His Excellency President AI could just be what the doctor ordered for Africa

Saturday May 18 2024

If the AI president is data and science-driven, the quality of government could improve, and there could be a new burst of economic prosperity across many nations. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

At the start of 2024, elections were scheduled to take place in at least 64 countries globally by December, the most ever in history in a year.

Of these, 19 were planned in Africa, but the Motherland can be politically fickle. The election that was scheduled to be held by the ruling military junta in Mali in February was again casually postponed.

In Burkina Faso, the boys in uniform have said the election slated for July to return the country to democratic rule is “not a priority,” so that is that.

In South Sudan, conflicting information suggested the election had been postponed for the nth time to December. President Salva Kiir, who an Africa Centre article described as a man who “has made a political career of postponing election,” was reported by some media to be in his default form.

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Last month, they claimed Kiir and First Vice-President in the fractious national unity government Dr Riek Machar, had agreed to postpone the 2024 elections.


Unsurprisingly, Machar’s party said nothing of the sort had been agreed and the ruling SPLM also later denied the report. If it came to pass, Kiir would have postponed elections five times, the previous times being in 2015, 2018, 2020, 2022.

That said, in most of the over 60 countries where the vote has been or will be held, people are not very hopeful. They expect many “of the same old crooks” to return to power, or even worse leaders (racists, nasty right-wing nationalists, corrupt, rich men, who will buy power with their ill-gotten loot, and anti-democratic demagogues) to replace the current lot.

This frustration has led more people to toy with a radical alternative — artificial intelligence (AI) presidents and prime ministers, given how good the technology has become. In January, Forbes in an article entitled “In An Increasingly Complex World, Is It Time For An AI President?” looked at the pros and cons of an AI president.

The broad case it made for an AI president was “its ability to make decisions based on data and logic, free from personal bias or political pressure. Unlike human leaders, an AI would not be swayed by emotions, personal relationships, or financial incentives.”

This week, I was invited to consider a case for an African AI president. I was told not to focus on the case against it, but to look at the possibilities. It was easy to see the problems, I was told, the most immediate one being that most of Africa isn’t sufficiently networked, and internet penetration remains relatively low in most countries.

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Morocco has the continent’s highest internet penetration at 90.7 percent, followed by war-torn Libya at 88 percent, and Seychelles at 86.7 percent. Presuming you need at least 85 percent to have a smart robot ruler work, Africa is still not there.

We are also big flesh-and-blood people, so having a shiny human-like thing with infrared eyes being boss in the State House could be too much.

However, an AI president would be the perfect solution to some of the difficulties that plague some African governments. To begin with, an AI president would not belong to an ethnic group or clan, although you can’t trust all our people not to write into it some “tribal code”.

The optimistic view is that an AI president will not stuff their government with people from one village, or ethnic group. Also, because it has no schoolmates, it won't appoint mostly its old boys or girls.

An AI president will reduce, if not eliminate, nepotism. Because it has no wife, mistresses, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, or in-laws, so it can’t appoint incompetent family members and relatives to the government.

An AI president also wouldn’t require a secret account in a Swiss bank for a rainy day, a house on the French Riviera, or a condo in Dubai.
Being, in the end, a machine without much human feeling, an AI president would be thick-skinned.

Gone would be the days of people being jailed, even killed, for insulting the president. Journalists would no longer have to flee into exile, or newspapers and broadcast media shut down for defaming the Fountain of Honour, the Father of the Nation. A new era of democracy and freedom could break out in the AI chiefdoms.

If the AI president is data and science-driven, the quality of government could improve, and there could be a new burst of economic prosperity across many nations. Overall, there could be a significant reduction in the cost of government, especially if half the Cabinet comprises AI ministers. One car would be sufficient for an AI minister. No need for a second one for the minister’s wife.

The biggest saving, however, would likely come from the trappings around an AI president. Today, some African presidents travel in large convoys that can run into 100 vehicles, including mobile changing rooms, ambulances and mobile kitchens.

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The risk an AI president would face from an assassin’s bullet would be considerably low, so, no need for it to be guarded by 500 armed officers. It would not need a mobile kitchen or ambulance.

For His Excellency President AI’s domestic travel, all the cars could be cut out and it gets on a drone.

And then there is the matter of presidential departure after terms served, or in the unlikely event that the incumbent loses an election. If an AI president tries to cling on to power, it might not be necessary to go to the bush to wage a guerrilla war. It would be enough to just turn off the mains switch.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3