By Gilbert Beyamba
On 13 September, somewhere within the energetic corridors of Envoy Hotel in Abuja, Nigeria, a gathering of minds from across Africa were sharing and learning about Africa’s digital landscape at the 11th African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG). For close to a week, spanning from 13 to 18 September 2023, our mission was to contribute to working out the intricacies of the African Union’s Data Policy Framework, introduced in June 2022. A roadmap, or a compass, if you will, guiding African Union member states through the evolving complexities of data regulation. Every conversation in different ways further opened up the intricacies of the policy framework, shaping our collective understanding throughout the school.
But let’s take a step back: what is “data”? Picture a symphony where each note resonates differently. To some, it’s raw numbers painting a story. To others, it’s binary codes forming rhythms, or even melodies wafting in the digital realm. In our spirited discussions, this elusive term morphed and danced, evoking multiple shades of interpretations. Crafting a framework, therefore, meant acknowledging this fluidity, yet aiming for clarity.
Imagine our challenge: weaving a tapestry from the very diverse threads of understanding what “data” signifies. To some, simply put, data is referred to throughout the document as information that is generated, collected, processed and analysed in various forms, including personal data, statistical data and big data.
Our grand ambition was to then inform the Africa-centric framework implementation guide, a Practicum Outcome Document with guidelines to inclusive, multistakeholder implementation of the African Union Data Policy Framework. Foundational to this framework is the robust Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement. These pillars elevate data to a pedestal, championing it as a formidable force to propel Africa towards the illustrious goals of Agenda 2063.
The vision? A continent empowered by trustworthy data mechanisms, steered by synergised governance entities, and flourishing in an environment of unhindered cross-border data transfer. Our collective intent for the framework is as open as:
- Facilitate member state cooperation to support AU policies.
- Allow free data flow while managing associated risks.
- Establish trust mechanisms for data flow while maintaining sovereignty.
- Encourage competition and ensure sustainable data usage for public benefits.
In essence, this blueprint carves paths through four distinct landscapes: a legal haven, sanctuaries for personal data rights, and realms dedicated to the nuances of both personal and non-personal data.
The tapestry’s weavers and changemakers weren’t just a handful. They spanned from everyday citizens to governmental vanguards, to regional thought leaders. Each brought their unique palette, enriching the collective design. Though the framework has graced us for nearly a year, our gaze is now set on breathing life into it, transforming theory into tangible impact.
Amid the electric discussions, one of the speakers says, “In recent consultations with one of the regional bodies, we found that many were unaware of the African Union’s Data Policy Framework, and hesitant to contribute without official permissions.” From the revolution of one of the regional bodies’ representatives not willing to speak out on the framework, their reservations about speaking without formal directives spotlighted the eminent challenges of continental collaboration and why we need to act.
A moment of introspection for me and also a stark reminder of the intricate labyrinth of coordination we must navigate in Africa’s digital governance journey.
Our most invigorating challenge of AfriSIG was the practicum component, where we embarked on designing a “multistakeholder national implementation and follow-up strategy” for this Data Policy Framework. It was a hands-on navigation of processes that regional economic commissions and member states are currently wrestling with. Our distinguishing factor was the holistic integration of stakeholders, from academia and parliamentarians to the media and business world.
With my current role at Pollicy, an organisation deeply committed to enhancing data governance, privacy, and freedom of expression in Africa, I aimed to extract actionable insights from AfriSIG. And the experience did not disappoint.
Let me walk you through some comprehensive lessons that emerged:
- Inclusivity in formation: Crafting policies and public implementation strategies is not a one-dimensional task. The involvement of diverse stakeholders in our practicum was a testament to this. For a policy implementation strategy to be robust and representative, it demands input from every corner of society – be it civil society, academia, business or other sectors.
- African internet rights and freedoms: One of the resonating aspects of AfriSIG was the deep dive into African internet rights and freedoms. The continent has its unique challenges and potentials, making it imperative to develop a framework that respects cultural nuances while ensuring digital rights for every African.
- Balancing freedom and privacy: A salient discussion point was the interplay between privacy rights and freedom of expression. It’s a delicate tightrope. While we advocate for unhindered digital expression, it’s paramount that this freedom doesn’t come at the expense of individual privacy. The African Union’s Data Policy Framework offers guidance, but real-world applications demand constant recalibration.
- Translating frameworks to ground reality: It’s not enough to have a comprehensive policy framework. The challenge lies in translating these guidelines into ground realities. Governance is more than policies; it’s about effective implementation that tangibly impacts and safeguards citizens.
The practicum stands as a powerful roadmap, bringing together our collective knowledge and insights. I eagerly anticipate seeing how fellow participants will integrate these practical recommendations into their organisations and fields of work. Beyond individual efforts, it’s imperative for African governments, regional bodies like the African Union and the East African Community, and others, to adapt and operationalise these practical steps that we, the fellows, co-created during the school.
Also with these lessons at hand, our work at Pollicy, such as the Africa Data Governance Hub, are set to benefit immensely. Especially as we navigate the terrains of civic space, data governance and pro-feminist internet policies, the insights from AfriSIG are our beacon.
In conclusion, the 11th AfriSIG was more than just an event; it was a melting pot of ideas and collaborative energy. If you’re curious to dive deeper into the nuances of our discussions, I invite you to explore the Practicum Outcome Document. It stands as a testament to the vision and dedication that defined AfriSIG 2023.
Onward, to a digitally empowered Africa!
Gilbert Beyamba currently serves as the Director of Programmes at Pollicy, an award-winning feminist collective based in Uganda. In this role, he is a dynamic leader, overseeing a diverse team of technologists, researchers, academics and activists, with a focus on leveraging data and technology to drive social change, particularly for marginalised groups and women. Gilbert is also part of the Code For Science Event Fund Selection Committee, supporting community-driven data science infrastructures. In addition to his responsibilities at Pollicy, Gilbert is actively engaged in exploring the synergies between technology and diplomacy, focusing on its implications for international relations. He is passionate about leveraging tech and digital diplomacy to advance Africa’s interests on the global stage.