy in Africa to an extent. However, it is not completely hostile to the application of core African cultural values in the conduct of public diplomacy. This article aims to briefly demonstrate this thesis.

De-Africanisation defined

De-Africanisation can be defined as a dramatic process whereby a supposedly African concept, idea or process is stripped of its key African cultural values. This definition follows from the understanding that de-Africanisation is simply the opposite of Africanisation, a phenomenon known to be any of the following scenarios: (1) the act of replacing the non-African features or components of a concept with Black African ones; (2) the act of bringing something under the influence of Africa(ns) and (3) the process of adapting a concept to African needs.

In tandem with the above, the de-Aficanisation of public diplomacy could be construed as a situation where the public diplomacy practised by African Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) and diplomats is stripped of its African character. To borrow Antje Glück’s words, the de-Africanisation of public diplomacy is "an epistemic shift away from ideas of parochialism and [Afrocentrism]”, which have long defined African’s MFAs and embassies’ practice of public diplomacy. Some of the Afrocentric values that have governed African diplomacy include (i) seamless approach to the passage of time, (ii) respect for cultural tradition and authority, (iii) predilection for the collective, (iv) unhurried decisions and (v) the prioritisation of community rather than individuals. To the above values, one may add three others, namely (a) anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism, (b) the vehement adherence to the political borders left by the colonial powers and (c) solidarity of African states on the world stage.

Digitalisation and African cultural values

It will be expedient to examine ways in which digitalisation may facilitate or hamper the upholding of specific African cultural values in the sphere of public diplomacy. In this article, my focus is specifically on two such cultural values namely: (i) predilection for the collective and the prioritisation of community rather than individuals and (ii) unhurried decisions. The first set of values does not per se run counter to the practice of digital diplomacy while the second appears incompatible with most of the savvy and pragmatic practices in digital diplomacy.

As cultural values, these two concepts – predilection for the collective and prioritisation of community rather than individuals – are observed among ethnicities and cultural groups across the African continent. In Southern Africa for instance, the two values find expression in the concept of Ubuntu, which, by definition, is humanism from an African perspective. The term relates to bonding and is in line with Zulu maxims which say that I am because we are and I am human because I belong. Ubuntu is thus an expression of tenets of African philosophy which say that an individual is human if he or she is member of the wider community.

The prioritisation of community and the predilection for the collective are similarly reflected in the Nigerian foreign policy principle which states that Nigeria is the keeper of her neighbours. The upholding of these two values is very much compatible with best practices in digital diplomacy. In their leverage of social media for “diaspora diplomacy” and “networked diplomacy”, African ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) and embassies can apply these values and ameliorate their conduct of public diplomacy. “Diaspora diplomacy” is a foreign policy strategy whose principal objective is to generate loyalty towards the home country and ultimately convert this loyalty into a political leverage. It is conducted through a variety of instruments such as the propagation of specific nationalistic and religious concepts and rhetoric and the organisation of cultural festivities and presidential elections abroad.

Social media can help African nations to maintain close and healthy relations with their global diasporas. This can be done through the creation of social media-driven initiatives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp that serve to inform their global diasporas about issues related to MFAs and embassies’ activities abroad as well as information about domestic political events. Such platforms could also be used to provide their countries’ diasporas with information about possibilities to invest at home. Thus, diaspora diplomacy may enable African countries to support the formation of diaspora organisations abroad which contribute to retaining a collective identity.

A number of studies have demonstrated that African countries such as Ethiopia are eager to adopt social media as a tool for diaspora diplomacy. In a 2016 paper, Ilan Manor assessed the online activity of Ethiopian embassies to a number of expat hubs including the United States, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Canada. He found that these embassies are highly active on Twitter and Facebook. In the US, the Ethiopian embassy had more than 30 000 followers on Facebook, while the country’s embassy to the UK boasts more than 10 000 followers on Facebook and 7000 on Twitter.

Networked diplomacy may similarly enable the application of African concepts of solidarity and communalism. African diplomats and embassies may use social media or their online activity to leverage their position in the global arena. Very active African MFAs and embassies may, for instance, deploy their tweets and Facebook messages to attract a significant number of their peers and get them support a common cause. The sites of African MFAs and embassies may therefore become information junctions that attract their peers or African counterparts and ultimately enable a collective stance on issues involving the continent.

African embassies to multinational organisations such as the UN have become important hubs of information online, researchers such as Manor illustrate. This has enabled these embassies to serve as information junctions and also enabled African diplomats to forge a common stance on issues and also influence decisions in these multinational organisations. Manor examined the Twitter networks of some African embassies to the UN in New York in 2016. He found that Rwanda’s embassy was the third most popular embassy in the entire network with the potential to be an information junction that attracts diplomats from other countries as well as a tool to impact the UN’s agenda and priorities.

Unhurried decision-making

In the traditional African culture, leaders are expected to be wise and vested with practical and empirical knowledge. These wisdom and knowledge often manifest in the habit of being meticulous and careful when taking decisions that will affect the well-being of the nation. Unhurried decision-making mechanisms that involve consultations and consensus are definitely most valued. If unhurried decision-making constitutes a virtue and a practical tool deployed by African traditional leadership to manage delicate situations, in African MFAs or embassies, it is often the product of a top-down process of governance. In the sphere of public diplomacy in particular, such top-down processes have mostly hindered quick responses to difficult situations. Unhurried decisions have sometimes proved unpragmatic, particularly during contexts such as violent and volatile civil movement protests. During the 2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, for example, it was observed that while the socio-political situation in the countries concerned was every day deteriorating (particularly during the zenith of the social movement), most African and Western chancelleries reacted to the situation relatively slowly.

In the current post-truth era, MFAs and embassies are compelled to react to events on the fly. They have to get ahead of situations and act promptly to avoid communication gaps that may lead to misunderstanding, a negative perception of MFAs’ activities and negative reactions from foreign publics. In this digital age, unhurried decisions may not always be the best solution.

In conclusion, one may say that digitalisation is compatible with some African cultural values and incompatible with others. It enables the upholding of some African values while hampering the application of others. The use of social media-driven communication to engage African diasporas and African counterparts can enable African MFAs to uphold values such as predilection for the collective and the prioritisation of the community over the individual. Unhurried decision-making, on the other hand, appears incompatible with most of the savvy and pragmatic practices in digital diplomacy.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Getty)