The struggle to control the digital revolution in Africa



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Already this year, at least six governments in Africa have closed the Internet, often with the complicity of Western providers. This month in Sudan, as soldiers of a government paramilitary force carried out a killings in the capital Khartoum, the Internet was in the dark, preventing protesters from documenting violence in social media.

In the end, more than 100 people were killed and many more beaten. At the stroke of a switch, an opposition protest movement that a few weeks before had used social media to organize the overthrow of 30-year-old dictator Omar al-Bashir was reduced to secret meetings and safe prewar houses. it was from the internet

This is a particularly graphic example of the power of the new technology for both progressive change and its opposite. But across Africa, the two-edged nature of digital technology is becoming increasingly apparent. Take social activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who use online activism to try to keep their dishonest government in the straight and narrow line, but find themselves plunged into digital darkness as research results are being worked out.

On the face of it, an Internet shutdown in Africa seems less remarkable than one in Europe, China or North America, where the use of online technology is more widespread. Internet penetration in Africa – while growing faster than elsewhere – is still only 37%, compared to 61% in the rest of the world.

However, in a way, Africans are more dependent on internet and smartphone technologies than people elsewhere. Nigeria has gone from 100,000 landlines in the early 2000s to 170 million mobile subscribers today. In a country with bumpy and dangerous roads, the internet is not so much an alternative road as the one.

Hundreds of millions of Africans use cellular services to transfer money to their families or to pay for goods and services. In the absence of a universal banking system, if the mobile network falls, the impact can be devastating.

Likewise, in countries with highly controlled print media, the internet becomes the only source of reliable information – as well as one of rumor and fraud. In a cat-and-mouse game, Tanzanian officials tried to wipe out bloggers by imposing exorbitant fees. Uganda has imposed a daily tax on the use of platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to contain what the government considers "small talk."

More importantly, the fragility of the physical infrastructure is institutional and regulatory fragility. Consumers in the advanced economies are only now awakening to the dangers imposed by technology on their privacy and freedom. In Africa, companies are still at the stage of what the Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola calls "mass data scanning," in which information about an expanding class of consumers is being devoured with great care.

Even governments can be vulnerable. Technicians working at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2017 noted that the peak of data usage in the building occurred every night between midnight and 2am. A report in Le Monde, vehemently denied by Beijing, said data from the headquarters – a gift from the Chinese government – are being downloaded to Shanghai every night.

Many African countries are now almost totally dependent on Chinese companies, including Huawei, for their digital services. Transsion, a Shenzhen-based handset maker, sells more phones in Africa than any other company. It even started manufacturing in Ethiopia.

Many Chinese companies, including ZTE and Hikvision, provide surveillance technology used by African governments to monitor – or spy – their own populations. CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou start-up, last year signed an agreement with the Zimbabwean government to provide a mass facial recognition program. Zimbabwe will send data to millions of citizens, captured by surveillance cameras, for the Chinese company, which hopes to improve technology that still struggles to distinguish black faces.

Ms Nyabola, whose book Digital Democracy, Analog Policy explores these tensions in his native Kenya, and shows a picture in which the benefits and dangers of the new technology are well balanced. On the plus side, she says, citizens regularly mark politicians and judges on Twitter, demanding accountability unthinkable until a few years ago.

The contest is often evenly matched. In the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, the election commission's chief of technology was found dead. As the electronic system began spreading the results, citizens posted online bulletins in an effort to expose what they suspected to be wholesale fraud. In the end, the Supreme Court – a kit piece invented in the 18th century – made the bold decision to order a rerun of the entire election. The incumbent won anyway.

"Using technology as a substitute for trust creates this black box," says Nyabola. "But most of us do not understand how these systems are built. So what comes out is just chaos. "

Governments in Africa have a tremendous opportunity to use the digital revolution to improve the lives of their citizens. Many are using this against them.

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