How AI is transforming Africa’s political landscape

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The recent 2020 Government AI Readiness Index posits that, even though Africa is “relatively better prepared – compared to the 2019 index of similar indicators – in the data infrastructure, government and technology sector pillars, there is a limited preparation of appropriate regulatory and ethical frameworks; and governments themselves generally have low use of ICTs and low responsiveness to change.”

Nevertheless, some African countries are investing in AI technologies to improve the government’s efficiency. For instance, to ensure Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, is safe, the government is using AI-powered facial recognition video surveillance technology to complement policing efforts and expedite case-solving.

Over the years, the building of Africa’s internet infrastructure has been led and expanded by billion-dollar tech companies in Silicon Valley. Since 2012, the major tech companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft  have all established AI research centres and invested more in Africa’s AI development than any African government or the African Union.

While Silicon Valley tech companies partner with local firms, technology hubs, and civil society groups to lead the AI race in Africa, many African governments align with the vision of Chinese AI technology companies because they see “open AI technologies” as a destabilizing factor to their authoritarian regime. While the continent is gradually becoming a testing bed for silicon valley tech firms to expand their data ownership, the Chinese AI tech firms are focused on improving their AI surveillance technologies in addition to diversifying their datasets.

AI and Politics in Africa

In Africa, the impact of AI and data optimization technologies on politics has been significant in two ways – communication and the exchange of information between individuals, government and societies. Even though technology is argued to be politically neutral, its negative or positive impact on politics is dependent on who owns or has significant access to the technology. In fact, AI-powered deepfakes – manipulated videos that can make people appear to do or say things they never did – were predicted to be the greatest threat to the 2020 elections across Africa and likely to destabilize national politics.

The recent scandal of Cambridge Analytica’s significant role in African politics, notably in Kenyan and Nigerian elections, are examples of how African politicians and economic elites have colluded with foreign AI firms to capture sensitive data of citizens. This data – conversations, thoughts, decisions, consumption patterns, fears, concerns and emotions – can be used to inundate citizens with targeted misinformation about political opponents. For example, one month prior to Kenya’s election, Kenyans woke up to an online video titled Raila 2020 which communicated that Kenya would become extremely violent, food would be scarce, there would be water shortages and so on if Raila Odinga was allowed to be president.

Even though AI technologies have been a boon to authoritarian states in Africa, the technology has also helped improve political pluralism, governmental accountability, civil liberties, and civic participation by democratizing communication platforms and strengthening transparency.

In 2016, the major opposition party in Ghana won a historic election by using a data analytics system to avoid the controversy that surrounded the previous election results and “accurately” predicted the 2016 election results before the electoral commission declared the party as the winner. The opposition party hired a Ghanaian Telecommunications Service Manager at NASA to develop an innovative system that allowed them to input data from electoral centres, via pictures of the election results sheets. The data was then transmitted simultaneously to the region and national party offices where they had set up a technology unit.

In Africa, citizens and marginalised groups use AI technologies such as cloud computing systems or fact-check systems to circumvent traditional political barriers to have a piece of the political power to influence policy discussions, ensure respect for human rights and hold governments accountable. By using these technological tools to change the political narrative, non-elites in Africa are less dependent on political elites to define the political discourse.

AI, Transparency and Social Movements in Africa

If we were to reset the clock to the 1980s, no political leader in Africa would have anticipated that a single social media post/hashtag could trigger a dramatic change in political leadership. A few weeks ago, Nigerians, largely youth, triggered an online protest under the #ENDSARS hashtag against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force that is known for arresting, intimidating and killing citizens. The online movement resulted from several failed attempts by young Nigerians to have their voices heard offline. The protest garnered online support from the UN Secretary General, global political leaders and international agencies, and finally succeeded in dissolving SARS.

As echoed in an article by Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya, “digital is changing the way we do politics and international relations, and this creates a new urgency for understanding the digital ecosystem, and specifically understanding the digital rights of citizen.”

We cannot fully understand the effect of AI on African politics from a binary perspective – good or bad. Rather, we need to understand the conditions under which AI can have a positive impact on political and social life. To ensure political statements and public debates in Africa are devoid of falsity, African Check, a South African non-partisan fact checking organization is employing AI driven technologies to improve its fact checking capabilities. These AI driven fact checking tools collect and monitor information from leading news sites and social media platforms, identify and label controversial claims made by a political or any public figure, claims are matched with corresponding data to confirm or declare it false.

Amidst all these positive impacts of how AI technologies are transforming the political landscape in Africa, there is a risk of not using indigenous AI technologies to engineer the political transformation in the continent. Also, the discussion of data ownership is very important in this context, especially when all the social media data about Africans sit on servers in North American countries. The urgent question to ask is – how do we develop frameworks to keep ownership of African data that is processed and stored in companies based in Europe, North America and China?

Kofi Yeboah is a frequent contributor to Global Voices Online, where he writes about internet freedom and authoritarian technology in sub-Saharan Africa. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Cosa Story, Fast Company and a number of other publications. He is a recent graduate of University of Alberta, Canada where he studies Communications and Technology.

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