Across Africa, the fast-evolving technology landscape has created pressure to adopt appropriate legislation to keep up with the pace of technological development. However, these efforts are being shackled by numerous challenges, including silo approaches to policy development, limited citizens’ inclusion in policy formulation, failure to harmonise stakeholder positions, ad hoc advocacy efforts by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and the failure to leverage the influence of private sector actors.

At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 (FIFAfrica22), digital rights activists and policymakers examined how existing processes and mechanisms that provide input into digital policies can be improved. In a panel session organised by the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), participants explored experiences and practical tips for policy engagement that upholds democratic values.

A key concern was that, on the one hand, Africa’s digital rights landscape has for years remained unregulated, leading to resistance to efforts to regulate it, and yet the absence of laws creates room for violation of rights online and abuse by state and non-state actors. On the other hand, where laws have been enacted, implementation and enforcement have been weaponised to target critics and dissent, as reflected in the continued infringement of rights online. This creates the need for proactive multi-stakeholder efforts in pushing back against regressive developments.

“While we should be [engaged] at the beginning of the process, we are ignored and when we enact a law, CSOs come to challenge it, yet if they involve us early enough, we would all be in agreement,” said Neema Lugangira, Member of Parliament from Tanzania and Chair of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG).

She noted that with a negative attitude towards each other, many parliamentarians question the motives of CSOs in pushing certain agendas and called for a change in approach. “I want to champion issues in which I have been involved. How do we make your agenda my agenda? You can scream whatever you want but you cannot get legislative change without working with Parliament,” said Lugangira. 

Indeed, Boye Adegoke from Paradigm Initiative reiterated that one of the pitfalls of policy advocacy was to adopt the angel/devil relationship approach. He added that many CSOs lack  adequate knowledge and skills to engage in policy processes. In turn, he called for more proactive efforts in tracking parliamentary debates and business related to digital policy and undertaking research to inform policy advocacy. 

Building alliances, including with the local business and the tech community, was also cited as critical to strategic support for policy influence. “When they [business and tech community] speak, they tend to be listened to and governments tend to respect their views,” said Nashilongo Gervasius, a Namibian technology policy researcher and founder of NamTshuwe Media.

Equally emphasised was the need to leverage the power and influence of private sector players  at international level, where the quality of policy negotiations by some African governments remains wanting,  as noted by Ayaan Khalif, the Co-Founder of Digital Shelter, a digital rights group in Somalia. Citing the example of the 15% tax agreement between OECD countries and multinational companies, Ayaan stated that African countries and CSOs must bring the continent’s big market potential to the “negotiating table” in order to tap into the multinationals’ revenue.

Away from negotiations, the need to increase inclusive participation in public policy processes was also stressed. As Khalif stated, “Holistic stakeholder involvement should clearly define those being involved, ensure that they are actually given the opportunity to make meaningful input and outline the issues being addressed”.

Ultimately, context remains paramount given that most countries on the continent are at different levels of democracy and what is possible in one may not be tenable in another. What is important is to understand the policy making ecosystem and respond appropriately. “Policy advocacy is about incremental wins. If you are not invited to the table you can bring your own chair to the table, or you can set up your own table and bring people to it,” concluded Adegoke.

Source: cipesa.org