Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s most renowned global public servant of the last two decades, will be joining Twitter as a member of its Board of Directors.
The news set off a flood of congratulatory messages from everyone from former president Goodluck Jonathan to her former colleague on his cabinet Akin Adesina who is now president of the Africa Development Bank. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala has been the in the news this year following reactions to the publication of her book, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous. So we have not seen any public appreciation from the likes of presidential aspirant Donald Duke or the APC national chairman, Adams Oshiomhole. But while the book was about clearing up dust on her roles in a Nigeria of the past, her role on the Twitter board is about what she could do in forging the future of the world.
Twitter is a bit of a big deal as far as communication and policy is concerned in the world. At least in English-speaking environments, the platform has served as a hub for identifying breaking news and gathering and spreading reactions to issues as they arise. The relative ease of use and potential for posts to be shared widely has made it a powerful medium for advocacy and for amplifying voices that ordinarily would not have found space on traditional modes of media. The micro-blogging service has seen an upward trend in monthly active users since the first quarter of 2010, with the figure currently at 336 million. It reflects the growing relevance of the social media platform since its creation in 2006 for following trends and events across different spheres of life, especially in politics, sports and entertainment.
It is far from perfect, however. As with other social media platforms built around minimal supervision (at least not of a government kind), perversion by bots, trolls and hackers have threatened to undermine the social value the platform creates. The greatest danger has been that some users could leverage grey areas in Twitter’s policies to suppress other voices through cyber-bullying of different forms. A virtual space where anonymity is preferred by many and verification only a bonus, there has been the concern that Twitter does not represent the real world and that millions of tweets taken as the “views of people” could provide fertile ground for misinformation and wrong decisions.
How getting Okonjo-Iweala on its board solves those particular problems is not immediately obvious when one considers her as strictly a finance and global economics type. What is clear, however, is that the former Nigerian Finance Minister is one of the best in the world on the subjects of making connections and brokering deals beyond borders. In that sense, she fits into Twitter’s need to solidify its capacities to be a platform that promotes open conversation across entities. Her status as a globally renowned development expert does give Twitter an appearance that suggests it considers its booming user communities in developing economies seriously, while ensuring its founding base continues to find it essential.
As it becomes more useful as a tool for advocacy and interface with governments, that Twitter’s would pay attention to the dynamics of politics in Africa should be expected. The company cannot afford to be perceived as a western-owned project seeking to infiltrate and dominate (destabilize, if you like) African governments and impose particular ideologies. It is such thinking that inspires social media taxes and obstructive legislation supposedly regulating social media. As long as Jack Dorsey seeks to have a Zuckerberg-like mission of connecting the world through his platform, engaging with governments and civil society networks will be part of the process of engendering trust and confidence that twitter is interest-free (where “interest” is ideological overthrow). There is also the burden on Twitter to prove itself as not being vulnerable to seizure by any one group of persons to manipulate decision-making processes. The examples from the 2016 US elections and Cambridge Analytica come to mind and with elections seasons always fuelling paranoia in Africa, this assurance is a necessity. The presence on its board of one of the continent’s highest ever ranking global figures whose integrity has not suffered much by direct political involvement is a right step to take towards inspiring such motives. Integrity is the key asset here.
WIth just over 2,000 tweets since 2011, she is not your definition of an ‘overlord’ (not a description I reckon she would want anyway). But Okonjo-Iweala, with a public opinion polls firm and a policy research centre, knows just the right bit about public data and how it can affect mass audiences. It is to be expected that her time on the company’s board will see sufficient application of her vast experience and stellar career for results that, should other parts move accordingly, will not be short on good value for the sustenance of democratic institutions and development in Africa and around the world.
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