From #FeesMustFall to #BlueforSudan: OkayAfrica's Guide to a Decade of African Hashtag Activism
Photo by Lana Haroun

From #FeesMustFall to #BlueforSudan: OkayAfrica's Guide to a Decade of African Hashtag Activism

The 2010s saw protest movements across the continent embrace social media in their quest to make change.

The Internet and its persistent, attention-seeking child, Social Media has changed the way we live, think and interact on a daily basis. But as this decade comes to a close, we want to highlight the ways in which people have merged digital technology, social media and ingenuity to fight for change using one of the world's newest and most potent devices—the hashtag.

What used to simply be the "pound sign," the beginning of a tic-tac-toe game or what you'd have to enter when interacting with an automated telephone service, the hashtag has become a vital aspect of the digital sphere operating with both form and function. What began in 2007 as a metadata tag used to categorize and group content on social media, the term 'hashtag' has now grown to refer to memes (#GeraraHere), movements (#AmINext), events (#InsertFriendsWeddingHere) and is often used in everyday conversation ("That situation was hashtag awkward").

The power of the hashtag in the mobility of people and ideas truly came to light during the #ArabSpring, which began one year into the new decade. As Tunisia kicked off a revolution against oppressive regimes that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook played a crucial role in the development and progress of the movements. The hashtag, however, helped for activists, journalists and supporters of causes. It not only helped to source information quickly, but it also acted as a way to create a motto, a war cry, that could spread farther and faster than protestors own voices and faster than a broadcasted news cycle. As The Guardian wrote in 2016, "At times during 2011, the term Arab Spring became interchangeable with 'Twitter uprising' or 'Facebook revolution,' as global media tried to make sense of what was going on."

From there, the hashtag grew to be omnipresent in modern society. It has given us global news, as well as strong comedic relief and continues to play a crucial role in our lives. As the decade comes to a close, here are some of the most impactful hashtags from Africans and for Africans that used the medium well.


(Photo: MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP via Getty Images)

This movement was kicked off by Senegalese rappers, artists, activists and journalists as they opposed President Abdoulaye Wade's 2012 run for a third term in office. The French phrase, which translates to "we're sick of it" or "enough is enough," worked to mobilize thousands of Senegalese youth to show their dissatisfaction with Wade and frustration with nepotism, corruption and poor government. The efforts led to 14 candidates in that year's presidential election and 300,000 newly registered voters. The hashtag persists today as a method for Senegalese people to hold elected officials accountable and to highlight actions they condemn.

In late October, the hashtag was being used in France and Guinea to protest President Alpha Condé attempting to grant himself a third term. Almost eight years later, the hashtag is used by francophone citizens and in the same manner with which it began. Following the use of social media in the potency of the Arab Spring, this hashtag was a frontrunner in the ways we would see the medium used for the rest of the decade.


Members of the ''Balai Citoyen'' movement attend the official funeral of "martyrs" of the bloody uprising that ousted president Blaise Compaore, at Revolution Square in Ouagadougou, on December 2, 2014. (Photo Ahmed Yempabou OUOBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Similar to Y'en a Marre, Le Balai Citoyen was inspired by a revolt against longstanding president Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso. The movement, which translates to "the citizen's broom" was initiated in 2013 by rapper Serge Bambara, aka "Smockey, and reggae artist Sams'K Le Jah. The duo held rallies, debates and protests, where brooms were carried, which led to the resignation of the president and his fleeing the country. The hashtag still pops up today for when citizens want to speak truth to power or show solidarity with injustice across the world.

As an example of the global mobility the hashtag allows, earlier this year a Frenchman used the tag (and #yenamarre) to comment on a protest in Hong Kong that was shared by Hillary Clinton.


A #BringBackOurGirls gathering in New York's Union Square on May 3, 2014. Photo by Michael Fleshman.

After 276 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram in 2014, Nigerians and the world took to using this hashtag as a way to push the government and international society to help find and safely deliver the lost girls. It was extremely influential as it did something many hashtags are intended to do, draw both curiosity and awareness. Young black girls are not often high on the world's priority list of who to save. The proliferation and potency of this hashtag forced countries, governments and citizens the world over to be made aware of a tragedy that would have much more attention had it happened in another country or to another color.

This hashtag became a motif for black people, especially women, the world over to demand concern and care. By insisting that 'our' girls were returned, it spurned a global connection and attention to a heinous act. While Boko Haram has committed innumerable acts, this hashtag brought a distinct feeling of the atrocities and intrusion Nigerians were feeling at the hands of their power. The hashtag has persisted for years and still evokes a powerful feeling as 112 girls are still missing.


#FeesMustFall Student protests in South Africa. Photo by Raz.

This hashtag was the battle cry of young South African students in 2015 when they shut down every major university to protest rising tuition fees. The movement was founded on the belief that capable Black students, despite being poor, should have the same access to universities as their privileged White counterparts. The hashtag gained an immense amount of traction throughout the country and drew international attention, resulting in then-President Jacob Zuma declaring a 0% increase in fees for the coming year.

Students mobilized yet again in 2016, this time, demanding free, quality and decolonized education as was promised to them by the ruling ANC back in 1955 in their Freedom Charter. While this has not yet materialized, the government put aside 57 billion Rand for higher education last year—a small victory for students. Equally important was #RhodesMustFall which occurred concurrently with Fees Must Fall protests. This movement focused on the removal of the statue of British colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes, on one of the main campuses of the University of Cape Town. On April 10th of 2015, the statue was finally removed.

The Fees Must Fall hashtag is still in use today to continue the fight for fair and accessible education opportunities. Just recently, student protestors in Uganda were chanting it outside a police station in Kampala after students had been arrested for fighting a planned 75 percent increase in university fees.


Aamina Mohamed created this hashtag in 2015, with the intent to change the simplified, monolithic image of Muslim people and instead show the diversity of the Muslim community. So, following Eid al-Adha every year since then, social media is peppered with black Muslims looking absolutely stunning in their ceremonial garb and showing off the variety of hues, faces and countries black Muslims come in. This hashtag has been part of an effort to increase awareness and recognition of black Muslims the world over. While many of the original posts were from northern Africa and the Middle East, they now hail from all over the world.


Because, yes. This happens, too. All the time. We love it and it's important the world does too.


Started by Nigerian artist Olaloye Bunmi, this hashtag helped Nigerian artists, influencers and changemakers showcase the diverse well of talent the West African country holds. Bunmi tweeted the rules of the hashtag and posted his own as an example. The idea caught on and resulted in an immense amount of Naija pride as well as a smart method for advertising skill sets. This hashtag has done some formidable emotional work as well, giving social media users a direct line into seeing abstract art as well as social commentary from the Nigerian point of view. It trended a year after #DrawingWhileBlack and both are still a great source of inspiration and a useful rolodex for anyone on the hunt to hire creative talent.


(Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the death of civilian Mohamed Mattar, shot by authorities while trying to protect two women during a protest, his friend Shahd Khadir asked her social media followers to change their profile pictures to blue, his favorite color. The move quickly morphed into a means to represent all those who lost their lives in the Sudanese fight for freedom and justice. It also acted as a means to draw attention to the lack of coverage the revolution was getting from Western media.

Influential artists, politicians, journalists, athletes and others began changing their profile pictures to the mysterious blue color. News outlets started questioning what the trend was for and then began writing guides to it. As the hashtag spread, so did the color itself. Thanks to the permeation of #BlueForSudan, that particular shade of blue became iconic as well, lending another identifiable layer to the cause. With the help of the hashtag, protestors were able to successfully oust President Omar al-Bashir in April then continued the fight to ensure that those taking his place in power had the people's interest at the forefront. The opposition and current transitional council are in talks as to how to proceed in rebuilding the country and elections are scheduled to happen in a few months' time.


LGBT flag via Flickr Creative Commons

Kenyan activists launched a campaign in 2016 which sought to have Sections 162 and 165 of Kenya's colonial-era Penal Code repealed. Activists petitioned before the Kenyan High Court and insisted that the laws effectively criminalized homosexuality and violated a person's constitutional right to privacy, freedom of expression, human dignity and freedom from discrimination. Prominent activists including Shailja Patel, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng and Brenda Wabui rallied behind the petition online using #Repeal162. At first, the judgement was supposed to be handed down on February 22nd of this year but was postponed because of administrative issues. Ultimately, the courts ruled in favor of maintaining the criminal status of homosexuality in the country a few months later citing that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the LGBT community was being discriminated against as a result of the laws.


Ugandan prominent human rights activist and feminist Stella Nyanzi (C) reacts to police officers during a protest against the amount and handling of police investigations into murders and kidnappings of women in Kampala on June 5, 2018. (Photo by SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, Stella Nyanzi, a prominent academic, activist and political dissident was suspended from her job at Makerere University and arrested after she wrote a Facebook post where she referred to Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni as a "pair of buttocks". She was charged with cyber-harassment and offensive communication. Her many supporters rallied behind her with #FreeStellaNyanzi and she was eventually released. Nyanzi has been involved in a number of public tussles with the Ugandan government through her controversial posts on social media especially. In August of this year, Nyanzi was again arrested for cyber-harassment and sentenced to 18 months in jail after she wrote another Facebook post where she wished President Museveni had been burnt up by acid in his mother's uterus. In court, she insisted she would continue to speak against dictators in "the language of the vagina" and remain steadfast in what she believes is the power of "radical rudeness".


Protest in South Africa

(Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Pastor Evan Mawarire posted a passionate video on social media in 2016 which he captioned #ThisFlag. In the video, he described Zimbabwe in its glory days and what it had since been reduced to under the Mugabe-regime. The video went viral and just a few weeks later, for the first time in decades, Zimbabweans took to the streets in protests which would eventually see Mugabe step down as President after 34 years in power. Mawarire has been arrested several times and charged for multiple crimes by the government including treason and inciting violence. However, following each arrest, Mawarire has been bailed out by lawyers in support of his activist work.

After realising their power, Zimbabweans have boldly taken to the streets time and again even after Emmerson Mnangagwa took over as president of the country. In July of this year, the #ZimShutdown saw nationwide protests against proposed fuel hikes taking place. Several other protests led by teachers and medical professionals have since taken place as civil servants demand better pay, working conditions and standard of life.


The #BeyondZeroCorruption marathon was launched back in 2016 with the objective of giving Kenyans the opportunity to stand up against corruption under President Uhuru Kenyatta's government. However, what supposedly began as an effort to tackle corruption in the country, has over the years, gradually become more about the marathon and giving to charity in #BeyondZeroMarathon. There has been widespread criticism of the marathon including allegations that the Kenyan government has been using the event as an opportunity to misuse taxpayers' money after corporate organizations pulled out along with their funding.


#SandtonShutDown march against gender-based violence in SA. (Photo by Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The MeToo movement officially became a global phenomenon last year although the phrase was first used by activist Tarana Burke on MySpace in 2006. After numerous individuals in the US entertainment industry came out with allegations of sexual harassment against the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and several others, women across the globe have shared their own experiences. The movement has not been limited to the entertainment industry but to politics, digital media and basically any industry where men and women have to work together. Similar movements have sprung up under the umbrella of Me Too including #RememberKhwezi, #MenAreTrash and #AmINext (South Africa's response to domestic violence and femicide), Former Gambian Beauty Queen Fatou Jallow's #IamToufah, Kenya's #CampusMeToo and even #SexForGrades which followed after BBC Africa Eyes's exposé on West-African university staff demanding sexual favors from students for grades.


Western media has a penchant for misrepresenting African countries in their coverage. This was the case back in 2015 when American news outlet CNN wrote an article ahead of then-presidentBarack Obama'svisit to Kenya. In the article, CNN described the country as a "hotbed of terror" which resulted in Kenyans taking to social media to put them in check. While a number of terrorist attacks have been carried out in the country by the militant group al-Shabab, CNN's coverage played into stereotypical narratives which often paint African countries as one thing and nothing else. Using #SomeoneTellCNN, Kenyans poked fun at CNN, criticised America's double standards when it comes to reporting on Africa and took the opportunity to highlight some of the actual selling points of the country.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

In May of this year, South African athlete and two-time Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, lost her landmark case against the IAAF whose new regulations required her to take testosterone-regulating medication in order to compete. The ruling was not just a blow to Semenya but to the global community which had rallied behind her in support of her human right to compete without having to risk her health in the process. As a show of solidarity for the Semenya and other intersex athletes caught in the cross-fire, South Africans took to social media to show their continued support for Semenya using #JustDoItForCaster as they had also done in previous times with #HandsOffCaster.


Image by William Murphy via Flickr.

This hashtag went viral in 2012 after Invisible Children released a 28-minute film as part of a campaign which attempted to raise awareness around the kidnapping of thousands of Ugandan children. The children had been reportedly kidnapped over a span of twenty years by guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony for the purposes of building his Lords Resistance Army. However, many people found the film patronizing and criticized Invisible Children on a number of issues including: factual inaccuracies, failing to call out the Ugandan government and its human rights violations, the targeting of US leaders over African leaders as agents of change as well as questions surrounding where the organization itself obtains its funding.


In 2016, girl learners at South Africa's Pretoria Girls' High School protested against racist hair policies which prevented them from wearing their hair in its natural state. Spurred on by the fearlessness of the national Fees Must Fall protests the previous year, the girl learners brought all school activities to a halt and demanded that the school governing body amend the hair policies. Teachers reportedly called the girl learners "monkeys" and likened their natural hair as wearing "nests" on their heads. The movement saw numerous South African women coming out on social media and talking about their own experiences with racist hair policies during their time at school. Several other incidents occurred at other high schools and continued to cause national outrage. Once again, it was apparent that Black hair was (and remains) very much political in a society that subscribes to Eurocentric standards of beauty.


Protesters hold a placard in front of Lagos State House of Assembly during a protest on the Hate Speech bill and Social Media bill in Lagos, on November 27, 2019. (Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This year, the Nigerian government proposed the controversial "Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill" after a similar bill was rejected back in 2015 following widespread criticism. The new bill would effectively allow the government to restrict internet access in the country whenever they see fit. It was first proposed by Senator Muhammadu Sani Musa of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who said that it would prevent the dissemination of extremist ideologies and hate speech using online channels as had been the case with Boko Haram. There has since been national condemnation of the bill by Nigerians who feel it is the government's attempt to silence them and censor what the rest of the world hears and sees with regards to the country. Concerned Nigerians took to social media and protested against the proposed bill under #SayNoToSocialMediaBill.