Rwanda has a complex relationship with the internet and technology. Its government has received global acclaim for its expansive mobile network and impressive 4G network coverage, and the number of Internet users in the country between 2020 and 2021 increased by +24%. It has also been challenged and questioned by civil society and human rights organisations for its use of spyware against political opponents as well as online censorship, the latter including the blocking of social media content.
One reason for this is that since the end of the genocide in 1994, the government of Rwanda has remained wary of a resurgence in violence and political upheaval. As part of establishing states control over all the sectors of the society, the ruling the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RDF) government embarked on a series of measures to ensure security and stability.
These comprised of setting up an effective and suitable security apparatus, including a nationwide community policing system where Information and communications technology (ICT) acts as enabling tool for online surveillance and where digital policing became a familiar practice in the country. Similarly, this has become a regular rhetoric when the Rwandan government had to justify measures limiting freedom of expression or stifling political debate in the country. The official discourse on security has always been restricted.
In addition, the government passed two restrictive pieces of legislation in 2013 and in 2016. The first was the law relating to the interception of communications, which expanded the surveillance powers of the State security services, enabling security operatives to tap the communications, and monitor online activity of individuals considered as potentials threats to “public security”. This was particularly problematic because the law doesn’t include the basic legal threshold that requires surveillance to be necessary and proportionate with reference to a legitimate aim, as is required by international law. Then there was the ICT Law, which prohibited the dissemination of “grossly offensive” or “indecent message” or “content”.
Since this legislation was passed, and COVID-19 re-shaped the political-economy of so many countries, we have been able to observe how political power is created, exerted, and extended through technology. The Rwandan government used the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate its power, spending considerable resources monitoring online content, political dissidents, journalists, and some the members of the civil society. For example, some journalists and bloggers were detained for reporting on the plight of Rwandans during the lockdown.
When all these recent developments is considered, it becomes apparent that the Internet is a battleground in which the state security services have advanced their surveillance practices, and extended their control. In turn, the lack of genuine public debate and censorship will continue to undermine Internet freedom in the country. Most notably, the impact of the pervasive use of surveillance technologies is exaggerated by their unpredictable effects on the life of citizens, who do not know when their privacy and personal data will be invaded.
Moving forwards, it is likely that the overall lack of accountability and critical voices will mean that Rwandans will continue not to benefit from the digitization of the social contract that we are seeing in some democracies around the world. An open and pluralistic public debate about freedom of the Internet, or a national conversation about the mitigations measures that can be introduced in case of a state sponsored internet shutdown, is simply implausible.
The prospects for digital democracy are therefore as bleak in Rwanda as anywhere on the African continent.
Louis Gitinywa (@tatabomoko) is Rwandan Human Rights lawyer based in Kigali, Rwanda. He is a 2021 Fellow at the Centre for Intellectual and Information Technology law CIPIT at Strathmore University, Nairobi Kenya, Louis also writes commentary for publications like Rwanda Today, Global Voices, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and others.