African governments should harness the internet to engage with citizens

Prudence NyamishamaPrudence NyamishamaThere is a drive to connect one billion persons worldwide by 2020. As more Africans get online, governments have the responsibility to protect the rights and freedoms of their citizens. Yet what we see currently are increased cases of crackdown on dissenting voices. In Kenya, bloggers have been arrested; in Ethiopia, bloggers have been jailed and continue to face serious threats; in Nigeria, the government is using section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 as a tool for clampdown on bloggers.

Many African countries including Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Chad, the Republic of Congo and Gabon have deliberately shut down the internet during major political events.

According to a report by the Brookings Institution, between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016, shutdowns have cost at least USD 2.4 billion in GDP globally, and Ethiopia alone has lost about USD 9 million during the internet shutdowns that occurred during that period.

Only 23% of Ugandans have access to the internet, yet the government has invested in expensive mass surveillance software like the “Fungua Macho”, which cost Ugandan taxpayers millions of shillings that could have been used to get more people online.

From the African Internet Governance Forum session on internet rights, one of the key recommendations was that African governments should not be scared of the internet as a “new media” that channels dissent; instead they should realise its potential as a platform for interacting with citizens, delivering services, enhancing open governance and contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

And indeed, where the internet has been used as a tool for development, there has been a significant improvement in delivery of services. For instance, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation in Uganda is doing an incredible job in responding to customer needs immediately through Twitter, thus registering a significant improvement in the water sector. The government of Uganda worked with civil society to establish, a platform that enables Ugandans to access information that is held by public officials, although the platform still needs to be popularised for it to be more effective.

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