Political tweeting in Africa: #WhatWouldMagufuliDo

In his first few weeks, the new president cancelled independence day celebrations, went litter-picking and turned up at the ministry of finance to make sure staff were actually coming to work. The result, on Twitter, was a hashtag, #whatwouldmagufulido, full of pictures of dubious money-saving ideas: a wooden cart acting as a wedding limousine; a vanity mirror attached with duct tape to a car to replace a broken wing mirror.

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The joshing was mostly affectionate: Mr Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive is popular. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, comes off less well. The joke about Mr Kenyatta who is known for his many foreign trips is that when he is in Kenya, he is an important foreign statesman visiting. Tweeters put up pictures of the president with the Pope, who visited Kenya in November, captioned with jokes about the pope welcoming Kenyatta. Others mocked news coverage of Barack Obama’s visit: “Kenyans optimistic Uhuru visit will benefit country.” with the hashtag #UhuruInKenya.

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Twitter thus helpfully illustrates the fortunes of two of East Africa’s presidents, at least in the view of the middle classes in their countries. And just as it does in the West, the internet is changing political conversations in Africa.  In democratic Kenya, 37% of the population had access to the internet in 2014, according to the International Telecommunication Union. In autocratic Ethiopia, however, the figure was just 2%. When Barack Obama visited both countries in July, Kenyan Tweeters produced a flurry of commentary, much of it mocking their own government. Ethiopia’s produced barely a trickle.

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