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The role of digital diplomacy in state recognition in Africa

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The role of digital diplomacy in state recognition in Africa

Ibrahim Suleiman Roba

Patrick Maluki

22 Oct 2020

5min min read
  • Diplomacy
  • Information technology
I I

nternational recognition is an essential step for nascent states to achieve full statehood and inclusion in the international society. An aspiring entity has to meet some obligatory benchmarks including a well-defined territory, a stable populace, a government and armed forces in order to be recognised as a state. Unfortunately, the international system encompasses entities that do not fulfil these conditions yet still aspire for statehood. Entities that satisfy the full set obligatory benchmarks for a state but lack sufficient recognition from fellow states are denoted as de facto states.

State recognition is an aspect of international relations that is required for a state’s legitimate existence and attainment of its foreign policy objectives. It denotes the official acceptance or acknowledgement of a newly formed state as a global personality by existing states which are part of the international community. Within the spheres of diplomacy, digital diplomacy has emerged as a facet of public diplomacy that is attainable through the use of digital technologies such as the internet to foster diplomatic communications at limited or low costs. Social media as a product of digital technologies has, for example, created new dynamics in diplomacy and opened up an array of previously unknown opportunities.

Today, digital diplomacy plays several roles in the recognition of states, which makes it a potent tool for the promotion of the relations between newly formed states and established ones. Some of the roles of digital diplomacy in the recognition of states include negotiation, management of state outlook, communication, and the promotion of foreign policy. Digital diplomacy is a valuable tool for state recognition in Africa, where some states are developing technologically and others have been newly formed and thus require a strong connection with the foreign world.

Eritrea and South Sudan

Within the African continent, Eritrea and South Sudan are examples of once-aspiring states which have attained international recognition and acknowledgement after successfully seceding from their host states. The two countries are contrasting cases: the former attained statehood and recognition in an era when digital diplomacy was non-existent and the latter when digital diplomacy was well-established.

Eritrea attained statehood and recognition in 1993 when digital technologies were nascent and digital diplomacy was almost non-existent. It did not benefit from digital diplomacy but rather traditional diplomacy in its quest for statehood recognition. This, however, does not mean that it has not experienced the value of digital diplomacy in contemporary times. Each year, when the anniversary of Eritrea’s independence is celebrated on 24 May, businesses, government offices and non-government offices such as foreign embassies are closed as a show of patriotism. Congratulatory messages to Eritreans pour in on social media platforms from various diplomats around the world on this occasion. This highlights the use of digital mediums by diplomats for the transaction of diplomatic affairs.

In order to gain statehood and recognition, leading officials in South Sudan are known to have widely mobilised for diplomatic support from regional states and the international community through the use of digital technologies. Social media as a product of digital technologies has earned itself a central role in the projection, dissemination and replication of information in the diplomatic arena. In the days succeeding South Sudan’s referendum, diplomats from around the world employed social media to spread their speeches, announce public appearances and share congratulatory messages for South Sudan’s referendum and its status as an independent state. Official statements and congratulatory messages by various governments across the world were delivered instantaneously to the newly independent state via traditional media and social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is reported to have been the first head of state to have sent a congratulatory message recognising South Sudan as a new state via a public announcement that was projected through the press and social networking sites. Weeks earlier, before South Sudan had held the referendum, al-Bashir physically travelled to Juba and publicly announced his support for the referendum , promising the South Sudanese people that he would congratulate and celebrate with them should they choose secession. This announcement was welcomed by the African Union and the international community at large who, through their social networking accounts, applauded al-Bashir and interpreted his announcement as a commitment to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that had been signed a few years earlier.

Diplomatic communication in the era of digital diplomacy

It is no longer in doubt that digital tools have changed the character of diplomacy and the manner of communicating in the diplomatic arena. Many diplomats concur that the use of digital technologies has inevitably become mainstreamed in diplomatic practise but, just like earlier forms of communication, they have undergone phases of scepticism, gradual acceptance, hype and incorporation in the diplomatic arena. The widespread opinion, however, is that many practitioners still exercise a great deal of reluctance in using social media. Many diplomats appear to use social media predominantly for information-gathering, a habit that suggests that the full incorporation of social media and other digital technologies into diplomatic affairs is a long-term process. Take for example the case of South Sudan before its referendum and declaration of independence. Mediation efforts headed by the AU and UN were wholly seen as being conducted through traditional diplomatic channels that favoured face-to-face sittings and side-lined the use of digital communication channels. Parties involved in the South Sudanese mediation efforts favoured flying directly to Juba and Khartoum to hold meetings behind closed doors instead of conducting virtual meetings through digital mediums.

Private meeting sessions created a perception of a lack of transparency between parties when disputed details discussed at meetings were revealed in the public domain after parties took to social media to air out matters they disagreed on. Using digital mediums in this way, and at this late stage, had the potential to derail the referendum process and spark violent conflict in the still vulnerable region. Early warnings on social media however enabled the prevention of any potential conflict before referendum was held. Thanks to this, the UN for example was aware in advance of the risk of violent confrontation between parties and deployed its troops to prevent a potential conflict.

Many hold the view that digital technologies were used on a wide scale to ‘sell’ South Sudan’s mediation outcomes to the international audience. For example, mediation talks held in 2010 to resolve South Sudan’s post referendum issues were marked by the AU’s creation of a new website and the embrace of social networks which were aimed at projecting developments in the mediation processes. Such use of tactics and strategies through use of digital tools was geared towards obtaining public support and ensuring the success of the mediation efforts.

Conclusion

This article summarises by noting that digital diplomacy as a facet of public diplomacy has been made possible through the use of digital technologies like the internet to foster diplomatic communication at limited or low costs. Social media as a product of digital technologies has created new dynamics in diplomacy and opened up an array of previously unknown opportunities. It has become the preferred tool through which a number of diplomats from around the world have employed for their work. Leading officials in recently recognised African states like South Sudan are known to have widely mobilised for diplomatic support from regional states and the international community through the use of digital technologies. There is no doubt, therefore, that digital diplomacy has played a significant role in the recognition of states, rendering it a potent tool for the promotion of relations between newly formed states and established ones.

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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: South Sudanese military parade during a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of South Sudan's first Independence day on July 9, 2012 in Juba, South Sudan. - Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)