Following the tabling of the Election (Amendment) Bill 2022 in the National Assembly by the Majority Leader in February this year, there was significant debate and angst about the Bill’s proposed amendments to the provisions in the Election Act relating to the transmission of results. Several news outlets and social media users incorrectly asserted that the Bill proposed to scrap the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) obligation to set up and operate an electronic tallying and transmission system, reverting Kenya’s elections procedure to that which was last used in 2007. The traction gained by these assertions prompted the IEBC to clarify the position via a press statement—the provision relating to electronic transmission was not going to be amended.
This episode is emblematic of two things: an apparent recognition of the importance of electronic transmission and tallying; and an insight into the potential for social media to muddy the waters of public discourse in electoral contexts. More broadly, it is symbolic of the way electioneering—and the administration of elections—has drastically evolved in recent years. The level of digitisation of both the election administration systems and the tools used by candidates to campaign is unlike anything previously witnessed, and this is a mixed bag. While the use of technology may make processes more efficient and secure, there are inherent risks posed both to electoral systems, and to the electorate itself. In a two-part article within this series, we canvas some of the key challenges posed by the digitisation of electoral processes and review some of the measures adopted by various stakeholders in response. We look at these challenges at two levels—the structural risks posed to election administration systems and the risks posed to electoral integrity by conduct on social networks.
Election administration systems
Several election management bodies have begun using technology to administer elections to varying degrees. While some such as Estonia have implemented a system which allows citizens to cast their vote online from anywhere in the world, others, such as Kenya, still limit their use of technology to voter registration, transmission, and tallying. While these systems may render numerous efficiencies, this is sometimes at the cost of credibility. Any challenge to the integrity of these systems would effectively undermine entire electoral processes. One need only look at Kenya’s most recent experience to understand this.
After the 2017 general election, the Supreme Court of Kenya ordered the IEBC to allow two independent parties access to its servers to audit the results of the poll. This came after allegations that there were significant flaws in the tallying and transmission of results. During the various election related petitions which the Supreme Court heard in that period, public discourse around the reliability of the electronic tallying and transmission system demonstrated widespread mistrust. Considering the Supreme Court subsequently accepted the claim that the data may have been interfered with, this was unsurprising. The ambivalence towards the reliability of electronic tallying and transmission was apparent prior to the election, when officials struggled to instil confidence in voters that the systems would be reliable. In the face of clear hurdles such as insufficient network coverage, the IEBC had a difficult time assuring the electorate that it would be able to safeguard an election. Since then, there have been several instances where the integrity of the IEBC’s systems has been questioned. For example, only last year, there were conflicting reports from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the IEBC on an alleged infiltration of the IEBC’s servers. While the DCI publicly stated that an individual had been arrested on suspicion of having hacked into the IEBC servers, the IEBC denied these claims.
The level of digitisation of both the election administration systems and the tools used by candidates to campaign is unlike anything previously witnessed.
With digitised election administration, election management bodies must consider both internal and external risks. From flaws inherent in the systems used, to the potential for tampering by external actors, there exist numerous vectors through which a system’s reliability can be challenged. Once this reliability is impeached, it is hard to guarantee the credibility of any result. With this reality, it is now common for various political actors around the world to allege external interference or inherent unreliability when confronted with an unfavourable outcome. In countries where this occurs, the resulting mistrust of election institutions threatens the very fabric of democracy, sometimes leading to violence. Lest we forget, this is not a developing world phenomenon. The United States of America experienced this in light of Donald Trump’s rejection of the US Presidential elections.
Social networking platforms
Beyond the cybersecurity threats posed to election administration systems, the digitisation of electioneering has also exposed democracies to several harms. Over the past few election cycles, the use of networked technologies—social media in particular—in political campaigning has steadily risen. During the 2017 elections, over 80 per cent of candidates in Kenya had an online presence on social media. The peer-to-peer and instantaneous nature of these platforms means that they are especially potent tools for political actors to use for the dissemination of their messaging to large audiences, as well as for direct engagement with individual members of their bases. Given that these platforms often lack gatekeeping in the traditional editorial sense, political actors can share unfiltered content with large audiences easily.
On the one hand, these platforms have been lauded as levelling the playing field between actors who have access to the resources necessary to command a presence on mainstream media and those who don’t. On the other, the way these platforms curate the content their users consume, and the nature of the content shared by some political actors, have been criticised as undermining healthy political debate. Specifically, the spread of harmful content such as mis- and dis-information which contributes to the erosion of the basic truths which underpin political discourse and is sometimes inciteful has been of significant concern. Public authorities and private entities alike are increasingly finding themselves having to issue statements disavowing the contents of news reports or social media posts as false or misleading, as the IEBC did in relation to the reporting following the tabling of the Election (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The same is true in relation to announcements claiming to be from public bodies. The quality of the fakes is excellent so the public can be easily deceived. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) also mean that audio-visual content is not immune to these harms; the democratisation of AI technologies used to alter audio-visual content has resulted in a surge in fabricated videos known as “deep fakes”. With such an information ecosystem, it becomes difficult for political actors and the electorate to engage in constructive debate. Immediately one is confronted with incriminating content such as a video, one need only claim that it is fabricated, and this will immediately obfuscate the truth. Focus will be shifted from the content of the post to its authenticity. While social media platforms have developed some fact-checking and transparency measures in relation to, for example, the US elections, many have not bothered to do the same for most of the rest of the world, which itself is a matter of significant concern.
With digitised election administration, election management bodies must consider both internal and external risks.
These harms are compounded by practices such as microtargeting, which leverage the design of social media platforms to expose specific audiences to messaging which appeals to their biases, and which they would therefore be receptive to. In campaign contexts, these tools are often made available to political actors by consultants such as the now infamous Cambridge Analytica which offered its services to various actors in Kenya’s 2017 elections. Underpinning these targeting and microtargeting practices is an aggressive and often unchecked harvesting of personal data which enables political actors to develop audience profiles and design effective messaging. In some instances, this messaging leverages on an audience’s biases or fears, and is sometimes misleading or inciteful in nature. Recently we have also witnessed the use of social media influencers to coordinate the spread of this specific messaging that is often false, misleading, or maligning of a particular political actor or group of actors. Social media platforms, in response to findings by researchers, have severally had to take down a raft of accounts engaged in coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Most recently, this method of spreading mis-and dis-information was used in relation to the debate around the Reproductive Healthcare Bill and the Surrogacy Bill where a Spanish organisation—CitizenGo—allegedly amplified certain hashtags on Kenya’s trending page on Twitter.
Vigilance is then the watchword. Building “believability” filters and inculcating healthy scepticism are essential. In years past, the fact that something made it into print media anointed the content with a sense of credibility. Social media has irrevocably changed this. These developments mean that election stakeholders ought to be vigilant regarding the ways in which Kenya’s electoral integrity can be attacked as we head into the 2022 general elections. On the other hand, these challenges have been widely noted by the IEBC, other regulators such as the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, and civil society, and various measures have been put in place to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity. We discuss some of these measures in the next instalment in this series.
This article was authored in collaboration with the Kofi Annan Foundation whose electoral integrity program is supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund.
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Philosophy for the People
For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.
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.
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.
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.
Twitter: Let It Burn!
Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.
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 for. There 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.
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