Social Networks, Social Change: An Online Paradigm Shift in Cote d’Ivoire

By Carolina Loza

For many, social networking is an irrelevant distraction, a facile means of wasting time with games and chatting. For others, it has become an effective method for contacting activists, organizing gatherings and expressing dissent. In Cote d’Ivoire, it has proven a faster, and arguably more effective, means of providing assistance than many of the international organizations working in the field. During the vicious civil conflict in 2010 and 2011, social media may have been as important as the telephone in saving lives and directing emergency services.

Twenty-five years ago, the former French colony of Cote d’Ivoire was seen as a beacon of stability in the troubled region of West Africa. Often dubbed “the miracle of West Africa,” it maintained close ties with the West after gaining independence and established itself as the largest cocoa exporter in the world. Blessed with beautiful beaches, fresh fruit and a friendly populace, its future looked bright. Under the surface, however, there was tension, with 60 ethnic groups living together alongside a huge influx of migrant workers from neighbouring countries.

As the civil war developed in the 1990s, these divides were ruthlessly exploited by leaders representing the different groups. Eventually, a ceasefire was negotiated in 2004, and the long and difficult peacekeeping process began, bringing with it the promise of long-term stability.

Diaby Mohamed, a tall, confident bilingual Ivorian in his late twenties, is an entrepreneur in Abidjan with a vast knowledge of popular culture in Africa and overseas. Mohamed and a group of activists created the Twitter Hash tag #CIV2010, which became the primary source of news for many Ivoirians during the November 2010 election.

A hash tag on twitter, (which is subject of discussion on twitter, where the # sign is used before the keyword), allows people to find topical issues much easier. The Hash tag proved to be the perfect means of keeping social networkers updated, with accounts such as CIV Social or Ivoirien Démocrate to take the lead regarding tweets.

Mohamed described the democratic process, which was the closing step for lasting peace in his country as “full of hope” when, after the first round of elections, he witnessed pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara supporters exchanging t-shirts and expressing joy that Cote d’Ivoire was finally on the track to democracy, regardless of who won the election. Posts under #CIV2010 were varied, from newsflashes about both candidates and charity fundraisers, to messages from fellow Ivorian citizens, such as, “We are one nation; we should engage ourselves in dialogue for peace in this country.”

Unfortunately, such noble ideals were soon forgotten. In November, the results of the elections were called into question. The situation quickly worsened. Mohamed soon realized that the road ahead was rocky: “When people on #CIV2010 and I asked for a recount and both candidates did not consider this option, we knew this was not going to end well.”

By December, the situation had settled into an uneasy equilibrium, with hostilities between both parties sometimes spilling over into targeted violence. Few predicted the dramatic fall of Abidjan to Ouattara’s forces, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis. The economic sanctions imposed on the Gbagbo regime by the international community led to the closure of all banks, meaning that many lacked the money to buy food or phone credit in order to keep up to date with developments. As Ouattara’s forces marched south in late-March, many Ivoirians were running out of food and water, had been the victims of looting, or had seen a family member hit by a stray bullet.

As Abidjan became a ghost town, and family members across the country lost contact due to the lack of phone credit available, internet providers began providing free internet to the stricken populace of the capital. With residents unable to leave their houses, Hash tags and Facebook became an important means of communication for many.

Hermann Corcher, a web developer who lives in Cocody and is an administrator for one of the Facebook groups, explains how social networking was the platform for communication that evolved with the crisis and how Facebook and Twitter merged into a platform to provide assistance. “We were discussing issues [on Facebook] on how to avoid stray bullets and stay safe at home. We sent suggestions to our friends and as the fighting intensified, we started sending alerts through our Facebook status,” Corcher recalls.

“We started groups, so it would be easier to gather alerts and then, seeing the amount of alerts we got within an hour, we decided to split teams, people in Abidjan and abroad to manage the teams; from contacting doctors, to classify each group post in different categories and listing useful phone numbers such as the ONUCI and The Red Cross,” he says.

Like many other residents, Mohamed, one of the founders of #CIV2010, fled Abidjan to neighboring Ghana in an attempt to escape the increasing violence. The Hash tag CIV Social was flooded with emergency tweets by the time Mohamed got to Ghana, and with a network of volunteers that had shared views through #CIV2010 he set up a call center in Accra, Ghana. #CIV2010 was to become the Twitter hash tag, #CIV Social.

Ivoirians locked in their houses in Abidjan with an emergency posted their phone numbers on Twitter or Facebook, as well as “flashing” the phone number on #CIV Social. The staff of #CIV Social would return the calls and were able to put them in contact with doctors or other means of assistance within Abidjan. Since then, the #CIV Social initiative has been backed by Akendewa, an organization that trains people in Africa to use technology towards the improvement of societies.

The Akendewa initiative and mission and The Hash tags and Facebook groups, meet in a rather strange an unexpected way in the last days of the conflict.

Jennifer, who moved to Accra for a year in November in order to study English, was a volunteer for the #CIV Social call center in Abidjan. “It was hard,” she recalls, “I remember finishing up with school around 5 p.m., getting to the call centre at 7 p.m. and staying until 2 a.m. Many people called us to see if we were a regular call-center, and when we mentioned we were a 100 percent volunteer-based call center, they would not call back. Hearing stories from people in Abidjan everyday was extremely grueling.”

The stories that Jennifer relates are the same heartbreaking, familiar ones that emerge from every conflict: tales of a mother begging for food to feed her two children, of families running out of water, of youngsters being struck by stray bullets. There were other phone calls, however, ones that the staff was able to resolve. It was these calls that made all the hard work worthwhile.

Mohamed remembers a Facebook post in one of the many groups that his organization was in contact with. It was from a girl who was watching in desperation as rebels approached her apartment compound, preparing to loot it.

“We had no one to contact for help nearby in Abidjan, until one of the volunteers from the call center just screamed ‘SOAP!’,” he says. “She called this girl and told her to tell everyone in the building to cover the floor with liquid soap, so rebels could not enter the compound. It worked.”

A story that all the volunteers remember regards the role of a doctor who was part of the network. The call center received a call from someone whose relative had been hit in the head with a stray bullet. Unable to go anywhere and with no one around to help, the call center managed to put the family in contact with the doctor, who considered all the details that the family could provide over the telephone. He then gave the family a crash course in first aid over the phone. As the family worked to stem the blood loss, the call center staff was able to contact the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) to inform them of the situation.

The call center closed in mid-April, after the crisis ended. Mohamed describes the work undertaken over the preceding months as “extremely demanding.” Despite having closed the call center, Mohamed still spends many hours tweeting with friends in Abidjan and getting up-to-the-minute updates about the long process of peace-building in the country. On the desk in Mohamed’s house in Accra, where the call center was located, one can still see the mountains of mobile credit cards lying alongside several mobile phones.

The work, however, has only just begun. As the rebuilding process continues, Mohamed sees #CIVNext, the next topical issue and hence the new hash tag that will become the follow up of #CIV Social, as an important step that must be taken in order to provide civil society, particularly the young, with a forum within which to express ideas and share opinions about each step of the peace process and become agents of the ongoing change in Cote D’Ivoire. Corcher, the web developer from Cocody, on the other hand is eager to help out with NGO’s that are working towards reinserting former militia men back into their normal life so the past can be left behind.

Abidjan is a full of hope nowadays, as a city that is slowing returning to normal. Ivoirians are working as much as possible to speed the peace-building process, by opening shops, starting business, and going out to eat and relax. Former rebels, who are now armed forces are everywhere in the city, but the feeling of a fresh start can be felt in every corner. A young medical student in a compound in the middle-class neighborhood of Marcory describes the current situation in Abidjan as “still hard, but we will get through it.”

Facebook groups that were the platform for help from #CIV Social are now posting messages to invite people to TV shows and fundraisers for hospitals and orphanages that were affected by the humanitarian crisis in Abidjan. Many of the volunteers of the #CIV Social/Akendewa call center in Accra are considering returning to Abidjan. After all, this country of West Africa is eager to stand back on its feet, to be once again the model of prosperity and stability in the region.

Social media may be as important to Ivoirians during the country`s restoration as it was during its downfall.

Nick Hodgson, a freelance social media consultant based in Ghana, believes that social networking provides “a critical tool to communicate, where there is not total control from a government.” Hodgson also points out that the flexibility of social networks allows their role to change and evolve, depending on the individual situation in each country.

Using Hodgson`s logic, Ivoirians who enjoyed the recreational aspects of social networking before the civil war may be able to return to their old habits, now that the violence is gone. From being a trivial waste of time, to the very backbone of assistance and help in a crisis, Facebook and Twitter have proven to have evolved and are now pivotal tools that should not be undermined.

If Facebook and Twitter would have not been the trivial pastimes for many Ivoirians that knew these social networks so well, perhaps the possibility of using them for a significant method of communication would have never existed.

This article was originally published in Dispatches International and appears here with their consent.