Author : Priyanka de Souza
Site of publication: Blogs – London Schools of Economics and Political Science
Type of publication: Book review
Date of publication: December 7th, 2018
Kenya is often dubbed Africa’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ because of the success of digital innovations such as Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing platform for social activism, and the widespread use of Mpesa, mobile money. The Kenyan government has celebrated this ‘branding’. A perhaps unintended consequence (for the state) of the celebration of this narrative has been a dynamic digital space, in which many Kenyans, whose voices would not otherwise be heard in analogue public spaces, have been able to question the social and political systems of the country, as well as connect with like-minded individuals to articulate new radical political agendas. Although the state has tried to stifle these conversations through various means such as the 2016 Information Communication and Technology Bill, its commitment to project itself as liberal and ‘high-tech’ has allowed these digital spaces to flourish. How should the story of these spaces be told?
In her debut book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya, Nanjala Nyabola argues that current scholarship about ‘tech in Africa’ tends to be framed in overly simplistic developmentalist terms, and fails to account for state agency and the politics in offline spaces that have everything to do with what happens online. She pushes back methodologically against these reductive narratives by telling an empirically thick, descriptive story of the terrain through which power operates in Kenya (Africa is not a country), and the way in which it sizzles and congeals at the intersection of the traditional public sphere and the extension of this sphere online. She deliberately refuses to engage with the naive, optimistic view that more technology = more democracy.
Nyabola demonstrates that the Kenyan media’s structure of ownership and its reliance on state-sponsored advertisements have shackled the narrative it chooses to tell to a very specific bourgeois nation-building story. This story fails to reflect the lived reality of most Kenyans. Importantly, she dwells on the difference in content in inward-facing local-language media as well as that of the formal, outward-facing English media in constructing diverse stories. I would have loved to have seen a more detailed characterisation of local-language media and other forms of non-traditional means of communication, such as plays, fiction, music etc, which the author mentions in passing, in the crafting of different national narratives. Given these offline conditions, digital platforms offer Kenyans a low-barrier alternative to tell their stories and insert themselves into the public sphere.
The first part of Nyabola’s book describes the political conditions at the time of the Kenyan 2007 election, which primed the country for digital change. The collapse of the National Rainbow Coalition dashed the hopes of the Kenyan public, who believed that the corrupt years of former President Daniel arap Moi’s regime were over. Instead, the perception that the government had become increasingly ethnicised polarised the public. When irregularities in the 2007 election were discovered during its broadcast, simmering tensions exploded and violence ensued. Live broadcasts were banned, muzzling the Kenyan press. An educated, concerned diaspora and a public hungry for news were thus caught between the fury of an international press and the tame, self-censored Kenyan media. The internet served as a space for information dissemination during this critical period. Nyabola states that it was at this time that blogs that had formerly been apolitical became sites of heated political debates. The internet thus created space for new discourses, and allowed for new imaginings of statehood and identity.
Nyabola argues that the contours of these platforms have not been adequately studied in the Global South. She writes that this is because of the ‘sociology of absence’: the idea that because the story of these platforms play out in Western media, the experience of using these platforms in Kenya is irrelevant. However, Nyabola demonstrates that this simply is not the case. Cambridge Analytica are believed to have used the 2013 Kenyan elections as a testbed for the methods they were later to deploy elsewhere. If the world had been paying attention, the current crises regarding interference in the US election and Brexit referendum might have been averted
Nyabola focuses on Twitter because she argues that it allows users to share public content and engage with each other, in comparison to Facebook where engagement is limited to a friend’s circle. Nyabola acknowledges that digital illiteracy and infrastructure barriers, such as a lack of electricity or an internet connection, nonetheless limit the number of people who are online in Kenya. She notes that in 2018 there are now one million largely English-speaking, urban Kenyan Twitter users and ten million Whatsapp users in a country of around 50 million. It would have thus been interesting to see a systematic comparison of the usage of these platforms, and their respective relationship with analogue political agendas.
Nyabola argues that the contours of these platforms have not been adequately studied in the Global South. She writes that this is because of the ‘sociology of absence’: the idea that because the story of these platforms play out in Western media, the experience of using these platforms in Kenya is irrelevant. However, Nyabola demonstrates that this simply is not the case. Cambridge Analytica are believed to have used the 2013 Kenyan elections as a testbed for the methods they were later to deploy elsewhere. If the world had been paying attention, the current crises regarding interference in the US election and Brexit referendum might have been averted.
Despite the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) that was put in place to prevent the manipulation of election results, the massive irregularities that took place resulted in the Supreme Court annulling the election results. Nyabola provides a detailed description of how KOT galvanised itself to take photos of results at polling stations to compare with the broadcast results, and played a key role in holding the process accountable in the public sphere. Through this example, she shows that no amount of technology can ever replace the intentions of the state.
What this book makes clear is that Kenyans are determined to reclaim the agency to shape their own stories. Nyabola has beautifully told the story of how they have done this so far via digital platforms.
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