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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer

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Three intelligence officers tell Declassified UK that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, tracked and arranged the arrest of Michael Adebolajo in Kenya, contradicting MI6’s testimony to two intelligence oversight reviews.

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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer
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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 12 November 2020.

The town of Kizingitini on Paté island, just off Kenya’s north-eastern coast, is an otherwise unremarkable fishing village surrounded by mangroves. As a gateway to the Horn of Africa, the island inhabits an historically strategic location, with Arab and Portuguese merchants taking turns to settle the island.

In recent history, the island has enjoyed relative peace and, in a nod to its lush surroundings and history, its locals sing: “None who go to Paté returns; what returns is wailing”.

In November 2010, the island unexpectedly received international attention when British terror suspect, Michael Adebolajo, and five others were arrested there by Kenyan police. They were allegedly planning to cross into Somalia to join the al-Shabaab militant group responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya.

It was one stage of a journey that would end with the murder of a British soldier on the streets of London and a parliamentary investigation into the handling of the case by the UK’s domestic security service MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6.

The British government denied prior knowledge of – or involvement in – Adebolajo’s arrest and interrogation, which he claimed was abusive. However, defying expectations, and under controversial circumstances, the British High Commission in Nairobi intervened to bring Adebolajo back to the UK and save him from terror charges in Kenya.

Once back in Britain, Adebolajo claimed he was subject to ongoing harassment by MI5 and that the security agency tried to convince him to become a covert human intelligence source in order to spy on Islamic extremists.

Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya in 2010, but brought to UK and released where in 2013 he murdered British soldier, Lee Rigby

Less than three years after being returned to the UK, on 22 May 2013, Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale hunted down Fusilier Lee Rigby, near his barracks in Woolwich, southeast London and brutally hacked him to death in broad daylight. Adebolajo and Adebowale were later convicted of murder and sentenced to life and 45 years in prison, respectively.

Claims that Adebolajo had previously been on the radar of the UK intelligence agencies prompted a parliamentary investigation into whether the killing of Rigby could have been prevented by the spy agencies.

The review by the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published in 2014, found mistakes in British security operations but concluded they were not “significant enough to have made a difference” in stopping the attack.

The ISC report, and another review conducted in 2016 by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Mark Waller, both concluded that Adebolajo’s arrest was not procured by British intelligence.

But an investigation by Declassified in Kenya now provides a different picture, contradicting both the reviews and MI6’s testimony to them.

ARCTIC in Kenya

Both reviews covered the involvement of a body called ARCTIC, which the Intelligence Commissioner’s report described as “a Kenyan counter-terrorism intelligence unit which has a close working relationship with… HMG [Her Majesty’s Government].”

It continued: “Although ARCTIC can and does act independently of HMG and without its knowledge, their relationship appears to be much closer in practice than some of the more formal, theoretical statements about it might suggest.”

Declassified previously found that ARCTIC is in fact an MI6 liaison cell within Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) counter-terrorism unit and plays a key role in identifying, tracking, locating and interrogating terror suspects in Kenya.

ARCTIC undertakes undercover operations to produce actionable intelligence on targets who are then killed or captured by the police, including the clandestine CIA-backed paramilitary Kenyan police unit named the Rapid Response Team (RRT). Declassified has also revealed that ARCTIC is involved in raids involving alleged summary executions, such as the case of terror suspect Kassim Omollo in 2013.

Declassified can now reveal that MI6, working with Kenyan’s NIS intelligence officers, tracked and arranged for Adebolajo’s arrest, according to two NIS officers familiar with the operation, who made the admission independently of each other. Their testimony was further corroborated by a former CIA counter-terrorism officer familiar with operations in east Africa.

“For that specific case they [MI6] were here. I can’t deny that”, one of the NIS officers told Declassified. “If it were not for them I think it would have been difficult for us to do that job… That specific assignment was important. Because the mark [suspect] was from their place, their country.”

Declassified has learned that upon Adebolajo’s arrival in Kenya in October 2010, MI6 alerted Kenya’s NIS and sought approval from its Director to meet with two intelligence officers and brief them on the case at NIS’ headquarters in Nairobi.

MI6 told two government reviews it was not involved in Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya

A team of Kenyan intelligence trackers then moved to the coastal city of Mombasa, where it tracked Adebolajo and his associates to Paté island and arranged for their arrest before they could sail off to Somalia, it was alleged.

An investigating officer with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) familiar with Adebolajo’s case confirmed to Declassified that his arrest came after the local police officer in charge received intelligence about his movements.

British covert surveillance capabilities played a key role, the two NIS officers told Declassified. One of the officers spoke of the difficulty in tracking Adebolajo due to his awareness of electronic surveillance measures. Believing he could outsmart British and Kenyan intelligence, Adebolajo often relied in Kenya on email communications at internet cafes.

But Adebolajo was unaware of extensive British intelligence surveillance capabilities, including those of MI6’s sister agency, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) — Britain’s signals intelligence organisation — which can conduct surveillance on targets.

The “GHOSTHUNTER” programme, run by GCHQ, operates in collaboration with the US National Security Agency, and can target internet and phone access by identified individuals, by intercepting communications transmitted through satellite terminals, documents leaked by Edward Snowden show.

GCHQ has made regular use of GHOSTHUNTER to locate “high value targets” for kill or capture operations in countries such as Kenya, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to documents leaked by Snowden.

MI6 team worked with Kenyan intelligence cell to track Adebolajo and arrange his arrest, Kenyan officers say

It is possible that, in addition to its own field surveillance capabilities, MI6 relied on the programme’s capabilities to track Adebolajo.

However, the two NIS officers confirmed to Declassified that the arrest was designed to appear exactly as the UK Intelligence Commissioner asserted in his review: “happenstance”.

The officer also confirmed that the ARCTIC intelligence officers who interrogated Adebolajo while in Kenyan police custody were the same officers later involved in the capture and interrogation of another Briton, Jermaine Grant, a year later.

Britain’s Foreign Office, which oversees MI6, declined to answer questions for this article, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

Misleading inquiries

The Kenyan officers’ testimony contradicts the evidence MI6 provided to the ISC and the Intelligence Commissioner, and the conclusions of both reports. Evidence was given to the ISC by Sir John Sawers, then the head of MI6, and other MI6 officers.

The report of the ISC, which was chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, stated that “both SIS and MI5 were notified of Adebolajo’s arrest and detention. Prior to this, SIS and MI5 had been unaware that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya”.

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report similarly concluded: “Neither SIS nor MI5 knew that Mr Adebolajo was in Kenya prior to his arrest there; and SIS had the operational lead thereafter but no contact with him”. The Commissioner, Mark Waller, put down Adebolajo’s arrest by the Paté island police to a “chance sighting”. Waller concluded that the individual MI6 officers who gave evidence to his inquiry “did their best to answer all my questions honestly and truthfully”.

He also described, somewhat inconsistently, MI6’s engagement with the review as “wholly inadequate”, stating that it “provided inaccurate and incomplete information and generally sought to ‘fence’ with and ‘close down’ lines of inquiry, rather than engage constructively.”

Evidence provided to Declassified supports this view. “That’s on them to lie to their oversight committee”, a former CIA counter-terrorism official with knowledge of Adebolajo’s case said of MI6’s claim of non-involvement.

“That whole case was a guy who had been on the radar and they lost him [prior to Lee Rigby’s killing]. For whatever reason, they couldn’t take it to the next level and 6 [MI6] is trying to cover their ass, no different than the FBI does and we do. We fuck up too.”

“That’s on them [MI6] to lie to their oversight committee”, former CIA counter-terrorism officer with knowledge of the case tells Declassified

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report contained hints of MI6’s involvement in the arrest before going on to dismiss them. It noted: “Intelligence Officer 1 [an MI6 officer] took a comment by one of his Kenyan counterparts as an indication that Mr Adebolajo had been arrested as the result of intelligence provided by an agent”. But the report concluded: “As it happens, there almost certainly was no agent”.

The report also stated that on 18 November 2010—three days before Adebolajo was arrested—an MI6 officer presumed to be based in Nairobi sent an email to MI6’s head office in London summarising Kenyan laws and procedures on the arrest, detention and deportation of British nationals suspected of extremism.

The email also outlined the process whereby MI6 and MI5 would work together on the identification of targets—and noted that the British government would work closely with ARCTIC on the planning of detention operations.

Accountability

MI6’s reluctance to disclose its role in Adebolajo’s arrest is likely to be explained by the desire to keep secret its extensive relationship with Kenya’s intelligence service, as recently revealed in a months-long investigation by Declassified. It may face questions about its involvement in Kenya’s bloody war on terror, which has seen hundreds of suspects killed or disappeared.

The ISC stated in its report: “Where HM Government has a close working relationship with counterterrorist units, they will share responsibility for those units’ actions.”

The Intelligence Commissioner agreed, stating: “I consider that any allegations of mistreatment made against ARCTIC would be of concern to HMG irrespective of whether it co-operated in or was aware of the underlying operation because of their close working relationship and intelligence-sharing arrangements.”

The MI6 ARCTIC liaison cell was also behind the intelligence that led to the capture of two Britons in Mombasa three years after Adebolajo’s arrest in 2013, and of a doctor and three others in Kenya in 2016, over alleged attempts to stage an anthrax attack in support of the Islamic State terrorist group, Declassified can also reveal.

A Kenyan officer familiar with the operation to arrest the anthrax attack suspects recalled a pre-meeting between ARCTIC officers, RRT paramilitaries and ATPU officers. The ARCTIC intelligence officers “gave us the type of the suspect, whom we were going to arrest, and—during the search—the items which we were to go for”, the officer said.

One of the Kenyan officers described the ARCTIC cell as “highly mobile, highly covert”, even by NIS standards, and composed of human intelligence field operatives and tech specialists. Alongside MI6, the CIA and Israel’s Mossad each have separate liaison cells within Kenya’s NIS. Each cell is composed of a team of Kenyan officers dedicated to working with the foreign intelligence agencies to counter terrorism in the country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Declassified that its allegations were “very disturbing” but said he was “sceptical” of them, adding that it was “highly improbable” that MI6 officers deliberately lied about their involvement.

He stated: “It is not impossible that certain SIS officers were carrying out activities in Kenya that had not been authorised by London… [but]… my main reason for scepticism is that I cannot see what motive SIS would have had to lie to the ISC.”

Sir Malcolm added: “There would have been nothing embarrassing or controversial for SIS in volunteering this information. It had no relevance to the subsequent brutal murder of Lee Rigby. I do not see any credible motive for the Chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament.”

But Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chaired one of the reviews, claims there was no “credible motive for the chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament”

The revelations cast significant doubt on the willingness of Britain’s intelligence oversight body, the ISC, as well as the Intelligence Commissioner, to fully examine Adebolajo’s claims, pursue leads and interview available witnesses as part of their reviews.

The Guardian previously reported that “the committee [ISC] is alleged to have reached its conclusions without speaking to a number of witnesses, including a family member and lawyers, who claim Adebolajo complained a year before the attack of repeated approaches by the security services”.

Tasnime Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor who is familiar with Adebolajo’s case and represented a close friend of his who appeared on BBC Newsnight to tell Adebolajo’s story, told Declassified, “SIS [MI6] and the UK authorities have worked hand in glove with the Kenyan authorities, with the full knowledge that the Kenyan authorities have been accused many times of extrajudicial killings… That would be their motivation to lie; given that the UK authorities even in Guantanamo Bay have been found liable simply for being present when individuals were being tortured.”

Akunjee added: “Where there is intelligence sharing between countries, the rule is that nobody leaks. If it does leak from one particular side then that relationship is strained or then ceases. So there would not just be a motivation for the security services to keep a lid on this, but generally for the entire UK government to want to maintain that close working relationship with Kenya.”

Former Intelligence Commissioner Mark Waller told Declassified via an intermediary that “he has always felt it inappropriate to give interviews in relation to his role as Intelligence Services Commissioner”.

Sir John Sawers declined to comment. Adebolajo’s lawyers also declined to comment, citing the need to review the findings with their client.

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 2 of this investigation here.

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Namir Shabibi is a British investigative journalist who has written and produced documentaries for the BBC, VICE News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among others. Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers Britain’s role in the world.

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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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