On Thursday morning, September 2nd, I joined a panel discussion hosted by Digital Shelter at Hidda Soor in Mogadishu, alongside my sister, the famed social media campaigner Fahma Gabax. Our discussion focused on how to become an empowered digital citizen: how young Somali civic leaders can leverage social media and digital technologies to spur social change and seek political accountability.
But in Somalia, where the very notion of citizenship is contested and has long lost value in favor of clan rights, where political leaders are only nominally accountable to clan elders, it isn’t easy to imagine what’s even meant by digital citizenship. The idea of using digital tools to hold leaders, public and private institutions accountable seems far-fetched and to some, even futile.
But recent events have shown that even opaque and irresponsible governments, like ours, are never immune from online activism. Across Africa and the Arab world, organized citizens powered by new media tools toppled long-standing autocratic governments. Fueled by a similar spirit, Somali online communities, at home and abroad, have used their voices effectively in numerous digital protests against government excesses, corruption, and insecurity.
At the grassroots level, Somali activists like Fahma and others regularly employ digital media tools to raise public awareness, mobilize support for local causes and effectively respond to emergencies by crowd-sourcing funds and volunteers. Their work is faster, cheaper, and more credible than aid organizations and local authorities.
Two weeks ago, a group of artists came out vocally against the illegal leasing of land that belongs to the national theatre. Their message, which was widely shared on social media, triggered a swift public outcry that forced the government to rescind the decision.
In late June, Ikraan Tahlil, a young rising female staffer at the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), went missing. She was last seen on CCTV boarding agency car reportedly to attend a night meeting with her superiors. NISA initially claimed Ikraan was missing, but her mother said she was forcefully disappeared. Family, friends, and concerned citizens launched an impassioned appeal to secure her release.
The case took a national profile after NISA, in response to the unyielding activism, released a statement in September indicating that Ikraan was abducted and killed by Al Shabaab. The news drew widespread national condemnation and prompted Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Rooble to fire the powerful NISA Director, Fahad Yasin, over faulty investigations. As this chilling case unravels, organized citizen action (largely online) has and continues to bear unprecedented political pressure to break impunity and bring justice to the family of Ikraan.
Despite the small wins here and there, cases of online civic action in Somalia remain largely incidental, isolated, leaderless, and short-lived. The result: very few online activities translate into offline action while all suffer from fuzzy messaging and poor coordination. In the absence of clear goals, activists start to fizzle out, and ultimately the digital action fails to coalesce into a sustainable movement for change.
The critical question then is what can Somalia’s youth leaders do to harness these isolated incidents of online civic action into a collective pulse for social justice and nation-building.
The answer, in my opinion, lies in sustained strategic activism. Nothing changes on its own, much less in an overnight. Even our forefathers’ struggle to liberate Somali homelands from the scourge of colonialism took over a century (from 1840 to 1960) of dedicated struggle – although quickly undone by decades of dictatorship and misrule.
As such, our civic leaders must be prepared to fight a long battle. We need to create a sustained awareness campaign about critical issues such as rampant corruption, insecurity, human rights violations, government incompetence, and dysfunction.
No one fights alone. Civic leaders must build and invest in issue-based communities of like-minded activists. We need more communities like Digital Shelter, which can serve as spaces to find resource, connect with peers, and incubate the next generation of civic leaders for a better Somalia.
Youth leaders in Somalia must not ignore the increasing power and importance of social media platforms to influence or take charge of the national conversation. Lack of digital skills currently impedes civil society’s ability to use online platforms to execute effective digital campaigns.
But as with every powerful tool, misuse of social media can significantly derail civic efforts and even cause conflicts and other harmful, unintended consequences. Therefore, youth leaders should learn the basics of digital safety and media literacy to safely navigate online spaces, consume, and share factual information.
Currently, a cadre of outrage influencers with huge megaphones has taken over our social media spaces. They target activists, especially women leaders, with abuses and harassment in a bid to silence them. At the community level, they exploit our deep divisions to magnify inter-clan grievances, spew lies, hatred, and spread dangerous misinformation. They aim to widen our civic deficit, debase our citizenship, and doom us into a state of confusion and apathy.
The vigilance of empowered citizens is our only reliable shield against misinformation. Responsible digital citizens will pause and critically examine any content they find online before liking, commenting, or sharing it with family and friends.
Empowered citizens are the lifeblood of democratic nations. Empowered citizens actively participate in everyday governance issues to ensure the laws passed by our parliament; for instance, the national budget reflects the priorities, interests, concerns of our communities.
In an environment marked by fear and insecurity, which hinders traditional forms of activism, the actions of empowered digital citizens can spread peaceful civic ideas and counter toxic narratives. It can foster civic engagement and inspire young people to lead social change at the grassroots level. Digital activism can provide a potential pathway to mend and build a better Somalia.
Mohamed Abdimalik is an independent data journalist and the director of FESOJ Disinformation Lab. he can be followed on Twitter @mabdimalik