Africa: African cyberactivism is not willing to give up digital sovereignty of the continent | Future Planet


“How many of you and you have been beaten while reporting?” When Nnena Nwakanma He throws this question in a hotel room in Abidjan, about twenty out of fifty attendees raise their hands. The arms-raised forest multiplies when Nwakanma’s litany refers to insults, threats or coercion. This prestigious defender of digital rights, of Nigerian origin, leads one of the activities of the third meeting of Africtivistes, a pan-African organization of digital activists that promote democracy, in which journalists, bloggers or computer scientists from over forty African countries participated. , from the diasporas and from some corners outside the continent.

The conversation revolves around the protection of online journalists, bloggers and bloggers, and cyber activists. “You have to stay alive”, demanded Nwaknma in her role as godmother of the meeting, “be professionally rigorous and take into account that mental health is important.” “What do you need to stay alive? Because I, I need you to stay alive! ”Nwakanma claimed to the journalists and bloggers at his round table. Beyond the issue of security, this meeting in Côte d’Ivoire has allowed to update the concerns of the actors involved in the digital environment in Africa and also to strengthen their commitments and demands.

Fifty activists from around forty African countries have participated in the third Africtivistes meeting.
Fifty activists from around forty African countries have participated in the third Africtivistes meeting.Carlos Bajo Erro

Safety has always been one of the reasons for being of Africtivists and it is one of the recurring concerns of the entire community of committed users of the digital environment on the African continent. Not surprisingly, during this third meeting, held between November 11 and 13 in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, a journalist and a blogger who work in particularly difficult conditions have been recognized with the Anna Guèye award for media and citizen engagement .

On the one hand, Peter Nkanga, a Nigerian freedom of expression defender threatened with death and in exile, for his collaboration in a journalistic investigation into the exaggerated power and abuses of a media businessman in his country. On the other hand, Fatoumata Harber a Malian blogger stubbornly installed in Tumbuctú, amid the tensions between the armed groups that operate in the Sahelian country and the government’s allegations of passivity.

Many of the conversations and a part of the work carried out during the meeting of digital activists revolved around protection and security, recalling the multiple faces of threats from physical to psychological, passing through legal, also those of the financial independence or those of the often forgotten mental health; even those that, ironically, the Senegalese Papa Ismaila Dieng He described it as “social censorship”: “Sometimes they call your father or your uncle, to tell him, look what your son is doing, you should talk to him. That censorship is not measurable. We can know how many journalists have been jailed, how many bloggers have been killed, but we cannot know how many calls have been made to pressure. It is a reality that we live in and that influences the treatment of information because it is the main driver of self-censorship ”.

Fighting misinformation

But the organization has matured in a hurry. Different concerns have been added to their initial motivations, which in 2015 focused on joint learning and mutual protection. The tsunami of fake news and misinformation caught africtivists on guard, because they have always demanded rigor and honesty as tools of blogging activity, and because immediately all the logic of data and information verification was incorporated into the ecosystem of digital activism. During this meeting in Abidjan, the fight against disinformation has been another of the pillars, with work on the production of quality online information and the exchange of experiences from fact-checking in situations, sometimes as compromised as that of the Central African Republic, where there is an information war between foreign powers with interests in the country.

Perhaps the most novel concern of this new meeting has been that of digital sovereignty. Despite being a recent addition to the catalog of challenges that African cyberactivism must address, the threat of this new form of foreign control of the continent’s politics, economy and daily life has ended up permeating all conversations. Perhaps, the threat to digital sovereignty was the most present challenge throughout the Abidjan meeting, the shadow that has loomed over all hopes.

Technological neocolonialism

“Today, one of the big problems is that most of our data is not even in our countries, but is stored abroad,” he says. Cyriac Gbogou, vice president of Africtivistes and a renowned Ivorian cyber activist. “That is why we insist”, continues this expert, “in making our States aware that our data must be kept in the country and be managed by people from the country, because the necessary skills exist. In addition, the one who saves your data is the one who knows who you are and can adapt their proposals. Whereas if you are the one who controls them, you can know much better what the needs of your citizens are and how to satisfy them ”. And he warns: “It is no longer a debate, but rather an urgency.”

Today, one of the big problems is that most of our data is not even in our countries, but is stored abroad

Cyriac Gbogou, Vice President of Africtivistes

For Gbogou, the example of data is the most obvious, but there are many other aspects of the digital dimension that mark the conditions of digital sovereignty and that African states are neglecting. “We are not building our infrastructures ourselves,” explains the activist, “others come to do it for us, often they even deliver them to our States, in the form of donations and our countries are very happy, but behind the scenes they don’t know what they are. they are doing with the information that circulates through these infrastructures, they do not know how they control us ”. For this reason, the organization focuses its pressure on the authorities, but also tries to raise awareness among civil society. “In Côte d’Ivoire, a foreign company is hired to do a population census. The data they collect is stored abroad, but later when we want to access it, we have problems getting it ”, says Gbogou.

During his inauguration speech, Cheikh Fall, Senegalese cyberactivist and president of Africtivistes, had drawn a clear line regarding the importance and urgency of working for digital sovereignty on the continent, establishing a parallel between the Berlin Conference and the new logics of digital neocolonialism: “More than 130 years after the systematic partition of Africa by the colonial powers, the continent presents a new map with the colors of the technological superpowers ”. Referring to this foreign intervention in the construction of infrastructures or data centers, in the donations of materials and even of services such as the connection to the great Internet highways, Fall warned: “Our continent is being distributed again before our eyes powerless. We are creating a new dependency ”.

More than 130 years after the systematic partition of Africa by the colonial powers, the continent presents a new map in the colors of the technological superpowers

Cheikh Fall, Senegalese cyberactivist and president of Africtivistes

In reaction to this situation, the Senegambian activist and coordinator of the organization, Aisha DaboHe recalled that “the continent has difficulties in having its true weight respected in the global sphere, because it is usually not capable of speaking with one voice.” For this journalist and expert in digital communication, the lack of coordination of African countries weakens their position in the tug of war in international relations, but the new digital scenario presents an unprecedented opportunity: “We are already late, but we have to To do it without thinking about it, if we do not want this revolution that we are experiencing right now, this digital revolution, to also escape us. The fourth revolution ”.

The work of this particular congress of African cyberactivists and their reflections on security, disinformation, legal frameworks, public policies, citizen engagement, open government or all those derived from that basic digital sovereignty have crystallized into a statement. Africtivistes continues to build itself more as a movement than as a formal organization, despite its legal constitution, in which, to be a member, it is enough to share the values ​​of citizenship and democracy, be committed to a positive social transformation and trust digital tools. .

Most of these conditions are reflected in what has been dubbed the Abidjan Declaration, which contains the activists’ commitments, but also their demands. This document establishes a decalogue that includes the democratic governance of the Internet, the promotion of the digital economy, the guarantee of data protection, the contribution to the elaboration of public policies, the work for quality online information, the collaboration between journalists and bloggers, the fight against disinformation and hate speech, raising public awareness of their digital rights, or working with young people so that they can extract the full benefit of web 2.0.

Some of Fall’s words during the opening of the meeting, resonated during all the meetings, marked the works and even accompanied the participants back to their countries. Some, recalling the sword of Damocles that looms over the African digital environment. “The continent is losing its independence and its digital sovereignty and will be recolonized in the near future. Hence the need to restructure the African digital territory by relying on resources, infrastructures and local uses ”, warned the Senegalese cyber activist. Others, with a much more inspiring tone: “Who will lead the fight in the face of these challenges? None of our countries can face them alone. Once again, we have an appointment with History. We must choose to face this digital transformation or suffer it ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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