Photo taken by Nina Y. CC BY 2.0.
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African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (NextGen) fellows were part of the delegates of the 28th Biennial IPRA conference, that was held in Nairobi Kenya, from January 10-15, 2021. IPRA’s purpose is to advance research into the conditions of peace and the causes of war and other forms of violence. The theme of this years’ conference was on ‘Peace-Technology: Positioning the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Emerging Technologies in Fostering Global Peace.’ The program director of the Social Science Research Council’s APN and Next Gen programs, Cyril Obi gave a welcome address to delegates during the opening ceremony of the conference. A group of APN and NextGen fellows and alumni made presentations under the framework of “The Journalism and media commission” of the conference. IPRA commissions are working groups based on specified themes or subject areas related to peace. At the IPRA conference in Nairobi, the fellows presented papers on journalism, digitality and democracy. Many of the papers focused on the Global South, with insights drawn from Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. They covered the whole gamut of digitality in the continent-ranging from shutdowns and internet policing, legal frameworks on cyberspace, decolonization and digitality, elections and trust, and the abiding discussion on disinformation and online hate speech.

On the first day, NextGen alumni Dr. Emilly Comfort Maractho, a senior lecturer and Head of Department for Journalism and Media Studies at Uganda Christian University, provided a nearly prophetic insight into election and anxieties of the internet, just a day before Uganda went to the polls. In this paper, Dr Maractho argued that government response (to the internet) in the 2016 elections had profound imprints for the 2021 electoral process. Indeed, the government of Uganda exploited the ongoing ‘Covid-19’ public health responses to impose an internet blockade on the country, giving credibility to previous doubts on the fairness of the election. Afterwards, Dr Duncan Omanga, program officer of the SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa programs, provided insights into how the last three elections in Kenya have shaped conceptions of digitality, through constructions of a techno-utopic state. Using the last three major elections in Kenya, Dr Omanga examined how politics and digital media are dialectically shaped in the country. Taking a critical view, his paper revealed how digital media in Kenya’s post-1990s liberalized political culture furnished innovation, experimentation, digital humanitarianism, and more crucially how Kenya became a laboratory for disinformation and electoral interference abroad. Abdulhakim Nsobya, a doctoral student at the University of Cape Town and current NextGen fellow, looked at how Ugandan Facebook users in demonstrated contestation on the question of voting among Salafi-Muslim community, taking a deep dive into the relationship between democracy and Islamic law (sharia) among Salafis there. The paper also explored the use of social media by contending Salafi groups in Uganda and their responses to the question of voting.

On the second day of the commission, Dr Bernadine Jones, a NextGen alumni and a lecturer at the University of Stirling presented a paper titled, “The ’lack of listening’ during South African election news coverage: ramifications for peace and democracy.” The paper revealed the problematic news framing by media organizations in South Africa where news is mostly presented with pundits, prophets, and proclaimers, making it increasingly unlikely for audiences to independently assess the political landscape themselves, thus destabilizing participatory democracy. Former APN grantee, Dr Admire Mare, a journalism professor based in Namibia also presented a paper titled “Digital Media, Elections and Manipulative Participation: Case study of Zimbabwe.” The presentation examined the various ways through which digital tools are weaponized and appropriated to produce and distribute misogynist discourses, disinformation and misinformation, which further polarizes and mobilizes highly ethicized, patriarchal and toxic politics in Zimbabwe. Another former APN grantee, Dr Arsene Brice Bado, delivered a paper titled “Social Media and Dangerous Speech in Political Discourse in Côte d’Ivoire”, where he explained the dynamics and impact of dangerous speech in political discourse on social media in Côte d’Ivoire whilst exploring the conditions under which counter-speech through social media might be considered. Later that day, NextGen alumnus Dr John Githigaro, a Kenyan scholar based at St Paul’s University, presented a paper on “Assessing the ‘Credibility’ of the Kenya’s 2017 General Elections. A reading of select International Observers Missions ‘Digital Reports’.” The paper examined the ramifications of the EU observers’ mission and the US based Carter Center election mission reports on Kenya’s annulled 2017, by interrogating how observer reports situated the ‘credibility’ of the August 2017 electoral outcome in Kenya.

Presenting his paper on Ethiopia’s digital media space on the third day, APN 2018 Fellow Prof Asnake Kefale’s paper titled “Digital Media, Political reforms, Elections and Peace” interrogated the political changes within the former ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since April 2018. Asnake observed that the 2015 protests that helped to bring about political reforms were resilient and more organized in comparison to earlier protest movements partly because of the extensive use of digital media. The digital (social) media not only helped to link diaspora-based opposition leaders (activists) and the youth protesters but also created a platform for collective action. During the last session of the day, the focus shifted to Kenya, where Dr Jacinta Maweu, APN 2016 fellow, and senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi examined how social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp) were used by citizens and politicians to spread disinformation and political propaganda during the 2017 general elections. Similarly, NextGen fellow Job Allan Wefwafwa’s paper titled “Technology, Public Confidence, Electoral Fraud: The Case of Kenya’s 2017 Presidential Elections,” explored how technology in Kenya’s elections are used to instill public confidence rather than curb electoral fraudulence.

In conclusion, the papers presented by APN and NextGen fellows under the rubric of IPRA’s media and journalism commission revealed that the digital space is not just a new space with new social realities, but an extension of the old realities that have dominated discussions of peace, and security in the continent for ages.