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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic

9 min read.

In the beginning was a fiction – that the Chinese railway would freight 22 million tonnes a year, and in so doing, replace the trucking business. Turns out – and this from the government’s own internal assessments – that the maximum amount of annual freight on the SGR is 8.76 million tonnes, almost a third of what was promised. Interest alone on the $3 billion debt is in US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) per year, which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Contrary to official assurances, explains DAVID NDII, the railway will require both State coercion and a massive public subsidy to stay in business.

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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic
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“Unpleasant arithmetic” is a popular economists phrase coined by Thomas Sargent, the 2011 economics Nobel Prize laureate and Neil Wallace in an influential 1981 paper simply titled “Some unpleasant monetarist arithmetic” that sought to demonstrate that monetary policy is a useless anti-inflation tool. The deadpan title had a double meaning, the truly horrendous math and the unsettling policy implications. The good news is that Kenya’s standard gauge railway (SGR) arithmetic turns out to be unpleasant only in one dimension. The bad news is that it is the money end of the business, not the math.

It is helpful to start by putting the scale of the project in perspective.

UK’s Crossrail project, an expansion of the London commuter rail system has been billed as Europe’s most expensive infrastructure project, with a price tag of US$ 23 billion, five times the cost of the Mombasa-Naivasha SGR. But the project amounts to less than one percent of UK’s $2.6 trillion dollar economy (37 times Kenya’s), and 3.5 percent of government revenue. The UK borrows long term domestically at between 1.5—2.5 percent per year. If we take the higher figure, the interest cost of financing the Crossrail project is about 0.1 percent of government revenue. The most expensive infrastructure project in Europe increases the UK’s public debt by less than one percent of GDP and puts no pressure on the government budget.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue. If we were to finance it from floating international bonds, the interest cost on the $4.5 billion dollars we’ve borrowed already would translate to 2.5 percent of government revenue, 28 times the cost of Crossrail’s debt burden on UK’s taxpayers.

But the Chinese bank loans have a higher revenue burden than bonds since we have to pay both interest and principal. We now know that the cost is in the order of KSh 50 billion per year currently, equivalent to four percent of revenue. That translates to 45 times CrossRail’s debt burden on UK taxpayers. Moreover, as noted, the UK borrows domestically, with no currency risk. The shilling has depreciated 18 percent since we borrowed, raising the interest cost by KSh 3 billion a year.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue.

To contemplate a project of that scale, you need a very high degree of certainty of its viability. It is otherwise reckless.

The key selling point of the SGR project is that it would get the huge trucks off the road. It would also be cheaper and faster. The public was told that it would haul 22 million tonnes of freight a year. As this column pointed out then, this was always doubtful.

A typical locomotive hauls of between 3000 and 4000 tonnes of freight. We now know that the SGR locomotives’ capacity is 3000 tonnes. The 22-million ton target works out to 20 trains a day, a train every 80 minutes. But the government has also marketed passenger services, which brings you down to a train an hour. It matters that over 90 percent of the freight is imports. If it was equally divided between imports and exports, you would need half the departures. But with virtually all freight going one way, a departure every hour both ways on a single track is a stretch.

We now know courtesy of a study by government policy think tank, KIPPRA, that the operational capacity of the railway in terms of the rolling stock already acquired and configuration of the line (e.g. provisions for trains to pass each other), is twelve trains a day, with provision for four passenger and eight freight trains a day, with a capacity of 8.7 million tonnes a year.

Besides falling far short of the so called design capacity, this raises a serious question about the viability of extending the railway to Uganda. Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The railway has been sold as a commercially viable project, that is, it would pay for itself. This column challenged this claim from the outset. In the first of many columns, I maintained that the railway could not pay, and that the debt would be paid from the public purse. This has now come to pass.

Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). It is possible that the lenders could have conducted their own feasibility studies as other development financial institutions do, but if such exist, they are a closely guarded secret.

The CRBC feasibility study has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project. NPV is the current value of the future earnings of a project and should be higher than the cost of the project.

Be that as it may, the railway’s economic justification turns on cheap freight. The study asserts that the railway would turn a profit with a tariff of US$ 0.083 a ton per kilometre (8 US cents). Containers weigh between 20 and 30 tons, hence the study’s tariff at the time translated to between US$ 830 and US$ 1245 (Ksh. 70,000 to Ksh. 100,000) to freight containers from Mombasa to Nairobi. It puts road haulage cost at US$ 0.10 to US$ 0.12 (10 to 12 US cents), hence the proposed SGR tariff would have been 20 to 45 percent cheaper than trucking.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)…It has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project.

According to the Economic Survey, the source of official statistics, in 2012, when the feasibility study is dated, railway freight revenue was Ksh. 4.40 a ton per kilometre, which works out to $0.052 cents. In effect, the SGR claimed that it would make freight cheaper, while in fact its break-even tariff was higher than the railway tariff prevailing at the time. Even the postulated tariff advantage over trucks is flawed because it covers freighting to the inland container depot (ICD) and does not include the additional cost of moving the containers from the ICD to the owners’ premises.

If the tariff advantage over road could be defended, the correct way to measure its economic benefits would be the cost savings, the difference between the “with and without” scenarios. We now know, courtesy of the KIPPRA study, that the actual operational capacity of the railway is 8.76 million tonnes. If we assume, heroically, trains operating at full capacity for the 25 years used in CRBC’s feasibility study and the maximum cost saving ($0.037 a ton per kilometre) we obtain an Internal Rate of Return of 2.4 percent, against a standard benchmark opportunity cost of capital for development projects of 12 percent.

More importantly, the returns are highly sensitive to the railway’s cost advantage over trucking. If we use the lower-bound trucking cost of $0.10 which reduces the cost advantage to $0.017, the project’s Internal Rate of Return (IRR) falls close to zero, the NPV drops to $580 million and the benefit cost ratio (BCR) to 0.2. The IRR is the discount rate at which the NPV of a project is zero and is used to compare a project’s return to the cost of capital. The BCR is simply the benefits over costs and should exceed one for a viable project. A BCR below one means that the project is an economic liability.

The parameters of the feasibility study have already been blown out of the water by exchange rate movements. The 12 US cents trucking tariff used in the study was KSh10.15 in 2012 (at Ksh 84.50 to the dollar). Today KSh 10.15 translates to 10 US cents which as we saw, makes the railway an economic liability. The problem with the SGR is that the bulk of its costs are in foreign currency— indeed, its approved tariffs are dollar-denominated. Trucking has less foreign currency exposure and it is indirect. If the shilling depreciates, the railway loses cost advantage. This is exactly what has happened. As of mid last year, trucks were charging between KSh 70,000 and 90,000 to transport a 40-foot container from Mombasa to Nairobi, which works out to between $0.05 and 0.07 a ton per kilometre compared to the feasibility study’s break-even rate of US$ 0.083.

Over the long haul, currencies adjust to the inflation difference between a country and its trading partners, which for the Kenya shilling translates to depreciating by five percent per year on average. So far the government is relying on coercion to put cargo on the train, even though it is charging what it is calling a discounted tariff. Raising prices is going to be a difficult proposition. We can also expect the prices and operational efficiency of trucks to continue improving, while the railway is stuck with its current locomotives for decades. The price advantage will continue moving in favour of trucking.

With the installed operational capacity of 8.76 million tonnes, interest on its debt which is in the order of US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) translates to 4.6 US cents a ton per kilometre which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Add operational costs, and it is readily apparent that there is no competitive tariff that would enable the railway to service its debt. Moreover, it is difficult for the railway to operate at full capacity all the time. In effect, the railway will require both coercion and a massive subsidy to stay in business.

We are now compelled to confront the question: what is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry? With cost advantage more or less out of the question, we are left with two arguments. One, that road haulage does not factor in the public costs of building and maintaining roads— including the disproportionate damage that heavy trucks inflict on the roads. The second is that road haulage cannot cope with the projected freight growth, in effect, that the railway line is a necessity, regardless of the cost. Let’s look at each in turn.

The contention that road haulage is implicitly subsidized is simply untrue. Freight trucks do exact a heavy wear and tear toll on the highway, but they also pay their fair share for it. The government is presently collecting KSh 18 per litre of fuel, which translates to Ksh 3,200 per Mombasa-Nairobi trip for a prime mover consuming 180 litres of diesel. Current freight container traffic on the road is at 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEUs), we are talking fuel levy revenues in the order of KSh 3.5 billion a year. When you add other users, the Mombasa-Nairobi section is generating upwards of KSh 5 billion in fuel levy funds – KSh 10 million per kilometre. It is enough to maintain it. In fact, if the government were to leverage it (i.e. float a bond and pay interest from it), it would be able to finance a phased expansion into a dual carriageway.

What is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry?

The other is that the road would not be able to cope with the growing freight volume and a railway. International evidence suggests otherwise. In the EU for instance, the rail’s share of freight has fallen from 60 percent in the 70s, to just under 20 percent today, despite determined efforts by governments to reverse it. Railways have struggled to offer the flexible logistical requirements of the distributed just-in-time supply chains of a globalized information age. It is, after all, a nineteenth-century technology. Which is why I get rather amused when I hear the building of the “standard gauge” rail (a “standard” established in 1886) being characterized as a giant technological leap into the future.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

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It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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