What is African about digital citizenship in Africa?

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Our new collected edition, Digital Citizenship in Africa, is the very first to analyse episodes of online political action through the theoretical lens of digital citizenship, and it is the first pan-African study to ask, what exactly is African about digital citizenship in Africa?

For more than a decade, and especially since the so-called Arab Spring, various scholars have documented SMS Uprisings,  so-called Facebook Revolutions and Twitter activism, and a wide range of social media activism across the continent of Africa Early accounts were generally celebratory and optimistic about the ability of citizens to use digital technologies to alter power relationships with the state.

Especially since the Snowden revelations, early optimism about the potential of digital technology to expand citizens’ agency has been tempered by evidence that states are innovating their own use of technology to repress online freedom of expression (Feldstein 2021) in a combination of digital authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. Our own research  “Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: lessons from ten African countries” and in the protection of privacy rights in Surveillance Law in six African countries have shown that citizens’ creative use of each new generation of digital technologies to open new civic space online is eventually met by the innovation of new digital technologies deployed by states to close down civic space. As citizens fight to open democratic space online and repressive government seek to close the lens of citizenship is one useful way to seek understanding.

Why digital citizenship? 

Digital Citizenship is the use of digital tools and online spaces to voice opinion, exercise and claim rights, influence decision-making, and hold government accountable. Not all citizens own mobile phones, have internet connectivity, or have the functional digital literacy needed to participate in online civil and political life. However, the number of African citizens who do is now measured in hundreds of millions.

In the physical world, citizenship is a status bestowed by a state on relatively passive citizens, enabling them the right to vote, ‘passport’, work legally, and access services. In the online world, everyone has the ability to take part in political debate without restrictions or borders.

Thespace available for digital citizenship is contested; it shrinks and expands over time. The availability of online democratic space is a function both of citizens’ agency in opening it up and actively using it but is also constrained by the repressive practices of states and corporations). This book is the first collected edition to analyse case studies of digital citizenship from across the continent, including chapters by authors from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, Namibia and Kenya.

The book vividly demonstrates how citizens’ agency can be dramatically expanded through the creative use of digital technologies, allowing issues and voices that were otherwise ignored by mainstream media and political parties to gain global attention and influence government action. It is not, however all citizen action and passive government response. In the face of increased digital citizenship, African governments are now actively responding by innovating new online practices their own to repress citizen agency. These repressive state practices are sometimes referred to as ‘digital authoritarianism’ (digital surveillance, disinformation and internet shutdowns) and will be the subject of the next three books in this series.

What is African about digital citizenship in Africa?

In a book titled “Digital Citizenship in Africa” we are bound to address the question of what is specifically African about digital citizenship in Africa.Have we not already learned all we need to know about digital citizenship in studies focused in the global? We argue that African digital citizenship is distinctive in at least three importantrespects: in terms of the primacy of ethnic affiliations, in terms of the political settlement, and in terms of the principle actors.

Global North conceptions of citizenship foreground citizen-state relations: citizens affiliate with a nation state in a relationship that involves both rights and duties. Under colonialism this model was exported to African states, but as Mandami argued in Citizens and Subjects, white settlers enjoyed citizenship rights while indigenous Africans were subjects. Many Africans’ primary affiliation remained to their ethnic group and not to the nation-state created by colonialism. To this day,  hierarchies of citizenship of privilege shape who can access the benefits of citizenship.

As our case study chapters illustrate, African digital citizenship often reflects these strong ethno-religious affiliations. Although the #EndSARs campaign against police violence in Nigeria succeeded in sustaining a coalition across ethnic divisions, the #PatnamiMustGo campaign polemicized debate along ethno-religious fault lines. The Ethiopia chapter demonstrates how social media is being weaponized in the current ethnic conflict and supports Mandami and Nyamnjoh’s thesis that ethnicity is at least as important as nationality in Ethiopian concepts of citizenship and practices of digital citizenship.

Post-independence governments in many African nations included single-party states and military governments with centralized power. These post-colonial political settlements naturally affected the scope for participatory democracy and active citizenship, and this legacy continues to shape the nature of digital citizenship. In many African countries, criticism of the incumbent government or President on social media is sufficient to land digital citizens in jail. The lead author of the Ethiopia chapter spent 18 months in jail for this reason.

Ethnic affiliation and post-colonial political settlements are not the only distinctive features of African digital citizenship. As some chapters document, the space for unfettered digital citizenship can be prescribed by dedicated state security or military cyber-units who police online speech – a topic which we develop much further in the second and third books in this series (forthcoming 2024) on “Digital Disinformation in Africa” and “Digital Surveillance in Africa”.

In answering the question “What is African about digital citizenship in Africa” we conclude that African digital citizenship has very distinct and specific ethnic, religious, and political features that are national or sub-national in character and which are not accessible by transcribing global North conception of digital citizenship. We argue, therefore, that the study of digital citizenship needs to be situated, conducted by researchers with deep contextual knowledge, and needs to draw on African theoretical framings.

Tony Roberts (@phat_controller) is a Digital Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.
Tanja Bosch (@radionerd) is Associate Professor of Media Studies  at University of Cape Town.

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