As we say farewell to 2015, Africa Regional Director Nnenna Nwakanma reflects on the state of the Web in Africa.
What a year for the Web in Africa. Here at the Web Foundation, I’ve watched events unfold across the continent impacting affordable access, voices online and citizen participation through open data.
To reap the benefits of Africa’s digital transformation, we must get its citizens online. We’re working towards this each day through the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). Three countries have impressed me by taking steps in right direction: Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Nigeria.
First, let’s take Côte d’Ivoire where I’m now based. The country has finally found the courage to make drastic cuts in taxes on Web-enabled devices. Meanwhile, Rwanda has demonstrated continental leadership on affordable access. The government not only hosted the successful Transform Africa Summit, but has championed the SMART Africa initiative to accelerate development through ICTs and the One Area Network for East Africa to reduce roaming charges in the region. In Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria’s newly appointed Minister of Communications Technology, the Honorable Abdur-Raheem Adebayo Shittu, joined the A4AI-Nigeria Coalition and the Alliance welcomed his predecessor Dr Omobola Johnson as Honorary Chair.
However, this documentary in different cities and towns of Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire is a standing reminder that the access battle is real, the divide huge and the work urgent. In 2015, someone still says “I don’t know what the Internet is”. Much hard work lies ahead if we are to come close to the Global Goal of universal access for all by 2020.
Diverse and free voices
In Africa, clashes between citizens and governments are on the rise. There is a rampant urge to crack down on free expression and erode digital rights.
Good news first: in Ethiopia, after a prolonged series of trials and detentions, the Zone 9 bloggers were released. However the fate of Moroccan blogger Hisham Almiraat and at least six other Human Rights defenders is still uncertain as their trial continues. Four Tanzanians have been charged with violating the Cybercrime Act for political information published on WhatsApp. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a communiqué from the Presidency proudly announced that the President does not use any social media tools, and anyone impersonating him on social media – even parody accounts – would face legal consequences. Meanwhile, the South African government is pushing a cyber-crime bill that is so broadly drafted, it could criminalise many everyday Web users and harm free speech online.
As we fight to get as many Africans connected as possible, it is worth remembering to ask ourselves – just what kind of Internet will our citizens find when they get online? If the trend of command and control Internet regimes flourishes, it will not be a Web that encourages democracy, openness, innovation and social good.
Public participation through open data
As more Africans get connected, we want them to access critical government data to increase transparency and hold elected officials to account for their performance. To this end, the High Level Conference on the Data Revolution in Africa requested by the African Union Heads of State created the Africa Data Consensus. Following the journey of data communities mobilised by the consensus, their work and the resulting effect was the biggest data highlight of the year for me. What I did not expect, though, was that the consensus would take on global importance, serving as a reference document to other regions of the world and becoming a key document in the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data that was launched at the UN General Assembly this year.
And that’s not the only example of progress on open data in Africa. To my surprise, Kenya launched its National Partnership for Harnessing the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, engaging the policy makers at the highest level. This is excellent news for a country with such active citizens, engaged in online debate.
And how can we end the year without reflecting on the impact of Ebola on open data efforts. In all my years of development work and life in West Africa, I have never seen such global mobilisation. All stakeholders acknowledge the key role of data in health systems, emergencies, and social development as we sought to track the spread of the disease. I wonder whether we will apply the lessons learned from the Ebola crisis across the region.
As we turn the page to 2016, a few questions are on my mind: Will Cote d’Ivoire roll out its Open Data portal and adopt and implement the international Open Data Charter? What about Nigeria? Will the country take the bold step that its citizens have been demanding and join the Open Government Partnership? What impact will zero-rated services have on access – both in terms of getting more people connected and in what they browse online?
In 2016 we Africans need to be even more engaged. We must push for more affordable Internet access, stand up for our rights online, support diverse voices to be heard and open up data across communities. Join forces with the Web Foundation in our mission to make this happen by following our campaigns on Twitter @webfoundation and signing up to our newsletter to be informed of the latest developments.