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DRIF19: As Experts Converged Over Digital Rights In Africa

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Last week, state actors, civil society organizations, academia, human rights activists, technology entrepreneurs, gender activists, as well as policy enthusiasts and actors within the global internet governance space had gathered at the Paradigm Initiatives Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2019 to cross-pollinate digital ideas that would influence global digital skills.

The 3-day conference which was held in Lagos, Nigeria, from April 23-25 hosted 352 delegates, 28 speakers drawn from 38 countries across Africa and beyond.  The Forum provided a platform for conversations on efforts to ensure human rights online are not violated and that more people in Africa are connected to the internet.

Now in its 7th year, the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum, (formerly known as the Internet Freedom Forum) is an annual bi-lingual pan African forum that provides a platform to debate tough topical global issues around digital inclusion and digital rights in Africa with government, civil society, business, academia, media and other stakeholders represented.

The forum known for its track record of tangible actionable outcomes, has gain a reputation as an important platform where conversations on digital policy in Africa are shaped, and policy directions forged.

Tope Ogundipe, Paradigm Initiative’s Director of Programs said, “For the first time, the Forum this year is focusing considerably on digital inclusion conversations as the basis for digital rights, on a continent where internet penetration is lowest and the opportunities which ICTs provide remain elusive to many. This year’s edition will also feature more side sessions, allow for bilingual communication and participation as it has done since 2017, and encourage post-event collaborations to further strengthen the discourse of Internet Freedom in Africa.”

During a session on “Moving Policy Makers into Action to Advance Digital Inclusion – A Candid Advice, former chief executive officer of the Nigerian Communication Commission, Dr Ernest Ndukwe stressed the need to focus more attention on what government can do to ensure people have access.

“The civil society and citizens alike should commend state governments doing the right thing in expanding access and criticise those doing poorly.”

He also said efforts must be made to ensure that no one is denied the right to digital inclusion.

Speaking on the challenges facing efforts to improve internet penetration, Funke Opeke, the chief executive of MainOne Cable, emphasised the need for government to partner the private sector instead of constituting itself as a stumbling block to expand internet access. She said governments in other climes “create the right incentives and structures to facilitate access to the internet especially in the rural areas.  Government must also work with the private sector to ensure access to funds, among others.

“Even though we have the willingness and capacity to deploy required infrastructure to expand access, we simply can’t, without government permits which aren’t always forthcoming. So government has to support the private sector to improve access,” she said.

Another session on “Roundtable on Inclusive Multi -stakeholder Cyber -security Policy Process,” Head of Legal Services & Board Matters Unit of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Mr Emmanuel Edet said the Nigerian Government is interested in working with the civil society and other partners, but sometimes we are constrained by civil service procedures and rules that guide such engagement.

“But we’ve worked with CSOs on various projects, and there has been a multi-stakeholder partnership with some CSOs. We are not suspicious of civil society.  It is a typical government bureaucracy; new rules of engagement are needed to work better.”

Also speaking, Head, Government Relations and Public Policy, Google, Titi Akinsanmi said the civil society needs to understand the people they are engaging in government. “If you don’t understand the people you seek to engage with, then there is no value in your engagement.

“If you don’t share what you have done and your documentation then it is difficult for others to understand what you do. I encourage the civil society to share their documentation, to leverage existing technology to make their case,” she said.

Cybercrime has been on the agenda of many African governments for years. In February 2015, the Nigerian government adopted the National Cyber -security Policy and Strategy prepared by the Inter -Ministerial Committee coordinated by the office of the National Security Adviser. A few months later, the government passed the Cybercrime Act, 2015.

On a session titled: “State of States: Using Open Data to Drive Sub -national Development In Nigeria”, Japheth Omojuwa, Founder & Chief Strategist of Alpha Reach, said those with the responsibility of making change happen need to appreciate progress. “We have to understand that we are not where we need to be in terms of data culture.”

Responding to a question on the tendency of some citizens to abuse government’s openness, Omojuwa said, “Government cannot ask for safe spaces when government itself has not done its part in providing good governance to its citizens or earned their trust.”

The session examined the potential of state-level data access, analysis and engagement as an imperative tool to spark improvements in the fiscal condition and subnational governments in Nigeria.

Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, Mr Gbenga Sesan in his address discussed event of the past year; highlighting processes that have led to desirable outcomes, challenges organizations are facing in their work and also discussed best practices that participants can learn from.

He urged delegates to go back to their countries with a renewed energy to contribute to efforts to keep the internet safe and open to all users, saying “Digital rights advocates are in the business of not minding our businesses. We have no choice but to be involved in efforts that help protect the internet, and to resist action that endangers human rights online.”

The delegates expressed concern at the spate of violation of human rights online on the African continent and called for renewed action to protect Africa’s Digital Space.

Anriette Esterhuysen, former executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications, in her submission, argued that the internet has to be protected and remain open as “it is the usually the only means of expression for some minority groups to access information on issues that are not openly discussed.”

Grace Githaiga, the co-convener of KICKTANET said, despite the challenges facing the digital rights space on the continent including internet shutdown, harassment of internet users and online journalists, and lack of data protection laws in many countries, “advocates should celebrate the positive- good laws, initiatives, and partners that allow us to meet and remaining optimistic of a better future.”

This came on the backdrop of conversation on internet censorship that has rocked the continent over the last few years. Africa now leads with the highest number of countries shutting down the internet or restricting service. In Chad, for example, social media has been shut down by the government for over a year now. In 2019 alone, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe and DR Congo have either shut down the internet or restricted access to services.

Speaking on the challenges facing efforts to improve internet penetration, Funke Opeke, the chief executive of MainOne Cable, emphasised the need for government to partner the private sector instead of constituting itself as a stumbling block to expand internet access. She said governments in other climes “create the right incentives and structures to facilitate access to the internet especially in the rural areas. Dr Ernest Ndukwe, a, also urged civil society and active citizens “to focus more attention on what government can do to ensure people have access.”

The Forum also explored the state data protection and privacy laws on the continent. Ephraim Kenyanito of Article 19 and Morisola Alaba of Media Rights Agenda, while speaking on the new 5G technology, said there was an urgent need to have data privacy legislation as the technology made its way to the continent, saying the technical capabilities of 5G could allow for greater surveillance capacities for repressive governments.

The Forum featured engaging conversations on globally relevant issues, as well as Africa-specific challenges and opportunities. Panelists and participants were drawn based on a multi-stakeholder model, allowing stakeholders who have hitherto operated in silos to talk to one other about common challenges.

Emphasises at the Forum was also on the need for improved synergy between digital rights advocates and the media to ensure human rights online are well protected by the law, and violations do not go unreported.

Speakers at the conference included Albert Antwi Boasiako, Ghana’s National Cybersecurity Advisor, Segun Mausi, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Africa Division, Hawa Ba, Head of the Senegal Country Office, Open Society for West Africa, and Lanre Osibona, Special Advisor on ICT to the President of Nigeria. Others are Dr Ernest Ndukwe, former Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Robert Muthuri of Strathmore University, and Onica Makwakwa, A4AI Africa Regional Coordinator etc.

#DRIF19 is the seventh edition of the Forum which is convened annually. The Forum, organised by Paradigm Initiative is supported by Google, Ford Foundation, and Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Paradigm Initiative is a non profit social enterprise that builds ICT enabled support systems and works closely with underserved communities and youth, providing access to web –enabled technologies, digital skills training, entrepreneurship and life –skills training. Its digital rights advocacy program focuses on the development of public policy for internet freedom in key regions of Africa.

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