What About the People?

Many democratic societies today are grappling with upholding and defending free speech, as well as drawing the lines on where it crosses over to hate, or even dangerous speech. Hate speech remains a term without a universal definition. In Kenya, recent history is littered with evidence of the impact (but not necessarily a direct correlation) of speech on violence, especially during election periods. In 2007/8, we saw the addition of SMS and social media platforms to the propagation of rumours, but also to the creation of innovations like Ushahidi to fill the media gap with crowdsourced and verified information. It was after that unfortunate time that we also saw the introduction of hate speech into law.

Article 13 of the National Cohesion and Integration Act, 2008 provides a framework of what constitutes hate speech and ethnic hatred. Article 33 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but points out that freedom does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech or advocacy of hatred – constituting ethnic hatred, vilification of others, incitement to cause harm- or based on any ground of discrimination as contemplated in article 27(4). For reference, article 27(4) highlights that the State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including  race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth. Further, article 91 of the katiba reads that political parties shall not (a) be founded on a religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, gender or regional basis or seek to engage in advocacy of hatred on any such basis; (b) engage in or encourage violence by, or intimidation of, its members, supporters, opponents or any other person.

However, as often is the case, the problem is not the absence of legal frameworks. It takes people and institutions to enforce the words in these documents.

Over the past week, YouTube clips of former Nairobi mayor, George Aladwa addressing an audience in Kibera during Mashujaa day have done the rounds, and stirred reactions, ranging from outrage at his utterances,to a spirited defence against his arrest. Nor is Aladwa the first political leader to be careless with his words. There have been comparisons to Moses Kuria’s words to energised youth in Gatundu a couple of months back. What dominates discourse now is the political party affiliations of each, and how the law has (not) been applied in each case.

Those defending Aladwa posit him as a victim. That he was arrested and grilled for hours while the same didn’t hold for Moses Kuria, for instance, does merit a spirited debate. What is worrying, however, is the notion that his words were taken out of context, an argument brought forth, by, among others, Raila Odinga. In so doing, the discussion is now along blurred lines, and the issues condensed into one false narrative: Aladwa, as a symbol of some injustice.

I would like to bring back to the fore the audiences who have been subjected to Aladwa’s, Kuria’s and other politicians’ charged speeches. One trend observed since the 2005 referendum about inflammatory political speech is that it moved from being overt to covert; more parables, proverbs, and nuanced. The coded language doesn’t outrightly call for action to be taken against a certain group, and the framing is in passive tense; ‘we must take action against group X’ has become ‘action must be taken against some people’. This is left to the audience to decipher who the people are, and what the action to be taken is. Whether by design or by default, this seemingly exonerates the speaker – often a politician wielding significant influence over the audience addressed – whose defence then becomes that they cannot be held accountable for the actions taken by his audience. We have also had hate speech and/or ethnic incitement cases taken to the courts, none of which have resulted in full prosecution or sentencing. The NCIC, in the meantime, has been employing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR); which has basically entailed speakers (mostly politicians) being asked to apologise to the audience they offended. How effective that mechanism is, we can’t know for sure, but perhaps the symbolism of it does resonate.

In the recent case with Aladwa, CORD, in speaking out, had a chance to be the bigger party, to condemn the clear incitement that was, and then address whatever context they insist was misinterpreted. Jubilee politicians, in their reactions, did not have to resort to the set of adjectives they did, to describe Mr Aladwa’s actions. In all this, it is the audience susceptible to incitement that is all but forgotten in the discussion; the people of Kibera who were present that day, and those who were at the rally in Gatundu. What did they take away? How are those words sitting in their minds and hearts, and are they contemplating acting on them? What is being done to counter the impact of the charged words meted out on them? What about all the other cases that are unrecorded or brought to (social) media attention?
History has a way of repeating itself, if we fail to draw lessons from it.  As the swahili proverb goes, fahali wawili wakipigana, nyasi huumia.

This article also appeared on the Daily Nation on October 26, 2015. 

On Writing about Tech in Africa

(As posted on Medium)

Read an article (on international media) lately about some tech startup or innovation in Africa? Have the words “disrupt”, “revolutionise”, or phrases like “the next big thing” appeared? Have you found yourself believing that there’s a “tech revolution” across the continent (country) of Africa?

It is understandable that the rest of the world (Africans included) is now a bit more aware, and perhaps (more) vested in the “Africa Rising” narrative. As a friend once put it: “Africa rising ; someone opened the oven early, the yeast is not ready”.

It is tedious, to always be on the reactive side of matters Africa — be it in the political, humanitarian , and now, tech framing. The instruments of global opinion-shaping media are skewed to the global North, even though there are, and have been concerted efforts to “Africanise” them; solutions offered to the “time to tell our own African stories” mission, if you will.

Reading piece after piece about African tech startups or tech innovations, coupled with working in one of the emerging ecosystems in “the home of the Silicon Savannah”, I have noticed the range of lexicon used to describe them. “The [insert Silicon Valley enterprise] equivalent of Africa/country X in Africa.” “ Startup X or innovation Y will “revolutionise” or “disrupt” industry Z.” Share others that come to mind.

It is tiring, and irking. But more importantly, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

I appreciate that media works in a certain way — globally, regionally and internationally. Sensationalism seems to be here to stay. All that aside, my contention really is with the tech determinism that is created in framing nascent endeavours as “the next big thing(s)”. And it is interesting to note that many of the innovations/start-ups are often still trying to figure out what their business, profit and sustainability models are/will be, perhaps even trying to grasp the operating environments, the challenges and opportunities preceding the tech. Forward thinking is always welcome, but creating a false determinism, especially given the oft missing context of operational environments is, in my opinion, tainting the outlook on tech in Africa, by Africa, for Africa. I also don’t believe that many, if any of the startups or innovators interviewed (when interviewed) get to review the final drafts of these media articles. Even if they do, one would not fault them for not correcting the descriptions created, or for even performing to the media spotlight (no such thing as bad press, right?) . In an attention economy, you have to do what you can to gain traction, as many probably argue. It’s not to say that the industries in which tech innovations or startups operate or innovate won’t be disrupted; the framing in many a news article or documentary creates the false notion that this will happen in the next year, or two. And when that doesn’t happen, whispers of “why aren’t we seeing another M-PESA” start to be heard. Impatience starts to creep in. Any new or recycled attempt to figure a role for tech in some sector catches the hungry media’s radar. Another news article is quickly and eagerly put together. Yet another “next big thing”, another startup/innovation that will “revolutionise” or “disrupt”. A vicious cycle.

For our dear friends in local and international media who feel vested in writing about tech in Africa, note the following: You are not necessarily helping by using such bold declarations and descriptions, especially if research or background assessments to establish the context(s) around which these innovations/startups emerge is/are not part of the consideration. If you haven’t been informed already, please understand: technology is NOT a panacea. I do see why it is so tempting to make that the case for Africa. What were your news organisations writing about Africa (local and regional ones included) five, ten years ago, after all? A startup or innovation in, say, edtech, will not “revolutionise” learning. At best, it will amplify the preceding efforts. At worst, it will create further divides.