The entrenchment of the political internet

The twists and turns in the unfolding plot in Kenya’s repeat presidential elections continue to intrigue not so much because of the anxiety resulting from the apparently politically calculated infusion of uncertainties, but rather how, it is testing the viability of the country’s democracy and its institutions.

The twists and turns in the unfolding plot in Kenya’s repeat presidential elections continue to intrigue not so much because of the anxiety resulting from the apparently politically calculated infusion of uncertainties, but rather how, it is testing the viability of the country’s democracy and its institutions.

There is a distinct possibility the country’s noisy politics could still illuminate a point to affirm or buck the political trend on the continent.

As one respected Kenyan commentator and constitutional lawyer put it in an incisive post, “We are in a political crisis, not a legal one, in spite of what the talking heads are saying.”

Indeed, there have been many talking heads on TV dishing their opinions for one or the other side of the political divide about the state of the nation and whether it is going to the dogs.

But he avers that all the social media lawyer blathering by partisans from either side that “the law is clear” are just fig-leafs that mask competing power claims that have slender constitutional legitimacy.

The fluidity of the current political moment in Kenya doesn’t allow for many projections as a twist keeps coming up almost daily in the lead up to the 26th October repeat elections.

Though concerned, I am not particularly worried. I will propose that the push and pull on the presidential poll are a necessary discomfort, like birthing pains. I will, therefore, momentarily cease there and put it down to Kenya’s political cacophony that the marking of the second year of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) on September 28 came and went almost unheard in much of the local media.

Ditto the report titled “Calculating the Economic Impact of Internet Disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa” launched to coincide with the IDUAI at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

FIFAfrica was being held for the first time outside East Africa having been previously hosted in Kampala where it was founded in 2014.

Since 2015, the report observes, there have been confirmed internet disruptions in 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with some disrupting communications on more than one occasion.

Web shutdowns are becoming more frequent, mostly initiated around election times (e.g. Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Republic of Congo, Uganda), public protests (Burundi, CAR, Cameroon, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, and Togo) and during national exams (Ethiopia). The longest shutdown was recorded in Cameroon, lasting 93 days beginning January 16, 2017, while the most recent was recorded in Togo in September 2017.

The report goes on to say that the disruptions have taken many forms and are effected through orders to service providers to block access to selected services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and mobile money services, or to disrupt all online communication. Most shutdowns affect the entire country, but Ethiopia and Cameroon in 2016 and 2017, respectively, ordered disruptions that targeted regions affected by citizens’ protests.

This is where the Kenyan situation might yet prove instructive on the entrenchment of the political internet.

A somewhat rhetorical question has been asked: Could it be that there has not been any social media shutdown in Kenya because it is serving the powers that be, even as it serves the opposition in the propaganda machinery?

Or is it that the country has come to an enlightened conclusion that it serves a positive purpose to allow the social media its reign with a caveat to responsible use by its garrulous hordes in venting their political opinions, only that they should not be too virulent?

The United Nations declared internet access a human right in a 2011 of which I am willing to bet on the pragmatic answer to the latter question.

Though the East African country is nowhere near the repressive circumstances that brought about the Arab Spring to suggest a parallel, the lesson has not been forgotten that it was to a significant extent the shutting down of social media that gave form to the Spring’s outcome in 2010.

The shutdown contributed to the social media factors that prompted more people onto the streets in a bid to find out what was happening. The rest is history.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.

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