African Viewpoint: Which leaders are Twitter savvy?

Al-Shabab fighters in Mogadishu, Somalia (5 March 2012)
Image caption Somalia's Islamist group al-Shabab uses Twitter to get its messages across

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, London-based Ugandan writer Joel Kibazo looks at how Twitter has become a campaign tool on the continent.

For some people, if you are not on the social networking site Twitter every other minute, you simply do not exist.

I was having a conversation with a young man the other day when he asked me casually, so how long is it since you were on?

The blank look on my face told him straight away I was not part of the regular Twitter tribe, that group of people who now measure their lives in terms of when they last tweeted to let their friends, or rather followers as they are called in tweet language, know their particular views on anything from their rating of Beyonce's latest performance, to the fashions on display at a Ghanaian funeral.

But, it seems things have moved on and Twitter is now much, much more important than its origins and common use might suggest.

Only last week, Somalia's al-Shabab militia group opened a new Twitter account in English, less than 10 days after its previous account was suspended.

Al-Shabab's previous English-language account was suspended after it used it to announce it would kill a French hostage and then said it had done so.

Twitter's rules state that threats of violence are banned. But who would have thought, al-Shabab was keen to be part of the in crowd.

But it is not enough to simply be tweeting, it is all about the number of followers you have.

'Making history'

Nothing illustrates how popular you are in the world of Twitter than the number of people who follow you.

Al-Shabab's previous site boasted a hefty 20,000 followers before it was suspended. The new site already has a couple of thousand followers.

Image caption Twitter users rallied around Burkinabe footballer Jonathan Pitroipa

As you would expect, it seems no self-respecting politician is without a Twitter account these days, so keen are they to be seen to be trending with whatever the latest hot topic is.

Shortly after he had been declared the winner of last November's presidential race in the US, Barack Obama, sent one simple tweet.

It featured the president and his wife Michelle hugging, with the caption: "Four more years".

Apparently, that simple victory celebration quickly became the most retweeted tweet in Twitter history.

African presidents are not quite in the same league with it comes to popularity on Twitter.

John Mahama of Ghana has around 11,000 followers nearly double that of Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara.

Anti-rape campaign

African viewpoint: Which leaders are Twitter savvy?

Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania has nearly 50,000 and Rwanda's Paul Kagame around 104,000.

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, is way out in front with more than 200,000 followers.

This got me wondering, are our presidents really spending a lot of their time on Twitter and what does it say about those such as Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki who do not have Twitter accounts?

I leave you to decide.

The truth is that although it may have started out simply as a social networking site, it is now more than that - a crucial communication tool that almost anyone can use to get their voice heard.

Only this past week, Twitter has been the main avenue for a campaign for change following the brutal rape and murder of a 17-year-old South African girl.

Her death has served as a rallying point in a country that has often ignored sexual violence.

For the football mad, over the last three weeks Twitter has been abuzz with commentary on every twist and turn in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in South Africa.

And we will never know what part a vigorous Twitter campaign played in helping restore Burkina Faso's star striker Jonathan Pitroipa to the team for the final against Nigeria after he picked up a red card in the semi-final.

Watch out, at this rate, even I might just get converted.

If you would like to comment on Joel Kibazo's column, please do so below.

Around the BBC