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African Women, ICT and Neoliberal Politics
African Women, ICT and Neoliberal Politics

The author posits that from the perspective of African women, it is impossible to ignore racism and sexism while organising against poverty.

I first met Assata Zerai in 1999 while visiting the family of Horace Campbell in Syracuse University where they were colleagues. It was my first Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. After the dinner, we were chatting when she mentioned that she had a co-authored book manuscript on the nightmares of ‘crack mothers’ who were demonised in the media and repressed by policy makers that wanted to sterilise them. I told her that she had just found a publisher because two years earlier, Ashgate publishers launched the Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations with my book on Black Women and the Criminal Justice System (republished in 2018 by Routledge) and with me as the Series Editor. I told her that I would be happy to recommend her manuscript for publication in the series. She promptly sent me the proposal and Ashgate accepted my recommendation and published the ground-breaking book that called for harm reduction instead of the racist-sexist war on poor women in the guise of the war on drugs.

I was pleasantly surprised when Zerai accepted an award from the Conference on Black Women in Higher Education at Virginia Tech and she recognised me as one of her mentors whereas I looked up to her as one of my peer mentors. I am pleased and honoured to see that this new book, African Women, ICT and Neoliberal Politics, started by highlighting our celebration of the work of Victor Chikezie Uchendu who was my mentor in Nigeria and whose classic work on The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria turned 50 years in 2015. I had invited three scholars to celebrate the book at Virginia Tech and it was an honour to have had Zerai, who was then the Director of the Centre for African Studies that Uchendu had founded at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. She was soon to rise in the university administration as Associate Dean, Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, and Associate Provost while finding the time to complete ground-breaking books.

This new book continues with her track-records in post-positivistic gender-sensitive Africa-centred scholar-activism that all critical scholars and the general public could learn from. I already include her essay on scholar-activism within the classroom and at the grassroots as one of the required readings for my Africana Research Methods graduate class and I am happy to say that the new book elaborates on her original theory that even when you are teaching in the class-room, you can still practice scholar-activism through the exposure of students to the benefits of critical, creative and Africa-centred gender-sensitivity in all aspects of the course. This is an original contribution from an African diaspora scholar because African American scholars tend to focus more on the diaspora and neglect Africa relatively. African male scholars tend to focus mainly on the important struggles against racism while relatively neglecting sexism; and African scholars tend to depend on Eurocentric theories while neglecting contributions by fellow Africans.

The Critical Race Theory came from Kimberley Crenshaw and others to advance knowledge beyond critical legal studies that focused only on class by emphasising the intersectionality of race-class-gender issues. But the proponents of intersectionality rarely apply their theory to African women the way that Stuart Hall exemplified by basing his Cultural Studies theory of articulation, disarticulation and re-articulation on the critique of apartheid racism-sexism-imperialism. Western feminists tend to avoid the need to adopt anti-racist thoughts because they claim that racism is not part of their standpoint experiences though they do not need to experience every form of oppression before they can oppose it. Angela Davis warned that some of the white feminists were actually supporting the use of rape as a racist propaganda for the oppression of black women and black men. Western Marxists tended to focus exclusively on the working class struggles but from the perspective of African women, it will be impossible to ignore racism and sexism while organising against poverty. Here, Zerai demonstrates what is lost by scholars when African women are ignored by theorists and activists given the immense contributions that African women have made towards the advancement of democracy and the innovation of communication technologies along with indigenous knowledge systems.

The book brings Zerai’s Africa-centred gender sensitivity to bear on governance and development studies as a critique of the law and order approach of Worldwide Global Indicators by the World Bank. Zerai dismissed such male-centred indicators as falling short for not taking seriously into consideration, the vital issue of social justice without which government effectiveness and communicative democracy would remain elusive. Unlike most texts in Africana Studies, which tend to be historical, biographical, artistic or sociological, this book breaks new grounds by focusing on access to communicative technology as an indicator of what Walter Rodney identified as increasing freedom, capacity, and material well-being that define development and the reversal of which indicates the underdevelopment of one society by another.

In the Zerai Model of women-centred ICT use, knowledge diffusion and good governance, the access of women to cellphones and Internet technology per 100 people in the population is used as the independent variable with which to explain the levels of access by women to education, healthcare, and school enrolment and with which to explain accountability in governance, women’s participation in government and the effectiveness of governance as dependent variables. The correlation between the independent and dependent variables can be seen in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme, which shows that African countries that invest less in the access of women to education also tend to have low Human Development Index scores compared to the higher scores across the Caribbean. It is important to note that ICT is being associated by Zerai with the production and diffusion of knowledge and not just for entertainment especially because it is easy for ICT to be misused for video games, bullying, scams, and for watching endless Nollywood movies without emphasising the educational, economic, and political potentials. Zerai is suggesting that women are likely to put the ecology of ICT to better use for the benefit of the entire family and the entire community or entire country.

In Africa, story-telling is dominated by women who entertain their children with moonlight folktales to teach them the morals of their culture. The European colonisers tried to undermine the agency of African women by trying to impose a patriarchal, racist imperialism that saw African women as dependents of the men but African women resisted and deployed their knowledge of communication technologies to resist their disempowerment. Thus, Igbo and Ibibio women declared war on colonialism in 1929 when the British tried to impose chiefs and taxes on them without representation. They rallied and burnt down the homes of the chiefs and the shops of multinational trading companies along with the native courts. Dozens of the unarmed women were shot dead but they won the right not to be taxed without representation and not to have colonial chiefs. Abeokuta women repeated this war in 1945 when they deposed a colonial chief who liked to molest young girls in the guise of assessing them for taxation. Kikuyu women waged a similar struggle against the imposition of forced labour on women and their sexual exploitation that produced unwanted pregnancies when forced to travel far away to work on railroads without pay. South African women rose against the Apartheid Pass Laws and said that those who struck women were striking rocks. Finally, Liberian women organised to ‘Pray the devil back to hell’ in order to end the bloody civil war that the men used as the excuse to rape and terrorise women in their competition over the control of blood diamonds.

The well-known stories of women’s agency among the Igbo in the ‘post-positivistic’ works of Uchendu and Amadiume formed the theoretical framework for the book in support of the hypothesis that neglecting the communication technologies used by women to organise in Africa would be a disservice to scholarship, governance, and social justice. It is rare to find a book written in North America that adopts African thinkers as the theoretical framework! Zerai combined what Uchendu defined in ethnography as the ‘etic’ or outsider view and the ‘emic’ or insider view because she is a woman of African descent doing research on her fellow African women through the perspective of African feminism or Africana womanism.

It is well-known that coltan, the metal that powers the cellphones around the world, comes mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo where genocidal wars have raged and rape is used as a weapon of war against women by war-lords fighting over the control of the mineral wealth of the country. Despite the exploitation of the mineral wealth of Africa to build the cellphone technology based on an invention by an African American scientist, Henry T. Sampson, the European and North American countries had no intention of extending the benefits of ICT to African women because the products were priced beyond their reach.

A Sudanese investment banker in London, Mo Ibrahim, developed a proposal to set up cellphone towers across Africa to enable Africans to call one another without being charged arms and legs by landline phone companies that were connected to the capital cities of colonising countries but not across the colonial boundaries in Africa. Thus, a call from Nigeria to Cameroun or Benin Republic next door would be routed to Paris and then rerouted back to Nigeria’s neighbours by the landline companies at huge costs to Africans.

Surprisingly, no cellphone provider wanted to support his proposal because they said that Africans were too poor and would not have any need for cellphones. Ibrahim quit his job and took his savings and personal loans to go and set up the cellphone towers across Africa and Africans loved the service. Within a few years, cellphones were selling like hot cakes in Africa and the same cellphone companies that refused to support his proposal came with hostile take-over moves to buy him out. He sold his company, Celtel, for more than three billion dollars and went on to set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to support good governance in Africa by awarding US$10 million to any African leader who was voted as a good leader by judges. Sadly, year after year with few exceptions like Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia, no winner was found for the prize among the highly corrupt patriarchal neo-colonial rulers of Africa.

My question to Zerai is whether she has plans for scholar-activism using the findings in a book like this to convince the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to redirect the African Leadership Prize money towards the empowerment of African women through ICT grants, micro credit grants, prizes in story-telling, music, literature, filmmaking, fashion design, hair-dressing, science and technology, cooking, research grants, and start-up costs for women owned businesses and for women politicians across Africa? Similarly, the cellphone companies and Internet providers should be persuaded by readers of this book to consider offering reparative justice to the African women who have been discriminated against and victimised in the scramble for the natural resources with which the phones are built. They too should award huge grants to African women to improve their ICT ecology and thereby, their access to education, knowledge and political participation for the benefit of all.

Ron Eglash, Abdul Karim Bangura, and Horace Campbell have established that the computer engineering algorithms that power the Internet are based on complex African fractal designs that are common in the cornrow hair designs pioneered by African women at home and in the diaspora where it was used to support the litigation for the redistricting of Atlanta for better representation of African Americans who did not settle in straight grids due to racist red-districting and discrimination in housing. European mathematicians shunned such non-lineal fractal designs for centuries as irrational in preference for easy to control Cartesian designs until they discovered that they are powerful tools for communication and self-organisation based on principles of infinity, self-similarity, interconnectivity, fractional dimensions, non-lineal geometry and recursion that are more common in African designs.

Eglash credited Phillip Emeagwali, who was recognised by President Clinton as one the founding fathers of the Internet, with the humble opinion that he learned how to design faster computer connectivity by observing his mother in the kitchen in Nigeria. Campbell observed that Barack Obama deployed the revolutionary principles of African fractals for his successful model of 21st century politics and Bangura found these principles to be common in the complex thoughts of African writers. Henry Louis Gates opined that the Internet is the ‘21st Century talking drum’ (though he did not mention the irony that the talking drum is a primarily male art form in Africa). Olu Oguibe warned against the maintenance of a digital Third World even in the diaspora where millions of people remain unable to access the information super highway.

The question is whether Zerai will set up a non-governmental organisation or lead a mass movement based on the book to advocate for the Internet, ICT and cellphone providers to set aside a portion of their huge profits specifically to give back to African women by funding coding academies, university scholarships, business start-ups, sporting facilities, sanitation and water facilities, and health centres across Africa?

*Doctor Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Technology University, United States of America.