The Rise of General Jean Marie Michel Mokoko Through Social Media

Social media is proving a potentially lethal weapon against dictatorships in Africa, reports Elie Smith, a Cameroonian journalist, reporter and translator.

Opposition demonstration during the run up to the elections. Republic of Congo, March 2016. AFP Photograph: LAUDES MARTIAL MBON

Social media is proving a potentially lethal weapon against dictatorships in Africa. This was shown most recently during the March presidential elections in the Republic of Congo.

Although officially won by Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has been in power for 32 years, the result is denounced as fraudulent by the opposition and has been heavily criticised by the international community; the US Department of State said it was ‘profoundly disappointed by the flawed electoral process’ in which ‘widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters’ marred the vote.

This in itself is nothing new: since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in the country in 1990, only one of several presidential, legislative and local elections has been judged by local and international observers as being free and fair, and that was in 1992. But the 2016 elections saw something exceptional: the rise of a powerful opposition figure, propelled for the first time by social media.

While nine candidates took part, only two were initially thought to stand out: President Nguesso and Andre Okombi Salissa, who was considered his main challenger. General Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, a former Army chief of staff, stood as an independent but was at first considered a marginal outsider. With no political track record he had no local affiliated machinery and also no substantial funding. But Mokoko’s trump card was that he used Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms in Congo, in fact declaring his intention to run for the presidency via the Facebook page of Sadio Kante-Morel, a journalist and social media activist.

This was a fundamental change in presidential campaign methods in Congo. Until now, politicians made their intentions known through radio, TV or newspapers. In some ways this new strategy was forced upon Mokoko: he had only a small campaign team and Clement Mierassa (chair of an opposition political party and ally of General Mokoko) says their very tight budget also encouraged them away from classic media to social media.

However, it gave Mokoko a crucial advantage over both rivals and allies: very few candidates besides the President were using any social media platforms, which have particular appeal amongst the young. What’s more, the importance of social media is all the greater given that state-owned classic media outlets were barred by the government from covering activities of opposition party candidates (the country is ranked 152nd out of 180 in Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index).

Mokoko focused particularly on Brazzanews, arguably the most popular Facebook page in Congo, which he relied on throughout his campaign to report on his tour around the country. Although hosted in France, Brazzanews has the most elaborate network of online reporters in Congo using smart phones to post videos online.

Supporters of the then incumbent Sassou Nguesso responded in kind. They used YouTube to broadcast an interview in which General Mokoko was alleged to have planned to stage a coup d’état. The aim of this video — shared via Facebook and Twitter — was to paint General Mokoko as a war monger who wanted to derail peace and stability in the country. But the plan backfired, instead encouraging more Congolese to support Mokoko.

Alarmed, the government began to consider more drastic strategies. Nguesso’s advisors were no doubt aware of growing smart phone penetration in the country and also of the fact that most smart phone owners are young people in the 18–35 age range, most of whom are Mokoko supporters. In the run-up to the election, rumours circulated that the government would shut down communications as it had done in September 2015, after the opposition staged a large-scale anti-government rally in the capital.

Faced with this threat, opposition activists turned to Firechat, an app that effectively turns mobile phones into short-range transmitters using Bluetooth. When enough phones run Firechat in proximity, a peer-to-peer network is created without traditional mobile phone networks or internet access. Because this critical mass had to be achieved, opposition activists posted messages on Facebook urging Congolese to download Firechat software and encouraging those who could to buy simcards from mobile phone companies in neighbouring DRC and Angola.

It is via social media that the opposition claims to have calculated that the election ‘victory’ was invalid. According to Arnold Gatien Samba, the founder of Brazzanews, Firechat software is the magic wand that has exposed the electoral theft of Denis Sassou Nguesso.

When I asked Mokoko recently why he has not called on the population to defend their stolen victory, he replied: ‘I can’t ask unarmed citizens to go and be killed. The opponent is not only determined to keep their stolen victory, they are ready to massacre unarmed protestors, as they are currently doing in the Pool region.’

Despite the current situation social media has made Mokoko what he is today — Nguesso’s main challenger. This no doubt explains why, in neighbouring Gabon, Jean Ping — another presidential candidate — is also using Facebook for his pre-campaign tour of the country.

Elie Smith is a Cameroonian journalist, reporter and translator with a specific interest in the relationship between social media, free speech and democracy in Central Africa.

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