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Road to 9/8: Risks Posed by Digitisation of Electoral Processes

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This is the third of a series of articles that discuss some of the major issues at stake, and the roles played by various institutions in safeguarding the integrity of the August 2022 general election.

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Road to 9/8: Risks Posed by Digitisation of Electoral Processes
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In our previous article, we highlighted the key challenges facing Kenya’s electoral integrity that are posed by the increased digitisation of election systems and the electioneering process. From cybersecurity risks to harms occasioned by human conduct on social networking platforms, there are various factors that could undermine the credibility of elections in the digital age. In this article, we review some of the measures adopted to mitigate the potential for such harms in the context of the upcoming elections.

Since the 2017 general election, there have been numerous changes to the legal framework applicable to the use of technology in different contexts. Some notable changes within the context of elections are the enactment of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018 (CMCA) as well as the Data Protection Act, 2019 (DPA), and the operationalisation of the Data Commissioner’s office. The effect of these changes is already being felt—the Data Commissioner was recently called into action following numerous complaints by citizens that they were registered as members of political parties without their knowledge or consent. In response, the Data Commissioner consulted with the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties and directed it to establish an opt-out mechanism that has since been implemented. However, a recent report authored for the Mozilla Foundation chronicled the practice of disinformation for hire; the use of social media influencers by political actors to spread false or misleading content on their opponents is common despite the provisions of the CMCA criminalising such conduct. This suggests that the existing measures taken may be insufficient.

Recalling some of the major challenges Kenya faced in the 2017 general election, we outline the key developments that have since taken place and highlight their potential impact on the integrity of the election administration system and the practice of electioneering online.

Integrity of the election administration system 

The Elections Act mandates the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to establish and maintain an electronic system for voter registration and identification and the transmission of results. Further, the Elections (Technology) Regulations outline how the IEBC is required to administer this system and the safeguards that they are required to put in place. They set out the principles that ought to guide the IEBC in data handling and storage. In 2017, the IEBC’s administration of the election system came under the microscope due to a series of unfortunate events, pointing, at best, to ineptitude.

During the 2017 election cycle, the IEBC debuted the Kenya Integrated Management System (KIEMS), billing it as a solution to the credibility issues that had previously plagued electoral processes. KIEMS uses electronic voter identification and transmission of tabulated results through mobile devices stationed at each polling centre. The server support and underlying IT for KIEMS was provided by French-based firm, OT-Morpho (later, IDEMIA). According to the then opposition, IDEMIA was contracted under dubious conditions and, from the start, was part of a fraudulent scheme to subvert the election process. Despite assurances from the IEBC on the credibility of its system, several occurrences cast significant doubts over the elections. For one, a week prior to the elections, the IEBC’s ICT manager in charge of the KIEMS—Chris Msando—was found murdered shortly after appearing on a news segment assuring Kenyans of the integrity of KIEMS and his centrality to the security of the system. To date, the circumstances of his death are not clear, and no one has been charged.

Secondly, during the elections, the transmission of results was hampered by poor connectivity, with approximately 11,155 polling stations out of the total 40,883 lacking sufficient network coverage. At some point, the tallying of results was briefly interrupted. All these factors were relied on by the petitioners in the 2017 presidential election petition, and this led to the Supreme Court calling into question the integrity of the servers used to facilitate the transmission and storage of the election results. Perhaps the most notable occurrence in the discussions on OT-Morpho’s involvement in the election was the IEBC indicating that it was unable to provide access to the election servers due to the time difference between Kenya and France. In its eventual judgment, the Supreme Court found that there were several irregularities plaguing the electronic transmission system and this contributed to its decision to annul the election. After the nullification of the elections, one of the IEBC’s commissioners fled the country, the CEO was terminated and, citing a lack of faith in the chairman, three other commissioners resigned. These positions, including that of the late Chris Msando, have since been filled. It is notable that the chairperson remains in office, despite the debacles of 2017.

Reeling from the events of the 2017 election, the IEBC conducted a post-election evaluation exercise in 2019 to inform its strategic approach to the 2022 elections. This process not only informed the legislative amendments that the IEBC has recently supported in parliament such as the Election (Amendment) Bill, 2021, but also the preparation of the IEBC’s ICT capacity. Based on the evaluation, the IEBC has acquired a primary and secondary data centre in Kenya and has put in place a Joint Technical Committee with the Communications Authority to map out the network coverage challenges.

However, there are significant challenges facing the IEBC. While the IEBC has moved away from IDEMIA, its procurement of Smartmatic International Holding B.V. is currently being challenged by one of the other contenders for the contract, Risk Africa Innovatis. This is not the first time Risk Africa Innovatis has challenged the IEBC’s procurement of a biometric service provider. In 2017, it challenged the procurement of IDEMIA on similar bases as its current challenge of Smartmatic’s award. Among these challenges, is that Smartmatic International Holding B.V. has been adversely mentioned in the Philippines, Venezuela, Uganda, Nigeria, and the USA over its credibility. While Risk Africa Innovatis is a Kenyan-owned company, Smartmatic is a multinational initially incorporated in the US by several Venezuelan nationals. In several elections it administered in Venezuela, the Philippines, and the United States, Smartmatic faced controversy over the integrity of its systems as well as its links to the Venezuelan government (in particular, alleged pay-outs to high-ranking government officials). For example, in Venezuela, independent election monitors concluded that it was likely that electronic election fraud had been committed in the 2004 presidential recall referendum administered by Smartmatic. Following adverse media coverage, Smartmatic undertook an internal restructuring that obfuscated its true ownership using what the US State Department described as a “web of holding companies in the Netherlands and Barbados”. Interestingly, Smartmatic supplied the biometric voting machines for Uganda’s recent 2021 elections, not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Smartmatic International Holding B.V. has been adversely mentioned in the Philippines, Venezuela, Uganda, Nigeria, and the USA over its credibility.

Beyond this, the IEBC’s procurement process seems to be off to a rocky start. For one, the delay in procuring Smartmatic’s services means that Kenyans may not get an opportunity to scrutinise the register of voters despite being legally entitled to do so. Further, the IEBC is also facing a legal challenge in respect of its procurement of Inform P Lykos Holdings for the printing of ballot papers. The Public Procurement Review Board nullified both awards to Inform P Lykos and Smartmatic but its decision has since been challenged at the High Court. The IEBC proceeded to sign contracts with both, citing the urgency of the election and the absence of an injunction from the High Court preventing it from contracting the two entities during the pendency of the appeal.  When one considers that there are five years between election cycles, it is staggering that the IEBC would find itself in this position.

Certain of the broader issues facing the elections administration system have since been addressed by several legislative developments, principally the enactment of the DPA and the operationalisation of the Data Commissioner’s office. Supplementing the Elections (Technology) Regulations, the DPA and its accompanying regulations layer onto the IEBC’s obligations with respect to data collection, handling, and storage. These obligations have further been clarified by the Data Commissioner in a recently issued Guidance Note for Electoral Purposes. For example, the IEBC’s collection of voter registration information must be based on consent, and it must implement data protection mechanisms within the design of its systems. To ensure this is done, the Data Commissioner advises that a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) should be conducted by the IEBC and other election stakeholders such as the Registrar of Political Parties, who handle voter data, ahead of the elections.

For clarity a DPIA is required where personal data processing operations are likely to pose a risk to the rights of data subjects (in this case, voters). It guides risk mitigation efforts which should be undertaken by the person collecting and processing personal data, or whether such collection and processing should happen in the first place. A failure to conduct a DPIA resulted in the High Court’s recent revocation of the roll out of the Huduma Cards under the National Integrated Identity Management System. If the IEBC fails to conduct a DPIA, it is likely that this failure will feature either in the resulting election petitions or in court action prior to the elections. With respect to the storage of personal data, the general regulations issued under the DPA specify that the IEBC’s processing of personal data should be through a server located in Kenya, or the IEBC should at least maintain a copy of the server locally. This seems to be a nod to 2017 Supreme Court Judgement annulling the presidential election, which took issue with the unavailability of the IEBC’s servers.

In 2018, the CMCA was also enacted to provide for computer system-related offences such as unauthorised access or hacking. The CMCA established a National Computer and Cybercrimes Coordination Committee (referred to as NC4) which is tasked with coordinating the state’s response to cybercrime. Recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government, who sits on the NC4, designated various parts of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure (including data centres and systems used to manage elections) as critical infrastructure under the CMCA. With this designation, the telecommunications infrastructure will benefit from enhanced security and scrutiny from the NC4, and any attempts to infiltrate or damage such infrastructure would attract criminal penalties under the CMCA. While this designation was linked to recent attacks on telecommunication masts and power grid, its link to the upcoming election is clear—the IEBC relies on telecommunication service providers to transmit results to its cloud servers. If compromised, the outcome of the election may be adversely impacted.

Electioneering on social media

The same measures that were adopted to bolster the integrity of the election administration system also serve to safeguard against the harms occasioned by the conduct of political actors on social media. In 2017, several media outlets reported that the now infamous Cambridge Analytica—a self-proclaimed political consultancy firm—was active in Kenya, offering services to various parties. According to Cambridge Analytica, its service offering included profiling online audiences based on regular demographics (for example age and gender) as well as personality. For the purposes of this profiling, personality is discerned from the audiences’ conduct on social media—the content which they consume, the individuals they interact with and other data points. Once audiences were profiled, political actors would be able to differentiate the messaging used based on the type of audience being targeted (in other words, to conduct microtargeting). Often, this messaging would include false or misleading information. To facilitate microtargeting, Cambridge Analytica would require large amounts of personal data. In the aftermath of the 2016 US elections, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of people through Facebook. Based on reports of its involvement in Kenya’s election, it is not clear whether Cambridge Analytica facilitated microtargeting or simply designed campaign communications strategy. However, what is clear is that it harvested Kenyans’ personal data through surveys.

This seems to be a nod to 2017 Supreme Court Judgement annulling the presidential election, which took issue with the unavailability of the IEBC’s servers.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Kenya has enacted the DPA and CMCA that are ostensibly expected to reduce the likelihood of microtargeting and other forms of harmful social media activity in the context of the elections. The access to and use of personal data is central to political campaigning in the digital age. Prior to the enactment of the DPA, this practice was largely unregulated. Political actors were able to obtain voters’ personal data from the publicly available voters’ register and the party member list that is available to parties through the ORPP. Their activities in processing this data for purposes of generating targeted messaging were also largely unsupervised. Save for the guidelines jointly issued by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the Communications Authority on bulk messaging and social media communications (NCIC-CA Guidelines), political actors were basically free to determine how to craft their messaging and target audiences. While the NCIC-CA Guidelines brought in a measure of transparency by requiring the source of political messaging to be disclosed within the body of the message, this is limited to communications disseminated through licenced telecommunications service providers.

The provisions of the DPA would serve to limit potential for microtargeting campaigns by raising the barriers to accessing personal data and increasing the scrutiny over political actors’ handling of personal data. For example, under the regulations issued under the DPA, entities involved in electioneering are required to register with the Data Commissioner, whether or not they qualify for an exemption. Further, the electorate whose data is being collected would be able to exercise rights against political actors and these entities such as requiring them to delete their personal data or refrain from processing it in the first place. Without the ability to freely collect and process personal data, and with the threat of legal action against them, it is arguable that political actors would be less likely to engage in these practices in the coming elections. However, this would largely depend on the role played by the Data Commissioner. For example, one would expect the Data Commissioner to spring into action in light of a recent acknowledgment by the IEBC that illegal transfers of voters were undertaken on its electronic voter register.

Aside from being reliant on the proactivity of the Data Commissioner, the efficacy of the data protection law framework in relation to microtargeting campaigns is limited by provisions of election laws. While the collection of personal data by the IEBC or ORPP is initially based on consent, once collected, these entities’ subsequent processing operations are provided for in statute and as such are not subject to further consent or the exercise of certain rights by the electorate. For example, the publication of the voter register cannot be stopped by a data subject due to its provision in law. One may only be able to request minimisation of unnecessary data such as contact information. Once published, this voter register would be accessible to political actors who may use the information gathered to engage in microtargeting.

In relation to the nature of campaign messaging shared through social media, the CMCA criminalises the spread of misleading or false content. This is in addition to the criminalisation of hate speech already contained in the National Cohesion and Integration Act. To date, the provisions of the CMCA relating to the spread of misleading or false content have only been invoked in politically charged contexts and in a seemingly selective manner. For example, while a blogger was charged with this offence under the CMCA for spreading alarming information regarding COVID-19, a Member of Parliament was not charged for what was effectively the same offence. Despite this law being in place for nearly three years, it has not been implemented in instances where researchers have identified specific social media accounts that are engaged in disinformation-for-hire campaigns.

Once published, this voter register would be accessible to political actors who may use the information gathered to engage in microtargeting.

Aside from this, there are other shortcomings with this approach. For one, the use of criminal sanctions to limit the types of speech people engage in is generally discouraged due to the risk posed to the freedom of expression that is crucial in healthy democracies. Further, the nature of online speech is often incompatible with traditional law enforcement mechanisms and, therefore, detecting and prosecuting such offences is bound to be difficult. The state may find itself responding disproportionately to situations where harmful content is being spread online, such as by shutting down internet access. Instead of criminalising certain speech, a few democracies have recently turned to codes of conduct that govern the conduct of political actors online. The most notable of these is the Election Pledge developed by the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. Recognising that healthy political engagement online is primarily driven by political actors, the Election Pledge attempts to have these actors publicly and voluntarily commit to above board conduct such as avoiding the spread of mis-and disinformation, avoiding the spread of hate speech, and using personal data appropriately.

The nature of online speech is often incompatible with traditional law enforcement mechanisms and, therefore, detecting and prosecuting such offences is bound to be difficult.

All in all, a number of steps have been taken that in principle should improve the legal framework applicable to elections as they are conducted in the digital age. However, fundamental concerns remain with regard to the procurement of the IEBC’s ICT procurement and its internal capability. At its core, the conduct of the IEBC and political actors involved in the electoral process will determine the credibility of the process. The IEBC has not yet discharged its mandate of establishing in the public mind how it will avoid the debacles of 2017.  Aside from this, the steps taken to safeguard the electorate from practices such as microtargeting seem limited by the provisions of election laws and the proactivity of sector regulators such as the Data Commissioner and the Communications Authority will play a significant role in setting the tone for political actors. In our next article, we will shine a spotlight on the IEBC and consider its readiness to conduct this election in a transparent, credible and lawful manner.

This article was authored in collaboration with the Kofi Annan Foundation whose electoral integrity programme is supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund.

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Karim Anjarwalla is the Managing Partner of ALN Kenya|Anjarwalla & Khanna, a leading corporate law firm in Africa. He is also a director of the ALN Academy, an organization dedicated to enhancing the rule of law in Africa. Karim is passionate about entrenching good governance in both private and public institutions in the region, and has written extensively on topics at the intersection of Rule of Law, ethics and economics. Abdulmalik Sugow is a lawyer at ALN Kenya|Anjarwalla & Khanna and a legal researcher. His research interests include content moderation, intermediary liability and more broadly, the nexus of social media and democracy. Abdulmalik has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and on mainstream and independent media platforms. He has previously consulted for the World Bank and the Kofi Annan Foundation.

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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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Philosophy for the People
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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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Twitter: Let It Burn!
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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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