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African Democracy Is Fucked: Or How I Learned To Love AI
AI is African Democracy's Last Best Hope
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An African President and his personal robot, embracing the AI led future together. He also subscribes to my newsletter. Be like him. This is AI generated BTW.
It would be an understatement to say that African democracy is in crisis. The continent has seen a rise in weak democratic states, corruption, and human rights abuses, and the past few years have only exacerbated these issues.
It's truly sad that the optimism of the early 1990s, the years around my birth when hopes were high that democracy was Africa's silver bullet, has faded away. If you had told the young activists of that era that Africa in the 2020s would be more populous but barely richer, with some governments that are worse than those of their time, they would have been shocked and dismayed. The end of African history was not in sight, as many had hoped.
Those young African protestors of the early 1990s had drip, do the damn thing for democracy! This is AI generated as well BTW.
The Democratic Republic Of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Cameroon, and a number of other states are all countries that are poorer today inflation adjusted in 2023 than they were in 1990. If you had told the average pro democracy African activist in the early 1990s that the likes of Mobutu, Tolbert, Mugabe, and Barre would one day be missed by their respective publics and coated in nostalgia they would have thrown an active fit on how these men were some of the worst statesmen on the planet.
Try telling these guys in the early 1990s that DRC does not get better Post Mobutu and that he still stands up as the country’s best leader in 2023!? Their poor innocent souls.
Certain countries like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad have completely capitulated to coups in recent years, conjuring up memories of the 1970s and 1980s. To the horror of liberal democrats these new military regimes often have high national popularity, with disgust rampant among younger generations for the inefficient and lackluster democracies they have replaced.
As a reader, you are likely aware of the many issues facing African democracy today. One of the most significant problems is electoral malpractice, with African states holding elections marred by violence, voter intimidation, false vote counts, and incompetence. These issues result in winners who lack a convincing electoral mandate from day one.
For instance, Nigeria's recent state governor elections provided an example of this, with Tinubu's APC coalition effectively utilizing anti-Igbo sentiments during the Lagos State Governor race. What's even worse is that many of these elections are conducted amidst complete ethnic strife, with candidates manipulating voters and winning meaningless elections. This further strains public cohesion and hinders state-building efforts within the African context.
It is also well-known that African democracy, on the whole, has not led to significant economic growth. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the average African's income today is only marginally better than it was in 1990. Moreover, for countries like Liberia, DR Congo, and Somalia, economic conditions have even deteriorated since the end of the 20th century. This lack of tangible economic growth is fueling a wave of disillusionment towards democracy on the continent. It's worth noting that this was one of the key arguments in favor of democratization in the early 1990s – that widespread democratic enfranchisement would lead to economic growth and better welfare for the average African.
Despite this, many liberal democrats today are reluctant to acknowledge this reality. They will lie and say it was always about nebulous human rights or some commitment to the values of the Enlightenment. We all know that’s largely false though, but its great to hear them vacate the economic growth argument since even they know African democratization has failed at economic growth.
However despite the failures of African Democratization, we still need a way forward. You are probably asking me what then? Is the way forward to embrace the autocrats? To coddle men like Paul Kagame and Museveni and Abiy Ahmed and state that they know what they’re doing? To acknowledge that the African needs a strict hand and a loud voice to organize often messy societies?
No we can’t say this because all of these autocrats have failed at turning their countries into economic successes. These are no Lee Kuan Yews who turned Singapore into a dynamo of economic growth, they are largely weak men who hide behind bluster but with little economic growth evidence to match.
Rwanda is among the world’s most overhyped growth stories and is still yet to even reach a $1000 GDP per capita, its record in Eastern Congo is also the stuff of nightmares. Long running autocrats like Museveni and Biya also have largely proven that all they can do is just economically stagnate countries for decades on end, as can be seen in the current state of Uganda and Cameroon.
Paul Kagame the Ballet Dancer? Prancing through Endless PR releases.
Is the answer then to break up African countries? “The borders need to be redrawn!” “Cohesive African countries with clear ethnic majorities need to exist!” “This would lead to more viable states! “
Well my dear reader, as you all know, no one in the elite African political class is really pro consolidation as it threatens their current political positions, and they’re definitely opposed to fragmentation as well since you know that also threatens their current monopoly. Add in the fact that Post Eritrea and Post South Sudan, the international community is less minded than ever to support new African ethnic secessionist claims given those two countries are hardly raging success stories. We can largely forget about this as a path to reclaimed African prosperity, no matter how stirring of a story and how epic it feels.
The Glorious African Solarpunk Future that awaits?
In 2022 Generative AI rose to the fore and induced into the professional class visions and flashes of its coming relevance. In 2023 the pace and power of these platforms has only accelerated and become even more potent.
Tools like ChatGPT, MidJourney, Runway, and Bard have exposed to the public artificial intelligence that can creatively render text based content as well as images. An enhanced intelligence that can help speed product creation, educate students on an endless array of topics, and that can also come up with recommendation on policy and planning.
The explosion in computing power has enabled the theorists who crafted neural networks and their wildest visions to be coming to life. AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence, was once a hotly debated theoretical subject, but now it feels quite closer to reality and it doesn’t seem unthinkable that it could be a few decades away. That of course would have all kind of massive societal impacts that I’ll perhaps explore in a different newsletter.
The next two decades promise to herald a computing revolution for our planet, one that could inspire feelings of being back in the mid to late 20th century. On the computing front we will see an endless array of artificial intelligence products that will have a chaotic and disruptive impact on industries across the board. This will lead to all kinds of dislocating impacts, and it will spread into governance.
I am telling you that humanity is on the verge of creating a legitimate superintelligence, multiple superintelligences, and you think this won’t lead to effects within the governance space?
Let me repeat myself. From 2023 until the late 2040s, we will witness one of the world’s greatest technological eras. The world will be a very different place by the end of it, and I fully expect the world’s economic and social safety systems to look quite different by the end of it. We are finally entering one of the core storylines of the 21st Century.
Societies worldwide will ask governments to first legislate away the negative impacts of the AI revolution. To safeguard jobs, to impose taxes(robot taxes) on those reaping excess productive gains on it, and to mostly impose caps on the sheer power of these platforms. No matter how unlikely the last point is, calls will be shouted for AI platforms to be nationalized and made to work for the common man.
There will come a point though when societies realize the horse has bolted the barn and that it will be better to try to leverage AI for what it is, rather than fight against it unnecessarily(especially for all countries that are not America and China where the overwhelming majority of successful AI platforms and capital will accrue towards). At that point you may find that there are calls for government to integrate AI agents, intelligence, and software into the very flow of public sector delivery.
But despite these challenges, there is reason to believe that AI could play a transformative role in strengthening African democracy. It can do this by enhancing service delivery within a public sector context. Africans may always have ethnic disputes that lead to fractious democracies. They may always be less competent in terms of structuring their states, and they may have cultures that lean towards less effective democracies just due to certain fundamentalist religious or ethnic superiority beliefs. That is no reason to suggest that African public sectors can’t be more efficient though with the implementation of AI layers.
There are multiple layers of governance within a society. For too long in discussions of African democratization, we have been obsessed with the layer of electoral politics . This election here, this election over there, who will be president here, who will be Chief Oga of irrelevant country over there. And sure electoral head of governments do matter to an extent, but African democratization and really on a broader level African governance’s success hinges moreso on its administrative levers and functioning. Its operational excellence.
African civil services are largely overextended, underpaid, and under-functioning. In some countries it can take months for citizens to get passports, in others it can take a mindbendingly grinding amount to get even basic bureaucratic tasks completed in relations to business permits or licenses or even common tasks like land acquisitions. In some African capital cities, scheduling sanitation services is a grind in itself oftentimes leaving certain neighborhoods even in the CBD dirty or plastics ridden.
AI then would function as an extension of these civil services, an easy deployment option that would extend the power and focus of civil services and ensure that even meager civil service resources could more easily reach the population. AI’s power then within the broader African democracy conversation is that it could for the first time in the life of many African citizens introduce them to hyper efficient public services. It would raise the baseline beyond the tepid status quo and elevate it to a new higher baseline.
This would have intense ramifications for African governance as a whole because it would ensure that even with laggards at the top of the African governance pyramid that you could have a higher degree of societal operation on the ground. This has all kind of positive knock on effects for investment, for perception of African quality of life, and would create a virtuous circle.
How exactly would an AI empowered African state actually operate? What are some tangible ways we could see this affect life within African cities and states? Here are some ways that I could see it improving the context of African democracy.
Firstly is through the creation of actual intelligent chat layers that would function on the websites and digital apps of African states, particularly portals like Kenya’s eCitizen. For instance, chatbots would be integrated into government websites, allowing citizens to ask questions and get information about government programs and services. This would help to reduce wait times and increase accessibility, particularly for citizens who live in remote areas or who have limited mobility.
AI chatbots will also be used to process routine requests and inquiries, such as renewing a driver's license or applying for a permit/visas. This will help to reduce the workload on government employees, freeing them up to focus on more complex tasks and issues. In the grandest vision of this scenario every citizen would be assigned a state created chatbot that could function as their personal agent regarding state affairs from their birth to the grave. This chatbot would serve as their broader identity layer in society and preserve all their important documentation. In an ideal world, state employees would only have to scan the judgements/work of these AI agents, helping to speed up process judgements for important legal affairs.
This may sound a bit pedestrian to some of you, but it is likely the first place any AI integrated strategy would begin. It would continue from there to more ambitious starting points though such as improving tax collection, which could then be used to fund a broader base of programs and infrastructure. For instance, AI-powered analytics could be used to analyze large amounts of data and identify patterns of non-compliance. This could help tax authorities to target their enforcement efforts more effectively, reducing the cost of enforcement and increasing tax revenues.
The Ethiopian tax collector of the future, walking the streets of Addis Ababa with her R2D2 droid that threatens non compliant taxpayers.
Moreover, AI can be used to identify inconsistencies and errors in tax filings, reducing the likelihood of errors or fraud. For example, AI-powered algorithms can be used to flag potential discrepancies in tax filings, such as underreported income or overstated deductions. This can help tax authorities to identify potential tax evaders and ensure that they pay their fair share of taxes. African taxation collection rates are among the lowest in the world, and this is one critical area that AI could be used to more effectively state build as well. African states will never get anywhere with the current weak taxation systems they currently have, taxation is the very foundation or statehood.
Then there is the fact that AI can be used for public safety on the continent at large, already there are certain companies like the Chinese brand Hikvision being marketed to African states for this purpose, such as Zimbabwe which inked a deal with them. AI can be used to enhance public safety in Africa by monitoring crime patterns and predicting potential incidents, allowing law enforcement to take preemptive action. For instance, AI-powered surveillance systems can be used to monitor public spaces and identify potential threats, such as suspicious behavior or unattended bags. AI-powered analytics can also be used to analyze crime data and identify patterns of criminal activity, helping law enforcement to target their resources more effectively.
The Lagos Police Officer of the future? God save us if so, that Robot wolf looks scary.
AI can be used to improve emergency response efforts by predicting and responding to natural disasters. For example, AI can be used to analyze weather patterns and predict the likelihood of natural disasters, allowing governments to prepare and respond more effectively.
Now granted, this does require state capacity from African governments, a basic degree such as ensuring 24/7 power or nearly 24/7 power so that these surveillance systems can run and be fed data that they can then convert to insights, but this is a basic bar that even most African states besides a few fairly obvious examples can clear at the moment.
AI could even impact African healthcare, and as we can already see from some interesting Twitter anecdotes the latest generative AI tools have already made some interesting connections and support that can be provided to healthcare professionals.
While fever dreams of AI replacing healthcare professionals will remain just that, its clear that AI advances could provide a boost to medical professionals. In an African context with its understaffed hospitals and general lack of medical professionals, particularly specialist doctors, it could add to an augmentation effect, replacing lack if not with plenty then at least something more.
AI can be used to enhance healthcare delivery in Africa by assisting healthcare providers in diagnosing diseases and identifying potential outbreaks, as well as optimizing treatment plans. For instance, AI-powered diagnostic tools can analyze medical images and other data to assist healthcare providers in diagnosing diseases and conditions. AI can also be used to analyze patient data and identify potential risk factors for diseases, allowing healthcare providers to take preemptive action to prevent disease outbreaks. African healthcare providers are already overstressed and overworked, perhaps with the implementation of certain AI linked services you would see accessible management of their heavy caseloads.
The African Doctor Of The Future, complete with an impressive Gele.
Additionally, AI can be used to improve healthcare delivery in remote or underserved areas, where access to healthcare is limited. For example, AI-powered telemedicine systems can be used to connect patients in remote areas with healthcare providers, allowing them to receive medical advice and treatment without having to travel long distances. For rural areas which suffer the brunt of Africa’s healthcare drain this could be a positive panacea in extending the scope of medical civilization.
This is my favorite Robot MP. I love it when he gives speeches in the Parliament Of The Federal Republic of West Africa. He was robbed in the last election because people just don’t wanna give the Robot ethnic group power.
The next two decades will seem at times disorienting for many. Whole occupations will be changed immeasurably, the power of capital will seem more imposing and frightening than ever before, and the sheer pace of changes and the future shock associated with it will leave societies under more pressure than ever before.
Technological revolutions are never easy, and they’ve been more disorienting since the invention of the printing press. There is a way out of the chaos potentially where perhaps we can make AI work for us, rather than society submitting to AI. It’ll be very interesting to be an observer for the changes coming our way. The implications are massive and could leave us in a situation where by the end of the century humanity is potentially no longer the supreme species of the planet, but instead a co partner with a variety of computational superintelligences.
AI does not promise a utopia, but neither does it necessarily spell a dystopia. It will be up to the actions we take as a society, both national ones, and the broader global community.
We could go on all day with this article, AI could be instrumental with African states across agriculture, energy, transportation, education, and even more. We could even go into how geopolitics could determine a potential split of the world along the lines of the AI systems they use, between a Chinese - Russian led bloc and a Western one. We could even go into the ways Africa could Africa out and utilize AI to make African societies even worse.
There are countless ways in which it could reshape how the African state interfaces with all these areas, but as I know that you have a busy life dear reader, I will leave you alone with your thoughts and I am quite curious if you do agree with me that AI could serve as the pillar for a new kind of developmental state on the continent.
It is a topic which I do believe will have massive implications for Africa, especially from the late 2020s onwards. We are finally in the 21st century.