If COVID-19 has proved an intense adversity in Africa as elsewhere in the world, it has also proved a boon in some respects. The African digital diplomacy sphere is instructive in these respects.
The adage “every misfortune is a blessing” is common across Africa, an equivalent of “every cloud has a silver lining.” Before early 2020, when governments around the continent instituted restrictions on physical contact and movement, the use of digital technologies for diplomatic work by African nations was at best perfunctory. Save for a few countries such as South Africa, African diplomats and officials responsible for foreign policy and international affairs used social media platforms, voice and video streaming, and the internet more broadly in the same way as ordinary citizens. This is to say that African diplomats used Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other digital platforms instinctively rather than leveraging well-thought strategies and policies.
This contrasted with the early adopters of digital diplomacy such as the US, UK, Sweden, Australia, and other countries that appreciated the significance of digital technologies so much so that they put in place formal strategies and policies to guide the practice in the 2000s. The early adopting countries established entities, usually in the ministries of foreign affairs, to specifically undertake digital diplomacy work. A good example is the US’s digital diplomacy department recently re-launched as the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. The early adopters designated certain diplomatic officials as digital diplomats or had champions such as former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. Most of the trailblazers essentially elevated their public diplomacy policies to bring them up to speed with the information and communication technology revolution in what Dutch diplomacy scholar Jan Melissen seminally defined as new public diplomacy and in what Oxford University scholar Corneliu Bjola conceptualised as public diplomacy in the digital age.
In Africa, public diplomacy – which can be considered the foundation of digital diplomacy – was not prioritised as a foreign policy strategy or policy by ministries of foreign affairs. As this researcher found out in a study on African public diplomacy for the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, public diplomacy entities were and are only in place in very few African countries, including South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. This has meant that the transition from traditional public diplomacy to digital diplomacy proceeds ambiguously rather than as matter of state-driven planning and strategy.
To be certain, it is not that there is a complete absence of digital diplomacy in Africa. Indeed, an argument can be made that digital diplomacy is underway in Africa without the concept and practice being so labelled. As rule of thumb, digital diplomacy is any use of digital technologies by entities responsible for foreign policy and international affairs, however mundane this might be. For instance, African leaders such as Abdelfattah Elsisi of Egypt, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana are active users of Twitter and have featured in the analyses of the social media tracking agency Burson-Marsteller’s Twiplomacy.
The point of departure is that digital diplomatic practices in Africa are not organised, deliberate, and purposeful. Rather, they are practiced inadvertently and haphazardly. This claim can be ascertained by looking at the digital diplomacy platforms of African ministries of foreign affairs, from Facebook pages to websites – which are often witness lows and highs in terms of the posting and uploading of content.
COVID-19 might prove an opportunity for systematic digital diplomacy in Africa. With the arrival of the pandemic, African actors in fields of foreign affairs and international relations were forced to enhance their appropriation of digital technologies as they had few if any options for conducting core diplomatic functions. If African diplomatic actors were apprehensive, hesitant, or capacity-challenged in using digital technologies, they were constrained to embrace these technologies with alacrity. In what Ilan Manor characterised as the digitalisation of public diplomacy, African ministries of foreign affairs essentially leapfrogged from comparatively low to heightened levels of the use of digital technologies. Even though clear, formal, and published or accessible digital diplomacy strategies and policies are still not in place in most if not all African countries, it is probable that the increased use of digital technologies will trigger movements towards policy and strategy formulation.
The five Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations functions, namely, the ambassadorial roles of representation, pursuing and maintaining interests, negotiating bilaterally and multilaterally, communication, and promoting economic and cultural relations, provide a means of understanding the pandemic-motivated digitalisation of diplomacy. In March and April 2020, when most African countries announced emergency regulations including banning of international travel, African ambassadors and diplomatic staff took their diplomatic representation work to digital platforms. From the perspective of representation, a search on the internet shows a spike in virtual meetings between African ambassadors and their counterparts in receiving countries, this being a development of revolutionary magnitude compared to the pre-pandemic period.
At the continental level, COVID-19 forced the African Union to accelerate the adoption of digital platforms for its summits. In March 2020, as countries went under lockdown, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, then serving as the African Union rotational chairman, chaired a virtual meeting of heads of state and government on Africa’s response to the pandemic. In another example, in February 2021, then newly elected US President Joe Biden held a virtual heads of state summit with African presidents and prime ministers attending that year’s annual summit. Similarly, meetings by the leaders of the African regional economic communities such as the East African Community and Economic Community of West African States were held virtually for the first time and quickly became standard practice.
In terms of interests, the pandemic meant that African ministries of foreign affairs and embassies had to enhance the design and capacity of their websites to undertake online registrations for the repatriation of citizens stuck in foreign nations. A dramatic case was the repatriation of 114 South African citizens from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the disease, in March 2020. South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the embassy in China, and the South African Defence Forces all coordinated the operation, which commenced with the online registration of South African citizens living in Wuhan. Countries with large diasporas living abroad, such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, similarly leveraged digital technologies in tracking their citizens and helping repatriate them. Essentially, digital tools helped rapidly enhance African diaspora diplomacy.
The words of former British prime minister Winston Churchill to the effect that we should never let a crisis go to waste have been used a lot in terms of leveraging the possibilities that the pandemic afforded to good use. The use of digital diplomacy as a means of pursuing foreign policy goals is one such possibility. For African countries to effectively seize the opportunity, they would have to develop policies and strategies, initiative digital diplomacy entities, and step up the training of digital diplomats. Failure to do this would be one of the missed opportunities from an otherwise devasting pandemic.
Bob Wekesa is deputy director at the African Centre for the Study of the US at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and senior lecturer in journalism and media studies at the same university. Email: email@example.com
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