Africa Day: internet freedoms, a way to democracy

As we are in the spirit of embracing our ‘Africaness’, we must not forget the key tenets to democracy. Democracy entails citizen’s participation in public affairs, with respect for different points of view.

Living in a continent where there are certain traits to being ‘African’ and some recognized as imitation of the West, most Africans grew up in a society wherein back chatting is recognized as disrespect while participation labeled as ‘forwardness.’

This gives us the notion that most of our African leaders grew up in such a system within a family set-up. Could this be the reason why they are reluctant to push for internet freedoms and freedom of expression in general?

The African culture prior Western civilization was characterised by one man’s rule and citizen’s passivity as emancipated in the texture of the Zulu kingdom lead by Tshaka, Ndebele by Mzilikazi, Rozvi, Mutapa kingdoms under the Mambos. Due to enlightenment this changed to ‘democracy’ in which Africans have a say on the day to day running of their states, however, this was limited as only the elite dominated the public sphere.

As we are living in the 21st century, participation has shifted from the physical spaces to occupy the digital space. Most Civil Society Organisations, human rights defenders and activists have diverted from open space demonstrations to social media advocacy and campaigns, citizens have also devoted themselves to social media for participation and access to information.

According to Sharma on the Huffpost, the influence of social media can not be exaggerated. ‘Social media has become a formidable force of change,’ she added.

In our recent past, social media have been used to question and bring down our African authoritarian regimes said to be ‘democratic.’

Social media advocacy or campaigns have been rife in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Togo, and Zambia among other African countries. Some of the hash tags that came to lime line in the year 2017 include #thisflag, #thisgown, #feesmustfall and #tajamuka, which speak volumes about critical livelihood questions and circumstances of the masses.
‘The internet could be an efficient political instrument if it were seen as part of a democracy where free and open discourse within a vital public sphere plays a decisive role,’ says Gimmler (2001).

African governments in pursuit of our ‘Africaness’ have tried all means to crush the campaigns through imposing high internet charges, internet blackout, drafting of inhuman laws curbing internet freedoms and punishing offenders.
Of course the statesmen are always preaching about embracing ICTs but the spirit of curbing citizens’ rights online continue to haunt most of them.

Looking at Zimbabwe, it’s one of the many African countries which have decided to go silent on internet freedoms while at the same time pretending to be in favour with digitization. For instance Zimpapers (Zimbabwe) covered a news story ‘Embrace technology, artificial intelligence’ featuring Information Communication Technology and cyber security Minister Supa Mandiwanzira speaking at the World Telecommunications and Information Society Day in Murewa.
Zimbabwe has been known for the ‘no freedom after expression’ dilemma. Several activists have been arrested especially during the Mugabe era simply because they would have had expressed themselves in a way considered to be a threat to ‘national security’ –that is the Mugabe power security.

‘Africa Day? What about it? What is the new African vision? Are the new African leaders sharing the vision of our founding fathers? So what is there to celebrate?’ said Raymond Majongwe, a Zimbabwean activist on tweeter.
Being ‘African’ doesn’t mean backwardness or passivity!

When we talk of embracing new technologies, our African leaders must not forget that there is something they also need to embrace, ‘i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t f-r-e-e-d-o-m-s.’

What we genuinely understand is that most of them are old enough not to be social media fans but being a good example President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has shifted to social media for addressing citizens verbally on facebook and twitter. The same can be said to other African statesmen who have managed to open various social media accounts.

However, truth be told, that is not what citizens ask for. Citizens are calling for affordable data costs, repelling of draconian laws against freedom of expression, no internet blackouts and reasonable protection online.

Attending a Rights Conference in Toronto, Bekezela Gumbo, an internet freedom fighter said the fact that the world has gone digital must not be ignored in Zimbabwe and Africa in general. ‘Our rights follow us into the digital spaces.’
In conclusion, as we are celebrating Africa day, let us not forget to fight against backwardness in the digital world and passivity among our state leaders for policy change.

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