Civil Society, Digital Autocracies, & Sub-Saharan Africa

In January 2010, Hilary Clinton announced that the digital age would challenge authoritarian rule by “helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” However, today’s reality is a stark contrast to this idealism. For Chadian citizens, opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists, the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful association have continued to experience significant repression following the crackdown on a protest planned on the 9th of October 2021.

Digital repression is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Chad. Across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), increases in digital infrastructure and access to technologies are seemingly correlated with increases in digitally authoritarian practices undertaken by governments and powerful political actors. At first glance, it is easy to direct the blame towards the most infamous and influential “digital autocracy” – China. From the Great Firewall and widespread use of CCTV cameras to the controversial social credit system, Chinese surveillance and censorship are regularly described as the hallmarks of an “Orwellian state.”

While it may be a preferred exporter of such technologies, placing blame on China alone ignores other factors at play. It is worth noting that even liberal democracies like the United States have provided surveillance tools to authoritarian states in SSA. While a lot of research is dedicated to examining the impact of external actors shaping the digital politics of Africa, little has been done to assess the role of domestic civil society in these circumstances. This report will examine the relationship between civil society and digital repression in SSA. It has been found that although governments in SSA are increasingly encroaching on the digital rights of its citizens, its citizens are not accepting this passively, and finding ways to fight back.

 

DEFINING THE CONCEPTS

The “Digital Age” began in earnest with the prolific spread of personal computers, internet access and other subsequent technologies. In this (current) era, social, economic, and political activities are all dependent on the easy and rapid transfer of information through these communication technologies. Subsequently, the term “digital repression” encompasses the use of digital technologies as tools for human rights violations. This may include – but is not limited to – using technology for control, repression, manipulation, censorship, and surveillance to consolidate the perpetrator’s power.

 

DEMOCRATISATION IN SSA

To cover an entire continent’s history with democratization in a few sentences is not an easy task. For an in-depth understanding please see Richard Sklar (1983) ‘Democracy in Africa’ and Bernard Ugochukwu Nwosu  (2012) Tracks of the Third Wave: Democracy Theory, Democratisation and the Dilemma of Political Succession in Africa. However, to assess the implications of digital technologies on African democracy, it would be remiss to ignore contextual information. The “second wave” of democratization occurred in the wake of WWII, decolonization, and independence. For many African states, governance in the post-colonial era is conspicuous with a pervasive “one-party” system.

As Collier (1982) states, by the mid-1990s, authoritarianism had “become a dominant feature of African political life.” Beginning in earnest in the early 1990s, the “third wave of democratization” reached SSA following the release of Nelson Mandela and the peaceful end to Benin’s one-party regime. According to Salih Nur (2016), this wave sought to combat the authoritarian rise by promoting multi-party politics. By 1997, only four countries remained without multi-party transition elections. This wave has two central characteristics. Firstly, the transitions were triggered by mass protests by civil society and political elites over the declining living standards.

These protests led to demands for regime change by civil society. Secondly, loans from international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank were heavily tied to development assistance in the form of “structural adjustment programs” – the effectiveness of this is a matter for another discussion.

Despite the hope it brought to analysts, the effectiveness of this wave has diminished in recent years. Studies have shown that since the early 2000s, global democratic norms have declined, and a greater proportion of countries have experienced democratic backsliding compared to those who have increased their democratic freedoms. According to the 2021 Freedom In The World Report, only seven states out of 49 in SSA are “free” – a 3 per cent drop from last year. According to the Freedom House report, these declines stem from “new limits on freedom of movement as well as violent, fraudulent elections that extended incumbent presidents’ already lengthy tenures.”

 

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THIS?

At the time of writing, the African continent held a cumulative total of approximately 1.3 billion people, representing 18.31 per cent of the world’s population. Current estimates by the World Population Review suggest that its population will reach 2.4 billion by 2050 and 4.1 billion by 2100, claiming over 30 per cent of the world’s population. Yet access to digital infrastructure and the internet remains limited. Despite its significant representation of the world’s population, SSA’s digital citizenship demographic is marginal, with only 47 per cent of its population accessing the internet. For comparison, according to Internet World States, the global average internet penetration rate is 65 per cent. In western countries, that number is vastly different – with a penetration rate of over 88 per cent. Despite its enormous potential, SSA’s digital market remains largely untapped.

Many African countries lack specific legislation regarding net neutrality, data protection, and cyber security. Although initial steps like the 2014 African Union’s Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection have been taken, the convention is still pending ratification from most countries and consequently lacks enforcement capabilities. Without transparency and accountability, SSA’s digital landscape will continue to impact democracy and good governance in the region.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA’S IMPACT ON POLITICS IN SSA

In recent years, social media has played a tremendous role in politically mobilizing SSA’s youth. Following the dissemination of a video of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) killing a man, the 2020 #ENDSARS social media campaign led to widespread protests across Nigeria. Protesting police brutality, the campaign used social media to spread awareness to international audiences and gain support for the movement. Similarly, citizens in Cameroon have taken to social media to raise awareness of the (francophone) government’s brutality against anglophone communities. Throughout 2018, graphic images and videos of abuse surfaced, calling international attention to and speaking out against the ongoing “genocide.” This allowed the ongoing crisis to be reported in real time, avoiding bias from state media platforms.

Opposition politicians like Uganda’s Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) have also embraced social media to build their political platform and draw attention to their plight against the incumbent Museveni. Following the morning of his arrest, a video of Bobi Wine struggling to walk because of torture injuries – accompanied by the hashtag #freebobiwine – appeared on Twitter and even went viral across various platforms. This led to protests and rallies held in South Africa and Kenya, calling for his immediate release. Social media is a powerful tool for politics. In SSA, it has already dramatically impacted the political landscape.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Freedom on the Net report found that for the 11th consecutive year, global internet freedoms have experienced a decline. Global norms have also shifted toward increases in state intervention in the digital sphere. For most of SSA, the regional trend follows suit. Internet freedoms are increasingly restricted, and a growing number of governments are forcing tech companies to comply with censorship and surveillance. According to this report, there has been a spike of arrests by governments over nonviolent political, social, and religious speech. In Nigeria, the #ENDSARS protestors were met with extreme; state governors and public officials began to demand greater social media regulation. The Cameroonian government expressed its suspicions of social media in 2016, even going as far to label it as “a new form of terrorism.” Uganda’s incumbent president Yoweri Museveni implemented a social media ban and complete internet shutdown in January 2021.

 

THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY

A strong civil society is a core tenet of a functioning democracy. It encompasses organizations and institutions outside the public (government) and private spheres – including but not limited to educational institutions, advocacy groups, religious organizations, and cultural institutions. As George Ingram (2020) states, “they are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold governments accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions.” Without active civil participation, democracy cannot sustainably function.

The Ghana Decides project is an illustrative example of how civil society’s participation in the digital sphere can hold governments accountable. Run by bloggers from BloggingGhana, this project tracked and covered the run-up to the presidential election of 2012, to “foster a better-informed electorate for free, fair and safe elections.” Their online coverage of the election gained popularity and became a key source of information for citizens and foreign media alike. Because Ghana’s electoral institutions had little to no social media presence, this civil society organization became integral to a digital checking and balancing system in the federal election.

As United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, David Kaye points out, “[T]oday, to be disconnected from the net is to be silenced. Access to the internet is not a privilege; it is a fundamental space for expression.” But governments across SSA are increasingly turning to implement social media bans and internet shutdowns for political gains. A study by Access Now has found that through 2020, ten African countries shut down the internet 18 times. But citizens are not passively accepting this repression; they are actively circumnavigating these silencing attempts.

A survey by Whitehead Communications found that 57 per cent of Ugandans use VPNs to access social media platforms in the face of Museveni’s social media ban. In Cameroon, citizens used technologies like Bluetooth and USBs to share files and information without internet access. Furthermore, as the frequency of digital authoritarian practices like internet shutdowns and social media bans increases, so too does the number of organizations working to combat them. The #KeepItOn coalition run by Access Now has over 191 members in 68 countries and is working tirelessly to spread awareness and campaigning to stop digital authoritarian practices.

 

CONCLUSION

In July 2019, the Chadian government ended its 16 month-long internet shutdowns. Although internet penetration is low in the country, it was a serious violation of digital rights. The restrictions left many families disconnected. Estimates suggest the economic impact totaled approximately $20 million per month. However, this did not entirely block the flow of information in the country as civil society organizations like Internet Sans Frontières (a #KeepItOn coalition member) helped citizens bypass the block by providing VPNs and mobile data.

Across SSA, increases in digital infrastructure and access are correlated with increases in digital repression practices undertaken by governments and powerful political actors. Domestic, regional, and international actors need to reflect on the trajectory of current trends – lest the number of digital authoritarian states rise. Civil society can play an important role in combating these practices, but they should not be alone in the fight. Internet providers and multilateral organizations must work together to help promote safe digital spaces and improve digital governance.

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