Thursday, 16 April 2015

Are African Governments Serious About the Inevitable 'Internet of Things'?

 By Takura Zhangazha*

There are at least five African government ministers that are present at the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS2015) in the Hague, Netherlands.  These ministers are from Ghana, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt and Uganda. In their ministerial statements to the conference they all made ​​mention of the importance of cyber-security for their respective countries. 

Tunisia and Egypt emphasized security in cyberspace in relation to national and international counter-terrorism strategies. 

Ghana, Uganda and Senegal spoke more broadly about capacity building and commercial cyber security.

Of these specific themes around security it is capacity building that's Africa's likely priority. 

For the majority of African countries this will involve the further development and modernization of telecommunications infrastructure.   

Because most African governments claim to be poor or do not prioritise cyberspace or telecommunications as key strategic human development  areas.  Until the technology comes to them by default, they will not invest state resources into this key development area. They will seek to outsource this task through either asking for  bilateral aid to build/improve the infrastructure or pursue the path of 'smart partnerships' with private corporations (aka Public/Private Partnerships PPPs).  Most times without trying to address the challenge in an organic or democratic manner domestically 

In both cases they are keen on using global ‘counter terrorism’ as the main reason why they need this assistance. Rarely will they talk directly to the need to expand innovation, freedom of expression, rights to privacy as reasons.

The PPPs or bilateral agreements tend to favour host governments because the latter position their populations as markets in order to  impose rather high taxes on potential investors in cyberspace.

These engaged international entities, in their scramble for what still remains of the African market,  will pursue more the profit on their investment minus concern for the status of human rights or development in the host country. 

Such dynamics tend to lead to inefficient, high cost infrastructural development in which the ultimate beneficiaries become the governments and private players at the quite literal expense of the consumer. 

Where these and other factors are taken into account, there are some realities that remain important.

The first being the truth that the internet and cyberspace are here to stay and will affect perceptions of reality on the continent.  As speakers have pronounced at this GCCS2015, what is virtual is increasingly also translating into reality. 

Moroever, cyberspace experts such as Paul Nicholas of Microsoft, speaking at the Hague Talks  are predicting that in the next ten years (2025) there will be rapid increase in the numbers of connected citizens of the Global South.  This will not only reshape the world but will change perceptions and realities  of how states are governed, including the rise of what he referred to as 'mega cities'. 

I am yet to know whether an African government that has made this point to citizens in direct relation to the impact of cyberspace on livelihoods. Not only in the positive or negative but with the intention of harnessing the internet to improve the democratic and economic values of their societies. 

If there are Governments that have seen beyond the issue of security alone and taken on the other two themes of this conference, namely freedom and growth, it would be a pleasant surprise. 

The fact that there are at least five African governments that are represented at  cabinet level is a good start.  Especially if they take these issues up at the African Union and other regional bodies to discuss the inevitable arrival of the 'internet of things' on the shores of the continent.  

Such an arrival, should be harnessed with a firm grasp of the import of the new and continuously improving technology, democratic values, preservation of local cultures  and the pursuit of a people centered development paradigm.  

Where this occurs, then we can say that African governments are conversant with the serious political and economic import that is cyberspace.   
 *Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com).  He is currently attending the GCCS2015 on a Dutch government scholarship.