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Africa’s Quest for Digital Sovereignty

In the midst of a rapidly evolving digital landscape, the concept of digital sovereignty has emerged as a critical concern, particularly within the African context. Digital sovereignty encompasses not only technological independence but also encompasses issues such as data ownership, cybersecurity, and internet governance. Within Africa, challenges such as dependency on foreign technology, inadequate regulatory frameworks, and cybersecurity threats loom large. This article seeks to highlight the importance of digital sovereignty for Africa’s development and self-determination, and advocates for continued efforts towards achieving and maintaining it in the face of an increasingly interconnected world.

Introduction

Just this month, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to ban the use of TikTok in America, citing national security concerns—a move that underscores the growing importance of digital sovereignty in today’s interconnected world. As the second-largest continent by population, with over 1.3 billion people spread across 54 countries, Africa stands at the forefront of this digital revolution. However, despite its vast potential, Africa finds itself heavily reliant on digital platforms developed in distant lands, namely China, the United States, and Europe.

Take, for instance, China’s influence in Africa’s digital sphere. The ubiquitous presence of Chinese smartphones and apps like Huawei and WeChat has become an integral part of daily life for millions across the continent. Similarly, American tech giants dominate the African digital landscape, with platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter shaping communication, commerce, and social interaction. Meanwhile, European companies contribute to Africa’s digital dependency through services like banking and payment systems.

Yet, as Africa’s reliance on these foreign digital platforms deepens, questions of sovereignty arise. What does it mean for African nations to depend on technologies developed continents away, subject to foreign regulations and interests? How does this reliance impact data privacy, cybersecurity, and ultimately, the ability of African countries to shape their own digital futures?

This article seeks to explore precisely these questions, delving into the concept of digital sovereignty and its implications for Africa. As we navigate an increasingly interconnected world, understanding and asserting digital sovereignty becomes paramount for African nations striving to carve out their place in the global digital economy.

What is digital sovereignty

Digital sovereignty refers to the concept of a state having control over the technology and digital services in use by its people. It encompasses the ability to govern and regulate digital technologies, platforms, and data flows within its borders while safeguarding national interests, values, and rights in the digital age. In my understanding, digital sovereignty is a broad concept that can be broken down into four key sovereignties:

1. Data sovereignty: This is a concept that emphasizes that states should have ownership rights and control over the data generated within their jurisdiction or by their citizens. It involves regulating data collection, storage, processing, and sharing to protect privacy and national interests.

2. Cybersecurity sovereignty: A country should have the power and control to put measures that safeguard digital assets, critical infrastructure, and sensitive information from cyber threats, attacks, and espionage. This essentially means that a country can be able to defend its national security on its own rather than relying on the security capabilities of the nation providing them with any technology or service.

3. Regulatory sovereignty: This concept underscores the need for a state to maintain regulatory independence and jurisdiction over digital activities within their borders. It involves enacting effective and binding laws, regulations, and policies to govern digital platforms, services, and transactions while respecting international norms and agreements.

4. Technological sovereignty: A state should have technological independence which means it should be able to develop indigenous capabilities in digital technologies, research, and innovation. This is a key pillar of digital sovereignty since it is the one which guarantees it.

These concepts collectively aim to empower nations to assert control and sovereignty in the digital domain, ensuring that they can leverage digital technologies for their economic, social, and political development while safeguarding their national interests and values.

Challenges to digital sovereignty

Digital sovereignty in Africa faces several challenges, particularly the over reliance on foreign developed technologies such as social media. Here are some key points:

  1. Dependence on Foreign Technology: Many African countries heavily rely on technology developed by foreign nations, particularly from China and the USA. This reliance poses challenges to digital sovereignty as it means critical infrastructure and services are often controlled or influenced by external entities.
  2. Limited Domestic Technological Development: African nations often lack the infrastructure, resources, and expertise to develop their own technologies at scale. Consequently, they turn to foreign providers for solutions in various sectors such as telecommunications, internet infrastructure, and digital platforms.
  3. Data Dependency: Foreign technologies often collect vast amounts of data from users in Africa. This raises concerns about data sovereignty and privacy, as these data may be stored and processed outside the continent, subject to foreign laws and regulations.
  4. Regulatory Challenges: African countries may struggle to regulate foreign technologies effectively due to limited regulatory capacity, lack of expertise, and sometimes conflicting interests. Ensuring compliance with local laws and standards becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with multinational corporations based in other regions.
  5. Geopolitical Influence: The adoption of foreign technologies can sometimes come with geopolitical strings attached. African countries may find themselves entangled in geopolitical rivalries between major powers, impacting their ability to assert digital sovereignty and pursue independent technological agendas.

Foreign technologies used in Africa

African countries rely on technologies from both the USA and China across various sectors, and some of these technologies can indeed pose threats to digital sovereignty. Here are some key areas:

  1. Telecommunications Infrastructure: African countries heavily rely on telecommunications equipment from both the USA (companies like Cisco, Qualcomm) and China (companies like Huawei, ZTE) for building their telecommunications networks, including 4G and 5G infrastructure. Concerns regarding surveillance and data security have been raised regarding Chinese equipment.
  2. Internet Services and Platforms: African countries use internet services and platforms provided by US-based companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, as well as Chinese companies like Tencent and Alibaba. These platforms often collect large amounts of user data, raising concerns about data privacy and sovereignty.
  3. Cybersecurity Solutions: Both the USA and China offer cybersecurity solutions to African countries. American companies like Symantec and Palo Alto Networks and Chinese companies like Huawei offer cybersecurity products. However, concerns about backdoors and vulnerabilities exist, especially with Chinese-made products.
  4. Smart City Infrastructure: Many African countries are adopting smart city technologies for urban development, relying on US and Chinese companies for hardware and software solutions. These systems can include CCTV cameras, facial recognition technology, and license plate recognition systems. Companies like Hikvision (China) and Cisco (USA) provide hardware and software solutions for such systems.
  5. E-Government Solutions: African governments often adopt e-government solutions for improving administrative efficiency and citizen services. Some of the solutions include online tax payment systems provided by companies like Oracle (USA), Huawei (China) and document management systems provided by companies like Microsoft (USA) and Inspur (China).
  6. E-commerce Platforms: E-commerce is growing rapidly in Africa, with platforms like Amazon and Alibaba gaining traction. African countries rely on these platforms for online retail, payment solutions, and logistics. These platforms include marketplaces such as Alibaba’s AliExpress (China), payment solutions such as PayPal (USA), logistics providers such as FedEx (USA), and JD Logistics (China).
  7. Healthcare Technology: African healthcare systems often rely on medical equipment, software, and expertise from both the USA and China. This includes diagnostic tools, electronic health records systems, and telemedicine solutions. Companies like GE Healthcare (USA), Siemens Healthineers (Germany), and Mindray (China) provide advanced medical imaging technologies such as MRI, CT scanners, and ultrasound machines to healthcare facilities in Africa.

In all these areas, the reliance on technologies from the USA and China can potentially threaten digital sovereignty due to issues such as data privacy, surveillance, economic dependence, and vulnerability to external influence.

Initiatives and Progress

The African Union (AU) and African countries have taken significant steps to ensure digital sovereignty—the ability to exercise control over digital technologies and data within their borders. Here are some key initiatives:

  1. Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020–2030): The AU developed this strategy to guide African leaders in harnessing digital technologies for inclusive and sustainable growth. AU leaders, member states’ representatives, and partners have engaged in discussions to establish a common continental approach to data privacy ensuring that data generated by African citizens remains under African control is a priority.
  2. EU–AU Digital Partnership: The European Union (EU) collaborates with the AU on digital development. The EU’s Digital for Development (D4D) approach and the Global Gateway initiative contribute to enhancing digital sovereignty in Africa.
  3. Promoting Local Innovation and Capacity Building: African countries are investing in building local expertise, innovation hubs, and digital skills. By nurturing homegrown talent, they strengthen their ability to shape digital policies and technologies.

The road ahead

Promoting digital sovereignty in African countries involves establishing strategies and initiatives that enable them to assert control over their digital infrastructure, data, and technologies while fostering innovation and economic growth. Here are six key initiatives African countries can implement:

  1. Investment in Local Digital Infrastructure: African countries should prioritize investments in local digital infrastructure, including broadband networks, data centers, and cloud services. This ensures reliable and secure digital infrastructure that is not dependent on foreign entities. Governments can incentivize private sector investment in infrastructure projects through tax breaks, subsidies, and public-private partnerships.
  2. Data Localization Policies: Implementing data localization policies requires that certain types of data generated within the country must be stored and processed locally. This helps to prevent sensitive data from being subject to foreign laws and regulations, enhancing data security and privacy. Governments can mandate data localization through legislation and provide support for local data storage facilities.
  3. Promotion of Local Tech Ecosystems: Governments can foster the growth of local tech ecosystems by supporting startups, providing funding, and offering incentives for innovation. Incubators, accelerators, and technology parks can be established to nurture entrepreneurship and create a conducive environment for tech development. Additionally, initiatives to train and upskill the local workforce in digital skills are crucial for building a sustainable tech ecosystem.
  4. Open Source and Indigenous Technology Development: Encouraging the use of open-source software and the development of indigenous technologies promotes independence from foreign proprietary software and hardware. African countries can support open-source projects, collaborate with local tech communities, and invest in research and development to create homegrown solutions tailored to local needs. This reduces reliance on foreign technology providers and enhances digital sovereignty.
  5. Cybersecurity and Data Protection Regulations: Strengthening cybersecurity measures and enacting robust data protection regulations are essential for safeguarding digital sovereignty. Governments should establish cybersecurity frameworks, conduct regular audits, and enforce strict data protection laws to protect citizens’ data from cyber threats and unauthorized access. Collaboration with international organizations and neighboring countries can also enhance regional cybersecurity capabilities.
  6. Indigenous AI Foundation Models: African countries should invest in research and development to create their own AI foundation models and large language models (LLMs). This initiative involves funding AI education, fostering collaboration among researchers, promoting open data initiatives, establishing ethical AI guidelines, and supporting the commercialization and adoption of locally developed AI solutions. By developing indigenous AI models, African countries can enhance digital sovereignty, drive innovation, and address local challenges effectively.

By implementing these initiatives, African countries can assert greater control over their digital destiny, foster innovation, and harness the transformative potential of technology for sustainable development while safeguarding their sovereignty in the digital realm.

Conclusion

The importance of digital sovereignty for African countries cannot be overstated. As we’ve explored throughout this article, Africa’s growing reliance on foreign digital platforms underscores the pressing need for nations across the continent to assert control over their digital destinies. As Africa continues to emerge as a key player in the global digital economy, the pursuit of digital sovereignty becomes increasingly urgent. By developing robust regulatory frameworks, investing in local innovation, and fostering collaboration both within the continent and beyond, African countries can chart a course towards a more empowered and self-determined digital future.

One comment on “Africa’s Quest for Digital Sovereignty

  1. This is a good read and its actually an eye opener to the African states. Additionally suggests that African nations should take a deliberate decision towards indigenous tech development. We have the human resources and minerals to fund and create most of the hardware but we don’t have legislative frameworks, policies and culture towards digital innovation.

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