On Monday, October 3, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni's son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, then Lieutenant-General and Commander of the Land Forces, kicked off a massive diplomatic storm. In a tweet storm, he seemingly half-joked, "It wouldn't take us, my army and me, 2 weeks to capture Nairobi."
He escorted the tweet with musings about where he would live after seizing the Kenyan capital. Then he weighed into the recent Kenyan election, suggesting that former president Uhuru Kenyatta, whom he regularly refers to as "my big brother, should have stood for a third term. Uhuru would have handily won, he said.
All hell broke loose. Yearning for an issue to unite around following the divisive election of August 9, Muhoozi's tweet was manna from the political gods. Kenyans rallied against this foreign enemy and unleashed the one army you don't want to go to war with – Kenyans on Twitter (KOT). They served an insult feast and whipped up a level of outrage enough to last Muhoozi the rest of his life. Within 24 hours, the Uganda Ministry of Foreign Affairs apologised, and a top Ugandan diplomat was on a flight to Nairobi with peace offerings.
Muhoozi was sacked as Commander of the Land Forces, but blood is blood, so Museveni also cushioned him with a kick upstairs, promoting him to the rank of General. That infuriated Kenyans further, and 12 hours later, President Museveni took to Twitter and extended perhaps the most unvarnished apology of his 37-year presidency and explained why he had promoted Muhoozi. Unlike the Ministry, he noted that Muhoozi's tweets had been offensive but then sought Kenyan forgiveness for "us," making Muhoozi's sin the folly of all Ugandans.
Beyond the political ramifications, the affair pointed to a tipping point for social media, particularly Twitter, in Africa. It has moved from being the weapon of dissidents, activists, wits, and anonymous radical rudeness to an arena for mainstream political and social combat, and policy making. It has become the ultimate public square.
With nearly 400 million users globally, Twitter doesn't hold a candle to Facebook's about 3 billion users or Instagram's 2 billion. However, its influence on politics and sociocultural issues in most of the world is easily more considerable than Facebook and Instagram combined. A tweet by Rwanda President Paul Kagame calling for a management overhaul at his long-suffering Arsenal FC becomes as big a global story as former US President Donald Trump's Twitter rage. Muhoozi's tweet last year backing the Tigray rebels in its war with Abiy Ahmed's government sent Uganda-Ethiopia relations to the sewers.
Twitter's power seems to derive from the fact that it has all the world's most passionate, most opinionated, and probably the cleverest folks on public affairs – if they can afford a device and have access to the internet. Many are also very mean-spirited, and some suffer delusions of grandeur – helpful attributes if you seek power over others. In Africa, they have staged the most spectacular capture of the public agenda since the old days of Kwame Nkrumah.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]