Power and Sovereignty in the Virtual Republic

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ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: chidi.amuta@gmail.com

Nations tend to change course at the prompting of crises and major disruptions. As things stand, a viral eruption from a small seafood market in provincial China may have defined the kick off point for a new direction for significant nations of the world. We may now have to re-calibrate 21st century world history as the pre and post Covid-19 eras. Even before the lockdowns are completely lifted, the new race may have begun.

Among policy analysts and speculators, worrying and projecting about a post covid-19 world is gathering steam as a new obsession. On the inevitable direction that the world is likely to follow, an interim consensus has already emerged. Simply put, the virtual world of digital everything will spread like a new virus to swamp government, business and social life. In that imminent digital world of universal virtualness, nations will find their positions within a hierarchy of competence defined by know how and know why.

Already, the digital world has given us virtual offices that enable people to work from home, banks that move trillions of dollars across impossible distances through unseen channels and hospitals that conduct diagnoses of complex ailments and deliver prescriptions online. There are now lively consequential meetings between business partners who have never met themselves before. Even social life is not exempt from the digital onslaught to bridge distance through virtual arrangements. Online concerts link up famous artists across thousands of miles to deliver exhilarating performances while Netflix multiplies our menu of blockbuster movies streamed into devices in our palms. Amazon delivers our choice of urgent goods and supplies at the doorway after the click of a mere button.

Covid-19 has further accelerated the speed of these changes. Because of the constraints of physical contact and social distancing, existing digital platforms have made giant strides in virtual communication. The Zoom application has quickly metamorphosed into a global platform for meetings and conferences. While Boris Johnson was in hospital battling an infection of Covid-19, for instance, the British House of Commons was in session via Zoom and holding full parliamentary debates.

Even the reign of television as we have come to know it is under threat. Global social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are fast integrating data, voice and video to a point where you can now hold an interview, a birthday party, a public execution, suicide bombing or sexual orgy on live stream and broadcast same to an unsuspecting world wide audience. If you run your business live on Instagram, you become the literal owner of a temporary virtual television channel that people can click on to and watch endlessly. It is only the censorial alertness of the IT platform operatives that can limit the more damaging images from such universal channels.

Gradually, the power of a different tribe of entrepreneurs is creeping in to disrupt traditional axis of power. We know the tribe whose uniforms has been the pin stripe suits of Wall Street. Now, we have the youthful genius in jeans and t-shirt or the ageing extra smart CEO in turtle neck, jeans and trainers (a la Steve Jobs)presiding over a multi billion dollar corporation and with a hold on the minds and fortunes of billions of enthralled humanity. The US congress had to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook when it got entangled with Russia’s massive hack of the 2016 US presidential elections. Most of the Congress men and women never understood what the young lad was saying about algorithms, remote servers, privacy protocols and subscriber density.

Covid-19 has merely accelerated a trend that had been building up in the last two decades and half. An incremental loss of weight has been the defining feature of important things especially in the post industrial era. The objects and ideas through which technology has been altering our reality are either light weight or even intangible. The world wide web, the internet, optical fibre cables and the computer chips driving the coming Artificial Intelligence(AI) revolution are all literally weightless.

There is consequently a new reality of international trade defined by a law of inverse value: weight loss with increased value. Small electronic components that can alter reality are being transported easily by air across borders and barriers. Paradoxically, the most powerful single goods in today’s world, computer chips, are made from the most common and universally available material on earth, perhaps next only to the air we breathe: sand. The control of intangible human intellect over weightless matter has produced by far the greatest social transformations and wealth in human history.

This is in contrast with the essence and products of the industrial revolution which for the first time powered humanity’s transition from primitive hunter/forager to modern industrial producer. Heavy things like the printing press, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, blast furnaces rolled into place to put at our disposal equally heavy stuff like steam locomotives travelling on steel and stone railroads, printing presses, automobiles running on concrete and bituminous motorways. Writes Alan Greenspan, former US Federal Reserve chairman, ‘In 1900, economic value was created … by moving iron ore by rail from the Mesabi Range to Pittsburg where it was joined with coal to make steel’. Today, on the contrary, economic value is created by moving data and analyses to and fro around the world electronically.

Markets are no longer physical geographic places but a flood of data exchanged and stored in millions of computers across the world. Money and ideas are constantly streaming across all known barriers with consequences that often lead to international nerve wracking, exchange of diplomatic bad language and tension across international boundaries. Exchange of hostile data can even lead to war. The value of the naira in your pocket is determined by a vast exchange of data and information completely outside your control. It is the exchange of such data between computers in Texas, Riyadh, Moscow and London that determines the price of a barrel of crude oil extracted from the backyard of the hapless fisherman in Oloibiri. That in turn determines how much the government in Abuja will budget for schools, roads, railroads or hundreds of SUVs for unproductive legislators.

The imminent explosion of the digital takeover of our lives has vast implications for governments, politics and sovereign power. For Nigeria, the challenge is going to translate into far reaching political, economic and social consequences on a scale never seen before. The digital revolution will put more power in the hands of the people without their consciously asking for or realising it. But that power belongs to them and can hardly be taken away.

Currently, Nigeria’s cell phone lines are a staggering 180 million plus lines. There are 87.7 million internet users which is projected to grow to 187 million by 2023. These millions of people including the rural majority constitute a virtual emerging republic with increasing powers. They may not be a conscious political mass but they are a density of voices. They send and receive money via applications on their cell phones across state and international borders. They exchange messages about their lives and practically everything else up to the limits of their literacy. People can now hold and express views and opinions about practically anything including how they are being governed.

Sometimes, these views may run counter to those of the powers that be. In a population of nearly 200 million, the sentiments and views expressed by the majority of the 180 million phone enabled citizens ought to constitute the majority view. It clearly swamps the minority consensus of a tiny vocal elite of less than a million privileged people who speak via the conventional media. Of course the freedom of expression on the social media may not be unlimited. The sensitivities of people of power will always be bruised by the things they hate to hear. But even in the most draconian autocracies with governments that have invested heavily in cyber policing, the power in the hands of a digitalized populace remains massive in spite of the censoring compulsions of absolutist regimes and their presiding autocrats.

Nigeria is still predominantly a pre industrial nation with a surging youthul post- industrial digital populace. But its economy remains mostly heavy laden with most people still sustained by ‘luggage’ orientation goods and services such as cement, sand, brick and mortar, iron and steel, oil refineries, articulated trucks etc. Most people are still engaged in manual labour intensive jobs -farming, construction, physical trading, transportation, basic services etc.

The Nigerian state has traditionally remained anti intellectual and compulsively averse to innovation. Firmly rooted in the colonial British civil service culture of paper and heaps of useless files driven by the careerism of bureaucrats, our government is essentially a perennial deep state that waits in permanent ambush for incoming military or democratic dispensations.

This frigid deep state and its overseeing political tenants is bound to be resistant to the imminent virtual republic ruled by millions of subscribers and citizens united by the internet of everything. Because the state is essentially a menial machine of power, holders and wielders of state power will continue to rely on the power of heavy things to hold on to power. Boots on the ground in the form of soldiers and policemen, assault rifles, armored vehicles, tanks at street junctions etc. are likely to remain the major instruments of raw state power. As a consequence, there will be two republics in fluid conflictual transition. Civil society, the private sector and the majority of unclassified citizens have embraced and will multiply and deepen the culture of the digital virtual republic. On the contrary, government as a behemoth of organized cult of power and overbearing regulation may not in itself embrace the new digital technologies as a cultural force at the same pace.

Yet somehow the security of state power is a great beneficiary of the advances in new technologies. We are at that point where popular sovereignty in the form of digital devices in nearly every hand has become an instrument of political stability. The time has passed when power used to be grabbed by a few ambitious soldiers sending a few illiterate footmen to the telephone exchange to physically disconnect a whole nation from the rest of the world. All it took then was army signals technicians pulling out a few wires from their nodes and sockets while someone rushes to the national radio station to announce yet another successful coup to the nation and the world. The world, especially Africa, is now in a different place.

In the virtual digital republic, then, the majority of the indices of power as identified by the old philosopher, Bertrand Russel, have migrated into the hands of ordinary people. Power over information and the media. Power over beliefs and ideas. Power over religion. Only the power over raw power, the power of coercion remains firmly in the hands of the state and its presiding political prefects. The rest of the indices have been dispersed into the hands of the common people by the technologies of mass empowerment.

The governments of the federation, snuggly stuck under the heaps of tattered files and irrelevant bureaucratic procedures, doing the old things the old way are however not content with the threat to state sovereignty and monopoly of power. The anxiety of the political leadership has recently arisen in fits of legislative discomfort and desperation. Legislators in Abuja floated three controversial bills that were fiercely beaten down by public outcry. The first was an attempt to impose stifling regulations on civil society organisations under the guise of regulating the operations of Non Governmental Organisations. The second was an illiterate bill to gag free speech under the guise of seeking to check hate speech among citizens. The third was a bill seeking to limit the bounds of free speech by seeking to control and regulate the social media. All three were informed by blind group interest and ignorance about the dynamics of a changing society.

This imminent conflict of the ‘two republics’ is bound to further alter the nature and parameters of national sovereignty and the contest for state power. It is already in full play in the conduct and outcomes of our elections. Politicians and their supporting deep state apparatus have fiercely resisted the adoption of free electronic voting. The majority of the people see no reason why not. People cannot understand why balloting cannot be at the touch of a button. No one has explained to us why simple ballot numbers cannot be tallied and why people troop out to vote only for their votes to be voided and subjected to the verdict of a handful of dishonest judges in contentious judicial disputations.

The clear and urgent challenge of the Nigerian situation is how to integrate the virtual republic of the majority with the behemoth analog republic of crude sovereign power. It is government that needs to move swiftly to connect with the virtual republic of the popular digitalizing masses. This requires greater responsiveness to change and a sweeping reform of governmental processes and orientations. This goes beyond the present selective adoption of digital solutions by some departments of government. The adoption of digital solutions must be wholesome and comprehensive as has been demonstrated in countries like United Arab Emirates, Singapore and even Rwanda.

Already, in major post- industrial nations, the state has moved quickly to take control of the commanding heights and nodes of the digital age by incorporating the gains of IT into ambit of governance processes. Such integration was however preceded by the acquisition of the relevant know by government itself. The United States, China, the countries of the European Union and East Asia have all invested heavily in training their personnel especially in the intelligence services, security and armed services as well as industry regulators etc. on the rudiments and ongoing developments in Information Technology. You cannot control what you do not know nor can you effectively regulate what you do not understand.

For Nigeria, the post Covid-19 moment should be the equivalent of our 1970. This was the moment when the Civil War ended and Nigeria correctly identified its challenge and mission as that of nation building and nation healing. The challenge was clearly that of evolving a new national order to replace the old dysfunctional order. Critical junctures emerge for nations when they can define and name the wrong in their past and chart a new course.

The post Covid-19 moment ought to be for Nigeria a moment to re-imagine government and recognize the sovereignty of real people and their ordinary needs. As the world prepares to wake from the bad unexpected nightmare of Covid-19, a wave of change is likely to redefine the sovereignty of nations, the power of peoples and the focus of governments. Only in nations where governments meet the people in the new freedom of their virtual reality will greatness have meaning. As the historian Margaret Macmillan recently observed, “The present crisis could be the opportunity for strategies to produce essential public goods and ensure that citizens have safe, decent and fulfilled lives. People coming out of a calamity are open to sweeping changes.”