Introduction

Digital transformation holds great potential for nations of the world, including African states. Digital technologies have the potential to create new economic opportunities in key sectors of the economy such as healthcare, education, commerce, and public administration. In addition to significantly improving service delivery, digital technologies can help bridge the digital divide by connecting remote communities and providing access to information and services. It is for the realization of these benefits that the African Union (AU) seeks to create an enabling environment for digital transformation and innovation. This is captured in the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) which aims to “harness digital technologies and innovation to transform African societies and economies to promote Africa’s integration, generate inclusive economic growth, stimulate job creation…and ensure Africa’s ownership of modern tools of digital management.”1AU, “The digital transformation strategy for Africa 2020–2030.” Accessed November 9, 2022, https://au.int/en/documents/20200518/digital-transformation-strategy-africa-2020-2030

The strategy also intends to help the continent achieve the objectives of Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This highlights the importance of innovation and digitization in advancing industrialization and a digital economy in Africa. Despite widespread awareness in Africa about the importance of digital transformation, a small number of foreign (mostly US) multinational corporations supply and maintain the technology needed on the continent to collect enormous volumes of data on national defense, critical energy and water infrastructure, national registries, financial transactions, industry, mining, and sensitive government information. The few servers located in Africa are still owned and run by the same foreign firms, and the data are stored and processed on US-based servers. This necessitates the notion of digital sovereignty in opposition to a few Big Tech firms, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which have an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of power over the global digital ecosystem.2David Monyae, “Africa’s digital sovereignty a timely and relevant debate.” University of Johannesburg. September 28, 2021, https://www.uj.ac.za/news/africas-digital-sovereignty-a-timely-and-relevant-debate/

Although the idea of digital sovereignty (hereafter DS), which refers to the capacity to exercise control over digital assets such as data, content, or digital infrastructure, is not new, it is now gaining new currency and attracting scholarship due to increased state surveillance, concerns about cyber threats, and the economic benefits of cyberspace. For instance, 16 African nations have used the Chinese digital surveillance technology under the Belt and Road project as a development infrastructure and supplemental technology.3Bulelani Jil, “Surveillance tools in Africa: A focus on Ethiopia and Kenya.” In C. Daniels, B. Erforth & C. Teevan (Eds), Africa–Europe cooperation and digital transformation (pp. 32-49). New York: Routledge (2023), https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/59247/1/9781000820256.pdf

Thus, DS is the call for greater strategic autonomy and self-determination in relation to technology. It is a colloquial term expressing the desire to reduce reliance on digital infrastructure and services from foreign providers, predominantly based in the US. This call has extended to Africa. In 2019, a UN resolution opposing the use of information and communication technologies sponsored by China and Russia also received the majority of support from African nations. The resolution aims to reshape international standards to prioritize national sovereignty in cyberspace.4David Monyae, “Africa’s digital sovereignty a timely and relevant debate.” University of Johannesburg. September 28, 2021, https://www.uj.ac.za/news/africas-digital-sovereignty-a-timely-and-relevant-debate/ From the foregoing, therefore, Africa is well aware of the strategic importance of digital sovereignty. If so, then the factors posing challenges to Africa’s digital transformation and sovereignty must be prioritized by policymakers, scholars, and intelligentsias.

Arising from the above, this essay posits that even though the discourse on DS is beginning to gain traction, the level of scholarship is still generally nascent. The policies required to achieve it are fragmented and rarely reach the regional level. However, there is a growing recognition that Africa must address the issue and create the necessary laws and regulations to preserve state sovereignty over the digital sphere, particularly with regard to data. As a result, this essay examines the state of digital sovereignty in Africa. It particularly appraises the challenges faced by the continent in asserting digital sovereignty whilst suggesting ways forward. It is hoped that this will contribute significantly to the growing discussion and provoke further research.

Digital Sovereignty

The idea of sovereignty, which was influenced by Jean Bodin in the sixteenth century, emphasizes the capacity to act independently of external interference. It emphasizes the state’s rights in its role as the supreme decision-making authority whose powers are vested in the ruler. The idea underwent a paradigm shift in the 18th century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in favor of popular sovereignty over that of the ruling class. The rise of contemporary democracy was buoyed by the idea of people’s sovereignty, with the government acting as the people’s representatives. To achieve this, a democratic state’s sovereignty entails guaranteeing the ability of its citizens to exercise their inalienable rights. As a result, it accomplishes the goal of enabling everyone to be recognized in their own personal rights and to exercise their own authority.5Julia Pohle, “Digital sovereignty: A new key concept of digital policy in Germany and Europe.” (2020) Accessed November 6, https://www.kas.de/documents/252038/7995358/Digital+sovereignty.pdf/a8d0cb4b-c777-3e72-1bc7-b5fda656329a?version=1.0&t=1608034389334

The US commercialization strategy under President Clinton had a considerable impact on the early digital economy and gave the US government a stronghold over the worldwide network, allowing it to shape the Internet in accordance with broadly liberal principles. The release of internal National Security Agency (NSA) documents in 2013 by Edward Snowden revealed how US law enforcement and intelligence agencies were monitoring and analyzing Internet data traffic around the world. This sparked a race for control of the Internet’s global infrastructure.6Shoshana Zuboff & Karin Schwandt. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.” London Profile Books (2019) In reaction, Russia unveiled a set of policies aimed at creating a sovereign Internet by the end of 2019. These policies required Russian Internet service providers to develop the technical infrastructure necessary for all Internet traffic to be routed locally as well as technical measures to territorialize information flows. This was done to give the Russian government more control over the Internet’s Russian subnetwork.7Alena Epifanova, “Deciphering Russia’s “Sovereign Internet Law”: Tightening Control and Accelerating the Splinternet.” DGAP Analysis, 2. Berlin: Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V. https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/66221 China on the other hand established a networked authoritarian political system to reshape the global digital order. The Chinese political establishment views the Internet and other digital technologies as a chance to substantially enhance the nation’s economic growth and increase the influence of the Chinese government outside of its boundaries. This is exemplified in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is being effectively implemented in numerous digital infrastructure projects in Asian and African nations. China is committed to becoming a global cyber superpower.

International alliances and partnerships for digital connectivity are crucial tools in digital geopolitics. The Build Back Better World (B3W) G7 infrastructure program, unveiled by US President Joe Biden in June 2021, is a case in point. The initiative aims to satisfy the infrastructure needs of developing countries with a particular focus on digital technologies. The Belt and Road Initiative, which China is using to increase its worldwide influence, is supposed to be balanced by B3W. In September 2021, the EU unveiled the Global Gateway Global Connection Program to increase its influence as a geopolitical actor. These initiatives place much emphasis on Africa.8Kerstin Fritzsche & Daniel Spoiala, “The EU–AU digital partnership: Between digital geopolitics and digital sovereignty.” In C. Daniels, B. Erforth & C. Teevan (Eds) Africa–Europe cooperation and digital transformation (pp. 17-31). New York: Routledge (2023).

Digital Sovereignty in Africa

A Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa has been developed by the AU, which has also acknowledged the need to intensify cooperative efforts to promote the digital economy in Africa. It emphasizes the strategic goal of creating a digital single market in Africa by 2030, particularly in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and promotes digital transformation as a strategy for the socio-economic development of African content. This plan emphasizes the necessity of a digital development cycle. It is one of the few official documents that mention the sovereignty of African data. However, it also adopts a national perspective. The other is South Africa’s Proposed National Data and Cloud Policy, which was presented in April 2021.9Republic of South Africa, “Draft national policy on data and cloud.” Government Gazette (2021). https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/202104/44389gon206.pdf In addition to promoting South Africa’s data sovereignty and security, the policy seeks to increase the state’s capacity to provide services to its citizens, ensuring informed policy development based on data analytics. Neither Rwanda’s Law Relating to the Protection of Personal Data and Privacy nor Kenya’s Data Protection Act have similar references to data or digital sovereignty. In many African nations, data regulatory schemes are still in the early stages of development and even when such laws exist, they are frequently not well implemented.

The proposal of equal rights for all governments to manage Internet numbering, naming, addressing, and identification resources, sponsored by Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Sudan, and Algeria at the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), held on December 3-4, 2012, in Dubai, was supported by 89 countries, including many African nations. Twenty-one African nations, including Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Zimbabwe, signed the proposal in an effort to gain sovereignty over the creation, management, and control of all telecommunications services.10ITU, “Declarations and reservations. Document 66-E.” (2012) Accessed November 11, 2022, https://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000191906.pdf

Challenges of Digital Sovereignty in Africa

Most African nations have made efforts to harness digital technologies for their benefit from the early to the mid-2000s when they began to recognize the growing significance of the Internet and contemporary information and communication technologies (ICTs) in accomplishing their development goals. Only a few nations have no digital policies or strategies in place. While some nations have integrated their digital agendas into their national development plans, such as Namibia, Gabon, and the Gambia, others, such as Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana, and Ethiopia, have stand-alone digital policy documents, some of which deal with specific issues, such as e-commerce, cybersecurity, data, and privacy.11Olumide Abimbola, Faten Aggad & Bhaso Ndzendze, “What is Africa’s digital agenda?” (2021) Accessed November 14, 2022, https://afripoli.org/what-is-africas-digital-agenda

However, most African states do not have a comprehensive national framework for governing and guiding digital transformation. Many African nations primarily rely on Chinese technology firms for the entirety of their digital technology stack, from mobile networks, submarine cables, and data centers to mobile devices and apps. This is not a recent trend but rather the result of long-standing commercial ties between China and African nations. Only recently have Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and ZTE’s operations in African nations been integrated into China’s Digital Silk Road in Africa.12Yinka Adegoke, “The real reason China is pushing “digital sovereignty” in Africa.”” (2021) Accessed November 3, 2022, https://restofworld.org/2021/the-real-reason-china-is-pushing-digital -sovereignty-in-africa/

Regarding digital platforms, the platform economy in Africa is growing, but it is still hampered by a number of issues, including inadequate infrastructure, lack of financial inclusion and mobile payment systems, subpar digital content, low internet penetration rate, consumer mistrust, and lack of funding. Eighty-two percent of the platforms used in Africa have been developed locally. Furthermore, although 17 percent of the world’s population resides on the continent, according to data from Xalam Analytics, less than 1 percent of the total global data center capacity is situated there. African governments adopt a wide range of normative stances regarding digital transformation, from severe censorship and Internet shutdowns to the active creation of more enabling environments for digital developers and businesses.13Kerstin Fritzsche & Daniel Spoiala, “The EU–AU digital partnership: Between digital geopolitics and digital sovereignty.” In C. Daniels, B. Erforth & C. Teevan (Eds) Africa–Europe cooperation and digital transformation (pp. 17-31). New York: Routledge (2023).

Although African countries complain about being excluded from decisions regarding Internet governance, there are concerns that giving governments more power over the Internet might encourage illiberal regimes to exert more control over cyberspace (e.g., through censorship).14Sam Wood, Stacie Hoffmann, Mark McFadden, Akhiljeet Kaur, Sarongrat Wongsaroj, Aude Schoentgen, Grant Forsyth & Laura Wilkinson, “Digital Sovereignty: the overlap and conflict between states, enterprises and citizens.” (2020) London: Plum Consulting. https://oxil.uk/publications/2021-01-20-plum-digital-sovereignty/Plum_Aug_2020_Digital_Sovereignty_states_enterprise_citizens%20%281%29.pdf The growing incidence of digital repression, shrinking civic space, official surveillance, gender-based online abuse, and election manipulation hinder internet governance in Africa. The Internet and some social media platforms may be entirely or partially blocked and/or censored as a continuation of political repression to suppress or contain political protests. Political opponents are harassed and political mobilization may be restricted or closely monitored in oppressive political environments where civil society space is strictly controlled. Beyond complete or partial Internet shutdowns and the outright prohibition of social media platforms, some national governments have passed laws and regulations that indirectly restrict the use of social media, primarily by raising the cost of Internet access. Since 2015, 34 out of 54 African nations have banned social media platforms.15SurfShark, “Internet shutdown tracker” (2023) Accessed March 27, 2023, https://surfshark.com/research/internet-censorship The African Digital Rights Network found that when governments shut down offline civic spaces, people reacted by using social media platforms that provide an open, unrestricted civic space, including relying on encrypted instant messaging apps. This conclusion was reached after analyzing the digital rights landscape of ten African countries. Countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Togo have employed Pegasus malware to survey dissidents. In the absence of strict supervision of global surveillance technology transfer, political and military leaders in nations deploying such technologies have gained much latitude.16Ennatu Domingo & Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, “Digitalisation and democracy: Is Africa’s governance charter fit for the digital era?” Discussion Paper no 331 (2022). https://ecdpm.org/application/files/8616/6842/7862/Digitalisation-Democracy-Is-Africas-Governance-Charter-Fit-Digital-Era-ECDPM-Discussion-Paper-331-2022.pdf

In addition to creating many obstacles for African nations, the ongoing development of artificial intelligence (AI) presents several potential issues. National AI policies in line with the ideals of African DS may guide this progress. Only Mauritius and Egypt in Africa had such policies as of 2021. Mauritius can serve as a model for African leaders looking to define Africa’s technology policy trajectory and narrative in this new era, given the growing skepticism toward Western-developed models of digital policy and the desire and need for homegrown and socially responsive digital policy initiatives in Africa.17Vincent Hofmann & Matthias Kette, “Towards an African Narrative on Digital Sovereignty.” Zenodo (2022). https://zenodo.org/record/6365750#.Y7BtE33MLIU

The China Africa Research Initiative estimates that China committed USD 153 billion to African governments and state owned-governments between 2000 and 2019 for the development of new projects and to bridge infrastructure gaps in nations such as Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, and Nigeria.18Kevin Acker & Deborah Brautigam, “Twenty years of data on China’s Africa lending.” Brief Paper no 4 (2021). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5652847de4b033f56d2bdc29/t/605cb1891cb0ff5747b12167/1616687497984/BP+4+-+Acker%2C+Brautigam+-+20+Years+of+Data+on+African+Lending.pdf The largest contract in African telecom history was signed in 2006 by the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation and the Chinese telecom giant Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation (ZTE). This has been used to fund Ethiopia’s telecom infrastructure while Ethiopia’s governance and surveillance capabilities have been strengthened. Meanwhile, as a result of the entrance of Huawei and ZTE to Kenya in 2009, Kenya has deployed a diversely generated hybrid monitoring system to establish state security goals for combating crime and enhancing digital surveillance.19Bulelani Jil, “Surveillance tools in Africa: A focus on Ethiopia and Kenya.” In C. Daniels, B. Erforth & C. Teevan (Eds), Africa–Europe cooperation and digital transformation (pp. 32-49). New York: Routledge (2023).

Recommendations and Conclusion

It is obvious that African nations must build and maintain strong digital sovereignty. DS for Africa is a collective right that must be treated as such. Thus, Africa’s ability to engage as a collective actor is crucial in determining regional and global approaches to complete ownership of digital data and regulation. Countries on the continent must rise above being passive pawns of more powerful entities and use their collective agency to find common ground and develop programs in relation to key policy issues in a way that benefits them. The support of African nations with sophisticated digital ecosystems is crucial in engendering national, bilateral, and multilateral digital partnerships. The resulting initiatives will pave the way for stronger, collective approaches.

Connectivity and digital partnership initiatives must be interpreted in light of digital geopolitics and the sovereignty interests of donor countries and investors. Concrete steps toward reclaiming significant portions of the value chain in digital processes should be encouraged by developing a local economy through the incorporation of digital technologies into key sectors of the national and local economy including agriculture, finance, services, education, mining, and health care. The creation of sub-regional Silicon Valley and tech hubs must be encouraged while policies that protect tech start-ups must be initiated. African nations should also prioritize the creation of smart cities and the improvement of Internet connectivity through the construction of local Internet infrastructure, including regional data centers. Finally, the AU in partnership with Regional Economic Communities (RECs) should create and implement policies that guarantee internet freedom and cyber-rights in member countries.

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