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Colouring inside the Politically Personal Nanjala Nyabola's Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

‘The greater battle for Africa is for honest and earnest intellectual inquiry. It is about decolonizing knowledge about the continent’ – Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

The rebellion is palpable. Technology is shifting power dynamics and providing a platform to create new identities and ideas of self in reaction and resistance to what went before. Against the white-washed agenda-driven narratives on Africa; against the singular brush stroke that paints an Africa that constantly needs saving; in her latest book, Nanjala Nyabola presents a celebration of agency. Permitting oneself to tell their story in all its complexity is the essence of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the internet era is transforming Kenya.

The prospect of reading through a book that chronicles the reality in which I exist was intriguing. As well as reading about this reality through a new lens: the lens of an academic, an analyst, a Kenyan and a woman. Like me and unlike me. Nyabola subtly lets us in on her true intention—this is a rebuttal to being left out of academia books; an exercise of writing oneself into history.

I approached this book with some bias. Being an active member of the Kenyan digital scene, I wondered what new light could be shed on issues I was already familiar with. Is this another academic talking past me?Talking straight into the arms of the west that we so desperately want to validate us? However, I met a delightful and thoroughly researched recounting and analysis of events in and around the rise of social media in Kenya. The Meteoric rise. Nyabola paints the complex beginnings of politics as we know it. The founding fathers with the games they played that laid the foundation of a troubled relationship between Kenyans and traditional media.

Divided into two major sections, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics…takes a look at the different yet related spheres of the title. Analogue politics and Digital democracy. The chapters are easy to follow and acquaint one with the undercurrents from the past, creating waves that rock the boats in the present. Its nine chapters flow into each other with ease, a feat not easy to accomplish considering the complexity of the evolution of politics in Kenya.

ANALOGUE POLITICS

I was born in the era where Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi was the president of Kenya. Benevolent ruler and seasoned oppressor is closer to what he should have been referred as. A running joke for the larger part of my childhood was the fact that some people will only ever know Moi as the president for the entire length of their lives. During his administration, an existence without sporadic shouts of ‘Nyayo’ during public holidays was unthinkable. So the Emilio Mwai Kibaki’s electoral victory in 2002, after Moi’s 23-year rule, was a win for the entire country. The first taste of freedom that ignited a thirst for more.

The disputed 2007 election where the sitting president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared winner and sworn in mysteriously in the dead of night, sparked off the worst civilian to civilian violence in Kenya. Nyabola traces the source of the 2007 political chaos to unresolved tensions between the government, the citizens and the way information was relayed between the two. She explains how, when it became clear that traditional media acquiesced to being a state puppet in 2007, they lost the little trust the public had; and how social media grew to fill the vacuum that traditional media’s loss of credibility created. Nature always finds a way to express itself.

‘I think a lot about Sekou Toure’s words:

“In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa.’” – Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

Nyabola introduces the concept of popular energy as the pulse of society at any given moment. Even when unexpressed, popular energy always finds a way to breathe. The book’s mention of the rise of satirical cartoons in the national dailies in Kenya took me back to some of my best moments growing up. Comedy in Kenya blew up in the 2000s when a trio of young guys decided to amuse the nation with their antics. Under the moniker of Redykyulass (an exaggeration of the word ridiculous), they re-imagined politicians and political diatribe in a completely unexpected way. This set the ground for a whole industry to thrive and feed into the nation’s need for comic relief in the midst of uncertain political temperatures.

I met one of the trio recently in an advertising pitch and I had to stifle the urge to grin sheepishly as my childhood adoration flooded in. The feeling quickly subsided as he kept talking and I realized that he’s just a guy trying to earn a living. Much like me. Growing up has the unfortunate effect of letting you meet your childhood heroes, who almost always underwhelm you.

‘Then Minister for Internal Security, John Michuki, famously said in an interview about the incident, “If you rattle a snake, you can expect to get bitten”. That day, thousands of copies of newspapers were burnt and journalists’ computers and camera equipment seized.’ – Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

During President Kibaki’s term, both national dailies suffered an identity crisis. The Daily Nation, which was closely aligned with Moi’s opposition before Kibaki’s win, found it hard to criticize the government run by the same people they previously supported. With time, the Standardtook lead as critic in chief with their relative objectivity. Daring to criticize the government led to the vandalization of Standard group offices. An act which the government openly admitted to doing. This high-handed approach of gagging anyone who caused too much trouble stirred the search for alternatives. 2007 is revealed as a pivotal year when M-pesa (Kenya’s top mobile money service) was launched, Ushahidi (a crisis-mapping software) was created and Kenya experienced the worst election violence that touched the capital city Nairobi. The same year saw the most visible tipping point of national sentiment and emotion onto social media.

The narrative in analogue politics circles around the events in the past that led to the lowest time in Kenya. A time where the carefully crafted image of Kenya as a haven was shattered. The government had long propagated a narrative of national unity and pride via the media as opposed to hard-hitting news. The 2007 violence brought into the light the truth about the present and unaddressed tensions between tribes. When there was a collective grappling for identity and truth.

In her essay, ‘On Optimism and Despair’, Zadie Smith, writes:

‘Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: … No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress.’

Realizing the potent power wielded by the traditional media that was curated for power and by power, Kenyans sought a platform to collaboratively chart a way forward. The search for a path to progress. New media was attractive to the people who thought themselves as resisting power. In 2007, the internet infrastructure in Kenya was not nearly as well developed as it is now, but it was enough to set the wheels in motion. Minister for Internal Security, John Michuki, while making a statement on rattling the snake, unwittingly dared the people to find a way to poke the dragon. And poke they did.

DIGITAL DEMOCRACY?

In Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, Nyabola offers the story of the Kenyan citizen’s emancipation from enforced silence; how social media became the means through which people demanded to be seen. The efficacy of social media is allowing people to form new communities away from the traditional tribal cocoons. We’ve seen this from the emergence of #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) who shamed international media into decency through the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN to the Kenyan Feminist movement that championed the #MyDressMyChoice march speaking to the right of women to exist in their spaces unbothered by men. Nyabola offers a behind-the-scenes look into the story of #Jadudi, the best crowdfunding campaign in Kenya, and the story of #JusticeForKhadija which brought to light the prevalence of violence against women.

‘Individuals with a basic sense of decency can’t ignore such criticism, and this is part of what makes public shaming on social media such an effective tool for policy in Kenya’ – Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

Nyabola identifies the emergence of embarrassment as a weapon of activism, as an interesting tactic that helps activists get offline traction for online trends. Offline activism is often thankless and tedious but the speed of online noise helps move the cogs a bit further, faster. This approach has its limitations, which Nyabola outlines in detail in the book. These include: the digital divide of access; need for support from social media super users to gain traction; and the presumptions of the presence of a conscience in the authorities you seek to shame into action.

The stories in the book on the fight by the feminists in Kenya resonated deeply with me because it validates my inner struggles, oft-unspoken inner fears, thoughts and debates that search for an outlet. I was particularly moved by the stories of women, young women especially, who decided to demand for a space to be heard, attracting a tribe that validates their truth. These women sharing their truth gives permission to the silent majority to raise their heads just a bit higher. Digital Democracy, Analogue Politicsserves as a chronicle of these women’s fight and an archive that begins to document the complexity of womanhood in Kenya. Or the larger continent.

‘The process of archiving tells us who we are and how we came to be…’ – Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics

What do Brexit, Trump’s win and Kenya have in common? According to Nanjala Nyabola, Cambridge Analytica. Nyabola also explores the paradox of globalization; the irony of platforms that were not made with Kenya or Africa in mind having seismic effects on African life and politics. Her analysis raises questions: does the same technology that runs the advertising world cross the line when used for politics? Is influencing ideology and affiliation through algorithms the line that needs to be drawn? What would be the shape of this line?

Nyabola brings the problem of digital colonialism to light as a possible and increasing threat. Far greater than the previous physical conquest, as this breed of colonialism leaves room to profit without the obligation to spur development. Physical colonialism, in all its evil, led to partial development. Spurred by the need for comfort and access to utilities in the areas that colonialists lived.

When power is so interlinked with platforms whose efficacy depends on the depth of one’s pockets, what happens to the concept of democracy? Is their stopping predators who ship in to manipulate behaviour via data for profit? How effective is fake news in affecting the behaviour of a population that thrives on rumours?

Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics is crucial reading this century. Nanjala Nyabola makes politics personal. Weaving a three-dimensional model of what has been brewing in African politics, in order to spark necessary questions of what these models need to evolve into. The question of democracy relying fully on technology is challenged by the weakness of an algorithm-led system reinforcing bias bubbles. Nyabola has written an important book that deserves influence in policy and political discussions. Providing her readers with the permission to shift the conversation from Africa rising or Africa failing to Africa being. ‘In all this’, she writes,‘the underlying conversation is not conflict, it is agency.’

Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics:
How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya
Nanjala Nyabola
Zed Books
298 pages.