Is the debate on digital sovereignty in Africa relevant?
Africa has had to contend with colonization for years. One would think that with the obtaining of independence of African countries, this practice ceased to exist. It seems that this practice has rather developed, giving way to another form of colonialism: cyber-colonialism. Cyber-colonization therefore means the capture not only of local talents recruited by major platforms such as GAFAM, but also of the added value produced and the data accumulated on a country or a continent.
The 4th Industrial Revolution
The 4th Industrial Revolution is characterized not only by its speed of spread, but also by its scope and impact. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies, erasing the limits between physical, digital and biological. The accelerated digitization due to the current health crisis (Covid 19) is therefore not temporary. Economy, agriculture, health … no sector is immune to the digital revolution. Indeed, digital technology plays a role in the sustainable development of a territory, thus improving the well-being of populations. In 2018, the mobile payment-based economy contributed 8.6% to Africa’s GDP, or roughly US $ 144 billion. A method of payment which, by the way, has had its role to play in respecting social distancing (one of the barrier measures against the coronavirus) in Africa.
The cyber-colonization of Africa …
Many believe that a threat of neocolonialism hangs over Africa: cyber-colonialism. Cyber-colonialism orchestrated not only by Silicon Valley (GAFAM) but also by China (Huaweï…). Everyone knows that Africa is their battleground. One specializing in the architecture of the digital ecosystem (United States) and the other (China) in infrastructure providing mobile phones accessible to all budgets. African governments welcome this interest in GAFAM and China as a boon for Africa’s development. Wishing thus to see the birth of “African Zuckerbergs”.
This enthusiasm is all the more justified given that new technologies would drastically revolutionize certain sectors, such as the agricultural or health sector. Indeed, an application developed in Nigeria (Ubenwa) makes it possible to diagnose asphyxia at birth. This is a baby version of the Shazam app (an app to identify a song and its performer from a musical sample of it). This application could participate in the reduction of infant mortality in many countries.
Africa’s digital sovereignty …
Several Africans like Tewodros Abebe (who wrote a thesis on new technologies at the University of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia) see behind the actions of companies in Silicon Valley or by China, more as a collaboration than cyber-colonization. Indeed, these actions would be comparable to cyber-colonization if and only if the latter were just there for “business”. However, this is not the case at all. It is simply a “transfer of technology” and nothing more. Again according to Tewodros Abebe, it is up to Africans to find solutions to the problems that plague the continent (knowing that it is they who suffer them) and thanks to this new technology coming from abroad, these young Africans will be able to do so.
When we speak of digital sovereignty, in other words, we are talking about independence, the autonomy of states in cyberspace (virtual space). Therefore, talking about the digital sovereignty of African states implies a capacity of the said countries to equip themselves with their own infrastructures and to reduce their dependence on actors external to their area. We cannot say that this is already the case for the moment, even if real efforts are made in this direction. The various scandals related to the manipulation of social media are addicting. Regulation of the digital sector is therefore imperative in Africa. Failing to set up data centers (where they can fully exercise their regulatory power), African states can impose data protection legislation that will prevail even if African sites are hosted abroad.
The lack of adequate infrastructure, the need for financing and the very high population make Africa the center of a cyber war opposing global digital powers. However, she does have a chance to get her head out of the water before it’s too late. And this, through many actions such as: the establishment of effective regulations, the strengthening of infrastructures, the copying of good practices from outside. In short, the strong interest of African governments in digital technology must be applauded. However, not benefiting from the same regulations as in the West would lead to a widening of the gap between the North and the South. Africa must certainly say yes to development without neglecting the protection of the privacy of its citizens. In other words, it is about promoting innovation without, however, tainting the fundamental rights of Africans.