Despite goofs, digital diplomacy offers headway for African states

The latest case involved South Africa’s Finance minister Tito Mboweni, who made criticism tweets against Zambia.

In Summary

• Twiplomacy is a segment of what is now known as digital diplomacy. It involves the use of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, among other platforms, by states.

• It, however, can cause problems, to an extent of diplomatic strains.

Social media sites
Social media sites

Twitter is big not only in Kenya but across the world. And a lot is happening, including diplomacy, which was long held in secrecy, dark suits and conducted in top offices or five-star exquisite hotels.

Twitter has taken on diverse and occasional roles in diplomatic communications, from cordial announcements of bilateral developments to terse exchanges and diplomatic jabs, as well as casual posts.

As part of the wider public diplomacy field, Twiplomacy is a segment of what is now known as digital diplomacy. It involves the use of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, among other platforms, by states.

But despite demystifying diplomacy, it can cause problems, to an extent of diplomatic strains.

The latest case involved South Africa’s Finance minister Tito Mboweni, who made criticism tweets against Zambia.

"Presidents in Africa must stop this nonsense of waking up in the morning and fire a central bank governor," Mboweni, a known Twitter user, posted.

He has over 868,000 followers.

In one of his tweets, Mboweni promised to mobilise if not given reasons why the Central Governor had been fired by President Edgar Lungu.

This drew the attention of Dora Siliya, Zambia’s Minister of Information and Government Spokesperson.

“We are very surprised with Tito Mboweni's immature and improper criticism of a sovereign decision by Zambia. The Minister should be attending to COVID problems facing the South Africans, our focus here. We will pursue matter diplomatically,” Siliya tweeted.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa responded on the same app  on Tuesday, saying the comments did not reflect the views of his government.


“The President of the RSA, H.E @CyrilRamaphosa, has strongly reprimanded the Minister of Finance, Mr Tito Mboweni, following comments made by the Minister on social media regarding the removal of Zambia’s Central Bank Governor by President Edgar Lungu,” Presidency of South Africa tweeted, a post that Mboweni retweeted.

All this communication happened on Twitter and is a good example of the thin line of the good and the risks that come with social media use as far as diplomacy is concerned.

Since the US adoption of digital diplomacy — during Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State — countries have followed suit, including conservatist states such as China. The two states have used Twitter to hit each other. Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Lijian Zhao is a frequent user of the app. Other powerful states such as Russia are also using the app.

But regardless of the Donal Trumps and Mbowenis of this world, ther is a huge potential for African states in digital diplomacy, especially Kenya.

Ilan Manor, a digital diplomacy scholar at the University of Oxford, writes that the concept may enable African nations to manage their global image, increase their media visibility, attract foreign direct investments and enhance their soft power.  

Manor says the high media profile of President Barack Obama's visit, which was part of the 2015 Global Entrepreneurial Summit, generated a growing interest in Kenya.

He says Kenya strategically employed its social media accounts to meet such interest and brand itself as a rising economic power and land of financial opportunity.

“This included the use of the Obama hashtag alongside a designated hashtag, #chooseKenya, and increased Twitter activity on four main channels: the Kenyan MFA, the President’s official Twitter channel, the personal channel of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta and that of the Kenyan Foreign Minister,” Manor writes for the University of South California’s Centre for Public Diplomacy.

Combined, he notes, these channels carried Kenya's new image to a global audience of some two million people.

He thus opines that digital diplomacy holds the potential to increase the effectiveness of African diplomacy in diverse areas. 

Bob Wekesa, writing for the same university, says Covid-19 triggered a sudden and conspicuous uptick in digital diplomacy, which might not have occurred in more “normal” circumstances.  

“Within a short span of time, Africa has moved from witnessing some of the inaugural virtual meetings involving leaders, to getting used to these meetings as conventional."

"From South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attendance of the G20 meeting in March to virtual conferences by the leaders of the East African Community and Economic Community of West African States, Africa has leapfrogged into the era of virtual diplomacy,” Wekesa says.

He is a Research, Partnership, and Communications coordinator at the African Center for the Study of the United States.

This is best illustrated by a commentary by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau, in which he explained how they used social media to campaign for UNSC non-permanent as soon as Covid-19 lockdown happened. 

With the disruption of travel and physical meetings, Kenya organised, among others, a virtual summit of OACPS as well other Covid-19-related webinars at regional and global levels.

This, Kamau says, raised the country’s profile and kept its brand and agenda alive throughout the world.

He is himself an ardent Twitter user, unlike his boss CS Raychelle Omamo.

“The past two weeks of the campaign were marked by outreach to all capitals around the world through letters as well as telephone and video calls. Social media messaging on different platforms was also triggered, targeting the voters,” Kamau said.

Social media has changed the way information is disseminated to the public and it is now up to African diplomats to see how best to use these apps, mainly because the next big thing is public diplomacy.

Every mission needs to be online for basic communication with diaspora, outreach and public diplomacy.  

As writer and communication expert David Bollier notes, the internet and other information technologies are no longer a peripheral force in the conduct of world affairs but a powerful engine for change.

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