On 9 July 2019, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) hosted a book launch with author and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola presenting her book “Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics”. The session was moderated by Michelle Mendi Muita, Coordinator of Communications and Profile Management. While this book launch was initially scheduled to take place on 27 June 2019, IPSS was forced to postpone it due to ongoing internet shutdowns in Addis Ababa at the time. As a result, the timing became quite befitting to have Nanjala in Ethiopia to discuss such pertinent topics as digital democracy and internet freedom.
Nanjala is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the author of Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics and the co-editor of Where Women Are: Gender and the 2017 Kenyan Election. Her writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, New Internationalist, Al Jazeera, Project Syndicate as well as in academic journals and numerous edited collections. Her book Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics was published in November 2018. It explores the drastic measures undertaken by elites to contain online activism, as well as how “fake news”, a failed digital vote-counting system and the incumbent presidents’ recruitment of Cambridge Analytical contributed to tensions building up around the 2017 Kenyan elections. Re-framing digital democracy from the African perspective, Nanjala’s ground-breaking work opens up new ways of understanding our current digital era and the proliferation of global online platforms.
While Kenya features primarily in Nanjala’s book, Ethiopia is referenced at least twice as an example of the scale of challenges that African countries face with regards to digitalization. Being the second largest
country in Sub-Saharan Africa, the book presents a variety of lessons learnt that Ethiopia can take notice of as it follows up on its plans to privatize and liberalize the telecom sector.
As Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics notes, there have been 17 internet shutdowns in Africa in 2016 alone. As of the beginning of 2018, there have been 6 cases of internet shutdown in Africa; with Ethiopia,
Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon all choosing to close down their respective digital spaces for unspecified reasons. The relationship between the African citizen and the online world is a fascinating space that, on the one hand, has suddenly given African citizens who have long lived under authoritarianism the ability to organize freely and speak truth to power. However, such forward momentum has not been without backlash. The book is not about technology per se; rather about society’s relationship with technology, the struggles involved and the many lessons learned that will help to direct the potential way forward.
Nanjala shared with the audience her start as a political analyst was rooted in the 2007 elections in her home country of Kenya. The 2007 election, according to her, was a jarring moment for Kenyans, forcing citizens to evaluate who they were as a society and the kind of society they wanted to build moving forward. The role technology has played in Kenyan politics is not accidental; Nanjala notes that it was instead a deliberate decision undertaken as a method of addressing some of the challenges that surfaced in 2007 and the violence that left thousands dead and displaced. In 2017, Kenya has had the most expensive election in the world, costing $28 USD per head. Funds were utilized to purchase national biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and electronic result transmission systems. While the money was spent to try and fix what went wrong in 2007, the 2017 election had irregularities in itself. It was challenged by the Kenyan opposition and the case was taken to court. The opposition was calling for the opening of the servers in order to audit the results; a request subsequently denied by the election commission. The reason behind the commission’s refusal was that the servers in question were located in France. Nanjala posed the question: how is it possible that Kenya’s digital information is hosted in a foreign country thousands of miles away, where citizens cannot access during one of the most important periods in the country’s history? What kind of power dynamics does this result in? Who really is in charge of Kenya’s electoral gateway? What civic rights have the citizens of Kenya given away when they delegate the management of such sensitive information to a foreign country? Nanjala also highlighted that Kenya being the focus of her book is not necessarily because she is Kenyan, rather because the country presents as a useful case study. Kenya finds itself in a very unusual position by becoming the third largest tech market in Africa and the global leader in mobile money. In her book, she talks about how the deliberate policy choices, the agency of the average citizen and the shift in how Kenyans think about where power lies in a society all come together to make this an unusual story. She reiterated that the role of technology in Kenya is not accidental, rather a political decision and the consequence of election violence in 2007. Kenya shows how internet can be a place of tremendous political opportunity but also a place for tremendous political manipulation. Nanjala argued that, for the last 10 years, Kenya has been laboring under the shadow of unchecked tech optimism and not taking enough time to critique what the threats, challenges and opportunities are of this influx of technology into the lives of the average Kenyan. She noted that countries therefore need to grapple more with the complexity of technological advancement.
Key lessons summarized by Nanjala:
- Agency that the internet has allowed for people, especially young people, in contexts where the mainstream political space silences them;
- Traditional media does not have enough space for women. As a result, they are now able to find expressions of agency online that they are not able to find offline. Women have used the internet to
demand real offline rights, representation, and safety legislation;
- Improved potential for election observation;
- Increased public accountability; and
- Shifting narratives about ethnicity.
- Although the idea of technology is to make things more transparent, most people do not understand how these systems work. The black boxes that we have created with technology, according to Nanjala, are the opposite of transparent and can cause damage in the long run;
- The cost factor: what does it do to our financial priorities when technology supplants all other functions? In most developing countries, technology is shifting public spending priorities. “Tech makes you think like you are doing something”; and
- The lack of complicated conversations about what digital democracy means when things are volatile.
- Ongoing citizen surveillance;
- Digital colonialism. The vulnerabilities that have been created by shifting so much of our political practice online.
In conclusion, Nanjala highlighted that what is lacking in this conversation is politics, power and a critical examination of what these mean when they intersect with people and agency. Although for the longest
time people have imagined technology to be an abstract thing that was not impacted by biases, technology manages to find the cleavages within society and exasperates them: the good, bad and ugly. African people in tech conversations are not discussed as citizens, and they should be. As Nanjala puts it, “We are people and citizens first, technology consumers second!”