Q&A  | 

Nigeria and the Social Change Emerging from Digital Activism, by Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san

Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san advocates for digital rights in Africa: "It is extremely important to ensure that human dignity is also respected around online environments. If we don’t do this, trust breaks down."

Tags: 'Africa'

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Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san is Executive Director at Paradigm Initiative (PIN), a social enterprise that works to connect underserved young Africans with digital opportunities, and ensures protection of their rights.

PIN’s digital rights advocacy program has so far been key for the development of public policy for internet freedom in Africa: it has organized Digital Rights Workshops across Africa (in Cameroon, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia), led efforts to promote freedom of expression and privacy by challenging surveillance regimes (Gambia, Nigeria), intervened in Digital ID programs (Kenya, Nigeria), trained security agencies on privacy and other citizen rights (Nigeria) and trained parliamentarians on digital rights (Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe) among many others.

Why should we advocate for our digital rights?

Dignity is both a need and a human rights.

In the digital age that is now upon us, a lot of our existence is wrapped in digital experiences so it is extremely important to ensure that human dignity is also respected around online environments. If we don’t do this, trust breaks down, and that will be a threat to many things including businesses, government-citizen relationships and more.

Can you explain some practical approaches in Paradigm’s advocacy for citizen’s rights on the internet?

We believe in teaching other citizens how to defend themselves instead of always outsourcing advocacy to “experts,” and we are also guided by the need to break down silos in order to achieve objectives.

Breaking down silos could include writing Policy Briefs that shed light on alternative views for government or providing training on digital rights to security agencies. At the core of our work is also the need to avoid jargon and break down communication the best way our audiences will be served, which is why our annual digital rights report is now produced in multiple languages (English, French, Swahili) and we make short films out of the reports so that those who don’t have the patience to read a 72-page report can watch a 19-minute film that delivers the message in a way they will never forget.  

Should we have a more hands on approach as far as advocating and raising awareness about our digital rights is concerned?

Yes! One of the challenges with leaving this task to a few who we assume are the leaders in this work is that they could become performative in their approach and lose connection with innovation. With all hands on deck, we get the benefit of seeing things from diverse perspectives and also learn what doesn’t work.

Is the status of internet freedom in Africa different from that in Europe? Which are, under your opinion, the most pressing matters in those territories as far as internet freedom is concerned?

Europe has its own digital rights struggles but Africa’s challenges are quite different — and in some cases involve basic determination of the ability to enforce fundamental rights that exist in national laws but are not practiced in reality.

Some of Africa’s most pressing needs include respect for data privacy (and protection), guaranteeing freedom of expression, fighting network disruptions, combating illegal surveillance and ensuring that legal environments are rights-respecting.

How do digital rights impact civil rights in general? Are both forever intertwined?

Like all human rights, digital rights play a major role in determining how well citizens are able to enjoy their civil rights without fear that civic spaces will be closed — or attacked.

Digital rights and civil rights are even more intertwined now than ever because most civic participation channels are increasingly moving online.

The world has closely followed the #EndSARS movement which has simultaneously achieved a lot and cost a lot to Nigerians. Is this an example of how digital rights can provoke social change?

One of the first things that the Nigerian government sought to do after the October wave of #EndSARS protests was to restrict the online civic space because that’s a major driver of social change.

As more Africans come online, and we grow the current 39% Internet penetration, more social change conversations will start online and then move to the streets — and even ballot boxes.

Which are the main risks of online activism as far as civil rights are concerned?

In many African countries, the main risk of online activism is the same with any other form of activism — being labeled as a dissident and becoming a target of security agencies. These government institutions are militarised and their only language in response to activism, which is often labelled as a disturbance to national peace or risk to security, includes frequent invitations, seized travel documents, jail time, continued harassment and even bodily harm.