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

Politics

Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa

8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
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South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.

History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.

A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.

Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.

It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.

The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.

This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.

Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.

Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.

Stoking the flames

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.

South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:

Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.

After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.

On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.

Whither the Pan-African dream?

In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:

I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.

It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.

The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.

Glimmers of hope

All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:

Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.

Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.

Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”

The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.

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Politics

Gambling Against the Kenyan State

7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State
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In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.

It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.

After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.

Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.

Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.

Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.

Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.

Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.

While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.

Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.

Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.

What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’

For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.

Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.

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This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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Donald Trump: America’s ‘African Dictatorship’ Moment

8 min read. For decades, the grandiosity and excesses of Africa’s strongmen have been the subject of global ridicule and scorn. Now, under Donald Trump, Americans are finally getting a taste of what an African dictatorship looks and feels like.

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For the Love of Money: Kenya’s False Prophets and Their Wicked and Bizarre Deeds
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Am I the only one who felt a growing sense of ugly familiarity while watching the 4th of July proceedings in Washington DC? It took me a few days to fully comprehend the oddity of the spectacle. It was atavistically American: a questionable real estate mogul; fighter jets roaring overhead; fireworks blowing off with abandon as vague tenants of “bravery” were touted. One only needed to add in grandiose Lynard Skynyrd music, a screw-on plastic bottle of Bud Light (for safety) and the tossing of an American flag football to make it the most US-driven spectacle ever put on display.

Apart from an eye-rolling display of questionable Americana, the whole display struck a deeper and more sinister chord. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: military equipment being trucked in from all over the country to be displayed as props; invites extended mainly to party loyalists; outlandish claims of nationalistic strength in the face of unknown “threats”; and an ever-ballooning budget taken seemingly from the most needy of social programmes.

Further, the entirety of the charade was put on by a leader of questionable (at best) morals, one who openly blasts the press as anti-democratic and who is known to engage in dubious electoral practices.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media, with well-established media houses with sterling reputations formed through covering the 20th century’s most brutal occurrences suddenly at a loss that anything so gauche could take shape in the form of an American leader.

When it comes down to it though, doesn’t it all reside at the doorstep of personality type?

From where I sit, it most certainly does. All of these strongmen (and they are all male) – whether they’re in power, in post-political ennui or dead – have done the exact same thing. It is different strokes painted with the same brush. Their canvas, on this occasion, is that of spectacle, of projecting something that is better, stronger (dare I say less impotent?) than themselves. It is a public display of strength, ill-needed by those who don’t secretly know that they’re inwardly weak.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media…

To start with, those who have systematically oppressed and plundered a country often rub it in to commemorate their “achievements”. For example, there is still a nationally celebrated Moi Day annually in Kenya, despite the former president’s record of extrajudicial measures, devaluing of the Kenyan shilling and rampant institutional corruption. Yoweri Museveni has been “democratically” elected five times, and makes sure to always inspect military guards dressed in full pomp at major Ugandan national days and events. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had an outright military parade during his latest inauguration in 2017. It is true, such days are often celebrated with a display of token military presence; at the inaugural “Trump Day” this past American Independence Day, an exception to the rule was not found.

A key tenet of such military-driven presidential events, at least within those run by would-be strongmen, is the heavy under-current of politicisation made more stark as the figurehead acts exceptionally stoic and well-behaved for the event. At the rally on the Fourth of July, chants of “lock her up” broke out among the crowd, and reports of minor clashes made the news. Therein, as they say, lies the key difference, the breaking point from a day of democratic celebration of national history into something more sinister. It is when the very essence of patriotism swings to identify with a single individual that the political climate can become potentially even more dangerous than it already is.

Within hours of the spectacle that put him at the centre, Trump made heavy-handed allegations of communism against his political “enemies”; within days he was saying that certain Congresswomen (all of colour) should go back to their countries of origin if they didn’t “love” the US enough. The standard, it seems, is political allegiance.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants, while directed at all four Congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US, where she eventually found a permanent home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This, when seen through the lens of escalating nationalism, jingoistic tendencies towards refugees (including the abysmal treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border with Mexico in a series of “detention facilities”), and thrown as chum to stirring crowds at politically-driven rallies, is a dangerous recipe.

The message being espoused and defended at the present by both the Trump administration and right-wing politicians loyal to it has taken root at the very celebration of American democracy itself. It is, in fact, association by patriotism. It is becoming a deeper-seated sense of national identity and the mere act of seeing such policies associated with the nation’s independence is, to put it mildly, a dangerous precedent. It is a continuation of a trend of both ramping up and normalising such attacks on what is deemed “un-American” by those currently in power. This designation, once considered “beyond the norm” within United States’ politics, has rapidly shifted towards becoming the routine.

While the rally was taking place, Trump harangued the crowd with a 45-minute all-American masturbatory salute to military hardware. He read off assorted names of different combinations of letters and numbers, each signifying a different tool of top-grade, American-made weapon of death and destruction. Fighter jets, tanks, humvees, all were given their due with a salute through the rain-soaked vista of the National Mall of Washington DC. They were each named nearly laboriously, in exquisite reverence for their ability to unleash death on vague “enemies of the state” (typically seen in the guise of unspecified foreigners in Hollywood action blockbusters).

In a more current context, this is still a practice around the region. Military honour guards are inspected in ceremony by the head of state. In fairness, despite the US press’s fervent response, America has an awkward relationship with the fetishisation of the military on every official and unofficial national occasion. Fighter jets zoom over the heads of Americans. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have seen the rampant rise of forced acts of patriotism, many of which later turned out to be directly sponsored by the Pentagon to the tune of millions of US dollars (furnished by the US taxpayer).  This continued to deepen the divide among the American public along the lines of military interventionism and military prioritisation. It is an underlying sentiment of “tanks are now alongside White House officials, and who are you to disagree with their patriotism?” The association, as it were, is the issue.

It is a slippery slope when the military is viewed as an extension of the leadership, rather than one that protects the national interest. All too often within strongman-type of leadership structures, the military (and their goals) become an arm of the central governmental figure, with such events as seen on the Fourth of July being a means to “stroke the ego” of the leadership.

An adept dictator always knows where their bread is buttered: the more that one inflates the importance of the military and raises its stature, the more likely the military is going be loyal to you. In a sense, the Fourth of July parade was a natural extension of Trump’s extensive rallies in support of “the troops”, “the cops” and “the brave people guarding our border from the invasion from the South”. Daniel arap Moi is a good example of this behaviour; in the post-1982 coup period, he closed ranks, gave the military more emphasis, and rewarded loyalty.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants…were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US…

In turn, this behaviour can drive the chosen narrative of the state – that the military is way too powerful to be challenged. The story is told, played out on screen, marched in front of the masses, splashed across newspaper front pages. It helps to reinforce an idea, one of division, that of being on an opposing side from the government if you dare disagree.

Make no mistake, however ridiculous the Fourth of July show was, it was most definitely intended to be a show of strength. How could one feasibly dare to challenge the seat of power when the very entirety of military might is on public display, with guns pointed squarely into the crowd from the very basis of the Lincoln Memorial? This is not unlike the grandiose trains of government vehicles that accompany Museveni as he zips around Kampala or Uhuru Kenyatta as he delays traffic whilst travelling out to play golf on the outskirts of Nairobi. (The number of cars isn’t the point; it’s that they would crush you if you were to stand in their path.) Think what you want of Kagame’s policies and the issues surrounding democratic practices in Rwanda; only a fool would doubt his closeness to the top military brass. What Trump is engaging in now is the classic appearance of alliances – the same outer projection that any opposition’ would be met with those same large caliber guns that faced outward to the crowd. Only the obtuse would see that positioning as merely coincidental.

It isn’t a coincidence that those in the Trump administration’s camp were given prime seats at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Those “in the know” are given strength by a sort of transitive property of influence. The man on the stage is in charge of those with the guns, and he approves of you enough to let you into the inner sanctum.

It is further not a coincidence that the “vicious, mean, hateful, disgusting democrats” weren’t even invited within shouting distance of the “in club”. They haven’t shown enough Trumpian loyalty to be positioned near the military hardware. Instead members of the Democratic Party were told to “sort themselves” and largely stayed away from the proceedings of the event at the National Mall in Washington DC that rainy evening.

The end consequences of these deepening of divisions could be seen during the event and in the immediate hours afterwards. Squabbles broke out, flag-burning protesters were angrily confronted, reports of arrests were made.

From the White House (or possibly from a late night flight down to a golf course) Trump began to launch public attacks against those who would have stood against his event, his party and his party’s party. The tirade began in public, with attacks that were based on race, classism and politics. The “haters” and “losers” were blamed, and the appearance of strength steadily deepened the already existing party line divisions.

It was in the hours after that that the evidence was most apparent that Trump had used the Fourth of July “Salute to America” as a means for further political grandstanding. The traditional 4th of July political “ceasefire” was sounded with the firing off of verbal and political shots. It was in the insults that the intended circling of the wagons became further crystallised. It was classic Trump and classic strongman – to put on the best of appearances only to sink several notches lower as soon as the cameras officially turned off.

Let’s finish with the gold standard of ridiculous self-congratulatory events – Idi Amin. Am I saying that the crimes of Idi Amin are equal to those of Trump? Obviously not, but am I comparing their gauche public tendencies and sub-par intellects? Absolutely. Amin was famous for his parades during times of extreme national duress. He continued on, medals ablaze with the military’s full might on display. Add to this his self-congratulatory nature, his vindictive political favouritism and his toxic displays of might. (Amin, it has been noted, was jealous of the then Central African Republic president, Jean-Bedel Bakassa, who visited him adorned with medals more extravagant than his own.)

As for Trump, he is not one to shy away from self-aggrandisement and self-promotion. His very own Boeing 737 is famously decked with solid gold interiors. His ego can even be described as all-consuming; it eats whatever stands in its path. It is a self-sustaining entity, a black hole from which there can be no escape. The same could be said about Amin – power went to his head, and quickly. Once it did, enemies were dispatched and invented to be dispatched.

Trump’s paranoia could be viewed as becoming extreme. There is an endless need for loyalty and deference to Trump, especially amongst his most loyal followers; the Fourth of July parade was simply the latest manifestation of it. With such parades, limits and moderation don’t typically follow suit.

There will be more events, bigger showmanship and more association with himself as the idyllic vision of America. He is filling out his strongman shows nicely now, and starting to walk around in them. He now needs feats of false strength in order to back himself up.

The key difference between Trump and Amin, of course, is that the US military is a global monolith, one that can destroy the world with the push of a red button by an orange finger.

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