The rise of innovative communication technologies has deeply changed how societies and their governments interact, affecting both democratic processes and the ways citizens engage on political issues. E-governance, for example, has allowed governments to improve their public service delivery and communication technologies have made it easier for citizens to mobilise politically.
Digital technologies also present important democratic, human rights and security challenges, however. For instance, social media platforms are increasingly used to amplify and disseminate hate speech and incite violence while some governments have been able to expand their surveillance over political opponents, journalists and activists, thereby deeply shrinking the civic space.
In our recent ECDPM paper ‘Digitalisation and democracy: Is Africa’s governance charter fit for the digital era?’, we argue that African continental policy instruments and frameworks have not kept up with the rapid adoption of digital technologies and their impacts on democratic processes. We recommend that the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), also known as the African governance charter, be adapted to respond to the new challenges brought on by digitalisation such as disinformation, hate speech and the digital divide.
How digital technologies are transforming governance
Digital technologies are facilitating information diffusion, enabling live reporting and documentation by citizens and facilitating public mobilisation including in spaces where offline civic and political organisation is difficult. Social media in particular has been instrumental in social movements like the Arab Spring (2010-2012), Sudanese political transition (2019), and the EndSars movement (2020), where people used social media to protest and demand policy and political change. At the same time, internet and digital services have facilitated e-governance whereby citizens are able to get basic services such as registration and certification through online systems; and are occasionally able to directly interface with their leaders.
Key ‘democratic rituals’ such as elections are also increasingly going digital – thought at varying degrees – throughout the continent. As of 2022, 27 African countries have integrated some forms of e-voting into their electoral processes to promote fair and transparent elections.
Nevertheless, the positive contribution of digital technologies to inclusive democracy needs to be contextualised. First, the wide digital divide between different segments of the population, between rural and urban areas and regions excludes many people from accessing the technologies to participate in politics. In 2021, internet penetration rates ranged from 22% to 43% with Eastern Africa and Southern Africa recording the lowest and highest connectivity respectively.
In the same year, the International Telecommunications Union stated that close to 30% of Africa’s rural population lacked mobile broadband coverage, and a particularly wide gender digital divide. As online engagement becomes the principal channel of communication governments will have to expand digital infrastructure to meet their state responsibilities.
Second, even when digital technologies are used to promote inclusive democratic processes, – on their own- they may not offer the depth and quality of citizen engagement that’s needed to promote truly accountable institutions and to ensure checks and balances. The concept of ‘slacktivism’, which refers to online effortless activism that does not lead to political change, illustrates this issue. Moreover, the impact of digital technologies such as biometric technologies in elections is ambiguous.
While they have helped increase transparency and trust in electoral processes they also come with negative spillover effects such as potential exclusion of certain individuals and segments of the population. Knowledge on the impact of digital technologies on governance is nascent and so are efforts and mechanisms to ensure data protection as well as the integrity and inclusivity of electoral processes.
Third, digital technologies have the potential to both limit and promote democratic processes. For example, communication technologies have been used to disseminate fake news and hate speech targeted at specific social groups and individuals, which have at times evolved into offline violence. While norms around the responsibility of social media platforms to moderate content in such cases is developing, there have been many reported cases of Facebook for example failing to detect hate speech in Ethiopia and Myanmar thereby being complicit in the face of organised violence. Various scandals around the use of election manipulation and external interference through social media have also been reported in Africa and elsewhere.
The absence of political and legal norms to regulate social media and mitigate its negative spillover effects have encouraged some governments in Africa to shut down the internet fully or partially and to introduce new regulations. In 2021, governments of 12 African countries shut down the internet at least 19 times, showing an increase in politically driven internet shutdowns across the continent.
While hate speech, dissemination and online organised violence pose real political, social and security challenges, the absence of sound regulation opens up space for exploitation by governments and risk eroding rights to freedom of expression, introducing media censorship and tightening civic and political activism. Continental frameworks and norms are also lagging behind in terms of capturing the ramifications of digitalisation on political governance including elections, which the AU pays a closer look at and sends monitoring missions to.
Some of the key policy documents that define the role of the state and non-state actors and the responsibilities of each in regard to the organisation of safe and inclusive elections don’t integrate the digital dimension.
The African governance charter should adapt to the societal and political transformations induced by digitalisation
The AU is however expanding its role as a normative and policy actor in the digital realm. Over the past five years, and in a process accelerated by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the African Union (AU) has developed digital strategies and policies to drive the continent’s economic growth. The AU Digital Transformation Strategy (2019-2030) sets objectives to expand access to the internet, set out digital regulatory norms and introduce data protection regulations. The recently formulated AU Data Policy Framework provides guidelines for member states to develop national legislations on personal data protection and sound regulations around data governance and the governance of digital platforms.
There has also been an attempt to adapt existing policy frameworks to integrate digital dimension albeit in an ad hoc fashion. A clear example of this is the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa which was revised in 2019 to include the right to access to information as well as to recognise the role of digital technologies in enabling the right to information and freedom of expression.
Yet, overarching policies such as the African governance charter (ACDEG) which are considered a blueprint in laying out continental norms on governance, have not yet been adapted to capture the changing context. Adopted in 2007 as a legally binding policy document, the charter sets responsibilities for states on good governance, popular participation, rule of law and human rights in Africa. Such a relevant policy document does not anticipate digitalisation; nor does it address the prospects and challenges brought on by it. When it was adopted, only 5% of the continent’s population was online and just one out of four Africans owned a mobile phone. Today, Africa presents the highest share of mobile internet web page visits, and social media platforms have become essential communication channels and online marketplace for many Africans even if the continent still lags behind in broadband and mobile coverage by global standards.
Although Article 27 of the charter promotes the development of ICT, the charter does not say much about the governance of the digital space, online safety, digital rights or cybersecurity. It also doesn’t address the concept of digital sovereignty, which when left undefined and without clear policy responses, can open space for the exploitation of African data by foreign actors and facilitate incumbent’s repressive tactics in the digital dimension.
To remain a policy tool fit for the digital era, the charter needs to recognize the impact of digital technologies in democratic governance and offer solutions to some of the challenges that we have briefly highlighted in this blog. This also includes encouraging African countries to ratify the charter. As of 2022, only 46 countries had signed and 35 ratified it.
Our paper identifies areas for further research, notably deepening the understanding of the interlinkages between digitisation and democratic processes. By highlighting some of the gaps in the African governance charter and offering initial ideas on how to address them, we have tried to bring attention to the dilemma that African governments – and societies broadly speaking, as elsewhere, are faced with.
On the one hand, there is the real challenge of hate speech, disinformation and extraction of African citizens’ data by foreign big tech. But on the other hand, ensuring access to the internet and information, maintaining freedom of expression, and online assembly are critical to the development of a society. The question therefore is, how do states and societies, as well as intergovernmental organisations such as the AU shape the ways in which these challenges and opportunities are managed.
Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw (@LidetTadesse) is an Associate Director for peaceful societies and accountable governance cluster at the European Centre for Development Policy Management.
Ennatu Domingo (@ennatuhun) is a Policy Officer with the European foreign and development policy and digital economy and governance cluster at the European Centre for Development Policy Management.