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Book launch with Nanjala Nyabola

last modified Nov 18, 2018 06:12 PM
Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics - How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya, 24th October 2018 Read two write-ups from two of our Student Group members & listen to the audio recording!

Audio Recording of Nanjala Nyabola's book launch at CGHR 




By Kiara van Hout

On the 24thof October 2018, the Centre for Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) hosted Nanjala Nyabola for the launch of her new book, ‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya’. Nanjala is a writer, activist, researcher and political analyst based in Nairobi, whose work has centred on themes ranging from conflict and post-conflict transitions to refugees and migration. In conversation with CGHR’s visiting scholar Dr. Duncan Omanga, Nanjala explained her motivations in writing the book, as well as sharing several of the overarching themes of her work.

‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics’ is the latest in the African Arguments seriespublished by the International African Institute, and Nanjala is the first African woman to be published as part of the series. As she points out, “no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see myself in any of the literature I saw on the continent”. She describes her work as part of the decolonisation process, whereby ordinary people take charge of their communities and use their agency to define themselves on their own terms. Her book embraces this goal, seeking to diversify the “all-African narrative” which reduces African perspectives to a single story. By shifting the orthodox reference point of African politics from the picture of an African man to that of a young African woman, Nanjala shares a unique perspective on “how ordinary lives intersect with power”.Nanjala Nyabola & Duncan Omanga

One such perspective explored in the book is the impact of social media on feminism in Kenya, especially in light of the traditional lack of public support for the cause. Nanjala admits, “I’m one of those people who came to feminism relatively late, and it was because feminism really is a dirty word in the public sphere in Kenya”. The situation is changing; however, with a new movement of young feminists using social media to organise themselves and their movement. Unlike the more conservative established feminist movement in Kenya, these more radical groups are unapologetically pushing for social change, attempting to bring feminist issues and conversations into a public discourse, which marginalises female voices. Nonetheless, Nanjala explains that “being a radical feminist is a very potent, but very challenged, public position to take” in light of prominent challenges to gender equality Kenya: poor female representation in political discourse in the mainstream media, the Parliament of Kenya lagging behind the constitutional gender quota, and traditional gender roles remaining pervasive.

Young feminists are not the only group to take advantage of social media as an organising tool. Nanjala explains that many groups that have traditionally been marginalised by political discourse in Kenya are now using online spaces for political expression. LGBTQ Kenyans have used social media to claim their narratives and force genuine public engagement with their experiences, despite the traditional media’s stigmatising and prejudicial views.

Touching on another key theme, Nanjala describes the variation in digital practices outside the capital city. As the book examines, there are “severe disparities” in the use of social media and online spaces based on class and geography, with an extreme majority of the country’s Twitter users based in Nairobi. However, Nanjala highlights the work of communities who are seeking to overcome this “urban-rural divide”. Social media is being used for diverse purposes such as organising public meetings and forums over Twitter, raising awareness of flooding, and even allowing female political candidates to unite against intimidation by male candidates through WhatsApp groups. The online sphere promises to have an even more profound impact on Kenyan politics as a generation of young people who have grown up with smartphones reach voting age by the next elections.

The book also examines the manner in which a country’s political history and relationship with traditional media can alter the role of technology and social media. “Technology,” Nanjala says, “is not neutral. It reflects the values of the people who develop it, but it also reflects the values of the communities that use it”. In light of the long history of political propaganda in Kenya, as well as the compromised freedom of the press in the recent 2017 elections, Kenyans are increasingly looking to social media as a fact-checking tool. Nanjala explains, for example, that the traditional media failed to report on police violence and extrajudicial killings following the 2017 election until these stories became so widespread online that they could no longer be ignored. Western narratives on digital democracy simply do not suffice to explain the impacts of technology on African politics.

The development of digital democracy in Kenya is far from over, as Nanjala makes clear. Although the state has lagged behind with regards to using the online space, the exponential increase in spending on Cambridge Analytica since its first involvement in 2013 suggests that the online political landscape is set to change significantly in the coming years. Kenya likewise remains dependent on digital policy developed outside the country, and lacks robust laws on data protection and cyber security. The Internet has begun to transform Kenyan politics and society in a process that will no doubt continue as technology continues to transform the political narrative in the years to come.  


By Rumbidzai Dube

On 24 October 2018, the Centre for Governance and Human Rights was honoured to host Nanjala Nyabola, a researcher, writer and lawyer from Kenya, for the launch of her book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya. The launch, organised in the form a conversation between Nyabola and Dr Duncan Omanga, a fellow Kenyan scholar and visiting Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Human Rights, raised several key questions about the place of digital technology in Kenya’s democracy and in Africa.

The book, according to Nyabola, was motivated by her desire to present Africa outside the “pathology of imminent failure” – the representation of Africa as a ticking time bomb with one disaster always waiting to happen.  She argued that this perception of the African continent results in people missing out on the moments of creativity in which Africans exercise their agency. Her aim was to force the worldto think differently about Africa,by making them see, through her book, African countries as unique countries with individual identities, but also to see the continent as a continent of great commonalities, in which digital technology plays a role in forging common narratives of interactions with democratic processes. Indeed,the single African story where “Africa” experts assume knowledge of one African country because they have knowledge of the Other is challenged. 

Nyabola explained that the central question behind the book was, “what the African polity would look like when the central referent object of inquiry is not a man but a young woman”. In so doing, she shifted the narrative from what those in power are doing to how the ordinary people, especially young women are exercising agency. Nyabola applauded the display of agency by young women in Kenya, especially the LGBTIQ community, who are using spaces to declare their presence by claiming their own narratives within political discourse and forcing people to engage with their experiences. She said this reclamation of feminist narratives by what she called “organic” young feminists is forcing mainstream women’s movements, which she described as pushing “a co-opted and institutionalised women’s rights agenda” to re-evaluate their working methods. Nanjala book launch

Nyabola noted that despite the excitement about the increased use of technology, there are class, geographic and gender disparities online which determine who speaks and who is heard. To this end she highlighted how, in Kenya, 79% of the people on Twitter live in the capital, Nairobi, and most Twelebs (Twitter celebrities with large followership) are middle class Nairobians. She expressed hope in what she termed the “relay function”, where social media conversations are finding their way into traditional media which has wider coverage, hence broadening the geographical scope of the conversation beyond social media platforms. 

She also gave positive examples of the use of social media beyond Nairobi to include the work of Chief Francis Kariuki in Nakuru, who is using Twitter and WhatsApp to fight crime and communicate vital information to the people in his community; government departments which are using social media to disseminate emergency news around flooding and other natural disasters; and the positive way in which social media activism under the hashtag #LuoLivesMatter forced global and national audiences to address post-election violence in Kisumu.

At a continental level, Nyabola especially lauded the cross sharing of ideas that is happening among young people who share adaptive tools under repressive regimes; for instance, the exchanges that occurred between Ugandan and Togolese activists on the use of VPNs, in response to Internet shutdowns by their respective governments. She gave examples from other parts of Africa where social media is breaking down what she termed “cemented hierarchies” of power by young people, formally marginalised from mainstream political discourse, challenging strongholds of power, and organising efficiently online. 

These young people, who are building communities of likeminded individuals, include the Zone 9 bloggers, a collective of bloggers in Ethiopia who under the brutal regime of former Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn, used their voices through social media to highlight key human rights concerns in their country at great personal risk. In Togo, the campaign demanding an end to the dynastic politics of the Gnassingbes under the hashtag #FaureMustGo has gained ground on social media. In Burkina Faso, the #iwili social media campaign, that accompanied two days of street protests, successfully led to the ousting of former President Blaise Compaore and prevented him from amending the Burkinabe Constitution to extend his stay in office. 

Nyabola expressed concern at the shrinking media space in Africa and noted how governments learn adapt their apparatus of repression to fit the changing forms of resistance, such as the numerous Internet shutdowns. For example, the government of Anglophone Cameroon switched off the Internet for 240 days, the longest in world history. She also said in Kenya, there are fears of throttling (the government slows down internet at the source). 

She noted that media space in Kenya has been shrinking considerably since the 2005 Constitutional Referendum, compromising Kenyan media independence. She highlighted how the law imposed $50,000 fines on media houses for “announcing the wrong results”, effectively gagged independent media reporting and verification of the 2018 electoral results. Nyabola made this case using the example of the Kenyan Television Network (KTN), which, despite advertising that it would conduct exit polls for the presidential vote, ended up announcing the exact same figures that the Independent Election Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced. The IEBC later disowned the figures in the constitutional court. Nyabola noted that when fear rules the media in this way, the media ceases to be a reliable source of information that is responsible for creating and shaping public opinion and using their vantage point to protect public interest from disinformation. 

Nyabola concluded the talk on a positive note, highlighting that, technology will change the complexion of Kenya’s next elections as younger people, who are more technologically savvy will be able to vote.