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Hi! Welcome back to Semafor Africa where we dig into some of the biggest stories around the continent twice a week.

I spent the early part of this week in Washington D.C. taking meetings and having great conversations with key players in the U.S.-Africa policy space. One of the themes that emerged is a quiet excitement that there has been a genuine fillip by the U.S. government in its approach to African engagement. The three-country African tour of U.S. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has rightly grabbed the headlines, especially given the debt restructuring conversations with countries like Zambia (more below).

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also visited three countries this month (Ghana, Mozambique, and Kenya). But several less high-profile U.S. officials have recently visited the continent or plan to embark on a tour in the coming months. For example, the White House’s senior advisor on energy Adam Hochstein and under secretary of the environment Jose W. Fernandez will be at the Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town early next month. They’ll spearhead Washington’s efforts to lock down relationships with countries that produce minerals essential for a clean energy future.

We’re hearing there’ll soon be an announcement of an Africa tour by Vice President Kamala Harris. But of course, a visit by President Biden would make the biggest impact. A trip by the president is already in the works, according to sources.

This flurry of activity has sparked excitement here because it’s a continuation of conversations that took place during last month’s U.S.-Africa Summit. That means the gathering wasn’t just a one-time gathering, as similar U.S. events have turned out to be in the past. It’s worth noting that there have also been high-profile Africa visits from the foreign ministers of China, Turkey, and Russia in recent weeks. China in particular has consistently dispatched senior officials on visits for nearly 30 years now.

“One of the measures of the quality of a relationship between countries is the cadence of high-level exchanges,” says W. Gyude Moore, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former Liberian public works minister.

Buy/Sell

➚  Buy: Zambia’s IMF program. The IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva said Zambia is “making tremendous progress on reforms” and performing well on an IMF program to resolve the southern African country’s ongoing debt crisis. Georgieva also said the Fund is forging an agreement with China towards that goal. About a third of Zambia’s $17 billion debt is owed to China.

U.S. Treasury Janet Yellen in Zambia.
Reuters/Namukolo Siyumbwa

➘ Sell: Zambia’s Chinese debt. The US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who like Georgieva visited Zambia this month, pressed for a quicker resolution to the country’s debt crisis under the G20’s Common Framework. She singled out China as “a barrier to concluding negotiations.”

Stat

The increase to the cost of obtaining a license to operate a nationwide commercial TV company in Guinea Bissau. Previously $10,000, the government raised it to $800,000 in December. The cost of radio licenses rose by 900%.

Evidence

African startups have seen a big jump in venture funding through debt financing as opposed to traditional equity tools. Venture capital debt funding to African startups doubled to $1.5 billion across 71 deals in 2022, according to the latest funding report by Partech, a Paris-based startup investor. Debt deals have increased nearly six-fold since 2018, and there were 85 unique debt investors last year alone, Partech says.


Alexis Akwagyiram and Alexander Onukwue

Twitter’s staff cuts are helping spread misinformation in Africa

THE NEWS

The closure of Twitter’s sole office in Africa late last year has made it easier for false claims about political candidates to spread ahead of Nigeria’s election next month.

The team, based in Ghana’s capital Accra, comprised nearly 20 staff members, some of whom referred inappropriate content to a separate “trust and safety” team for removal from the site, curated content, and trained Nigerian journalists, two former employees told Semafor Africa. The Ghana team, the creation of which was announced in April 2021, was shut down after Elon Musk bought Twitter.

Twitter logo
Reuters

The team, which was responsible for sub-Saharan Africa, had a large Nigerian contingent that understood the country’s most widely spoken languages so they could identify hate speech. “If we don't have people moderating language-based content, it's going to be really chaotic,” one of the former employees, who asked not to be named, told Semafor.

Both former employees said their team curated tweets in threads known as “Twitter Moments” to debunk false information during last year’s presidential election in Kenya and the intention was to adopt the same approach in Nigeria’s vote. One added that there had been a plan to continue training local journalists to spot false information and share fact-based responses on Twitter.

Earlier this month, Kenya-based Sama, the main third party contractor used by Meta for content moderation in Africa, said it would stop screening harmful posts for the parent of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram in March. It said it would cut around 3% of staff, roughly 200 employees.

ALEXIS’ TAKE

Africa’s weak political structures and underlying security problems are particularly vulnerable to the cutbacks in content moderation at global social media platforms.

Elections create a particularly febrile backdrop. The timing of cuts at Twitter and Sama is particularly unfortunate ahead of Africa’s biggest presidential election, in Nigeria, on Feb. 25.

Reports have already surfaced of social media being used by political actors to spread falsehoods. Rumors have spread on Twitter that Peter Obi, one of the candidates, has sworn allegiance to a banned secessionist group. Tweets also circulated repeating a claim that Atiku Abubakar had been flown to London to treat an ailment. The claim, denied by his team, was driven by a publication owned by another presidential candidate and was never corroborated.

Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Nigerian political parties are secretly paying influencers to spread false information about their opponents.

Nigeria’s presidential race is proving to be the tightest since the return to civilian rule in 1999. At the same time, the military and police are already stretched trying to deal with multiple security problems in Africa’s most populous nation.

Analysts warn the approach taken by tech companies in Africa could make matters worse. Jamie Hitchen, who has researched social media behavior for the Abuja, Nigeria-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) think-tank, said there was a lack of investment in providing quick responses to users who report others for abusive behavior. “This lack of punishment emboldens others to continue,” he said.

Many of these problems are not unique to African countries. Recent violent political uprisings in the U.S. and Brazil also involved social media. But, unlike in the U.S. and Brazil, Nigeria’s security forces would likely struggle to contain what could be multiple flashpoints fanned by messages on social media.

Nigeria is one of several African countries facing elections this year that are vulnerable to unrest. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia are among other nations who may be faced with the consequences of reduced moderation when their citizens go to the polls.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Twitter did not respond to requests for comment on the remarks made by former employees.

A Meta spokesperson said the company will work with partners during the transition from Sama to a new content moderation approach “to ensure there’s no impact on our ability to review content.”

The company said it had around 15,000 people globally monitoring content in more than 70 languages. Some, it said, were people reviewing content from, or are based in, African countries who spoke various languages including Amharic, Somali, Swahili and Hausa.

Meta also said it has invested in automated detection technology to identify hate speech in more than 50 languages.

THE VIEW FROM LAGOS

“Misinformation has always been part of elections,” said Adebola Williams, founder of Lagos-based media consultancy Red. Williams — a strategist in successful election campaigns that brought to power the current presidents of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal — said the onus was on social media users to be more skeptical and use “common sense.”

“People need to take personal responsibility for what they post and repost, as well as verifying what they consume by checking that it can be found in multiple reputable places,” said Williams. “Everyone who has a phone is part of the media. We’re all influencers now.”

NOTABLE

  • Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in 2018 that the parent company of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica spread a violent video during the 2015 election campaign claiming that Buhari would violently impose Islamic law if elected. The company said it was hired to support then president Goodluck Jonathan, although there was no suggestion he was aware of its work for his campaign.

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Need To Know

🇳🇬 U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will impose visa restrictions on Nigerians believed to have disrupted recent elections. A signed statement dated Jan. 25 did not name the affected individuals, neither did a follow-up briefing by a State department spokesperson. But the visa restrictions to punish people who “undermine democracy in Nigeria” seem specific and go beyond a forewarning against future action ahead of the elections that begin in February.

🇰🇪 Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga rejected last year’s presidential election results again, citing allegations by purported whistleblowers within the electoral body that the election was stolen. Odinga’s Azimio coalition says President William Ruto’s government is “illegitimate,” rekindling their initial rejection of the result in August. Kenya’s Supreme Court validated Ruto’s victory in September.

🇨🇻 Cape Verde’s debt payments to Portugal will be reinvested by the latter into a new climate change fund in the West African country. Cape Verde owes Portugal $152 million. The reinvestment program is a new seed of future cooperation between the two countries, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said.

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One Good Text ...with Paul Arkwright

Paul Arkwright is an Africa-focused business consultant who was UK High Commissioner to Nigeria from 2015 to 2018.

Unfolding

The race for Nigeria’s currency deadline

Nigeria's new notes
Reuters

Nigeria’s lawmakers asked the central bank to extend the Jan. 31 deadline for replacing three denominations of the naira banknote with redesigned versions. Lawmakers from both the House of Representatives and Senate cited a supply shortage of new notes at commercial banks, where customers are to turn in old notes, as justification for pushing the deadline back to July.

But central bank governor Godwin Emefiele, who had president Muhammadu Buhari’s backing for the redesign, this week said there will be no extension. Emefiele insisted the 90-day window to deposit old notes in banks, which began in October, has provided customers with ample time to comply with the policy given that banks have kept their halls open on Saturdays.

The new bank notes only became available in mid-December and are not yet in common use, but a six-month extension would not change the minds of those reluctant to return old notes, one bank executive told Semafor. “We know the masses don’t have a lot of money so this must be either business or high net-worth individuals,” they said.

Emefiele has been the subject of local media fascination thanks to an extended absence at the beginning of the year and a faceoff with the State Security Service, Nigeria’s secret police. The SSS tried to arrest him on money laundering allegations but failed to get an Abuja court’s assent.

Some central bank watchers speculate that the governor’s ordeal is tied to political resistance to policies like the banknote redesign which, among other reasons, seeks to discourage cash-for-votes trading in the coming elections.

Alexander Onukwue in Lagos

Staff Picks
  • Traveling while African is difficult, even for entertainment stars like Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Kenya’s DJ Coco Em. Stringent visa requirements are problematic enough but when airport officials insinuate ulterior motives against many seeking legitimate entry to Europe and America, it deepens the feeling of “ritual humiliation,” notes Caroline Kimeu in The Guardian.
  • Spyware made by Israel’s NSO Group monitored Carine Kanimba, a Rwandan genocide survivor and daughter of Paul Rusesabagina of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ fame across international borders. An investigation found Pegasus spyware snooped on her private meetings with U.S. government officials in which her father’s release was discussed. Pegasus is a leading product in an expanding intrusion-for-hire industry, reports Peter Guest for Businessweek.
Curio

Ghana's tourism rise is getting a "Girls Trip" boost

Festival time in Ghana.
Reuters/Francis Kokoroko

Ghana looks set to provide the setting for a sequel to 2017’s Girls Trip. Tracy Oliver, the hit movie’s co-writer, told Variety the main characters — played by Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish and Regina Hall — will attend culture festival Afrochella, which features performances from Africa's biggest music artists. The idea captures a genuine trend. Ghana’s visitors soared from nearly 950,000 in 2016 to 1.1 million in 2019, the year the government branded as the Year of Return in a push to welcome African Americans. Since then, people have flocked to Ghana each year in the run-up to Christmas for a series of cultural events known as Detty December.

There’s one small problem with Oliver’s plan…Afrochella’s organizers ended the hugely popular event last December. It follows stories of ‘cease & desist’ activity from lawyers for California’s longer-running Coachella festival. The good news is that there are alternatives, like Afrobeats festival Afro Nation.

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— Yinka, Alexis, and Alexander