Is there anything more abnormal than a day that passes without a self-promotion by a wealthy elite on social media? About a week ago, when the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted his plans to move to Africa in 2020 in search of a large chunk of the multi-billion dollar Bitcoin market, the US mainstream newspapers wasted no time on skepticism. Forbes, in its infinite wisdom, asked readers - Which country should he choose? Dorsey also posted a painting of bare tree in the shape of Africa, and the face of a startled-looking, somewhat pre-modern man etched on its trunk. Some claimed Dorsey is the Man with a Mission. His own statement in support of the claims sounds like gospel - he said he is moving to bring bitcoin to Africa.
Deconstructing the "Bitcoin Future"
The US government has explicitly declared cryptocurrency a national security threat, setting an example with a few moves: Facebook's Libra has been indefinitely delayed by the US Congress, the arrest of an American citizen charged for giving a talk in North Korea about the potential of cryptocurrency to bypass the global banking system. If the US does not think it is prepared for mass adoption of cryptocurrency, then what is the urgency to embrace Dorsey's evangelical "Bitcoin future" for Africa?
Countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, etc. have allowed cryptocurrencies with the confidence that they are able to prevent money laundering and other illegal activities. They also have strong policy regulations in avoiding its classification as currency, instead it is treated as commodity or property. Transactions need to be registered and are taxed. To assume that the developing countries have the know-how geared towards policy efforts is rather unsupported. Only two African countries - South Africa and Swaziland - have some regulations around it. Others either have working committees to assess and evaluate impact or have outright banned it.
Concerns of cryptocurrency's volatility is global, however, an American may have a better chance to withstand it as it has a savings economy, and, the US dollar is here to stay. But someone from the Third World is desperately looking to avoid national currency crisis (Zimbabwe and Venezuela, for instance) and may just as well end up seeing her crypto-money halved overnight. Economic disasters have a habit of visiting one after another, and with little time lag. The risk of cryptocurrency-funded cyberattacks on the global banking network is yet to be addressed. Digital currency wars have already started with the Chinese Central bank introducing its own cryptocurrency. When there are unresolved risks and uncertainties, the Bitcoin Messiah to Africa must be impeded, and the starting point to this is through public discourse before the market is disrupted. There must be transparency on what the billionaire CEO plans to do with bitcoin in Africa. Africa must not be treated as a playground for the whims and fancies of the Silicon Valley bosses.
Why a reflection on billionaires' imperial desire is not invalid?
American expansion in the Third World countries is not new, neither is it surprising. But what is surprising is the reception of Dorsey's announcement, particularly from postcolonial states, despite the overtone of the Imperium. There is no doubt that Africa like other countries can benefit to some extent from internet technology, yet, much is staked if discourses push history to the side and narrowly focus on economic promises.
Any reflection from the lens of colonial past is scorned by American entrepreneurs who have amassed great wealth from the internet revolution. Three years ago, a Facebook Director cut a sorry figure when he said India's economy is hurting due to "anti-colonialism" - because India had banned the company's Free Basics programme that sought to compromise net neutrality. The "trickle-down" believers will tell us that the American and Chinese investments will bring inclusive growth, that it is unconscionable not to welcome Dorsey's announcement with a galore of smiles. The postcolonial subject shall trust the advent of a white man who is to bring progress through the purported Currency of Revolution, the Leveler of socio-economic inequalities, and the Liquidator of political abuses and corruption - Bitcoin.
We have many examples of the recidivist nature of the US empire from history, yet, digital technology, especially bitcoin, as the new "sugar" has escaped attention. For instance, Eduardo Galeano educated us that the sugar trade that destroyed Latin America's tropical forests, thanks to the English, French, Dutch and the U.S empires. That, coffee plantations had destroyed Andean plateau. Naomi Klein even identified patterns where disasters in foreign countries are viciously turned into opportunities for economic inroads. Klein, for instance, documented the then ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson's profiteering from oil price surge in the wake of 2003 Iraq war. Howard Zinn called businessmen Andrew Carnegie and John. D. Rockefeller as "robber barons". He showed that crony capitalism runs deep; that when CIA was investigated for systematically arranging the overthrow of democratically elected Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende, the committee head Rockefeller who was appointed by the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger simply cleared CIA of all charges. Thus, imperialism was legitimized as a replacement to colonialism.
It is evident that the US government often acts in the interest of its private technology companies. Recently, Donald Trump opposed India's call for internet data localization, and the lobbying forces are visibly these companies. In France, Trump has threatened to sanction $2.4bn worth products as a retaliation against digital tax. Such government-aided global market dominance by the US companies has not changed.
It ought to be recognized that a hindsight view of the colonial and imperial legacies has lessons for the future of technology in Africa. Such a view raises critical questions: first, the ownership and control of firms whose command centers are outside the continent, second, the risks and benefits of cryptocurrency, third, domestic political compromises set forth by the lobbying big-tech firms, fourth, the paralysis of local innovation and engineering potential. It hardly passes anyone's notice when large foreign firms invest in Africa - arguably because these firms don't have active PR machinery. But it would be imprudent to fail to see the face of a white man setting foot in Africa in broad daylight, and not check back with imperial legacies and, worse, their continuities.