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How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How disinformation is spread

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

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

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

Who the disinformation targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the impact of the slander?

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

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

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

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

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

The role of Twitter Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Odanga Madung is a data Journalist and researcher in Kenya. He uses data to speak truth to power and highlight the plight of communities across various issues such as air pollution, corruption, misinformation and media consumption.

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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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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

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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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

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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