How to Revive Africa’s Lost Civic Spaces

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It was a hot afternoon at the Obafemi Awolowo University campus, a university situated in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, a little over 200km from Nigeria’s commercial capital, and the location of our usual arguments at the newspaper stand in front of the Students’ Union Building. Many referred to the informal gatherings as the free readers’ club, a euphemism for our inability to actually pay for copies of the newspapers we browsed to get topics for our heated arguments. This afternoon was different because a particular magazine was missing from the stands. And then, the argument started, to determine if the military junta had seized all copies of the magazine as usual, or if it was just not delivered to campus because more people read for free than bought copies.

The military government in Nigeria clamped down heavily on the media because they provided platforms for robust debate that were not desirable to the illegal occupants of the seat of power. The clampdown on print and electronic media actually continues in many repressive African countries today, and many of the governments wish they could do to online communications channels what they do to the traditional media. The growing power of citizens expressing opinion through independent media, and the role played by activists who have now mastered using this medium to rally citizens for change, is a major concern for many governments. The attempt to move their censorship online explains the many attacks on digital rights in Africa – ranging from outright Internet shutdowns to new laws that target freedom of expression online.

There’s a Toolkit for That…

As these threats to digital rights continue, it is important to protect civil society actors who are increasingly embracing digital spaces for their work, given the closing civic spaces in many of the countries where they work. This is why I applied to join the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab 2020 Non-Resident Fellowship program in order to curate Ayeta, a toolkit that provides learning opportunities, tools and other resources to those whose work could put them in harm’s way, especially in countries that increasingly look to clamp down on digital rights. As documented in Paradigm Initiative’s 2019 Digital Rights in Africa report, that took a critical look at the state of digital rights in Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, many African countries continue to use tactics such as Internet shutdowns, online censorship, and digital surveillance to clamp down on free expression in the guise of “national security”.

Ayeta, named after the the protective gear ancient Yoruba warriors wore for protection against gunshots during warfare, will provide digital security tips and measures that can be taken against potential threats. It also includes detailed information about digital security actors, a calendar of relevant digital rights events in Africa, and links to resources – such as digital​ security case studies from selected African countries, model policy briefs and media releases, and model coalition statements. The toolkit, which uses gamification as an opportunity to lower the learning curve, is designed with the overarching aim of addressing the growing need to safeguard digital rights defenders, journalists, whistle blowers and other civil society actors. 

Ayeta – a new toolkit

The process of developing the toolkit benefited from a thorough review of existing digital security toolkits and guides, in order to identify existing gaps or opportunities for the new toolkit to build on. It leaned on Paradigm Initiative’s ongoing work in digital rights in addition to identified digital rights actors who work in digital security and others whose work will benefit from the availability of such a toolkit. I enjoyed the support of a dynamic Research Assistant, Bonface Witaba, in developing the toolkit that will be made available for free because Paradigm Initiative will take ownership of the project and make it sustainable through the generous support of the Netherlands Embassy in Nigeria.

A Gift for Activists on Human Rights Day 2020

The first section of the toolkit provides background information on digital rights, including details of relevant charters, declarations and protocols, and features digital rights organizations that promote various initiatives to mitigate the vulnerabilities and risks of journalists, civil society actors and active citizens. The digital rights events identified in the toolkit provide avenues for networking and safe spaces. Case studies and model documents that could prove useful for advocacy work are also included. The second section discusses digital hygiene practices and exposes digital safety threats while offering tips and best practices on how to stay safe in online environments. The last two sections focus on the relationship between physical and digital security, and how to prepare for – and respond to – Internet shutdowns.

The first version of the toolkit will be available in three languages – English, French and Swahili – and is accompanied by simple illustrations that further break down possible language barriers. The decision to build a set of games around the lessons from the toolkit comes from feedback from experts who noted complaints from those who worry about steep learning curves. With Ayeta, the user is able to learn while having fun, and also immediately put what they have learnt to use. The gaming experience includes quizzes, a password generator that reveals bad practices that could compromise your accounts, and a goal setting tool that combines play with real life experiences. 

On this year’s Human Rights Day, December 10, the first version of the toolkit will be available in form of a downloadable document. Paradigm Initiative will actively seek feedback from users on how to improve the toolkit in advance of the public presentation of Ayeta.Africa. This will happen on the sidelines of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) in April 2021, where we will unveil the Ayeta website for visitors to read and download the toolkit, and also play online games to learn more about digital hygiene and security. The toolkit will become a living tool that is easy to review and update so that as clampdown attempts get more sophisticated, additional safety tips will be made available through subsequent versions of the toolkit.

Protection in the Line of Duty

Safety is a continuous need, especially for those who work tirelessly to promote the rights of citizens in environments where clampdowns are increasingly brazen. It is worrying, but not surprising, to see that clampdowns continue in many African countries even as we face a global pandemic, putting many civil society actors in harm’s way – including through detention in overcrowded spaces that could put them at risk of infections. Many countries that have a history of clampdowns have also taken advantage of the pandemic to introduce policies and laws that will hurt the rights of citizens, and they hope to keep this up as the new normal even after the pandemic. This is another reason why African civil society actors need tools like Ayeta to show them how to protect themselves while tackling governments that will do anything to violate digital rights, and to showcase best practice examples that could prove useful in getting their work done.

Military dictators may no longer be in power across many African countries but just as magazines that spoke truth to power became a threat in their day, the digital space – and the many tools that it offers – continues to be a threat to African governments with clampdown agendas. Unlike magazines that could be seized and that were actually limited in circulation, social media, for example, provides a platform for debate and citizens’ call for better governance. As more civil society actors adopt and use digital tools, they need to adopt digital security and safety practices that tools like Ayeta offer.

‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative and a 2020 Digital Civil Society Lab Fellow.

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