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Opinions of Sunday, 11 September 2016

Columnist: Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

Thoughts on the #KenyavsNigeria Twitter war

By Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

On 30 August 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook caused a stir when he paid a surprise visit to Nigeria.

During his stay, he visited the technology hub at Yaba (also known as Nigeria's Silicon Valley), interacted with young technology entrepreneurs, ate Jollof rice and met with President Buhari.

In explaining the purpose of his visit, Zuckerberg said, "This is my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. I’ll be meeting with developers and entrepreneurs, and learning about the start-up ecosystem in Nigeria."

A couple of days later, the 32-year-old CEO crossed over to Kenya where he toured the technology hub and interacted with Kenyan entrepreneurs. Little did anyone expect that the visit of the 5th richest man in the world to two of Africa's most technologically innovative nations would result in an international Twitter war between Kenya and Nigeria.

Zuckerberg had barely landed back in America when the hashtag #KenyavsNigeria was generated thus enabling Nigerian and Kenyan Twitter users to “creatively” attack each other.

Once the hashtag was developed, it took a life of its own with the hashtag trending on Twitter. A number of parody accounts were created featuring the names of celebrities in both countries such as Olusegun Obasanjo, Tiwa Savage and Raila Odinga. As at the time of writing this article, the Twitter battle is still ongoing and shows no sign of ending soon.

There are various accounts of how the #KenyavsNigeria Twitter war started with some attributing it to a Kenyan DJ who questioned why Zuckerberg should waste his time in Nigeria while others attribute it to the Facebook's founder back and forth movement between Kenya and Nigeria. Others suggest that it was triggered when Zuckerberg ate Ugali at Mama Oliech restaurant.

Twitter war among African users of Twitter is not unusual and can sometimes be hilarious like the Ghana Jollof Rice vs. Nigeria Jollof Rice Twitter battle in which users engaged with each other to discuss which country prepares the more delicious Jollof Rice. Another example was the #Azonto Vs Alingo Twitter battle of 2013 where Ghanaian's and Nigerian's accused each other of copying the others dance style.

An observer of the #KenyavsNigeria battle (which is in its third day) might conclude that the battle is just a form of friendly banter between Twitter users in two countries especially when you read about Kenyan's mocking Nigerians because of Nigeria's inability to win medals relative to Kenyan athletes at the recently concluded Olympics or Nigerians mocking Kenyans small Facebook user population relative to Nigeria.

However, a closer examination of the messages coming out of the #KenyavsNigeria battle reveals a very disturbing trend. It has morphed from a friendly banter between users of two countries into the dehumanisation of citizens of both countries.

Paradoxically for the key participants who are predominately based in Africa (home to nearly a billion black people), the weapon of attack is the black skin tone. Before I continue, I would like to issue two disclaimers.

First, I acknowledge that it is not ALL Nigerians and Kenyans involved in these ad hominine attacks. Second, some of the readers of this article might find some of the quotes, which I have obtained from Twitter offensive. I apologise in advance. A sizeable number of the tweets coming from the #KenyavsNigeria hashtag are racist and sometimes misogynistic.

Several racist memes have been produced mocking the skin tone of citizens from a particular country. One user posted an image of an ape carrying the Nigerian flag with the inscription, “The best country in witchcraft is? We all know”; another meme, shows an image of a black hand with the inscription, “When U Finger a Kenyan Girl.”

There are other vitriolic tweets like; “Kenyan women are so black, Even their breast milk looks like crude oil.”; This Nigeria (sic) monkey; “Though Ghanaians are black like darkness, but Kenyans are still ancestors to them, Kenyans are black like used engine oil #kenyavsnigeria”; “The finest girl in your country is a monkey”; “Every Kenyan family must consist of a father, mother and a monkey.”; “Nigerian ladies put on weaves to confirm their gender.” In short, there is a race to the bottom to prove that one country is "less blacker" than the other.

This “I am not as black as thou” attitude, between the Kenyan and Nigerian Twitter followers is causing divisions within some parts of the continent. To summarise what has happened: a white rich man visited two African countries and like two rivals fighting each other to gain their lover's attention, some Nigerian and Kenyan tweeps are at war because of this white man with deep pockets.

Has Kenya and Nigeria sold its soul for a mess of Zuckerberg pottage? Or is this a 21st-century version of the Scramble for Africa whereby a continent is divided because of a Western capitalist seeking to exploit/ explore the continent?

An online poll was conducted on Twitter in which the pollster asked the question: #KenyavsNigeria, who wins it today? In reality, neither Kenya nor Nigeria won. It was Africa and the black race that lost. One should wonder what the world thinks when citizens from two black populated nations borrow phrases and images which have been used by the white supremacist in time past to justify the inferiority of the black race.

What message does this “I am not as black as thou” thinking send to the outside world? An overt racist will always be racist and often needs no justification to commit racist’s acts.

However, those racists hiding in the closet will probably have an excuse to be openly racist by arguing, "Why can't I be racist, after all, aren't African's saying, Is it true that when Nigerians fart, black smoke comes out from their anus.

A possible reason why #KenyavsNigeria has turned into such an ugly racist bloodbath is because of “Colonial Amnesia.” In a particular tweet, someone wrote, “Nigerians should be colonised again. They still primitive (sic). We seem to have forgotten that Africa was enslaved and colonised because the citizens of the continent had the "wrong" skin colour.

Have we forgotten the struggles that took place before Africa could gain her freedom? After centuries of domination by the white world, Africans from various parts of the continent straightened their backs and looked their colonial oppressors straight in the eye and said, "Enough is Enough."

Future African leaders like as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Hastings Banda, and Julius Nyerere collaborated to find solutions to the colour problem in Africa, imperialism in North and West Africa and oppression in South Africa. Their persistence paid off as country after country in the continent shook off the shackles of colonial oppression and became free.

As each country gained independence, those in the remaining enslaved countries were encouraged and fought the more until the whole continent was free.

What would the founding fathers think about what's going on? What would Kwame Nkrumah who once said, "Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation" think of #KenyavsNigeria? The founding fathers of Africa must surely be turning in their graves, after all, they didn't expect to shed their blood to free the continent so that African’s could call one another monkey and Kiwi shoe polish.

A key takeaway from the #KenyavsNigeria battle is that a number of us within the continent are not comfortable with our black skin. One of the legacies of Africa's exploitation by Europe was colourism, which is a form of prejudice based on the hue of one's skin tone.

The colonialists and slave traders saw not only blacks as inferiors; they also believed that lighter skinned blacks were superior to dark skinned blacks. In the slave plantations, the light skinned slaves were often allowed to work in the slave master house as domestic help, while the darker skinned slaves were left in the plantation to become hewers of wood.

Colourism has been passed down over the centuries and it expresses itself in various forms such as skin bleaching where blacks and Asians lighten their skin tones to look like their white colleagues and friends. Some of the users of the #KenyavsNigeria hashtag have demonstrated their belief in a hierarchy of skin colour.

For instance, a Twitter user wrote, "It is time for us to appreciate our skin tone and reflect on the words of the great Ghanaian Educationalist James Aggrey who said, "I am proud of my colour, whoever is not proud of his colour is not fit to live."

These attack, which some have described, as "jokes" are racist at best and dangerous at worst. The Twitter attacks strip a group of people of their humanity and could have the unintended consequences of sowing the seeds of future xenophobic attacks between the two countries. There are many Nigerians living in Kenya and a number of Kenyans living in Nigeria.

The animosity generated by this Twitter fight could spiral into a violent attack on the Kenyan/Nigerian immigrants. The xenophobic violence, which took place in South Africa in 2015, should serve as a chilling reminder of what can happen when we focus on our differences. Furthermore, the history pages are full of instances whereby mass murders are committed when people are dehumanised.

In conclusion, those engaged in this Twitter war need to pause are reread what they are writing before clicking the send button. We should ask ourselves: What does this "war" say about us as a people? How will the outside world view us? Would we be viewed as a group of people who are comfortable to call each other monkey because a rich white man visited our continent?

Would we be viewed as a group of people ready to usher back slavery and colonialism because a white man ate Jollof Rice and Ugali and couldn’t decide which one tasted better? Would we be viewed as a group of people ashamed of our “inferior” black skin because a man with a “superior” white skin stood in our midst?

Technology can be used for good or for evil. It is up to us to choose how we want to deploy it. Will we deploy technology to solve our challenges and unite our continent or will be deploying it to create divisions among ourselves and sow the seeds of future destruction.

The choice is ours.

Say NO to #KenyavsNigeria

Say YES to #AfricaUnite

Selah. The Author is an African and Nigerian.