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REVENGE OF THE NERDS: Big data and the millennials’ digital dilemma

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REVENGE OF THE NERDS: Big data and the millennials’ digital dilemma
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The planet is getting smarter. Inanimate objects from phones to houses are becoming intelligent. The vehicle of the information technology revolution has been hardware but information is the real prize. Advances in processing power facilitate the reorganisation of the data around us with previously unimaginable results. The amount of data we generate is increasing exponentially. The future belongs to those who can tap its potential. In 2016 the world produced as much data as in the entire history of humankind through 2015.

Data has several special attributes. It doesn’t wear out. Increase and reuse raises its value, and unlike blending silver with tin, the combination of previously incompatible data sets generates new insights and uses. Sheer volume negates problems of inaccuracies, anomalies, and outliers. Even “exhausted” data can be reclaimed and repurposed. Google got ahead by finding secondary uses for other companies’ binned information.

Technology firms are parlaying access to data into solutions for problems and innovative technologies not imaginable a decade ago. The great majority of these databased applications will generate material benefits and efficiencies revolutionising how we live and work. Others will be used to exploit our private information, manipulate our emotions, control our minds, and redirect the choices we make.

The data revolution has only just begun but the art of mind control is not new. Shamans and wizards did it by tapping forces in the unseen world. Prophets and priests used the afterlife to strike fear into our souls. Psychologists developed social control techniques based on the study of the mind. The Nazis sought world domination by weaponising the occult and black magic. And now mental manipulation has become a science that has been used to accomplish previously unthinkable things, like electing Donald Trump and triggering a Brexit.

The data revolution has only just begun but the art of mind control is not new. Shamans and wizards did it by tapping forces in the unseen world. Prophets and priests used the afterlife to strike fear into our souls. Psychologists developed social control techniques based on the study of the mind.

Or so Alexander Nix, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, claimed in his controversial interview with Channel 4. “We operate in the shadows,” he said. He also claimed that after they came on board, Cambridge Analytica reconfigured the content and strategy of Jubilee’s successful 2017 election campaign in Kenya. Although the sales pitch to fictitious clients from Sri Lanka reopened some of the wounds that the Uhuru Kenyatta-Raila Odinga handshake was meant to heal, it is actually a case of mambo baado.

The grand masters of big data

The rise of big data is the product of new techniques that amalgamate large and disparate databases scattered in distant locations. Collecting data is an ancient practice, but combined with recent advances in processing power, data collection now allows analysts to sort through billions of data points with new methods for identifying patterns and probabilities. This is shifting the quest to understand the world from theory-based methods to correlation-generating algorithms.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, the authors of one popular book on the subject, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, note that all of this has been going on for a long time, but the payoff enabled by the combination of data and algorithms is just beginning. They begin their transformational thesis by citing an epidemiological example of mass data’s predictive power.

In 2009 Google boiled down data from 50 million search topics to 45 terms that, when fed into a mathematical model, predicted the spread of a lethal new flu virus in real time. The case of Farecost (the first application for predicting changes in airline flight prices that crunched 200 billion airline records to show that booking early does not always insure lower fares) was pioneered by Oren Etzioni in 1992. The authors use a diverse sample of more recent applications to further illustrate how the power of correlation is replacing the whys and hows of conventional analyses.

The big data value chain is bringing scalable efficiencies to equipment maintenance, transport systems, commodity supply chains, medical diagnosis, the insurance industry, educational methodologies, energy grids, and myriad other applications. Rolls Royce now earns more from its data services than the sale of the jet engines it manufactures, and the authors of Big Data provide many other proofs illuminating the mantra of the new data professionals: “We don’t need to understand why but only to know what.”

They repeatedly return to the point that these breakthroughs were not about the technologically enabled analysis of data, but rather a shift in the mindset about how data can be used. “Data,” they observe, “can reveal secrets to those with the humility, the willingness, and the tools to listen.”

Such language triggers a sense of unease among those of us who are concerned with the persuasive technologies built into social media and other mind-negating apps. For the nerds, economy Silicon Valley is spawning dreams of personal fulfillment, like the one articulated in this young engineer’s testimonial: “I wanted to pave a path that is unique to me, and I’m doing exactly that. I’m only a couple years into it, and the future feels unlimited.”

Big data is operating at the intersection of such visionary epiphanies and the capacity to capture real-world information that is playing an increasingly direct role in determining our social and economic realities. For the big data contractors and collectors, the fourth revolution is determining the future of work and the workplace itself.

According to a Google Vice President, data occupations are the “sexiest jobs in the world”. The only problem is that it is only a matter of time before the advance of machine learning will eventually make many of the human-computer scientists, like the one cited above, and their supporting cast of database managers and statisticians redundant.

Data miners claim that 15 Facebook data points can reveal an individual’s likes and dislikes, circle of friends and political leaning—and that 150 points can extend this profile to anticipating a given individual’s decision-making behaviour better than the individual can himself.

According to a Google Vice President, data occupations are the “sexiest jobs in the world”. The only problem is that it is only a matter of time before the advance of machine learning will eventually make many of the human-computer scientists, like the one cited above, and their supporting cast of database managers and statisticians redundant.

The accuracy of this oft-cited yardstick may not be absolute, but then again, big data science compensates for the messy nature of most data sets by using accumulating layers of cross-indexed information to compensate for errors.

Data processed in this manner can be applied to non-controversial areas, from beating chess grand masters at their own game to evidence-based policy formulation. One of the ostensibly more benign applications of this power is nudging, or the use of data-driven applications to direct people to make better decisions about their personal health and actions affecting the environment.

Few will reject this kind of social engineering even if we have reservations about the methods. The more serious problem is that the pace of technological change continues to outstrip the ability of governments and society alike to respond to the ethical concerns and economic consequences.

This is another reason we should probably thank Alexander Nix for directing our attention to data-centric issues of a higher order. As one commentator stated after news of Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of elections in foreign countries broke, it is better to live in a world full of snake-oil merchants like Cambridge Analytica who eventually get caught out than a world of vast corporate monopolies, such as Amazon and Facebook, who seek to gradually take on the functions of government by stealth.

Artificial intelligence and the robot revolution

An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions used to solve a problem. Unlike computer programmes that are repetitive by design, algorithms are less precise and their problem-solving function requires that they need to terminate to be valid. This open-ended design of algorithms allows them to incorporate feedback. They use the information they gather to construct an internal model that can be tested against additional data. Each cycle of iteration improves the model, and the combination of big data and computational power now allows for near endless cycles.

Science fiction and bestselling books like as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and George Orwell’s 1984 anticipated these developments. The concept of The Singularity gained traction during the 1950s. Singularity refers to the point when a variable becomes infinite. The concept was adopted to define the point when artificial intelligence would surpass human brainpower. During the 1960s, scientists reinforced these ideas with predictions that machines would begin replacing human functions within the next twenty years. However, the robot revolution did not happen within the time frame they envisioned.

The conceptual approaches and techniques now driving the development of machine learning and deep neural networks were tried and abandoned around the same time. Symbolic artificial intelligence, based on a more inductive approach to teaching computers, replaced it. But in 2012 a researcher based in Toronto demonstrated that computers using algorithms based on using large data sets could solve problems without being specifically programmed to do so. The science of artificial intelligence changed overnight.

The exponential growth of artificial intelligence (AI) development is now based on “deep” machine learning utilising multiple layers of algorithms where the information generated by one layer informs the processes undertaken on the layer above it. It requires constant streams of data to inform and refresh the process.

Initiatives like Google’s plan to bridge the digital divide in developing regions by using base stations affixed to mobile helium balloons and Facebook’s plan to use drones to do the same may appear altruistic, but they are not. Smartphones that can track your eyes’ movements are sold as a consumer-driven enhancement, but are really just a new trick for pick-pocketing the information in your brain.

Deep machine learning is now making the progress of earlier technological revolutions and the predictions of mid-century scientists alike appear glacial in comparison. Within a decade, machines will be able to recognise faces and other images better than humans. The same applies to machines’ mastery of natural language, which is why the digital assistant just unveiled by Google triggered a backlash—people cannot identify the voice on the other end of the phone line as computer-generated.

Initiatives like Google’s plan to bridge the digital divide in developing regions by using base stations affixed to mobile helium balloons and Facebook’s plan to use drones to do the same may appear altruistic, but they are not. Smartphones that can track your eyes’ movements are sold as a consumer-driven enhancement, but are really just a new trick for pick-pocketing the information in your brain.

AI industry analysts report that the pace of change now exceeds the calculations of even relatively recent predictions. They acknowledge that the AI technology behind the robot calling you to remind you of your late mortgage payment may replace half the jobs employing humans in developed countries by 2040. AI will be embedded within our buildings, roads, homes, clothing and even our bodies: the development of neural laces is making biodigital interfaces a rapidly approaching reality. Workers in the knowledge economy of the future may have to accept electrodes that can “upload and download thoughts” in their brains to remain competitive.

The empirical facts supporting these predictions suggest that the citizens of Western democracies will find it difficult to resist these changes. Resisting in monolithic states like China will not be an option; their new Citizen Index will make even discussing the problem trigger a social credit debit. The significance of these developments for Africa is harder to assess.

Future shocks

The decades of sci-fi books and movies that initially moulded our concept of robots and artificial intelligence conveyed a mixed message about the future. For the most part, the cyborgs remained machines and even the advanced supersmart computer brains were humanised versions of gigantic databases that could imitate and reason but not replicate humans’ unique, if imperfect, capacity to think.

This genre was part of a larger line of critique that questioned the presumed neutrality of technology. It began as a logical response to the detonation of the atomic bomb. Criticism of the dehumanising impact of technological capitalism subsequently fueled the environmental movement and the search for alternative lifestyles that emerged during the political ferment of the late 1960s. E. F. Schumacher’s appropriate technology gospel and Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue offered a middle way for the counter-cultural proponents of humanistic technology.

Then personal computers and the Internet came along. Technology was no longer neutral; it was cool. Rejecting the neutrality thesis at this juncture would have entailed disowning history and many of our new toys. Technology could liberate as well as destroy. Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” ad campaign exploited the new liberation theology predicated on easy access to the expanding digital universe. This simple but effective campaign created a new cultural meme by pairing the Think Different slogan (and Apple logo) with full-page portraits of some of the world’s most iconic personalities: e.g. Mahatma Gandhi, Einstein, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, George Harrison, Mohammed Ali, and Thomas Edison. Apple’s revenues tripled during the year following the campaign even though no new products were launched.

The unique cultural milieu of the Bay area contributed to the emergence of the new tech industry. San Francisco was for generations the epicentre of a free zone that fostered an adaptive mix of eccentricity, culture and arts, high-end engineering and experimental lifestyles. According to the creative director of the agency that designed the pitch, the ads were inspired by the counter-culture maxim that one has to be a bit crazy to survive. Think Different was the catalyst behind Apple’s swift transition from laughing stock to “the stock you dream of owning”.

The campaign, as it turned out, was one of the artifacts of a fading era, a swan song for a generation that saw technological innovation as an extension of the human spirit. Over time the meme gave way to the Think Profits mindset: Tim Cook’s Apple—the world’s wealthiest company—now rips us off by charging extra for the dongles needed to make their new Mac laptops functional.

Corporatism is turning Silicon Valley from the unique enclave of creativity to a high-pressure rat race where the odds for success are increasingly hit or miss. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was the tech-savvy brain behind the first personal computer. The same mentality that made him head for the hills at an early stage is now prompting predictions that much of the action in the diversifying tech sector will take place in other hubs and in other parts of the world. Sometimes Kenya’s “Silicon Savanna” is cited in these conversations.

Silicon uncertainty and the millennials’ dilemma

The revival of Apple coincided with the first phase of mobile telephony in East Africa. The mobile phone has proved to be the most successful technology in Africa since motorised transport. In Kenya it was hoped that the new system would attract 90,000 subscribers; there were over 300,000 within a year and one million after year two. Rapid uptake enabled the expansion of cellular infrastructure to the remotest areas of the country.

Before these developments, there were times when I had to make the eight-hour round trip to Nairobi for the simple reason that I could not connect with colleagues through a landline. The same problem often magnified the consequences of being late for an appointment. Mobile phones quickly flipped everything. When I visited the United States in 2001, I discovered that Kenyans were sending text messages before the Americans even knew that SMS existed. Techies were so impressed with my Nokia 6310i handset that I received several offers doubling the amount I had paid for it.

The success of mobile telephony in Kenya is also reflected in the hugely successful mobile money service Mpesa, which became the world’s first money transfer system after its 2007 launch accelerated the penetration of cell phones to its current level of 80 per cent. Mobile connectivity translates into a correspondingly high level of Internet access, and it is also a major reason why Kenya now tops the world in financial inclusion rankings. It also put Kenya on the high tech map.

It is estimated that access to mobile money can increase household income from between 5 and 30 per cent. Mpesa agents have added more than 100,000 small businesses to the economy and the platform contributes to the efficiency of countless other large and small enterprises. Most of us would choose a dumb phone with an Mpesa account over a high-end smartphone without.

The downside of the new connectivity in a country like Kenya is the high cost of data and poor network speeds across the landscape outside of Nairobi and Mombasa. In addition, the digital economy seems to have become more of a cash cow for the corporations at the top than a vehicle for creative problem-solving.

The only outsiders to prosper in this environment are online bookmakers who have fueled a gambling epidemic among the sports crazy youth and money-lending digital shylocks that have reportedly ensnared some 6.5 million Kenyan borrowers. Many of them don’t even know the interest rates being charged. The owners of these parasitical apps have attracted some 5 billion Kenya shillings in venture capital since 2015.

This is not the kind of crazy that will help young Kenyans survive, much less prosper. The phenomenal growth of the mobile phone sector is slowing now, and it is otherwise difficult to assess if Kenya’s Silicon Savanna will prove to be more than a source of labour for the world’s elite high tech capitalists.

The obverse exception is the government’s perverse relationship with anti-democracy operatives like Cambridge Analytica and its extralegal use of data in the name of national security. Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone service provider, and Kenya’s other telecom providers are actively partnering with the government to conduct surveillance of the public in blatant disregard of constitutional and legal provisions protecting citizens’ privacy.

The government’s highly touted but flawed project to build a technology city outside Nairobi is a fading mirage, and the even more conflated tablet computer for primary school students initiative has been quietly mothballed. This is probably a good thing at this juncture. The shape of things to come is too unpredictable and dependent on forces beyond the control of government planners and tenderpreneurs.

The obverse exception is the government’s perverse relationship with anti-democracy operatives like Cambridge Analytica and its extralegal use of data in the name of national security. Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone service provider, and Kenya’s other telecom providers are actively partnering with the government to conduct surveillance of the public in blatant disregard of constitutional and legal provisions protecting citizens’ privacy.

The other good news is that issues like gambling and loan sharking are easily rectified through conventional policies, and that others like the abuse of data in the name of security generate system-changing feedback. A sober assessment of the situation on the ground and stakeholder participation, for example, have contributed to the National Counter Terrorism Centre’s more inclusive and participatory new policy framework.

The real challenges are of a higher order

Despite the retrogressive problems of countries like South Sudan, most of the larger Eastern Africa region is undergoing a fundamental socio-economic transition. In 1989 Kenya’s population growth rate levelled off at 4.1 per cent per annum—creating the largest demographic surge in known recorded history. The main driver of the transition process is demographic at this point. The technological variable is for the most part latent for the time being, but it will clearly play a decisive role further up the road.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it looks like the nerds have won. Google’s Pentagon-size research budget exceeds that of many industrialised nations. Together with Intel, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, these west-coast tech firms represent half of the world’s top ten research and development spenders; Apple and IMB are close behind.

The directionality of change driven by these technological masters of the universe is generating contrasting projections. True believers, like Yuval Hariri, envision a prosperous but polarised society where data-driven AI replaces God.

In their book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler assemble 300 pages of evidence supporting their thesis that technology is on the brink of delivering a post-scarcity society. The authors conclude their argument by stating, “If 150,000 years of evolution is anything to go by, it’s how we dream up the future.” Less optimistic observers are depicting the coming dystopia from almost every angle imaginable.

Conditions in this part of world will keep many of the forces driving the inevitable economic and technological singularities at a distance, at least for a while. The robots are coming, but they still can’t tie our shoe laces or make a good chapati.

We read about Africa’s new techno-entrepreneurs, but we have yet to see them mapping out ways to tap the region’s “unlimited possibilities”. In the meantime, it is encouraging that Kenya’s millennials are beginning to make some noise about the region’s short-sighted leaders. Numerically, they have much more skin than the rest of us in the game that will determine how the fourth technological revolution will play out in Africa.

In the meantime, it is encouraging that Kenya’s millennials are beginning to make some noise about the region’s short-sighted leaders. Numerically, they have much more skin than the rest of us in the game that will determine how the fourth technological revolution will play out in Africa.

Have the vultures stolen the younger generations’ dreams? Then again, while they justifiably complain about the poor hand dealt to them by their elders, our millennials appear too busy staring at their phones to develop a vision of their own.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

Thirty years after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, there has hardly been any meaningful development in this small nation in the Horn of Africa. On the contrary, the government’s authoritarian policies have undermined democracy and forced young people to flee the country.

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Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Following the defeat of Italian forces by the Allied Forces during World War Two, Britain occupied Eritrea until its federation to Ethiopia in 1952. However, by 1962 Emperor Haile Selassie had annexed Eritrea, declaring that it was part of Ethiopia, and in this way ending the federation.

In 1961, a year before the annexation, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started an armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The armed struggle continued for 30 years against successive Ethiopian regimes until 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who had replaced the ELF, defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. Eritrea became formally independent following a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1993.

From the beginning, the EPLF (now the People’s Front of Democracy and Justice – PFDJ)’s strategy for achieving liberation and national unity was for it to dominate all social, political, and economic spaces. The PFDJ implemented a highly centralised and opaque two-track system of administration: an unseen, powerful inner circle of elites; and public structures that projected an image of egalitarian self-sufficiency. This centralised and opaque model of governance continues today.

Since liberation, PFDJ has banned all opposition parties and treats all non-mass-movement organisations (i.e. independent civil society) with suspicion; hence there are no independent national civil society organisations in the country. Without any consultation, the PFDJ has nationalised all land; it has established a unitary form of government, and it has changed the administrative boundaries within the country. Despite these totalitarian tendencies, in 1994, the PFDJ, as the Provisional Government of Eritrea, set up the Constitutional Assembly to draft the Constitution. The task was completed in 1997. But the Constitution remains unimplemented.

Border dispute

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

The EEBC delivered its border decision on 13th April 2002, placing the town of Bademe, the flashpoint of the border conflict, on the Eritrean side. The Ethiopian government contested the allocation of Bademe to Eritrea. Therefore, a situation of “no war, no peace” ensued between the two countries as President Isaias Afewerki refused any dialogue on the issue because the parties had agreed that the decision of the EEBC was final and binding.

President Isaias Afwerki, who is also the chair of the PFDJ, took advantage of the strained relationship with Ethiopia to:

  1. indefinitely postpone the implementation of the 1997 Constitution as well as the general elections;
  2. arrest and disappear dissenters, especially University of Asmara students and the members of the government known as G15 who promoted a democratisation process (2001);
  3. close the independent media and arrest journalists (2001);
  4. abolish the Eritrean National Assembly (i.e. the Eritrean Parliament) (2002);
  5. maintain a high level of militarisation of the country.

To maintain a high level of militarisation, the government vertically integrated the National Service to the National Development Programme (i.e. the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme) and to Education. This integration allows the Eritrean government to move students into the National Service and the National Development Programme from high schools (i.e. Grade 12) and indefinitely extends the period of service of the conscripts, hence taking full control over the working population.

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

Through the integration of the National Service into the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme and Education, the government has limited the citizenship rights of conscripts who while in service cannot: legally obtain a mobile phone or SIM card; get or renew a business licence; access land; and access travel documents and exit visas. Deserters or objectors are denied any rights and cannot access state services. Thus, the official Eritrean concept of citizenship is intrinsically linked to conscription and the fulfilment of National Service duties.

The National Service is a combination of military training and civil service, working for little pay in non-military activities such as agriculture, the construction of roads, houses and buildings and mining. The Warsay National Development Programme relies on the deployment of te National Service (Warsay) and defence personnel (Yikaalo) as a labour force. The programme operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence.

Since 2003, the government has closed the University of Asmara (the only university in the country). It has also required that all Eritrean students complete Grade 12 at the Sawa military training camp. Students who have not completed their final year of secondary school at Sawa and have not sat for the National School Certificat, cannot access college education. The PFDJ has replaced Asmara University with regional colleges, which are administered jointly by an academic director and a military director.

National Service conscripts work for an indefinite period on development projects, the administration of ministries and local authorities, as well as in PFDJ-owned businesses. Such work is carried out for very little pay and in conditions that a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described as “forced labour”.

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa. The government will not issue an exit visa to any Eritrean above the age of five, irrespective of their situation (i.e. family reunification, health, etc.)

The government’s control over the Eritrean people is a political, social and economic process of deprivation and human rights violations for which it refuses to take any responsibility. It is systematically impoverishing the population. Therefore, Eritrean youth face having to choose between the life of slave labour or exile. They describe their situation as slavery: “[The] situation in Eritrea and long time ago with slaves is the same. We build the houses of the elites without money. We work on farms of government officials for no money. If you are educated, they deploy you to anywhere…for a short time, you can tolerate it…but this is for life.”

Faced with accusations of human rights violations, the government reverts to “threat” mode. It labels any reference to human rights violations as “lies” and “ploys” of its enemies to undermine the state. The PFDJ Head of Political Affairs, Mr Yemane Gebreab, dismissed the findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human rights by saying: “….[it is] really laughable……There is no basis to the claims of the Commission of Inquiry…”

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa.

In addition to taking control over the working population, the government also took control of the economic sectors, including finance, import and export, transport and construction. It has achieved control over the economic sphere through a process of unfair competition with private business, facilitated by the fact that it does not pay taxes and does not comply with labour, environmental, and other regulatory requirements. Also, as the regime has control over the working population, it has unlimited access to a large pool of free labour, effecting a net transfer of the workforce away from the private sector. This policy of moving human resources to labour sites identified and controlled by the government has crippled the private sector, especially the agricultural industry, which still relies to a large extent on subsistence farming.

The government’s control and domination of the economy have not increased economic activity or productivity. The economy is stagnating, further weakening the private sector and restricting economic opportunities for Eritreans.

Notwithstanding PFDJ’s rhetoric, Eritrean youth experience the state as an albatross around their necks. They understand the state in terms of spy networks; as a human rights violator curtailing civil, political, and economic rights and as the as the source of torture and deprivation. They see it as the source of all restrictions and deprivations. This is the reason why they flee the country.

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

In April 2018, the Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy announced the acceptance of the EEBC decision, in particular the allocation of the flashpoint town of Bademe to Eritrea. In this way, he started a process that led to the signing of the Ethiopia Eritrea Peace Agreement in July 2018, thus ending two decades of “no war, no peace”. The land borders opened to much jubilation in 2018. However, by April 2019, the Eritrean government had closed them all. So far, the only achievements of the Peace Agreement are the reopening of embassies and telecommunication lines and the resumption of flights.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country. Soon after the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Eritrean Catholic priest Aba Teklemichael pointed to the sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia, and urged the Eritrean government to also undertake necessary reforms in Eritrea and to democratise the government. By Easter 2019, the Eritrean Catholic bishops were also calling for a constitutional government and the rule of law. They also encouraged the government to release political prisoners and start a process of reconciliation within the country. However, to date there have been no reforms in the country, a state of affairs confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea who at the start of this year reported that she had: “ ……no tangible evidence of a meaningful and substantive improvement in the situation of human rights in Eritrea”.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country.

The ongoing peace process is not transparent; it has mostly remained an elite political level agreement unable to deliver on the economic front or to resolve the issue of Bademe as both Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias Afewerki have marginalised the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for political motives. The Eritrean government has increasingly identified the Tigray State and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as an existential threat to Eritrea, thus justifying the maintenance of a high level of militarisation. Consequently, Eritrean youth continue to flee the country. In 2018, UNHCR ranked Eritrea as the ninth-largest refugee-sending state in the world.

Ailing health sector

The totalitarian agenda of the Eritrean government did not spare the health sector either. The task of reconstructing the Eritrean health system after the liberation struggle and following the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war was monumental. It was an undertaking that the late and former Minister of Health Saleh Meki undertook with passion, commitment, and zest from 1997 to 2009 when Ms Amina Nurhussein replaced him.

In his efforts rebuild the Eritrean health system, Saleh Meki sought to establish strategic partnerships with critical international health institutions, private practitioners, faith-based organisations, such as the Catholic Church, as well as professional members of the Eritrean diaspora. The former Minister of Health carried on with his efforts despite the enormous pressure to conform to the dictates of President Isaias Afwerki, and the concerns generated by the closure of international non-governmental organisations, as well as the restriction of movement imposed on all organisations working in the country. Against all the odds, he re-established the medical school known as the Orotta Medical School.

Saleh Meki died on 2nd October 2009. Soon after his death, all the medical missions of international organisations that he had worked so hard to bring to Eritrea ended. By 2011 the Eritrean Government forced the closure of all private medical clinics. And, by 2018 a total of 29 Catholic health facilities providing maternal and child health support and serving some of the more remote communities in the country were closed. The seizure and closure, of the Catholic health facilities was carried out in complete disregard to the health and safety of the patients, most of whom were left to fend for themselves.

There was no clear justification for the closure of the private health facilities. However, the closure of the Catholic health facilities was justified as an enforcement of the 1995 Proclamation to standardise and articulate religions institutions (Proclamation No 73 of 1995). The Proclamation prohibits religious bodies from engaging in social and welfare services. This position is contested by all faith-based organisations, especially since there was no consultation in the development of the law. The Eritrean Catholic bishops’ communication with the government on the seizure and closure of their health facilities point out that the facilities operated by abiding with all the requirements of the Ministry of Health.

Poor COVID-19 response

The closure of health facilities has reduced the number of available beds and the overall capacity of the health system. Hence, Eritrea, with a score of 0.434, was ranked 182nd out of 189 countries by the 2019 Human Development Index. The low Human Development Index combined with a hospital bed capacity of 7 beds for 10,000 people, and no available data as to the number of health professionals (i.e. doctors and nurses) available per 10,000 people, suggests that the situation might be even more dire. And the poor connectivity of the country (i.e. mobile phones, internet, broadbands) means that the country’s capacity to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19 is low.

The low capacity of the Eritrean health system to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was also of concern to the diaspora Eritrean Healthcare Professionals Network (EHPN), which urged the Eritrean government to immediately implement the World ealth Orbanization (WHO) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and advisories to contain the pandemic. EHPN expressed concern that the country lacks the necessary prerequisites to implement hygiene measures because: “There is a shortage of water, disinfectants, laboratories that carry out diagnostic tests and medical professionals, including nursing and technical staff. There is also a lack of functioning intensive care units with adequate ventilation equipment needed to properly treat patients. The reality is that many Eritreans will not be able to seek and obtain medical treatment in their homeland or neighbouring countries. In short, the Eritrean health system is not adequately prepared for COVID 19.”

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The government’s willingness to reject donations has, however, launched a COVID-19 appeal among citizens. The appeal is remarkable for the lack of information as to how the funds raised will be used. There is no single COVID-19 emergency response bank account designated for the appeal; hence, in the diaspora, funds are collected in different foreign bank accounts set up by Eritrean embassies. Consequently, there is a real danger that the funds will never enter the country and will disappear into the government’s opaque offshore financial system. Also, there is no information as to how the Ministry of Health will use the funds. Reports by Eritrean human rights activists say the appeal is coerced, confirming the lack of transparency and accountability of the fundraising process.

There is also no transparency in the COVID-19 data that the Eritrean government is providing. It reported the first four COVID-positive cases on the 21st and 23rd of March. One patient was an Eritrean national resident in Norway, and the other three positive patients were Eritrean nationals returning from Dubai. Because of these events, by 26th March, the government banned all commercial passenger flights for two weeks. It also closed schools. And, by 1st April, it imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The lockdown measures did not include the closure of the Sawa military training camp or the release of political prisoners. The government has recently released 27 Christian prisoners, who were imprisoned without charge or trial for as long as sixteen years. Their release is conditional on their family lodging their property deeds with the government as a guarantee that the people released will not leave the country.

While maintaining a strict lockdown, the Eritrean government has allowed mass gatherings to celebrate the graduation of the 33rd round of Sawa military training camp graduates as well as the transfer of Grade 12 conscripts to the facility.

From 1st April to 18th April, the Eritrean government reported 39 COVID positive cases, all linked to Eritreans visiting or returning from their travels. Then, for two months, there were no new cases reported. After that, the number of COVID-positive cases increased, and by the 12th of October, Eritrea reported a total of 414 COVID-positive patients and 372 recoveries.

Though the government makes repeated references to quarantine centres, it has not shared a list of the centres, their location or capacity. It is also not reporting the daily number of COVID tests. Nor has it reported any COVID-related deaths or any community transmission of the virus. It continues to attribute all the new COVID cases to Eritreans returning through “irregular land and sea routes” from Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen. But there is no explanation as to why so many nationals are travelling despite the government’s strict lockdown procedure that prohibits all movement between towns and that restricts te movement of any vehicles, including buses and taxis, which require movement permits. Such permits are not easy to obtain.

Finally, there are only five incidents of Ministry of Information reporting the number of individuals tested or in quarantine:

  1. 3,000 quarantined – 8th May 2020;
  2. 5,270 quarantined – 3rd June 2020;
  3. 7,158 nationals returned through irregular land and sea routes. Not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – 14th June 2020;
  4. 18,000 citizens allegedly returned through irregular land and sea routes. This movement occurred in the last four months. Again, not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – the 12th October 2020;
  5. 41,100 tests – 12th October 2020.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The COVID lockdown in Eritrea, like in other countries, has brought economic activities to a standstill. The difference between Eritrea and other countries is that the Eritrean economy was already on its knees before the lockdown and the Eritrean government has not made any attempt – beyond extorting donations from its citizens – to alleviate the suffering of the people with economic support packages. Consequently, Eritreans are hungry and desperate and have started to ignore strict lockdowns. They are on the streets selling all kinds of goods. Women are out in the streets, making tea and cooking food for sale. Family and friends describe Asmara, the capital city, as full of mobile tea shops.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The Eritrean Afars have, through the Red Sea Afar Human Rights Organisation (RSAHRO), issued a press statement, describing their situation under lockdown as a: “… siege imposed by the Eritrean regime on the citizens of the region.”. They warn of the danger of hunger in their area. They also describe confiscation of boats, camels and supplies by the military, closed health centres, unprepared quarantine centres, as well as lack of medical supplies. The human rights organisation also accuse General Tekle Manjus of confiscating trucks of emergency food sent from Asmara for distribution among the Afar.

The Afar coastal area is not the only area in danger of hunger. The information from Eritrea is that hunger is very real all over the country. The government media and social media accounts do not report the danger of hunger or any of the difficulties that the people are facing during this COVID-19 emergency. Their postings give the impression that Eritrea is doing just fine.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice
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Anxiety over who will replace Chief Justice David Maraga exploded into the public domain on Friday, October 16, 2020, when a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) alleged a plot to delay the recruitment process. Macharia Njeru, one of the two representatives of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) to the JSC, claimed in a public statement that the Chief Justice and a few others were “hellbent on derailing the orderly recruitment of his successor and leaving the institution of the Judiciary in a crisis of leadership”.

LSK immediately dissociated itself from Macharia’s position and asserted that the “state capture of the Judiciary and the Judicial Service Commission would not be executed through its representatives”.

The parliamentary Justice and Legal Affairs Committee had earlier failed to prevail on Justice Maraga to take early terminal leave, and subsequently published a proposal to change the law on when to begin recruitment of a new Chief Justice. The Chief Justice will officially retire on January 12, 2021, when he turns 70, but he is expected to take leave on December 15, 2020.

Powerful individuals in the country’s politics cannot wait to see Justice Maraga’s back because of his surprising show of spine. On September 1, 2017, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken jurist led a four-judge majority of the Supreme Court to annul the presidential election in a decision that reverberated across the globe. Last month, Justice Maraga advised the President to dissolve Parliament for failing enact laws to increase representation of women in national elected leadership on the strength of a High Court declaration and six petitions.

Between the two monumental decisions, the Chief Justice has called out the President over judiciary budget cuts, disregard for court orders and verbal attacks on the institution he leads.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric. None of these backhanded actions have brought the politically powerful any satisfaction, hence the abiding desire to find a more user-friendly Chief Justice.

Vacancies in the Judiciary can only be advertised fourteen days after they open up, according to the law, which means that the Chief Justice, who also chairs the JSC, plays no role in recruiting his successor. Previously, individuals in the presidency unsuccessfully sought to influence who becomes Chief Justice since the Constitution of Kenya, on its promulgation in 2010, retired Justice Evan Gicheru in February 2011. At the time, President Mwai Kibaki nominated the Court of Appeal’s Justice Alnashir Visram for Chief Justice without inviting applications or conducting interviews. He was countermanded by the newly-constituted JSC, which then conducted one of the most brutal public interviews for the position before choosing civil society icon and law scholar Willy Mutunga.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric.

Dr Mutunga’s transparent recruitment freed him from the usual baggage that would accompany a political appointment to lead the transformation of the judiciary into an independent, publicly accountable institution [Full disclosure: I was communication advisor in the Office of the Chief Justice from 2011 to 2015]. By the time Dr Mutunga chose to retire a year early in June 2016, he had trebled the number of judges to increase efficiency, built confidence and secured the highest funding ever for the institution. He also ring-fenced decisional independence that would enable courts to act as a check on executive and legislative power.

After the Supreme Court upheld the 2013 presidential election, an internal corruption investigation in the Judiciary sucked the institution into a confrontation with the National Assembly, which petitioned the President to appoint a tribunal to investigate six members of the JSC. A five-judge High Court bench neutered the tribunal before it could sit and presented the first contest between Dr Mutunga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President Kenyatta would play possum with a list of 25 judge nominees presented to him by the JSC, first appointing 11 and then keeping the other 14 in abeyance for a year. An amendment to the law to require the JSC to send the President three names from which he could choose the Chief Justice was struck down on account of unconstitutionality.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament. By the time interviews for Dr Mutunga’s replacement began in September 2016, the Executive was disoriented and unable to muscle its substantial vote strength in the JSC for a single candidate.

Although the presidency nominates two non-lawyers as members of the JSC in addition to the Attorney General and a nominee of the Public Service Commission, thus controlling 36 per cent of the vote, the Judiciary has five members – the Chief Justice as chair and one representative each for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the magistrates – and has 45 per cent voice. The Law Society of Kenya’s two representatives – 18 per cent – provide an important swing vote for the Executive or the Judiciary whenever there is no consensus.

Justice Maraga of the Court of Appeal emerged as the dark horse in the three-month search for the Chief Justice on the strength of his electoral law jurisprudence. Earlier attempts to name Supreme Court judge Jackton Ojwang as acting Chief Justice were abandoned. Justice Ojwang trailed fellow Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala, Kenyan-American law professor Makau Mutua, and constitutional law expert Nzamba Kitonga.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament.

The Supreme Court’s annulment of the presidential election in September 2017 produced voluble complaints from President Kenyatta, who threatened unspecified action against the Judiciary. The independence of the Judiciary, represented in the person of the Chief Justice, has clearly rankled President Kenyatta and his supporters. He subsequently began a systematic reorganisation of the Executive’s representatives to the JSC by picking a judiciary insider, Court of Appeal president, Kihara Kariuki, to replace Attorney General Githu Muigai. Even before the terms of public representatives Winnie Guchu and Kipng’etich Bett were midway, he recalled them and replaced them with Prof Olive Mugenda and Felix Koskey. And then he declined to gazette the re-election of Mohammed Warsame as Court of Appeal representative to the JSC. Judge Warsame was finally seated without re-taking oath courtesy of a court decision that obviated the need for his election to be gazetted. He joined the judiciary column led by the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who had been elected to represent the Supreme Court, and Justice David Majanja, who represents the High Court.

Fears have been rife that the election of the magistrates’ representative to replace Chief Magistrate Emily Ominde in December and the replacement of LSK woman representative Mercy Deche could provide an opportunity for the Executive to support pliant candidates, in addition to Macharia Njeru.

It is likely that urgent attempts to start the Chief Justice’s recruitment could exclude the two representatives of the magistrates and the LSK, thus denying the panel two critical voices. Voting strength in the JSC could also be significantly altered if some of the commissioners apply for the Chief Justice’s position. For one, it is not clear if the 62-year-old Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who already represents the Supreme Court in the JSC, will act as chairperson of the commission once Justice Maraga leaves.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Political horse-trading with Parliament is a necessity for nominees to the position of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice to be confirmed during vetting. Often, politicians view the Chief Justice’s position as one of the spoils to be traded during ethno-regional deal-making. So far, the Chief Justice’s position has been occupied by a kaleidoscope of Kenyans – including many ethnic and religious colourations.

The law only provides for the Deputy Chief Justice to act as Chief Justice “[i]n the event of the removal, resignation or death” and only for a period not exceeding six months pending the appointment of a new one. It remains to be seen if legal experts will argue that retirement is not equivalent to removal, resignation or death. Should Justice Mwilu also throw her hat in the ring for the top job, she would not be able to cast a vote as a JSC member.

Another JSC member who has to weigh between voting and chasing the job is 66-year-old Justice Kihara Kariuki, believed to be a front-runner to succeed Chief Justice Evan Gicheru in 2011 but has bided his time, rising to President of the Court of Appeal before accepting to serve as Attorney General. Meanwhile, Justice Mwilu has been embroiled in petitions seeking her removal from office since the Supreme Court annulled the presidential election. Two years ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Criminal Investigations launched a highly publicised effort to arrest and charge her with corruption before the High Court discharged her and advised that complaints against her be first have been processed through the JSC. Justice Mwilu has since tied the JSC in legal knots over the involvement of the Attorney General and one other member in hearing the complaint against her, claiming that they have shown bias.

Although the Constitution allows a Chief Justice to serve for a maximum of 10 years, the practice so far has been to choose individuals who are close to the retirement age, with the effect that those chosen preside over only presidential petitions from one election cycle before they reach the retirement age of 70. If appointments continue to be short-term to limit the pain individuals can inflict on the institution, candidates in their mid-60s appear to be chosen to navigate the 2022 election and leave before the 2027 one.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Although the Supreme Court’s Justice Smokin Wanjala gave a good showing at the 2016 interviews and was ranked second, his age – 60 – means that if appointed, he would hold the job for 10 years. Law scholar Makau Mutua, 62, who was ranked third in the 2016 interviews for Chief Justice, could also give the job another try, as would former Attorney General Githu Muigai, who would similarly be hampered by fears of serving out the 10 years in the post.

The Executive’s frustration with the Judiciary has been expressed as blame for the slow pace of corruption cases, where the courts are criticised for not pulling their weight to deliver quick convictions. The most evident sign of frustration has been the President’s refusal to appoint 41 individuals nominated by the JSC as Court of Appeal and High Court judges. The law does not permit the JSC to reconsider its nominees after the names have been submitted to the President, except in the case of death, incapacity or withdrawal of a nominee. Last week, judge designate Harrison Okeche died after a road traffic accident before he could be sworn in because the President has not published the names as expected. It remains to be seen how the JSC responds.

Chief Justices chair the Judicial Service Commission, and preside over the Supreme Court, which decides the presidential election petitions. Besides the very constrained and collegial power in these two sites, the Chief Justice also exercises administrative power in empanelling High Court benches for constitutional references, and posts judges – powers shared with the President of the Court of Appeal and the Presiding Judge of the High Court.

A Chief Justice cannot direct judicial officers – from the lowliest magistrate to the Supreme Court judge – on how to decide a matter. Much of the power she or he wields is moral and symbolic. The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results for those seeking a puppet Chief Justice.

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

‘Sandwich’ helps tech giants avoid tax in Africa via the Netherlands and Ireland.

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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
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Google’s office at the airport residential area in Accra, Ghana, sits inside a plain white and blue two-storey building that could do with a coat of paint. Google, which made more than US$ 160 billion in global revenue in 2019, of which an estimated US$ eighteen billion in ‘Africa and the Middle East’, pays no tax in Ghana, nor does it do so in most of the countries on the African continent.

Google Street View of the building registered as Google's office in Accra

Google Street View of the building registered as Google’s office in Accra

It is able to escape tax duties because of an old regulation that says that an individual or entity must have a ‘physical presence’ in the country in order to owe tax.  And Google’s Accra office clearly defines itself as ‘not a physical presence.’ When asked, a front desk employee at the building says it is perfectly alright for Google not to display its logo on the door outside. ‘It is our right to choose if we do that or not’. A visitor to the building, who said she was there for a different company, said she had no idea Google was based inside.

Facebook is even less visible. Even though practically all 250 million smartphone owners in Africa use Facebook, it only has an office in South Africa, making that country the only one on the continent where it pays tax.

Brick and mortar

The physical presence rule in African tax laws is ‘remnant of a situation before the digital economy, where a company could only act in a country if it had a “brick and mortar” building’, says an official of the Nigerian Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), who wants to remain anonymous. ‘Many countries did not foresee the digital economy and its ability to generate income without a physical presence. This is why tax laws didn’t cover them’.

Tax administrations globally have initiated changes to allow for the taxing of digital entities since at least 2017. African countries still lag behind, which is why the continent continues to provide lucrative gains for the tech giants. A 2018 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report noted that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has seen an average of a thirty percent year-on-year growth in internet advertising in the last five years, and that the same sector in that country is projected, in 2020, to amount to US$ 125 million in the entertainment and media industry alone.

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

William Ansah, Ghana-based CEO of leading West African advertising company Origin 8, pays a significant amount of his budget to online services. He says he is aware that tax on his payments to Facebook and Google escapes his country through what is commonly referred to as ‘transfer pricing’ and feels bad about it. ‘These companies should pay tax here, in Ghana, because their revenue comes from me’, he says, showing us a receipt from Google Ireland for his payments. During this investigation we were also shown an advert receipt from a Nigerian Facebook ad that listed ‘Ireland’ as the destination of the payment.

Like Google, Facebook does not provide country-by-country reports of its revenue from Africa or even from the African continent as a whole, but the tech giant reported general revenue of US$ sixty billion as a whole from ‘Rest of the world’, which is the world minus the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

The specific transfer pricing construction Google and other tech giants such as Facebook use to channel income away from tax obligations is called an ‘Irish Double’ or ‘Dutch Sandwich’, since both countries are used in the scheme. In the construction, the income is declared in Ireland, then routed to the Netherlands, then transferred to Bermuda, where Google Ireland is officially located. Bermuda is a country with no corporation tax. According to documents filed at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in December 2018, Google moved US$ 22,7 billion through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017.

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

An ongoing court case in Ghana — albeit on a different issue — recently highlighted attempts by Google to justify its tax-avoiding practices in that country. The case against Google Ghana and Google Inc, now called Google LLC in the USA, was started by lawyer George Agyemang Sarpong, who held that both entities were responsible for defamatory material against him that had been posted on the Ghana platform. Responding to the charge, Google Ghana contended in court documents that it was not the ‘owner of the search engine www.google.com.gh’; that it did not ‘operate or control the search engine’ and that ‘its business (was) different from Google Inc’.

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

Google Ghana describes itself in company papers as an ‘Artificial Intelligence research facility’. It says that its business is to ‘provide sales and operational support for services provided by other legal entities’, a construction whereby these other legal entities — in this case Google Inc — are responsible for any material on the platform. Google Ghana emphasised during the court case that Ghana’s advertising money was also correctly paid to Google Ireland Ltd, because this company is formally a part of Google Inc.

Rowland Kissi, law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies in Accra describes Google’s defence in the Sarpong court case as a ‘clever attempt’ by the business to shirk all ‘future liability of the platform’. Kissi is cautiously optimistic about the outcome, though: while the case is ongoing, the court has already asserted that ‘the distinction regarding who is responsible for material appearing on www.google.com.gh, is not so clear as to absolve the first defendant (Google Ghana) from blame before trial’. According to leading tax lawyer and expert Abdallah Ali-Nakyea, if the ‘government can establish that Google Ghana is an agent of Google Inc, the state could compel it to pay all relevant taxes including income taxes and withholding taxes’.

Cash-strapped countries

Like most countries, especially in Africa, Nigeria and Ghana have become more cash-strapped than usual as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. While lockdowns enforced by governments to stop the spread of the virus have caused sharp contractions of the economy worldwide, ‘much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis’, according to the International Monetary Fund, Africa has experienced unprecedented shrinking, with sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality hardest hit. (Ironically, in the same period, tech giants like Google and Facebook have emerged from the pandemic stronger, due to, among others, the new reality that people work from home.)

With much needed tax income still absent, many countries have become even more dependent on charitable handouts. Nigeria recently sent out a tweet to ask international tech personality and philanthropist, Elon Musk, for a donation of ventilators to help weather the COVID 19 pandemic: ‘Dear @elonmusk @Tesla, Federal Government of Nigeria needs support with 100-500 ventilators to assist with #Covid19 cases arising every day in Nigeria’, it said. After Nigerians on Twitter accused the government of historically not investing adequately in public health, pointing at neglect leading to a situation where a government ministry was now begging for help on social media, the tweet was deleted. A government spokesperson later commented that the tweet had been ‘unauthorised’.

Cost to public

The criticism that governments often mismanage their budgets and that much money is lost to corruption regularly features in public debates in many countries in Africa, including Nigeria. However, executive secretary Logan Wort of the African Tax Administration Forum ATAF has argued that this view should not be used to excuse tax avoidance. In a previous interview with ZAM Wort said that ‘African countries must develop their tax base. It is only in this way that we can become independent from handouts and resource exploitation. Then, if a government does not use the tax money in the way it should, it must be held accountable by the taxpayers. A tax paying people is a questioning people’.

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

Commenting on this investigation, Alex Ezenagu, Professor of Taxation and Commercial Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, adds that in matters of tax avoidance by ‘popular multinationals such as Facebook and Google, it is important to understand the cost to the public. If (large) businesses don’t pay tax, the burden is shifted to either small businesses or low income earners because the revenue deficit would have to be met one way or another’. For example, a Nigerian revenue gap may cause the government to increase other taxes, Ezenagu says, such as value added tax, which increased from five to seven and a half percent in Nigeria in January. ‘When multinationals don’t pay tax, you are taxed more as a person’.

Nigeria has recently begun to tighten its tax laws, thereby following in the footsteps of Europe, that last year made it more difficult for the digital multinationals to use the ‘Irish Double’ to escape tax in their countries. South Africa, too, in 2019 tailored changes to its tax laws in order to close remaining legal loopholes used by the tech giants. These ‘could raise (tax income) up to US$ 290 million a year’ more from companies like Google and Facebook, a South African finance source said. With US$ 290 million, Ghana’s could fund its flagship free senior high school education; Nigeria could fully fund the annual budget (2016/2017 figures) of Oyo, a state in the south west of the country.

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

Nigeria’s new Finance Act, signed into law in January 2020, has expanded provisions to shift the country’s focus from physical presence to ‘significant economic presence’. The new law leaves the question whether a prospective taxpayer has a ‘significant economic presence’ in Nigeria to the determination of the Finance Minister, whose action with regard to the tech giants is awaited.

In Ghana, digital taxation discussions are slowly gaining momentum among policy makers. The Deputy Commissioner of that country’s Large Taxpayer Office, Edward Gyamerah, said in a June 2019 presentation that current rules ‘must be revised to cover the digital economy and deal with companies that don’t have traditional brick-and-mortar office presences’. However, a top government official at Ghana’s Ministry of Finance who was not authorised to speak publicly stated that, ‘from the taxation policy point of view, the government has not paid a lot attention to digital taxation’.

He blamed the ‘complexity of developing robust infrastructure to assess e-commerce activity in the country’ as a major reason for the government’s inaction on this, but hoped that a broad digital tax policy would still be announced in 2020.” Until the authorities get around to this, he said he believed that, ‘Google and Facebook will (continue to) pay close to nothing in Ghana’.

Comment

Google Nigeria did not respond to several requests for interviews; Google Ghana did not respond to a request for comment on this investigation. Neither entities responded to a list of questions, which included queries as to what of their activities in the two countries might be liable for tax, and whether they could publish country by country revenues generated in Africa. When reached by phone, Google Nigeria’s Head of Communications, Taiwo Kola Ogunlade, said that he couldn’t speak on the company’s taxation status. Facebook spokesperson Kezia Anim-Addo said in an email: ‘Facebook pays all taxes required by law in the countries in which we operate (where we have offices), and we will continue to comply with our obligations’.

Note: The figure of eighteen billion US$ as revenue for Google in ‘Africa and the Middle East’ over 2019 was arrived at as follows. Google’s EMEA figures for 2019 indicate US$ 40 billion revenue for ‘Africa, Europe and the Middle East’ all together. According to this German publication, Google’s revenue in Europe was 22 billion in 2019This leaves US$ eighteen billion for Africa and the Middle East.

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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