Last month, individuals from 47 countries gathered in Accra, Ghana for the launch of the “State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2018” report from the Collaboration on International ICTY Policy for east and Southern Africa (CIPESA). The report itself only focuses on thirteen of the 54 countries on the continent but it does give insights into how global trends of repression and control on the Internet are playing out in various African societies. Despite mounting economic and political challenges, the report finds, a significant number of the countries surveyed are investing in heightened surveillance and control of citizen activity online.
The rapid growth of the CIPESA summit speaks to the increasing urgency of this question. In 2014, the first summit attracted only 80 participants while the 2018 edition had almost 250. And in the interim, government shutdowns of the Internet have grown painfully common. In 2017, nine countries in Africa shut down the Internet in connection to social or political upheaval, including a record-breaking 230-day shutdown in Cameroon’s Anglophone region – the longest in the world to date. Six countries have threatened to, or have introduced taxation on the Internet or social media, in part to curtail people’s access to the various platforms. Activists and ordinary citizens like Uganda’s Stella Nyanzi have been arrested and charged with crimes as serious as treason for statements made online.
The state of Internet freedom in Africa is, according to the CIPESA attendees at least, not great.
Government shutdowns of the Internet have grown painfully common. In 2017, nine countries in Africa shut down the Internet in connection to social or political upheaval. Six countries have threatened to, or have introduced taxation on the Internet or social media…to curtail people’s access… Activists and ordinary citizens like Uganda’s Stella Nyanzi have been arrested and charged with crimes as serious as treason for statements made online.
Ten years ago, many of these events would have been unfathomable. In Kenya for example, 2007 was the year of MPesa mobile money and Ushahidi crisis mapping, two innovations that quickly established the country’s reputation as a hub for creativity in ICT. In the face of bleak headlines about poverty, disease and violence, mobile money was routinely offered as the “feel good” African story – proof of Africa rising and affirmation that the continent had more to offer the world than bad news. By 2017, mobile money transactions in Kenya amounted to the equivalent of one third of the country’s GDP and the country is by far the global leader in the use of this technology.
Many of these developments occurred because the government didn’t understand or wasn’t paying attention to what was happening on the Internet until much of the basic infrastructure was already in place. And when they did get involved, in the shadow of a complex political environment triggered by the 2007/08 post-election crisis, it was to enable the ICT environment – to score a political win. For example, the legacy of former Cabinet Secretary for ICT, Bitange Ndemo, includes the 2009 launch of Kenya’s fibre optic network that has enabled some of the fastest Internet connections in the world. And the Silicon Savannah, announced to great fanfare in 2010, was supposed to benefit from an enabling policy environment that would use these raw materials to catapult Kenya into a digital future.
Ten years ago, many of these events would have been unfathomable. In Kenya for example, 2007 was the year of MPesa mobile money and Ushahidi crisis mapping, innovations that established the country’s reputation as a hub for digital creativity. In the face of bleak headlines about poverty, disease and violence, mobile money was routinely offered as the “feel good” African story – proof of Africa Rising…
But governments learn, and that is why in 2018 many of those gathered in Accra to demand that governments keep the Internet free are Kenyans. A week before the CIPESA summit the Kenyan government announced a hefty excise duty of 20% on the Internet as well as a 15% tax on mobile money transactions that will undoubtedly throttle the policy space that has put the country on the global technology map.
And taxation is only one face of an increasingly hostile policy environment for ICT in Kenya. Since 2013 the government has on at least three occasions attempted to introduce legislation to curb freedom of expression online, each time stymied by a court decision that found the proposed legislation to be unconstitutional. Similarly, Privacy International, the global Internet privacy advocacy non-profit has found that the Kenya government is building an elaborate digital Panopticon enabled by surveillance technology built elsewhere. And while a data protection law is currently being discussed in parliament, activists fear that much of the framework for unchecked data harvesting and misuse by both government and private corporations is already in place.
Taxation is only one face of an increasingly hostile policy environment for ICT in Kenya. Since 2013 the government has on at least three occasions attempted to introduce legislation to curb freedom of expression online.
Why would a country that can barely afford to feed its people spend so much time and money on curtailing and controlling what is happening online?
I discuss Kenya in detail in my upcoming book on the subject, but broadly speaking as long as the government wasn’t paying attention, the Internet incubated a political idealism around what Kenya could be. But I called my book ‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics’ because of the gap between this society that Kenyans are organising for online, and a state that consistently flirts with or veers into authoritarianism. Governments embrace “digital democracy” as long as it is a generic policy point that can score easy PR victories, but once the true face of the society takes shape online, states in turn show their own true face in age-old practices of control and repression.
Many of the plenary conversations at the CIPESA summit dwelled on abstractions – UN policy initiatives and new metrics on Internet freedom that did not fully appreciate the political realities of the various countries. Only in the smaller breakout sessions, some led by activists like Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers who suffered directly the violence of a state intimidated by political organising online, did the reality of increasing repression and control become clear. New data points and rankings can only confirm what ordinary citizens and activists already know – the governments of African countries are afraid of an informed and increasingly organised polity mobilising in a space that they do not really understand and therefore, have trouble controlling.
Certainly, threats to Internet freedom are not uniquely African, nor are experiences of Internet on the continent purely utopian. Bad things can and do happen on the Internet in Africa, and the experiences of countries like Kenya, where the Internet has become a key space for political mobilising, are shaped by who has access to the Internet and what preoccupies them offline. It’s also about demographics of access, which will change considerably as more and more young people who have not known a world without the Internet come of age.
New data points and rankings can only confirm what ordinary citizens and activists already know – African governments are afraid of an informed and increasingly organised polity mobilising in a space that they do not really understand and therefore, have trouble controlling.
A legislative framework is imperative to encourage the good and prevent the harm that can occur online, and governments are necessary in this conversation. But what the State of Internet Freedom report confirms is that we can’t keep blindly banking on governments with little or no interest in citizen welfare to create that policy environment on their own. It seems rudimentary but it bears repeating – good Internet policy making cannot ignore local political contexts, and where the government is the main threat, the conversation on Internet freedom must be markedly different.
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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.
Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.
Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19. Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.
Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.
In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.
In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.
When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.
When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.
The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.
IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.
The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.
Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.
Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.
IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.
Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.
The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.
“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.
Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.
We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.
Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.
Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.
This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.
At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.
Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.
The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.
For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.
The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.
It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.
Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.
In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.
Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.
When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.
Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.
The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.
It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.
Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.
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