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Data Protection in the Age of Huduma Namba: Who Will Benefit?

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In a country where digital technology and personal data are routinely abused by unscrupulous officials and politicians, what kind of confidentiality can Kenyans expect from the new law on data protection? Is the law a genuine attempt at protecting Kenyans’ privacy, or is it for the benefit of credit card companies and banks associated with the Huduma Namba?

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A few years ago, in my Monday column in the Daily Nation, I explained why I was not among the millions of Kenyans who are on Facebook. I told my readers that the main reason I had not joined Facebook was because I wanted to keep my private life private.

I said that Facebook allows users to connect and “make friends” with dozens, if not hundreds, of people they would not normally interact with in daily life, which would not be such a frightening prospect if those you interacted with were people you trusted with all your heart. But because Facebook is an equal opportunity friendship-maker, the “friends” you make on the social networking platform could range from your boss to your plumber. This could affect your career development and your home life in significant ways.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, believes that by allowing many people to share more of their personal lives with each other, he is helping to create a virtual global community where “people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other.” In other words, he believes he is creating a more caring world, where transparency and openness are the modus operandi and where there are no secrets.

However, critics have argued that instead of connecting people in meaningful ways, Facebook actually isolates people, who spend more time online rather than doing things that strengthen relationships, such as talking to each other or sharing a meal. With an estimated 2.7 billion Facebook users around the world and an estimated 10 million users in Kenya alone, that is a scary scenario that has severe consequences on how people socialise and interact.

But what is even scarier is that Facebook – the company – has been sharing users’ private data with third parties without their knowledge, as has been confirmed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that Facebook users had been manipulated to impact elections in the United States and in Kenya, as well as in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.

It is not just companies like Cambridge Analytica (which closed shop as a result of the scandal) that are using Facebook data without users’ knowledge or consent. Recently, a local newspaper revealed that in the first half of 2019 the Kenyan government had on five different occasions demanded that Facebook reveal private information about Kenyan users of the social networking site. According to an article published in the Standard (which somehow did not raise any furore in Kenya perhaps because, as one Twitter user commented, we are so used to being abused that we no longer have the energy or motivation to fight back), “the [Kenyan] State refused to use proper legal channels while demanding the information, insisting on the urgency of the demand”.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.

The article, based on Facebook’s transparency report, further says that Facebook complied with at least one of these demands, but the company did not give details on the nature of the information the Kenyan government had demanded. The government also asked Facebook to preserve the account information of seven users. Apparently, such requests/demands are not unusual; reports indicate that the United States government requested Facebook to provide data on 82,461 users in the first six months of this year, while India made such requests on 33,324 users.

Data privacy and protection: An illusion?

At a time when data privacy and protection are becoming increasingly important, especially in light of revelations that governments and private companies are using social media platforms to manipulate voters, as happened in the Cambridge Analytica case, and in an environment of increasing xenophobia and fear-mongering, this revelation should have been a cause for alarm. But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.

The story becomes even more intriguing given that Facebook is facing heavy criticism for violating users’ privacy. In July this year, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy. The settlement includes several provisions that limit Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg’s decision-making powers, including the creation of a privacy committee on Facebook’s board of directors.

We must also remember that the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto has not been averse to manipulating social media users to win elections. Not only has this government been implicated as a beneficiary of Cambridge Analytica’s social engineering and “psychological warfare” tactics in the 2013 and 2017 elections, but it also employed a gang of bloggers known as “The State House Boys” to bombard Kenyans with propaganda prior to and during the election period.

But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.

Ironically, this is the same government that is now going after bloggers through the controversial Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill that some view as a gagging order on bloggers and social media users – a form of censorship that will severely curtail what and how Kenyans communicate via the Internet.

The Bill says that bloggers will need a licence to operate. Failure to comply with this requirement and to adhere to the standards set by the Communications Authority of Kenya could lead to fines of up to Sh10 million or two years in prison. Offences include “degrading” and “intimidating” recipients/readers. This leaves the door wide open for politicians and others to charge bloggers with all manner of offences just because they do not like what they have to say about them. Columnists, cartoonists, writers and even photographers could be “criminalised” on spurious grounds.

Huduma Namba and commercial interests

Ironically, while this Bill is being debated, Parliament has finally woken up to the fact that privacy is a right guaranteed by the Kenyan Constitution. A few days before Kenyans learnt that the government was spying on its citizens through Facebook, President Uhuru Kenyatta approved legislation that complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The Data Protection Bill, 2019, which came into force in mid-November this year, prevents governments and corporations from sharing an individual’s personal data without the consent of the owner of the data. Personal data is defined as information relating to a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, educational background, medical condition, criminal history and financial transactions, among others. (Note: Some data, such as a person’s credit rating, though protected by privacy laws in Kenya and in other countries, are still easily accessible to interested parties.)

A Data Protection Commissioner will also be appointed to ensure that the law is enforced. The Commissioner will not only receive complaints about data privacy violations but will also have the power to investigate breaches of privacy and to impose fines. However, the Data Protection Bill also says that this law will not apply to personal data collected for the purposes of national security or in the public interest.

This law is viewed as critical to ensuring that data is not abused by third parties and is seen as a necessary and important step to increase investor confidence in Kenya and to regulate the use of mobile phone technology and digital apps, which are increasingly becoming the targets of predatory business and corporate interests.

The timing of the law is, however, interesting. It comes into force at precisely the time when the government is being criticised by some for implementing the National Integrated Identity Management System – better known as Huduma Namba – which many view as a surveillance tool modelled on the Chinese “social credit” system, where citizens gain points for “good conduct” and lose points for “bad behaviour. As I have said before, the idea that you can be denied a service because you cannot identify yourself through a number negates basic constitutional freedoms and rights. Various government mandarins have said that those without a Huduma Namba will be denied government services, including obtaining a Kenya Revenue Authority Personal Identification Number (PIN).

Critics have also raised privacy concerns with regard to Huduma Namba, which is perhaps why the Data Protection Bill was passed in a hurry – to reassure Kenyans that their personal biometric data is safe and that government institutions have perfected the art of making digital technology secure. However, as has been witnessed in the recent past, laws in Kenya are not sufficient to protect Kenyans from electoral or other types of fraud and invasions of privacy.

For instance, Kenya’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries and Commission, has proved to be completely inept (or deliberately malicious) in using technology, as demonstrated during the 2013 and 2017 elections when the biometric digital systems for voting either failed or malfunctioned. Apart from questions regarding the procurement of the technology, and whether kickbacks were involved, Kenyans watched in horror as the electoral body fumbled through the election results, even claiming that several voting stations could not electronically transmit the election results. Almost all attempts by this so-called “digital” government to introduce computerised systems in government, ostensibly to reduce corruption and to streamline service delivery, have also failed miserably; in fact, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. It is now an accepted fact that the introduction of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) in government procurement led to the disappearance and theft of billions of shillings from state coffers. If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?

There are also strong rumours that the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) is being routinely robbed by unscrupulous medical officers and NHIF employees. Kenya Power, the country’s only electricity company, has also been accused of stealing from customers by sending them fictitious and inflated bills. All this is possible because employees have access to subscriber/customer data that they can easily manipulate. In other words, no Kenyan is safe from government bodies that provide a service at taxpayers’ expense – you will either be denied the service or will be robbed. –.

Citizens or borrowers? The debt trap

But protecting people’s privacy in order to comply with the Constitution may not be the primary motive of the data protection bill. As David Ndii has suggested in a recent article, the Huduma Namba is not so much a personal identity tool for Kenyan citizens as it is a credit facility that ensures that every Kenyan is a potential “customer” for micro-credit services, and which has the potential to place every adult Kenyan on a borrowing treadmill that will benefit banks and businesses associated with the Kenyatta family.

The scheme could have severe adverse effects on citizens/customers/borrowers who risk getting a negative credit rating, and thus becoming criminalised, not for “bad behaviour” as the Chinese would define it, but for not paying back a loan on time. Remember, unlike a normal credit card, the customers –Kenyan citizens – have not been given a choice whether or not to apply for the card – the government has deemed it mandatory for everyone.

Given the high standards set by international credit card companies on issues such as customer privacy and data protection, it is possible that the Data Protection Bill was a means to make the Huduma Namba (and its local and international commercial partners) compliant with international norms and standards, thus giving the illusion that, unlike rogue betting companies or greedy loan sharks, the Huduma Namba is a respectable and legitimate way of borrowing money.

If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?

The question one must ask is: if the Huduma Namba is essentially a credit card, what business is it of the government to impose credit cards on people who can barely make ends meet, thanks to the same government’s economic policy failures? For the government and its commercial partners to make money from hapless Kenyan borrowers is not only unethical, but raises questions about whether – like the subprime mortgage crisis in America where the US government’s housing agencies encouraged low-income people to buy houses even though they did not have the means to pay the mortgage – this scheme could lead to the collapse of an economy that is already in the doldrums.

Coupled with the “Affordable Housing” pillar of the Jubilee government – which is based on the erroneous premise that a majority of low-income people in the country are eager to own apartments (a notion I refute in this article), I see many Kenyans losing their money and their property because the government has encouraged them to take loans they cannot afford. This government has already set the country on a path to unprecedented and unsustainable debt. Now it wants every Kenyan to become a reckless borrower.

The problem is that, unlike the government, individuals cannot rely on taxpayers or a second credit facility to get them out of a debt trap. Families in the United States who lost their homes during the subprime mortgage crisis have still not recovered, despite President Barack Obama’s efforts to avert a financial crisis in 2008 – a lesson this government is unwilling or unable to process but which signals doom for the many Kenyans who are being made to believe that taking a loan, no matter how risky, is the easiest way out of poverty.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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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