From internet shutdowns, social media crackdowns, cyber attacks, espionage and low digital inclusion, private data tracing apps, digital rights across Africa have never been as infringed as during the Covid-19 period.
As the pandemic keeps compelling more populations to adopt online services such as e-learning, telemedicine, fintech, insurtech, cab hailing, e-commerce and working from home, the rights of citizens to access and remain protected have been gravely threatened.
Though internet access and affordability has been improving over the last decade in Africa, online vulnerabilities and a huge digital divide have been witnessed more, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2020 report on African governance.
The online vulnerabilities are behind rising violation of digital rights in Africa. This has pushed to the forefront the need to come up with solutions that protect digital rights in Africa.
One of such solutions is by human rights group, Paradigm Initiative which has created a new platform for the protection of the digital rights of all African citizens.
The platform, named Ripoti, Swahili for ‘report, allows citizens across Africa to report violations of their digital rights, then connects them with experts who can help them seek justice.
Launched during the closing session of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2021, the innovation targets to end growing instances of cyber bullying, online gender violence, internet censorship and illegal use of user private data.
“Digital rights are just as fundamental as all other human rights,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, director of Paradigm Initiative.
As more Africans flock online to access information that matters to their lives, many of the vices and violations that used to exist only offline have now started to crop up in the digital space, including sexual harassment, data siphoning and violation of e-consumer rights.
“We have seen a worrying increase in digital rights violations across Africa. Until now, citizens have had no easy way to protect their rights by tracking and reporting these violations. Ripoti empowers them to do that,” added Mr Sesan.
After combing the internet across the globe in 2020 and early 2021, British tech research firm Comparitech found that internet blackouts were rampant in Uganda, Tanzania, Chad and Ethiopia, where citizens were denied internet access for weeks to months.
"In 2020, Chad had the longest shutdown with WhatsApp being blocked for 3,912 hours at a total cost of more than Sh2.7 billion. The shutdown began on July 22 and was ongoing at the end of the year," reveals the survey.
Facebook's East Africa Spokesperson Janet Kemboi decried how internet blackouts in Africa have disrupted access to social media, hurting democracy in the process and contravening the freedoms of speech and expression.
“We strongly oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the internet. We are deeply concerned by the trend towards this approach in some African countries. Even temporary disruptions of internet services have tremendous, negative human rights, economic and social consequences,” Ms Kemboi stated.
Tanzania, whose government has been truncating media freedom, had an internet blackout which lasted 1,584 hours in 2020 at the cost of over Sh63 billion.
"The internet shutdowns cost Uganda Sh196 million per day on average. It started with social media and messaging apps which were blocked on January 12, and from January 13 to 18 there was a complete internet shutdown," says the report.
In Ethiopia, a combined total of 3,657 hours were lost and cost the country over Sh11 billion, with the first one happening from January to the beginning of April in Western Oromia. The government cited security reasons for that.
But in June 2020, the entire country went into a 23-day internet outage following the shooting of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a prominent singer.
Another one followed in November in the region of Tigray after war broke out and lasted till December 15 when some services were restored. Sh600 million was lost in the process in the 960-hour downtime.
"In economic terms, disruptions not only affect the formal economy but also the informal. They have killed democracy as we know it," Sila Obegi, chief executive of Nairobi based fintech firm Meta Capital told Digital Business.
However, this was an improved situation in 2020 compared to 2019, where a report by Welsh VPN company Top10VPN.com indicated that a total of 12 African governments switched off internet services, leading to a combined loss of Sh218 billion.
"Internet access roadblocks were experienced in Sudan, Algeria, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Egypt, Benin, Gabon, Eritrea and Liberia," it stated.
Last January, a news website known for being critical of the Nigerian government was blocked, allegedly on government orders.
In Burundi, on electionday WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Yahoo mail were all rendered inaccessible. Authorities cut access to social media networks.
"People want real time information. When you interfere with the natural flow of data sharing, you are killing livelihoods because today's online business, which supports millions of African families, is anchored on data analytics," Mr Obegi notes.
Boye Adegoke, Senior program manager at Paradigm Initiative told Business Daily that the organization has actively documented cases of digital rights violations and offered litigation support to victims.
“Eventually, we started to get overwhelmed by the number of violations we had to monitor. It became clear that we needed to create a communal, strategic, and systemic response to these many incidents of digital rights violations.”
Ripoti is the answer, and we’re excited to share it with people across Africa.”
The platform, developed in partnership with the Omidyar Network and the Netherlands Embassy, is available in both English and French and allows for a community response to digital rights violation cases.
Users need to visit the online portal and click “make a report” and then fill in the various dropdown options, including the report type to be made and region, after which they will be asked to agree to the terms and then be contacted based on the details of report made.
“Citizens’ rights to express themselves online and offline and gather and disseminate information and ideas are critical to the fate of democracy in Africa,” said Sesan of Paradigm Initiative.