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The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making

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As we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by the profit incentive, but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world, argues ABEBA BIRHANE

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The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making
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The second annual CyFyAfrica 2019, the Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society, took place in Tangier, Morocco, 7 – 9 June 2019. It was a vibrant, diverse and dynamic gathering where various policy makers, United Nations delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 nations, mostly African and Asian countries, attended.

The conference unapologetically stated that its central aim was to bring forth the continent’s voices to the table in the global discourse. The president’s opening message emphasised that Africa’s youth need to be put at the front and centre of African concerns as the continent increasingly relies on technology for its social, educational, health, economic and financial issues. At the heart of the conference was the need to provide a platform to the voice of young people across the continent. And this was rightly so. It needs no argument that Africans across the continent need to play a central role in determining crucial technological questions and answers not only for their continent but also far beyond.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

The continent stands to benefit from various technological and artificial intelligence (AI) developments. Ethiopian farmers, for example, can benefit from crowd sourced data to forecast and yield better crops. The use of data can help improve services within the healthcare and education sectors. Huge gender inequalities that plague every social, political, economic sphere can be brought to the fore through data. Data that exposes gender disparities in these key positions, for example, renders crucial the need to change societal structures in order to allow women to serve in key positions. Such data also brings general awareness of inequalities, which is central for progressive change.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

Having said that, there already exist countless die-hard technology worshippers, some only too happy to blindly adopt anything data-driven and “AI” without a second thought of the possible unintended consequences, both within and outside the continent. Wherever the topic of technological innovation takes place, what we constantly find is advocates of technology and attempts to digitise every aspect of life, often at any cost.

At the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, there were plenty of such tech evangelists – those blindly accepting ethically suspect and dangerous practices and applications under the banner of “innovative”, “disruptive” and “game changing” with little, if any, criticism and scepticism. Therefore, given that we have enough tech-worshippers holding the technological future of the continent in their hands, it is important to point out the precautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world as the continent races forward in the technological race.

Reinforcing biases and stereotypes  

Just like the Silicon Valley enterprise, the African equivalent of tech start-ups and innovations can be found in every corner of the continent, from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and Cape Town. These innovations include in areas such as banking, finance, healthcare, education, and even “AI for good” initiatives, both by companies and individuals within as well as outside the continent. Understandably, companies, individuals and initiatives want to solve society’s problems and data and AI seem to provide quick solutions. As a result, there is a temptation to fix complex social problems with technology. And this is exactly where problems arise.

In the race of which start-up will build the next smart home system or state-of-the-art mobile banking application, we lose sight of the people behind each data point. The emphasis is on “data” as something that is up for grabs, something that uncontestedly belongs to tech-companies, governments, and the industry sector, completely erasing individual people behind each data point. This erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behaviour” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for the companies. The rights of the individual, the long-term social impacts of AI systems and the unintended consequences on the most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they ever enter the discussion at all. Be it small start-ups or more established companies that design and implement AI tools, at the top of their agenda is the collection of more data and efficient AI systems and not the welfare of individual people or communities.

Rather, whether explicitly laid out or not, the central point is to analyse, infer, and deduce users’ weaknesses and deficiencies for the benefit of commercial firms. Products, ads, and other commodities can then be pushed to individual “users” as if they exist as an object to be manipulated and nudged towards certain behaviours deemed “correct” or “good” by these companies and developers.

The result is AI systems that alter the social fabric, reinforce societal stereotypes and further disadvantage those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. UN delegates addressing the issue of online terrorism and counterterrorism measured and exclusively discussed Islamic terrorist groups, despite the fact that white supremacist terrorist groups have carried out more attacks than any other group in recent years. This illustrates an example where socially held stereotypes are reinforced and wielded in the AI tools that are being developed.

Although it is hardly ever made explicit, many of the ethical principles underlying AI rest firmly within utilitarian thinking. Even when knowledge of unfairness and discrimination of certain groups and individual as a result of algorithmic decision-making are brought to the fore, solutions that benefit the majority are sought. For instance, women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities are forced into inhumane treatment , and systematic biases have been embedded in predictive policing systems, to mention but a few. However, although society’s most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by the digitisation of various services, proposed solutions to mitigate unfairness hardly consider such groups as crucial pieces of the solution.

A question of ethics

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident. The current attempts to develop “ethical AI” and “ethical guidelines”, both within the Western tech industry and the academic sphere, illustrate awareness and attempts to mitigate these problems. The key global players in technology, Microsoft and Google’s DeepMind from the industry sector and Harvard and MIT from the academic sphere are primary examples that illustrate the recognition of the possible catastrophic consequences of AI on society. As a result, ethics boards and curriculums on ethics and AI are being developed.

These approaches to develop, implement and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, and directions and emphasise various aspects. This multiplicity of views and perspectives is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength that is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on one single framework for various ethical, social and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures with the integration of AI is not only unattainable but also advocating a one-size-fits-all style dictatorship.

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident.

Nonetheless, given the countless technology-related disasters and cautionary tales that the global tech-community is waking up to, there are numerous crucial lessons that African developers, start-ups and policy makers can learn from. The African continent needs not go through its own disastrous cautionary tales to discover the dark side of digitisation and technologisation on every aspect of life.

AI over-hype

AI is not magic; it is a buzz word that gets thrown around so carelessly that it has increasingly become vacuous. What AI refers to is notoriously contested and the term is impossible to define conclusively – and it will remain that way due to the various ways various disciplines define and use it. Artificial intelligence can refer to anything from highly overhyped and deceitful robots to Facebook’s machine learning algorithms that dictate what you see on your News Feed, your “smart” fridge and everything in between. “Smart”, like AI, has increasingly come to mean devices that are connected to other devices and servers with little to no attention being paid to how such hypoconnectivity at the same time creates surveillance systems that deprive individuals of their privacy.

Over-hyped and exaggerated representation of the current state of the field poses a major challenge. Both researchers within the field and the media contribute to this over-hype. The public is often made to believe that we have reached AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or that we are at risk of killer robots taking over the world, or that Facebook’s algorithms have created their own language forcing Facebook to shut down its project , when none of this is in fact correct.

The robot known as Sophia is another example of AI over-hype and misrepresentation. This robot, which is best described as a machine with some face recognition capabilities and a rudimentary chatbot engine, is falsely described as semi-sentient by its maker. In a nation where women are treated as second class citizens, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has granted this machine citizenship, thereby treating this “female” machine better than its own female citizens. Similarly, neither the Ethiopian government nor the media attempted to pause and reflect on how the robot’s stay in Addis Ababa should be covered. Instead the over-hype and deception were amplified as the robot was treated as some God-like entity.

Leading scholars in the field, such as Mitchell, emphasise that we are far from “superintelligence”. The current state of AI is marked by crucial limitations, such as the lack of understanding of common sense, which is a crucial element of human understanding. Similarly, Bigham emphasises that in most of the discussion regarding “autonomous” systems (be it robots or speech recognition algorithms), a heavy load of the work is done by humans, often cheap labour – a fact that is put aside as it doesn’t bode well with the AI over-hype narrative.

Over-hype is not only a problem that portrays an unrealistic image of the field, but also one that distracts attention away from the real danger of AI, which is much more invisible, nuanced and gradual than “killer robots”. The simplification and extraction of human experience for capitalist ends, which is then presented as behaviour based “personalisation”, is a banal practice on the surface but one that needs more attention and scrutiny. Similarly, algorithmic predictive models of behaviour that infer habits, behaviours and emotions need to be of concern as most of these inferences reflect strongly held biases and unfairness rather than getting at any in-depth causes or explanations.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power. And seeing AI as a tool that we create, control and are responsible for, not as something that exists and develops independent of those that create it. And like any other tool, AI is one that embeds and reflects our inconsistencies, limitations, biases, political and emotional desires.

Technology is never either neutral or objective – it is like a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness and injustice. AI tools deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems that are put forward in domains, such as hiring and policing, are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is, in fact, one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power.

As the Harvard mathematician, Cathy O’Neil [19] explains, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world are reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. Any classification, clustering or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that our AI system produces reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

UN delegates working on online counterterrorism measures but explicitly focusing on Islamic groups despite over 60 percent [20] of mass shootings in 2019 the USA being carried out by white nationalist extremists illustrate a worrying example that stereotypically held views drive what we perceive as a problem and furthermore the type of technology we develop.

Algorithmic decision-making

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes affect individuals and groups that are already on society’s margins, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers – people that refuse to conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology the most, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on/around them. Their voices need to be prioritised at every step of the way, including in the designing, developing, and implementing of any technology, as well as in policy-making.

As Africa grapples between catching up with the latest technological developments and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments and firms that develop and apply various tech to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen with guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom in place.

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes.

Mining people for data

Invasion of privacy is an issue that is increasingly becoming an issue in every sphere of life, including insurance, banking, health and education services. Various start-ups are emerging from all corners of the continent at an exponential rate to develop the next “cutting edge” app, tool or system; to collect as much data as possible and then infer and deduce “users’” various behaviours and habits.

However, there seems to be little, if any, attention paid to the fact that digitisation and automatisation of such spheres necessarily bring their own, often not immediately visible, problems. In the race to come up with the next new “nudge” mechanism that could be used in insurance or banking, the competition for mining the most data seems the central agenda. These firms take it for granted that such data, which is out there for grabs, automatically belongs to them. The discourse around “data mining” and “data rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point remains non-existent. This removing of the individual (individual with fears, emotions, dreams and hopes) behind each data set is symptomatic of how little attention is given to privacy concerns. This discourse on “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis and manipulation of data possibly entails monitoring, tracking and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts them directly or indirectly, whether it is change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services.

AI technologies that are aiding decision-making in the social sphere are developed and implemented by private companies and various start-ups for the most part, whose primary aim is to maximise profits. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is, therefore, the least of their priorities, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining”, freely manipulating behaviour and pushing products onto customers. This means that as we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives (profit), but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world.

“Digital nudges” – behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests – are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” an individual’s behaviour, eating habits or exercise routine, those corporates, private companies and engineers developing automated systems are bestowed with the power to decide what the “correct” behaviour, eating habit or exercise routine is. Questions, such as who is deciding what the “correct” behaviour is and for what purpose, are often completely ignored. In the process, individuals that do not fit the stereotypical image of what a “fit body”, “good health” and “good eating habit” end up being punished, ostracised and pushed further to the margin.

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who would fail to pay their mortgage. Constructive and rehabilitation questions, such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those who have come out of prison are almost never asked. Technological developments built and applied with the aim of bringing security and order, necessarily bring cruel, discriminatory and inhumane practices to some. The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and show the rest of the world. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or any other AI tools without questioning what the underlying purpose is, who benefits, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools.

Moreover, African youth playing in the AI field need to create programmes and databases that serve various local communities and which do not blindly import Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the narrative is hindered by negative images, such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves means using AI in a way we want to understand who we are and how we want to be understood and perceived – a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

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Abeba Birhane is PhD Candidate, School of Computer Science, University College Dublin, Ireland and Lero - The Irish Software Research Centre.

Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.

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Boda Boda Justice
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We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.

Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.

Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.

However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.

Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.

What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level

However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.

Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.

Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.

It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”

As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.

“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”

Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

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Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
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Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.

Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.

Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.

Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.

As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.

In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.

In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970.  The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.

Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.

Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture  it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.

The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.

Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher,  Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.

Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.

Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.

Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself.  And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.

At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.

The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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