Influencers, X and WhatsApp: social media and the coup in Niger
A number of European countries have started evacuating their citizens and there is a threat of military intervention by neighbouring countries: the situation in Niger is deteriorating rapidly. A military coup has thrown the country into turmoil, partly aided by social media.
Professor of Contemporary History and Anthropology of Africa, Mirjam de Bruijn, conducts research on the use of social media and the spiralling violence in countries like Mali. There were also military coups in Mali, a neighbouring country of Niger, in 2020 and 2021. She sees similar developments in Niger, where the pro-French President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed and General Abdourahamane Tiani seized power.
'The hatred towards France, the former coloniser, is enormous'
‘A huge anti-French sentiment has been stirred up on social media. The hatred towards France, the former coloniser, is enormous,' De Bruijn explains. There are a lot of messages on X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok objecting against Ecowas, the collaboration between a number of West African countries, of which Niger is part. Ecowas has threatened military intervention if the coup hasn't ended within a week.
At the same time, many pro-Russian posts are being shared on the different platforms. 'Russia is clearly actively bolstering its own position in Africa, in particular in the Sahel region. The leaders of the military coup in turn are looking for a new ally, because they have washed their hands of France. And, with military support from the Wagnergroup, Russia can offer the new leaders some security; they have already used violent means to the same effect in Mali.’
According to De Bruijn, it is the West African political influencers who are stirring up the turmoil. 'These influencers are giving talks on Facebook, and people are listening to them. As a result, a lot of disinformation is being spread around. It could be an influencer from Mali who says something about the Russian ''help'' in Mali, but those posts are also followed by people in Burkina Faso, or in this case Niger. The effect of these influencers shouldn't be underestimated.'
WhatsApp and ethnic differences
The same also applies to the influence of platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. These messaging services are used by different groups, such as the Tuareg and the Fulani, to proclaim their own truth, and that truth often depends on ethnic differences. De Bruijn: ‘That is a dangerous development. History has taught us that the media can play a big role in stirring up genocide. You only need to look at Rwanda.’
‘The education system has completely collapsed in the Sahel region, particularly in the regions controlled by Jihadi groups. There are no teachers there to explain what's really going on in the world, so people make up their own interpretations by following social media. These are the new political fora and they are incredibly biased.'
Concerns about the state of Niger
De Bruijn is oncerned about the near future of Niger. The return of President Bazoum seems unlikely given the anti-French sentiment, and there is a threat of military intervention from the region. 'What we are seeing is support for Jihadism, hatred towards France and the West and the appeal for a Russian ally. Social media is showing all too clearly the stalemate in the state of Niger, and that is something we should all be concerned about, because it's happening in a country almost in our own backyard.'
Text: Tim Senden
Main photo: Support for the leaders of the coup in Niamey, capital of Niger. A demonstrator holds up a placard: 'Down with France; long live Putin' / ANP