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This Anti-Black Racism Must End

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The World Bank has for too long perpetuated a racist stratification between developed and developing countries that privileges European countries and colonial settler-states.

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This Anti-Black Racism Must End
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The World Bank and its President, David Malpass, must not insult the global movement to end anti-Black racism which was sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

Until concrete action proves otherwise, the long #EndRacism banners hanging at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC merely represent an opportunistic appropriation of the global movement to end racial injustice and window dressing to defuse the growing demands for action within the World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

While welcome, President Malpass’ promise to end racism within the World Bank, its programmes and the countries where it works, it must be preceded by an acknowledgment of the systemic racism that has bedeviled the institution for decades, and followed by concrete steps to uproot this scourge.

Legacies of colonialism and racism

The World Bank has for too long perpetuated a racist stratification between developed and developing countries that is the result of centuries of colonialism and has served as a gatekeeper of a global economic system that continues to privilege the developed world of European countries and colonial settler-states such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

If the World Bank is earnest about putting an end to the scourge of anti-Black racism (or “Afriphobia” as some prefer to call it), it must work towards upending centuries of ruthless domination and exploitation—including systematic racial subjugation, colonisation, wars, genocides and enslavement—which have produced a global economy that continues to benefit developed countries to the social, economic and environmental detriment of developing countries, Black countries in particular.

The systemic anti-Black racism of the World Bank and its sister institution the IMF is holding African and Caribbean countries in debt bondage

As United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, put it in his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on 18 July 2020,

The legacy of colonialism still reverberates . . . We see this in the global trade system. Economies that were colonized are at greater risk of getting locked into the production of raw materials and low-tech goods – a new form of colonialism. And we see this in global power relations. Africa has been a double victim. First, as a target of the colonial project. Second, African countries are under-represented in the international institutions that were created after the Second World War, before most of them had won independence. The nations that came out on top more than seven decades ago have refused to contemplate the reforms needed to change power relations in international institutions.

This racism must end.

Lack of equity and democracy

The racially stratified world order that was established by centuries of colonialism is reflected in the governance structure of the World Bank.

Rather than being elected, the leaders of the World Bank (and the IMF) are appointed by the US and Europe, one result being that the leaders appointed to the World Bank are always American (while the leaders appointed to the IMF are always European).

Moreover, the entire voting system of the World Bank is skewed towards the domination of the US, Europe and other developed countries and the subordination of developing countries, African countries in particular. The largest vote holders are the G7 countries—the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom—while middle- and low-income countries, which represent approximately 85 per cent of the world’s population, have approximately 40% of the vote.

Moreover, the systemic relegation of Black people in particular to the status of second-class global citizens is demonstrated in the gross underrepresentation of African and Caribbean nations on the board of the World Bank. Whereas the majority of World Bank programmes are in Africa and African countries account for more than 25 per cent of the member countries of the World Bank, they are allotted a paltry 5.5 per cent of the voting rights.

Nigeria alone has a population of 196 million people and a $1.1 trillion GDP (PPP), but merely 0.65 per cent of the voting rights in the World Bank. Qatar with a population of less than 2.8 million people and a US$346 billion GDP (PPP) wields more voting power than Nigeria. Ethiopia, one of the 23 founding members of the World Bank, with 109.2 million people and a US$253 billion GDP (PPP) is allotted 0.08% of the voting rights, which is significantly less than that of Luxemburg with a population of 613,894 and GDP of $44 billion.

Institutional racism is a widespread global phenomenon that has virtually excluded over 1.2 billion African and Caribbean people from global economic forums such as the Group of Twenty (G-20). Officially, the G-20 bills itself as “the premier forum for global economic and financial cooperation” and proclaims to be “inclusive” with a vision to “secure sustainable and balanced global growth and reform the architecture of global governance”.

Institutional racism is a widespread global phenomenon that has virtually excluded over 1.2 billion African and Caribbean people from global economic forums

Yet, Africa with a population of 1.2 billion and a GDP of $6.36 trillion is represented by only one country, South Africa. By comparison, South America, with a population of 423 million and a GDP of $6.6 trillion is represented by three countries.

This racism must end.

Perpetuating a racialised global economy 

The wealth amassed by the global economic order continues to be concentrated in businesses and peoples in the developed world. And the economies, production and consumption of developed countries continue to rely on cheap access to natural and human resources in developing countries.

This relationship undermines sustainable development, self-determination over natural resources, living wages and other labour rights, manufacturing output, access to higher education, social mobility, peace, security and political stability in developing countries.

This is no less true for Africa. Most of the world’s least developed and poorest countries are in Africa. Fourteen of the 15 least educated countries are in Africa. Twenty-three of the 25 highest infant mortality rates are to be found in African countries. The 30 countries with the lowest life expectancy are all in Africa. And excluding countries in civil war, eight of the ten most corrupt countries in the world are in Africa.

Between 1980 and 2009, US$1.2 to 1.4 trillion was illicitly siphoned out of Africa. This is far more than the money the continent received in foreign aid and loans over the same period. Sixty per cent of the losses Africa suffered are due to aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations.

In many cases, African countries were performing better than Asian countries before the World Bank became a fixture on the continent. As World Bank data shows, in 1960 there were 10 sub-Saharan African countries with a GDP per capita (constant 2010 US$) higher than those of China and Korea. Looking at the regional average, in 1960, the GDP per capita for sub-Saharan Africa was more than 300 per cent of that of the average for South Asia. In 2019, the average for sub-Saharan Africa was 14 per cent less than South Asia’s.

In the 1970s, Africa accounted for over 3 per cent of global manufacturing output. In 2016, the figure was down to 1.5 per cent, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. As World Bank data shows, in 1985 the world traded US$2.47 trillion worth of stocks. In 2017, the figure had shot up to US$77.57 trillion. Sub-Saharan Africa (barring South Africa) is the only region that did not even register a blip on the radar screen of the global capital (stock) markets.

African countries were performing better than Asian countries before the World Bank became a fixture on the continent

After 50 years of the World Bank’s intervention in African countries, the results are damning. Far from alleviating poverty, World Bank-financed projects have “devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet”, as documented by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The Bank’s virulent racism, which has segregated and marginalised Black people in its decision-making governance architecture, has left the fate of Africa to white supremacy.

In effect, World Bank loan conditions and programmes (including “structural adjustment”) have aided foreign investors, corporations and developed countries rather than African peoples; given priority to NGOs, consultants, skilled labourers and development experts from developed countries over those from African and Caribbean countries; increased access of developed economies to African natural resources, cheap labour, and markets, rather than aided the development of African countries; burdened African taxpayers, economies, and societies with ever growing unsustainable and insurmountable debts; and in the process failed to empower African countries to become economically as well as politically sovereign and self-determined.

The Bank’s virulent racism, which has segregated and marginalised Black people in its decision-making governance architecture, has left the fate of Africa to white supremacy

The Bank’s own economic and social data serves as its report card, showing the pillaging and devastation of Africa.

This racism must end.

Black debt bondage

The systemic anti-Black racism of the World Bank and its sister institution the IMF is holding African and Caribbean countries in debt bondage. As the Heritage Foundation has demonstrated with hard data, “most long-term recipients of World Bank money are no better off than they were when they received their first loan. Many are actually worse off”.

This is not least true of African countries that face the highest costs of borrowing in the world when compared to their fiscal and economic capacities.

The vicious cycle of African and Caribbean countries having to borrow to stay afloat rather than develop, while sinking further into debt without any hope of ever repaying it, has recently been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic emergency loans that they have taken from the World Bank and the IMF. Although African countries seem to have among the lowest infection rates in the world, most COVID-19 emergency loans from the World Bank have gone to African countries. In addition, African countries have taken emergency loans from the IMF to the tune of US$7.5 billion.

The World Bank is perpetuating racism institutionally and globally and is a knee on the neck of Black people around the world.

This racism must end.

Racism in the World Bank as a workplace

Racism is also a problem in the World Bank as a workplace. Since 1979, 17 World Bank reports have documented that anti-Blackness (Afriphobia) in the institution is “systemic”. A 1998 World Bank report revealed that some managers with “cultural prejudice” against Black people “rated Africans as unsophisticated and inferior”. There is no reason to believe that such attitudes no longer prevail. The Bank’s former Senior Advisor for Racial Equality revealed in 2005 that his office “received and reviewed over 450 cases of racial discrimination in five years”. This is 90 complaints per year, amounting to nearly two complaints per week, excluding weekends and holidays. All cases were summarily dismissed.

Although African countries seem to have among the lowest infection rates in the world, most COVID-19 emergency loans from the World Bank have gone to African countries

Over a dozen studies, including those by the US government, the World Bank and the World Bank staff association, have pointed out that claimants of racial discrimination are denied due process. A 2015 29-page report by nine American Civil Rights Organizations documented with detailed evidence that the World Bank has “different judicial standards for Blacks and non-blacks”.

Another 2015 World Bank report, A Strategic Review of Current Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Relations Issues Related to the World Bank Group Workforce, found that the Bank’s race relations is one to two degrees removed from apartheid.

On a graduating scale of 1 to 6—where 1 represents an apartheid-like system and 6 signifies racial equality—the official report found the World Bank “hovering between 2 and 3”. The report further revealed that Black staff members consider the World Bank “apartheid-like” where Blacks are kept at the bottom of the pile.

An outstanding racial discrimination case involving an Ethiopian economist and former World Bank staff member, Dr Yonas Biru, has become a symbol of the Bank’s institutional racism. Even two current members of President Trump’s Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr Ben Carson and former Attorney General of Virginia,Ken Cuccinelli, have condemned the injustice against Dr Biru respectively as evidence of a “lack of humanity” and the “systematic destruction of the dignity of a human being”. As documented in numerous newspaper articles and independent reports, Dr Biru’s professional accomplishments were “retroactively downgraded” after the World Bank deemed them “too good to be true for a black man”. To this day, his case has not been resolved, even after the World Bank’s own 2015 official report found it to be a “blatant and virulent case of racism”.

The World Bank is perpetuating racism institutionally and globally and is a knee on the neck of Black people around the world

Despite its very well documented and pervasive institutional anti-Black racism (Afriphobia), the World Bank seems bent on maintaining the status quo while hand-waving and window-dressing for the public. In a recent letter to President Malpass dated July 31 2020, leaders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund Staff Association complained about the Task Force that the President has organised to address the internal demands for reform triggered by the George Floyd protests. They stated that the under-representation of African Americans in the Task Force is a “tacit dismissal of our voices and a missed opportunity to include the experiential knowledge African Americans would bring to the important process of laying out a framework that could begin ending racism at the World Bank Group”.

This racism must end.

Four steps towards ending racism at the World Bank

First, the World Bank should, in collaboration with African, Caribbean and other developing countries, civil society across the world and the UN, resolutely seek to dismantle its legacies of colonialism and racism by establishing an independent review mechanism with the purpose of periodically reviewing and advising on the structures and activities of the World Bank with a view of halting and repairing these legacies and ensuring that the World Bank supports an equitable, democratic and sustainable international order. This is in line with the Sustainable development Goals and the many resolutions that have been passed by overwhelming majority votes in recent years by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council towards a new international economic order and an equitable and democratic international order. It is also in the spirit of the ongoing UN International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024. Such an independent review mechanism could be discussed and deliberated at the forthcoming 15th UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD15), which will be held in Barbados in April 2021.

Despite its very well documented and pervasive institutional anti-Black racism (Afriphobia), the World Bank seems bent on maintaining the status quo

Second, future leaders of the World Bank should be democratically elected based on democratic and equitable selections of candidates. The Bank’s voting right allocation should be restructured taking into consideration two factors: equal voice between developed and developing nations and equitable distribution by regions. President Malpass, the UN and the world community should be mindful that such reform is among the Sustainable Development Goals. The Declaration for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development affirms that,

We acknowledge the importance for international financial institutions to support, in line with their mandates, the policy space of each country, in particular developing countries. We recommit to broadening and strengthening the voice and participation of developing countries—including African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing States and middle-income countries—in international economic decision-making, norm-setting and global economic governance.

Further, Sustainable Development Goal 10.6 calls for “enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making in global international economic and financial institutions in order to deliver more effective, credible, accountable and legitimate institutions”, whereas 16.8 sets out to, “Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance”.

Third, debt forgiveness must be effected for African and Caribbean countries. This is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also part of the 10-point plan for reparatory justice of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 15 Member States. Centuries of domination, economic exploitation, colonialism, enslavement and systemic racism have left African and Caribbean states in debt, economic and social dire straits without redress.

Finally, an independent mechanism for access to justice must be established at the World Bank. The World Bank must grant whistleblowers and racial discrimination litigants access to external arbitration outside of the World Bank’s internal justice system. Recognising the fact that, since 1998, over a dozen US government, World Bank, World Bank Staff Association and external reports have found that victims of racial injustice and whistleblowing retaliation are denied due process by the internal justice system, the World Bank must meet this demand without delay.

The World Bank must overhaul itself and its relationship to Black people. It must put an end to its systemic anti-Blackness (Afriphobia) and take steps towards halting and reversing centuries of domination, exploitation and oppression of Black people.

Without such resolute actions, its public call for justice for George Floyd, along with a false claim that “racial discrimination and social injustice have no place” in the World Bank, is disingenuous.


This article is an abdriged version of an open letter penned by Civil society organisations to the President of the world bank, David Malpass. You can read the original here

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Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security

Reliance on imports from as far away as Tanzania, Uganda and even China, leaves Kisumu County’s accessibility to food on a fragile footing.

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A ceasefire had to be called at the height of the 2007/8 post-election violence and a corridor created for the safe passage of foodstuffs from the Rift Valley to the lakeside city of Kisumu to avert a food crisis. The post-election violence had erupted barely 10 days earlier.

For a region that enjoys adequate rainfall and has good agricultural soils, the lack of access food supplies within days of a crisis breaking out is indicative of the problems generated by how food systems are structured in Kisumu County.

Kisumu County has a considerable shoreline along Lake Victoria that extends from Seme to the south to Nyakach Sub-County to the north. Apart from Kisumu city, the county also has a number of smaller towns such as Muhoroni, Ahero, Katito, Maseno and Kombewa.

Eighty per cent of the food consumed by the county’s 300,000 households—including maize, potatoes, onions, vegetables, milk, rice, eggs and bananas—is imported from as far as Uganda and Tanzania along with imports of fish from China.

Kisumu County continues to import food despite having regions that could potentially support expansive food production in areas such as Muhoroni, Nyamware and Nam Thowi, and the fertile crescents in Seme to the south. Over time, the rich alluvial soils that have been deposited in these areas by floods and rivers flowing downstream from Nandi Hills have created fertile grounds that support farming.

How did we get here?

The persistent issues that have impeded food production in Kisumu County are numerous. Traditionally, communities living in the county practiced fishing and livestock keeping, and subsistence agriculture as their economic mainstay. Commercial farming has only been embraced in recent years, due to interactions with neighbouring farming communities such as the Kisii, Luhya, Abasuba, and Kuria. The majority, however, continue to practice smallholder subsistence agriculture.

The uptake of commercial farming was also hindered by the economic policies of the 1990s that saw the collapse or the weakening of many of the structures that had been established to support food production in the country as a whole and provided extension services, grants, and subsidies to farmers. They include the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Agricultural Training Centres (ATCs), Agricultural Research Institutions (ARIs), and farmers’ co-operatives.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production. Most land in Kisumu County is not registered and titled and much of it is inherited property that has been passed down through the generations without legal title.

Recent surveys show that the cost of the farming inputs required to initiate meaningful agricultural production is out of reach for the majority of Kisumu County residents. This challenge is further compounded by the dearth of farming SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperatives); with the prohibitive interest rates charged by local banks, obtaining capital to start an agricultural enterprise has proved to be a challenge. These challenges are further exacerbated by the risks associated with farming such as crop losses and post-harvest losses.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production.

There is little agro-innovation among Kisumu farmers who still rely on traditional farming methods. There is little irrigation going on in the county. Lastly, there is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production such as agricultural engineers, extension officers, veterinary doctors, agronomists, sociologists, planners, economists, among others.

Food shortage affects the mwananchi

At Jubilee Market, a major cog in the food supply chain in Kisumu City, traders lament daily about inadequate local food supplies and about middlemen from outside the county who take advantage of food shortages to import supplies and make big profits. The high demand for food and the low supply have an impact on food prices, reducing profit margins for the traders, even as consumers are faced with high food prices.

There is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production.

The missing link in Kisumu’s economic growth is a buoyant agricultural sector. From observations made when the writer toured Victoria Eco-Farm, a leading food supplier situated at Dunga Beach in Kisumu City, the revival of agriculture in Kisumu is possible.  Victoria Eco-Farm deals in poultry, dairy, bee keeping, and the rearing of exotic dogs.  The farm has also diversified into agri-tourism, receiving visitors and training both students on attachment and local farmers on best farming practices. Nicholas Omondi, the Director, has become a role model for emerging food producers in the agriculture sector.

Modelling food sufficiency

Based on Walt Rostow’s model of economic growth, Kisumu County will not make a sudden and quick leap out of food insecurity. In Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow outlines the five stages that all countries must pass through to become developed: the traditional society; pre-conditions for take-off; take-off; drive to maturity; age of mass consumption. Regrettably, Kisumu County is still at the stage of a traditional society that is characterized by subsistence agriculture, limited funding and technological innovation, and low economic mobility.

The pre-conditions for take-off will only be fulfilled when the county government, acting in collaboration with the national government, provides adequate incentives for agricultural development. More food crops need to be introduced to farmers in Kisumu County. There is also an urgent need to revitalize existing sectors such as the sugar and fishing industries. The county’s potential to become a prime producer of rice also needs to be actualized.

Reform-oriented policies such as titling and surveying are needed in order to transform the existing models of landholding and land ownership. Farming communities in the county also require extensive sensitization and training on emerging technologies and innovations. Most importantly, existing lacklustre attitudes to farming as an economic activity among Kisumu County residents will need to be addressed.

However, the current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review. In effect, no serious gains can be made in the agriculture sector anywhere in the country as long as the national government continues to insist on enforcing policies that increase production costs and make it cheaper to import food from Tanzania and Uganda than to grow it at home.

The current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review.

Leaders must realize that whether they are in the opposition or in government, relations with state agencies, especially those in the agriculture sector, are key to developing farming in Kisumu County, that in the interest of economic development, they must always be in constant touch with the government for purposes of support, lobbying and relaying feedback in development processes. Existing attitudes and brands of politics that lead to self-marginalization must be removed at all costs.

It must be recognised, however, that the county government has taken initial steps to start addressing the challenge of food insecurity. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the county government has established a youth-focused Food Liaison Advisory Group (FLAG), leading to the promotion of urban agriculture, the strengthening of rural mechanisms for food production and initiating programmes for the training and deployment of agricultural extension officers.

It is to be hoped that such initiatives will contribute towards alleviating the food insecurity situation that the residents of Kisumu County continue to grapple with.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy

Twitter’s trending algorithm has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks, failing Kenyans as political actors use it to control political narratives by harassing dissenting voices.

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On the 24th of June 2021 at around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on Kenyan Twitter timelines. Its trend seemed to be driven by a number of faceless bots, and retweeted by a series of catfishes that sent it to the number one spot on the Kenyan Twitter trends. 

Our investigations have uncovered how such malicious, coordinated, inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, muddy their reputations and stifle the reach of their messaging, is a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, especially, has been central to these operations due to the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.

The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya carries the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of speech. Moreover, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and to call out their failures. But civil society members and journalists have increasingly come under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.

Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and gained crucial insights into how they are organized.

An examination of the campaigns has provided our team with a window into the shadowy world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.

Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Certain verified accounts on the platform are complicit in leading these attacks. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by muddying the truth.

Our investigations examined two months’ data between 1 May 2021 and 30 June 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill—famously known as the Building Bridges Initiative—that was being promoted in Kenya at the time.

With the aid of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we trailed the attacks by mapping and analysing specific hashtags that the influencers used on Twitter. This involved mapping certain accounts that posted malicious content targeting Kenya’s activists and judicial officers. The flagged hashtags often displayed synchronized publishing timestamps within the metadata, with a lack of content on most days, followed by one very sharp burst of activity and then fizzling out.

In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we flagged 23,606 tweets and retweets released by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to carry out further analysis of the content.

How disinformation is spread

The Twitter campaigns we looked at were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists that were vocally opposed to the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organisations and activists by portraying them as villains who were being funded by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto—he opposes the BBI process.

The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. The WhatsApp group admins give direction about what to post, the hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with, and whom to target. They also synchronize the posting to enable the tweets to trend on twitter.

There is money to be made in attacking civil society. Our sources confirmed that they get paid between US$10 and US$15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher up the ranks are on a monthly retainer that can go as high as US$500. Those who are on a retainer supervise the hashtags and ensure that they trend on the days they are posted.

Who the disinformation targets

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement who petitioned the courts against the BBI were the targets of some of the most vicious attacks.

The attacks peaked in early May with the specific goal of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign who was targeted, said in interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove that her activism efforts were genuine and that she was not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me focussed on painting me as someone with ulterior motives who isn’t interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Seii.

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists.

All this is leading to self-censorship by some of the activists on the platform as they feel that it is pointless to use a platform that cannot deliver any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said that she had significantly scaled down her Twitter activity because of all the trolling she had experienced.

The Kenyan High court struck down the BBI on 14 May on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20th. The ruling not only strained the already bad relationship between Kenya’s Judiciary and the Executive, it also led to wave after wave of disinformation attacks seeking to question the judges’ judicial independence and the accuracy of their decision.

A notable change in these attacks was how the visual aesthetics of the content within the campaigns evolved; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were employed, a likely indication of a change of leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make the content more palatable and shareable.

What is the impact of the slander?

The data that we gathered from Trendinalia (which collects data on Twitter trends in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved partly through the use of verified accounts. One anonymous influencer we spoke to said that owners of certain verified accounts involved in these campaigns would often rent them out to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot from the person that rented it from them once it’s over,” the influencer said.

The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is markedly strong. During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process. This translates to at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every two days.

Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually sway people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The goal of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore. The objective is to exhaust critical thinking and muddy the truth.

During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process.

Typically, a post by any of the prominent activists or judicial officers is bombarded with so much aggression, insults, and dismissive comments that the space for a good conversation is lost. The point is always to ensure that sober-minded people are disincentivized from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in the replies and the quote tweets.

The role of Twitter Inc.

To many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become a very critical avenue of expression, networking, running ads, and a means of obtaining information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of Africa’s loudest and most lively internet communities.

On the darker side however, some of the features on Twitter are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform is failing Kenyans—and Africans more broadly. Political actors are using it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.

Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users who are trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends is the primary key performance indicator by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to go trending on Twitter. I’m not sure what our jobs would look like without that target,” said one source.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks.

Twitter’s Moderation Team should pay close attention, keenly monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called for Twitter to “untrend” itself. This could be done by either removing the feature completely or by disabling it during critical times such as during election periods.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon.

Arguably, Twitter does not have an incentive to fix this. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” within the feeds of hashtags on its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter squarely in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.

Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter Ads in Kenya, currently offers promoted trends for US$3,500 per day within the country. The overall message this sends is that it is ok to sow hate on the platform so long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to the trending content and make a profit from it.

As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek out malicious coordinated trending models and create the risk of a repeat of the 2007 political violence.

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Op-Eds

WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place.

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WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus
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Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization at the 75th World Health Assembly on 24 May 2022. Dr Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and he has been condemning the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as non-state actors in Ethiopia such as the Amhara militia, for the comprehensive humanitarian blockade, total siege, systematic rape, mass killings, total destruction of health facilities, and killings of humanitarian and health workers, and other atrocious acts committed in Tigray and against its people. There are, however, critics, especially from the Ethiopian government, that claim that he is abusing his mandate as the head of a UN organization. This raises the question to what extent high-ranking UN officials should stay neutral when it comes to conflict and crises in their home countries.

Mandate and watchdog 

As the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements on the catastrophic humanitarian and medical condition of the people of Tigray and his call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to lift the siege and humanitarian blockade are legitimate and within the purview of his mandate. It is important to understand the context of Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements. Dr Ghebreyesus has the responsibility of upholding WHO principles, which include the recognition that the “health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest cooperation of states and individuals” and that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The war on Tigray started at a time of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disrupted the efforts of the people of Tigray to prevent and contain the spread of the disease and mitigate its significant health and socio-economic-political impacts. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, on 31 March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) postponed the scheduled 29 August 2020 legislative elections indefinitely. However, other voices, including the Government of Tigray,  have condemned the decision as a corona-clouded power grab.

The war on Tigray, referred to by the Ethiopian government as simply “law and order enforcement” against a few leaders in Tigray, turned out to be a well-planned total war against the people of Tigray that involved significant forces from foreign countries, including Eritrea and Somalia. Several reports by humanitarian organisations and investigations by human rights organisations and international media have repeatedly concluded that the gruesome mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing that may amount to genocide. This is consistent with Ethiopian officials’ openly stated intent to erase Tigrayans. In February 2021, four months after the war started, they even shared their intentions with Pekko Havvisto, Finland’s Foreign Minister and EU Envoy to Ethiopia. “When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years, and so forth.

Despite the Ethiopian government declaring unilateral humanitarian ceasefires twice, first on 28 June 2021 and then on 24 March 2022, together with their Eritrean allies, Ethiopian forces have maintained the siege sealing off Tigray from the rest of the world and imposing “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” as stated by the UN in July 2021. The siege involves a complete shutdown of telecommunications, transportation, electricity, and the banking system with the result that workers’ salaries cannot be paid, people with savings cannot access their money, and the Tigray diaspora cannot send remittances to help their families and friends in Tigray. Even aid agencies working in Tigray were denied cash and fuel and many were forced to halt their humanitarian operations.

By March 2022, 16 months since the start of the war, it was reported that an estimated half a million Tigrayans have been killed. Of those, close to 200,000 lost their lives by starvation, which is being deliberately used as a weapon of war, while another 100,000 civilian Tigrayans died from lack of access to basic medical care. The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system. It is now close to 20 months since the war started and more Tigrayans have died from deliberate starvation, denial of medical care, torture, extrajudicial killings in the liberated part of Tigray, in western and other parts of Tigray still occupied by Ethiopian federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces and in internment camps in many parts of Ethiopia.

The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system.

The Ethiopian government and its allies are indeed working against the core UN charter and instruments including universal human rights such as the right to life, freedom of movement, right to food, right to health, and right to humanitarian aid. The people of Tigray are now denied the enjoyment of a standard of health services that they attained after decades of a hard, consistent and holistic effort to attain primary health care. The WHO sent critical medical supplies to all conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia but while the consignments to the Amhara and Afar regions arrived at destination without problems, those destined for Tigray have been deliberately blocked by Ethiopian authorities and their allies from reaching people who are being deliberately starved and denied access to basic medical supplies.

It is within this context that Dr Ghebreyesus is speaking out and calling for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop weaponizing access to food and medical supplies. Speaking at the inauguration of his second term, Dr Ghebreyesus said:

“I am humbled by the opportunity provided by the Member States to serve a second term as WHO Director-General”. He added, “This honour, though, comes with great responsibility and I am committed to working with all countries, my colleagues around the world, and our valued partners, to ensure WHO delivers on its mission to promote health, and keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

Dr Ghebreyesus is therefore acting in line with his mandate to be a voice for the voiceless victims. Dr Ghebreyesus is impartial in that, under his leadership, the WHO has also been dispatching critical medical supplies to the Afar and Amhara regions; the UN system has a watchdog that oversees the impartiality of UN officials. Moreover, the UN also has an Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates misconduct and violations by UN officials and submits reports and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

The Ethiopian government did lodge a complaint to the WHO Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics (CRE) and to the WHO’s Executive Board, alleging misconduct and calling for the removal of Dr Ghebreyesus from office claiming that he was using the office of the Director-General to further his personal political interests. This is part of the campaign that the Ethiopian government has been waging against all Tigrayans—attacks and witch-hunts against Tigrayans that lack any credibility. UN peacekeeping troops of Tigrayan origin deployed in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan faced similar attacks which led the UN to treat them as prima facie refugees in need of protection.

Neutrality 

In his 2021 book titled Perilous Medicine, Professor Leonard Rubenstein describes the debate within the humanitarian and donor community about the role of neutrality in aid work, which can be extrapolated to the UN’s high-ranking officials.

Neutrality, one of the four principles of UN humanitarian practice (humanity, impartiality, and independence), is about not taking a position on one side or another in a conflict. When undertaking humanitarian and other UN operations in zones of armed conflict, UN officials are expected to remain neutral, avoiding taking sides or showing favouritism. In contrast, impartiality is maintaining non-discriminatory positions towards individuals and  groups of  people in a conflict  needing humanitarian assistance. However, neutrality should not mean that UN officials have to remain tight-lipped and passive when any of the warring parties are massacring and deliberately starving a civilian population and denying them access to life-saving assistance because of their ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. As long as aid workers (or in this case UN officials) maintain impartiality, Professor Rubenstein questions if maintaining neutrality vis-à-vis a waring party or parties is even morally ethical, especially when they attack or deny civilians humanitarian assistance  because of their identity, as is the case with ethnic Tigrayans.

The WHO, led by Dr Ghebreyesus, has been impartial in its medical aid delivery to all ethnic groups affected by the civil war in northern Ethiopia.  While neutrality has been interpreted as not taking sides, it does not require Dr Ghebreyesus to be indifferent to the suffering of millions civilian Tigrayans when the Ethiopian government and its allies blatantly discriminate against them and deny them access to vital international medical assistance because of their ethnicity.

In her article Neutrality vs impartiality: What is the difference?, Carol Devine of Doctors Without Borders says, “Neutrality is not the same as staying silent. It’s nuanced and even controversial. MSF reserves the possibility to speak in public about massive human rights violations and crimes of humanity, including genocide.” A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies. When civilians are facing crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as is still happening in Tigray, taking no action using neutrality as excuse is against the fundamental values and mandates of the UN human rights and international humanitarian law.

A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies.

It is important to be aware of the unfortunate conflation of neutrality with the duty of impartiality. Indeed, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Louis Frechette is cited saying, “The UN cannot be impartial between those who respect international, humanitarian, and human rights laws and those who grossly violate them.” In 1999, former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality – there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.”

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place. The heads of UN organizations including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to join Dr Ghebreyesus in speaking up and acting against the continuing ethnic cleansing, siege and humanitarian blockade of millions of civilian Tigrayans.

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