Hi, Q-MHI Africa readers!
Eighteen months ago, we wrote about how social media users across Africa will need to deal with the intensifying scrutiny of governments worried about activist influence on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and Twitter among others.
Facebook has become one of the most powerful media platforms in the world. It’s not simply because its users can easily share and spread information far and wide. It’s also because a lot of its power lies in the knowledge it has about those users.
That knowledge is significant when it comes to Africa. As TechCabal editor Bankole Oluwafemi reminded us at Bloomberg’s Africa media conference last November, Facebook and Google probably know more about Africa’s youth than Africa’s governments do.Some African governments are showing signs they also believe the internet giants know more than they do. Like with internet shutdowns, the governments say their concern is national security.
In Kenya, where political tensions have been building in the run-up to August’s national elections, a story broke this week that the communications regulator has reached out to mobile network operators to be able to gain access to users’ private information if needed. The regulator pushed back against the claim it would access citizens private user information, but did confirm it is trying to use a “device monitoring system” to block counterfeit phones from being used on mobile phone networks.
To be clear, when it comes to privacy, African governments poking and prying in the affairs of private citizens on social media would be doing no worse than some of their Western counterparts—but that’s no excuse. Data privacy advocates and civil society groups raising awareness are vital, but we must all stay vigilant and support a better legal framework for data protection.
For instance, In Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, a 93-day shutdown following anti-government protests lasted from January to April, before the government instituted another block that is currently ongoing for more than 80 days. The same scenario happened in Ethiopia, where the government shut the internet ahead of national exams in May and blocked Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube after new protests flared in December.
Algeria, DR Congo, Togo, Egypt, Morocco, Equatorial Guinea, and the Somaliland region in Somalia are the rest of the countries that thwarted live internet feeds, according to digital rights advocacy Access Now.
In the time since that piece we’ve covered numerous forms of government restrictions on internet usage or social media use in particular. While internet shutdowns get all the press, as they rightly should, what really seems to be happening is that governments have narrowed in on social media as their bête noire.
For example in Uganda, after president Museveni complained about people wasting their time gossiping online a “social media tax” was proposed and is now in effect much to the fury of many Ugandans. The president has since clarified his earlier statements and emphasized the opportunity to raise much needed tax revenue. But as Kampala-based journalist Lydia Namubiru points out, Uganda’s government has a record of online censorship and restriction going back several years and this seemed much more in line with that.
The worrying thing is how this trend has quietly spread across African countries and they seem to be influencing each other. The latest example is a proposal in Zambia to introduce laws to restrict social media use. It’ll join a long list of countries using or proposing questionable laws, technology or just total shutdowns to try and control the government’s message.
The fast-growing tech-savvy youth of African countries, the independence (and economic power) of the mostly US-based social media companies and the early unfamiliarity with the technology of these platforms means many governments are often late and heavy-handed in trying to figure out how to manage the impact of social media.
And to be clear, governments do have (some) legitimate concerns. Take the “fake news” phenomenon. In a previous era, a baseless rumor in a newspaper or elsewhere could be easily quashed by a news announcement on a government-controlled TV network. Now, bad information can very quickly reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more people than actually own TVs. And yes, that example could be turned on its head when bad actors are in power.
There undoubtedly needs to be a balance, security is always a real issue but not at the expense of basic digital rights.
As I’ve written before, the mobile operators have a more important role in managing this challenge than they have been willing to discuss publicly. Namubiru explains here howstraightforward it was for network engineers to do the bidding of the government regulator on the controversial social media tax. It is possible for operators to be compliant with the terms of their licenses while also ensuring they’re not making it easy for governments to censor or restrict the use of these platforms.
— Yinka Adegoke, Q-MHI Africa editor
STORIES FROM THIS WEEK
Naming a Brussels square after Patrice Lumumba has triggered ugly colonial memories.
A public square in Brussels has been named after Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the independence struggle and the first prime minister of the country now known as DR Congo. Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu writes on the significance of the commemoration given Belgium’s terrible history of colonial violence in the Congo.
Patrice Émery Lumumba and the party he founded won the majority of parliamentary seats in Congo’s first elections in May 1960. The bespectacled Lumumba was the poster boy of the resistance against Belgian colonial occupation and his extempore defiant speech in June 1960 during the independence ceremony remains a memorable one.
Lumumba became the country’s first prime minister upon independence on June 30, 1960 at the age of 34. But his premiership would not last long. Barely three months later, he was toppled in a Western-backed coup, after being arrested and tortured. On Jan. 17, 1961, he was executed and his body, along with those of two associates, was cut up with a hacksaw and soaked in sulphuric acid—erasing any trace of his physical being.
Since then, Belgium has made a conscious effort to shy away from its long lasting colonial legacy especially what it did in DRC. In 2002 (41 years later), Belgium finally admitted responsibility for being part of the plot, that involved the CIA driven by the Cold War and pursuit of Congo’s valuable minerals, to kill Lumumba and his associates. His assasinaton has been described as “the most important assassination of the 20th century.”
Engineers want to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to help solve Cape Town’s water crisis.
Cape Town’s ongoing water crisis has been approached with many original solutions. Now there’s a plan to tow a one-kilometer long iceberg all the way from Antarctica to fix the shortage. The logistics of such an enterprise and the possibility of the project getting the green light are still unclear.
But to prevent that reality, Nick Sloane, a marine salvage expert says towing an iceberg from Antarctica could solve the problem. The ideal iceberg would need to be one kilometer in length, 500 meters across and 250 meters deep with a flat surface. If successfully towed, melted water from the iceberg can potentially provide 150 million liters of freshwater every day for a year. While it won’t solve all of Cape Town’s water problems, it could make a huge dent and supply up to 30% of the city’s annual needs, Sloane estimates.
It’s not the first major marine project Sloane has been involved in. Back in 2013, Sloane’s team salvaged the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship in one of the largest maritime salvage operations ever. To prevent premature melting while being towed, the iceberg will be wrapped in a textile insulation skirt while being dragged across the 2,000 kilometer distance over a three-month period.
Heroin is Mozambique’s second largest export—and WhatsApp is disrupting the illicit trade.
A new report estimates that between 10 tons to 40 tons of Heroin moves through Mozambique each year. Lynsey Chutel writes about how encrypted apps like Whatsapp are decentralizing the illicit industry and bringing in smaller players. Now, that illicit elitist grip is being loosened by improved cellphone signal in tandem with WhatsApp and other messaging apps. In a separate, more detailed outtake of the east Africa report, London School of Economics research fellow and former journalist, Joseph Hanlon has observed the “uberization of Mozambique’s heroin trade.”
The heroin still travels to Mozambique in a rather old-fashioned way. Motorized dhows leave the Makran coast off Pakistan and Iran with heroin produced in Afghanistan. Usually no longer than 15 to 23 meters (49 to 75 feet), they are small enough to sail along on the Indian Ocean undetected by satellite or patrol vessels. If they are stopped, they pretend to be fishing vessels, with the drugs hidden in concealed compartments, according to the reports.
Pemba and the Quirimbas archipelago, usually associated with Mozambique’s idyllic tourist spots, are identified as landing areas for the drugs with calm waters and sand dunes that are good for hiding smugglers. Larger quantities of heroin arrive via container, packed with motorcycles and appliances from the Middle East or rice from Pakistan. A bribe is believed to be enough to avoid searching.
This new decentralized model, with its improved communication channels, allows traffickers to follow the “Latin American” model—choosing isolated routes. Improved mobile signals means kingpins can pass along the telephone number of a bribed official. So-called freelance drivers are given cash to bribe officials along the way and are paid through the bribing money that is left over, since little heroin actually stays in Mozambique.
It’s unclear, however, whether this disruption will be enough to dismantle Mozambique’s criminal network. While the criminal gig economy has created a parallel trade, it relies on the traditional corruption within the policing and the judicial system.
The unconventional presidential visit of Emmanuel Macron to Nigeria.
Emmanuel Macron visited Nigeria for the first time as French president this week and after meeting his counterpart president Buhari visited one of Nigeria’s most anti-establishment institutions, Fela Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine. Yomi Kazeem in Lagos notes that in spite of the relaxed atmosphere on his eighth African visit since becoming president, Macron still has a mixed relationship with the continent.
Given its proudly anti-establishment roots, a visit to the Shrine does not typically feature in a visiting president’s itinerary. But Macron was quick to dispel any notions that his visit was unusual given the shrine’s cultural value. “It may be a surprise that a French president goes to the shrine, but it never surprises anyone if I go to the Albert Hall or the Met,” he said. While there, Macron also announced the launch of African Cultures Season in 2020, an event to promote African culture aimed at changing cliched perceptions of Africa. The visit was a homecoming of sorts for Macron who spent six months in Nigeria working as an intern at the French embassy in 2002 and sojourns to the shrine were part of that experience.
Later on, at an interactive session with young business leaders in Lagos, Macron did not shy from poking at the government’s economic policies saying it’s the “fault” of politicians if local businesses cannot thrive given Nigeria’s huge market. Macron’s interest in African businesses is well noted: in May, he committed $76 million to backing African startups.
Migration also featured heavily on Macron’s agenda as he emphasized the need for governments in Africa to make countries work better and remove the incentive for young citizens to take “crazy risks” to get into Europe. As of June, over 700 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year. As the European Union explores ways to stop the migration wave—including creating migrant processing centers in North Africa—Macron insists that, for the best chance of success, African governments must lead that process.
Zimbabwe’s mobile money collapse shows the vulnerabilities of cashless systems.
The two-day crash of EcoCash, Zimbabwe’s leading financial transaction platform, left consumers and businesses struggling in an already difficult economy. From Harare, Tawanda Karombo reports on the existential threat ordinary Zimbabweans feel about their financial system given its history with currency and hyperinflation problems among others.
Much of the Zimbabwe debate online and elsewhere has been about a real risk of loss of money in the event of a big platform crashing. Zimbabwe’s long troubled history with currency and hyperinflation has made the average citizen more sensitive to any suspected existential threat to the country’s financial system. Some people have even suggested bitcoin as a solution to the risks though Zimbabwe has all but crippled crypto transactions by banning banks from processing virtual currency payments.
Aside from Zimbabwe’s own challenges, there has been a big push by African governments, development consultants and various NGOs and investors, to encourage the take up of mobile money services as a way to help expand financial inclusion in countries with too few people have formal bank accounts. The hope is that as mobile phone penetration continues to rise in most African countries more people will use mobile money for convenience and lower transaction costs.
Zimbabwe’s economy remains in the doldrums, with banks no longer allowed to give US dollars to individuals who receive forex in their accounts. There has also been talk, which the central bank has dismissed, that president Emerson Mnangagwa’s administration plans to bring back the Zimbabwe dollar before elections on July 30. But the EcoCash glitches have been real and the impact large.
Cameroon’s Nigerian business community is fleeing as the Anglophone security crisis worsens.
Sparked by strikes against the imposition of the French language on English-speaking professionals, Cameroon finds itself in the middle of unprecedented armed conflict.The crisis, which started as a modest industrial strike action by English-speaking lawyers and teachers against the imposition of French, has spiraled into an unprecedented internal armed conflict.
There are fears the country could slide into civil war as the conflict persists. In recent months, frequent clashes between government forces and separatists seeking to establish a state they would call “Ambazonia” has left scores of civilians dead. The recurrent deadly confrontations have led to a mass movement of people seeking safety.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates no fewer than 160,000 people have been internally displaced, while more than 21,000 have crossed to neighboring Nigeria as refugees. As Amindeh Blaise Atabong reports from the troubled region, the conflict has led to a mass movement of people, including many from the Nigerian business community.
Restrictions of the movement of people and goods have worsened the already deteriorating situation for businessmen. Armed secessionists called “Amba Boys” mount intermittent road blocks on-and-off along major highways in the troubled area. The government has also had to officially close its western borders with Nigeria on at least two occasions, while dusk to dawn curfews instituted by some local administrative authorities have only helped to exacerbate the precarious situation.
The conflict has also been marked by the disruption of essential utility services, especially the supply of electricity and network interruptions to telecommunication services by the national government. Internet services were cut off for 136 days between October 2017 and February this year.
CHART OF THE WEEK
Fintech sector leads as African startups receive record amounts of funding this year.
We are only halfway through the year and startups in Africa have already raised more money than they did in 2017. The data shows that fintech startups are leading the way as investors seek solutions to low financial inclusion.
Fintech remains the most attractive sector as investors continue to bet on the promise of startups focused on making payments and banking easier in Africa.
OTHER THINGS WE LIKED
Nigerians are creating novel ways to deliver justice.
Brekete Family is a Nigerian radio show that aims to settle disputes faster than the courts. For Reuters, Abraham Achirga and Paul Carsten, explain how the show acts as a mediator of conflict between individuals and helps ordinary citizens call up government institutions to demand accountability.
One of the first members of the public to speak is a man who says he was unfairly sacked. Instead of going to a tribunal, he has decided his best chance of getting his rights is to appear on the talk show, broadcast out of the capital Abuja six mornings out of seven.
Isah puts the man’s case to a government official sitting in the crowd, who promises to look into it – and the show moves on to two groups of relatives arguing over a bequest, the next in a long line of plaintiffs waiting in the wings for a hearing.
“We have bad governance, bad leadership,” says Isah, who styles himself ‘Ordinary President’.“The laws are there but the enforcement is nothing -implementation: zero. It is as good as not being there. The laws only favour the rich and the mighty in the country, ordinary Nigerians are not being protected by law.”Nigeria’s justice ministry did not respond to repeated request for comment.
Brekete Family does not release listener figures. But the crowds waiting outside the gates of the Human Rights Radio station are there to see – proof of an audience so established that it has developed its own slogans and language.
The call and response that starts the show has no relation to any of Nigeria’s official tongues, but Isah says its listeners know it means: “One who has nobody has God, and one who has God has everything” – a reference to the programme’s central promise to help the helpless.
The show puts its callers in touch with government departments and tries a measure of mediation – the family dispute seems settled after an on-air debate, with an apology from one side.
After his studio appearance, the first speaker, former university professor Idris Isiaku Abdullahi, is confident it will have some impact on his dismissal.“I am optimistic, I am hopeful, I have every hope that redress will be sought here,” he says.
Failed promises of freedom and democracy in Djibouti.
Daher Ahmed Farah, for Mail & Guardian, makes the case that, even after 41 years of independence, Djibouti is not truly liberated. The country’s current combination of a corrupt state and foreign-operated military bases are a far cry from the anti-colonial hopes of freedom and democracy that independence leaders fought for from France.
In 1977, the Cold War is in full swing. The Soviet Union and allied capitalist powers are competing, often through proxy wars, for influence and leadership on the world stage. In the Horn of Africa — and around the Red Sea — the two competing sides are ever-present. In this context, the newly independent Republic of Djibouti was anchored in the capitalist bloc, though without the democratic pluralism that proliferated in other quarters. Without the people’s consent, the new rulers in Djibouti quickly established a political system based on one-party rule. The rationale was that newly independent nation had to prioritise “unity in thought and action,” and thus, a single-party autocratic system was the most feasible way in which to advance this strategy.
In so doing the People’s Rally for Progress, and our first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, created a top-down structure that recognised one political party as the country’s rightful steward. It created a single trade union, a single chamber of commerce, a single women’s organisation and a single radio station, television and newspaper. Aptidon was recognised as the head of the ruling party, head of state and government and presided over the defence and security forces. The stage was set for dictatorship, with the acquiescence of the West and the region’s post-colonial leaders.
In Djibouti, we quickly lost the freedom we had bravely fought for and gained. As a country, we ended up under the boots of a repressive and corrupt cabal of politicians only concerned with their self-enrichment. United at independence, our country became divided, corrupt and increasingly impoverished.
This was the situation in my country in 1989, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, which put an end to the Cold War. On this occasion, my colleagues in the nascent political opposition and I stood up against, and faced down, the repressive one-party system. Some involved in the struggle took up arms, while others like me engaged in peaceful civil resistance. Together, we ultimately compelled the regime the adopt the term “democracy” — in theory — which had been banned since our independence.
In 1992, a pluralistic constitution was agreed to and ratified. To our great disappointment, it quickly turned into a façade — mere window dressing for an even more abusive and unaccountable dictatorship. While our constitution is sound and solid in writing, the old one-party system remained prevailed in practice. The agreed-to reforms and “pluralistic elections” proved to be an additional farce, proving that the Aptidon system once again prevailed. Democratisation had failed.
At the twilightof his life, in 1999, Aptidon unilaterally handed presidential power to his nephew, and the chief of intelligence and security forces, Ismael Omar Guelleh. Under his rule — currently one of the longest in Africa — corruption, poverty, widespread human rights abuses and repression has worsened. In Djibouti, we are confronted with a family dynasty built on the suffering of our less than one million inhabitants.
Today — 41 years after our independence — Djibouti is far from achieving the dream of freedom, dignity and development. We are poorer now than we were in 1977, we are deeply deprived of freedom and the respect for our basic human dignity remains lacking. Despite our lucrative geostrategic location, our beneficial port access, and the millions of dollars in aid our government has received, we are a beleaguered people.
Djibouti remains in this unacceptable and unsustainable situation because of a long-ruling regime that confiscates our land, our resources and our dignity with brazen impunity. Our creative energy and our ability to make progress has been systematically stifled. We are in this situation because the ruling regime has turned Djibouti into a family business, a mafia state that gains little outside attention.
Indeed, more than 41 years after our Independence, my country — full of latent potential and resources — has become an open prison, a prison encircled by the embassies and burgeoning military bases of some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. Djibouti is less than 9 000 square miles, but we have operational military bases run by the United States, France, Japan, Italy and China. Blinded by short-term “security” concerns, these competing powers are turning a blind eye to the abuses taking place in Djibouti, often in their full view.
*This brief was produced while listening to Dance in the Rain by 2Face Idiba (Nigeria)