Sunday March 25, 2018
By Isaac Mwangi
East African News Agency, Arusha
News that an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 broadcaster has revealed interference with elections in Africa and elsewhere by a digital analytics firm is extremely worrying, since this essentially means that the people’s will in democratic processes is subverted.
Although Cambridge Analytica – the firm at the centre of the storm – is most notoriously known for its work in the election of the US President Donald Trump, it is said to have influenced other outcomes around the world.
We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet,” – Mr Alexander Nix, suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica
The firm says it has been active in mining digital data for use in influencing voters and opinions in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Kenya, the US, the Czech Republi, India and Argentina.
In so doing, Cambridge Analytica made use of information about millions of people obtained through Facebook.
That information then helped the firm to come up with messages that would speak to the fears and emotions of those people.
In Kenya, Cambridge Analytica claims to have undertaken a wide range of work, from twice re-branding the ruling party and writing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s speeches to undertaking a campaign of disinformation against his main challenger, National Super Alliance leader Raila Odinga.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about what happened in the Kenya election is the perpetuation of power games by Western powers in order to control the continent’s resources.
Ever since independence from their former colonial masters, African countries have experienced continued interference in their internal affairs.
This has taken many forms, including the assassination of political leaders such as Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
In a digital world, it has now taken the form of manipulation of data to advance the same control over the continent.
But even more worrying is the acquiescence of Africa’s leaders to manipulation by the West so as to retain their positions of power at whatever cost.
This is a sad reminder of the days of colonialism and the slave trade before that, when European countries used divide-and-rule tactics to create conflict between communities and thus subdue Africa’s native peoples.
That we should still have leaders willing to play the role of collaborator in advancing foreign interests and sabotaging their own people’s will is indeed sad.
Obviously, this state of affairs has enormous implications on sovereignty. It means that those countries in the region or continent whose ruling elites have won elections based on manipulative techniques by Western firms will be held captive by those interests.
Once exposed – as the Cambridge Analytica investigation has done – then there will also be a crisis of legitimacy at home and abroad.
When the interests of citizens are thwarted in order to please foreign interests, then it becomes difficult to talk of real national integration, let alone at the regional level.
What can countries do to avoid such manipulation of citizens? While there is little the ordinary citizen can do save being economical with personal information on the Internet, it is important that leaders should show an example of integrity.
In this regard, those who are adversely mentioned as beneficiaries of the manipulation of citizens at the expense of national interest would – in any decent society – be expected to relinquish their elective positions.
Still, no one can take the place of the citizenry in agitating for good governance and integrity in leadership. All too often, our citizens have fallen for colonial divisions along ethnic and religious lines.
This has afforded those in power the leeway to continue riding roughshod upon their peoples. The only way to bring this bad culture to an end is through vigilance by citizens, the media and civil society.
For now, it appears that the neo-colonial state will be in existence for quite some time, working with foreigners to exploit local resources to the disadvantage of citizens.
It is upon this poisoned ground that the region hopes to build strong integration between partner states. That ground must now be cleansed; otherwise integration will itself work more to the benefit of foreign interests than the people in the region.