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The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have brought into stark relief the implications of digital inequality in Africa, said key partners who helped organise the 2021 African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG).

AfriSIG is co-convened by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Research ICT Africa (RIA) and the African Union (AU). This ninth edition of AfriSIG, held over two weeks from 4 to 15 October 2021, was the second virtual convening of the school.

“Only a relatively small elite are able to digitally substitute work, schooling, banking, food security, social grants but also file for business relief, unemployment and even food relief,” said Alison Gillwald, executive director of RIA, a digital policy and regulatory think tank.

Conversations at AfriSIG this year amplified calls for more access-related policy and regulation and investment towards development of infrastructure to increase access on the continent. African learning institutions are among the socioeconomic spheres that demonstrated the significant digital divide in the context of a health pandemic. In Nigeria, for instance, 91% of urban learners managed to conduct their classes (school and university) online, while only a mere 9% managed to do so in that country’s rural areas. In South Africa, only 30% of rural learners managed to carry out online classes against 70% of the urbanites.

Anriette Esterhuysen, the APC senior advisor on global and regional internet governance, said the digital divide has made it harder for citizens to work, learn and trade and for governments to effectively disseminate information about the pandemic. “The pandemic has highlighted the need for everyone to have access, by demonstrating the negative impact of people not having access,” said Esterhuysen, who is also the current chairperson of the Multistakeholders Advisory Group of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

“I think the result of that has been increased focus on getting internet access and internet policy regulation,” added Gillwald.

Adil Sulieman, senior policy officer for telecommunications and ICT at the African Union Commission, said discussions on internet access, together with those on privacy, personal data protection and cybersecurity, will remain important and crucial for Africa even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. “That is why digital transformation features in the AU’s 2020-2030 agenda, through The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa.” This year fellows worked on this area in a practicum on internet governance and digital inequality challenges/opportunities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The practicum also sought to come up with policy recommendations and suggested revisions to a section in the Digital Transformation Strategy on the critical sectors to drive digital transformation.

Since its inception in 2013, AfriSIG has continued to contribute to the shaping of diverse leaders in internet governance and the building of strategic partnerships on the continent through a rich regional and international faculty. After an experience at the school, AfriSIG fellows are involved in national, regional and global level internet governance spaces and process, and are almost always proud of their association with the school.

The class of 2021 brought together 37 fellows from 16 African nations that included current and potential leaders in internet governance and internet-related policy on the continent, including technocrats from government departments, researchers, regulators, journalists and gender equality and human rights defenders. The fellows were drawn from countries including Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Mauritania, among others.

AfriSIG gives participants experiential understanding of the complexities of internet governance by providing them with the opportunity to learn how others experience internet governance in their localities and/or at the global level. This, according to Esterhuysen, “encourages critical thinking, and it builds relationships across stakeholders because it is a multistakeholder initiative.”

“In the past, we have partnered with governmental institutions who would nominate participants, but this was not the case this year,” said Esterhuysen.

AfriSIG alumni often later return to the school as either volunteers, main faculty or resource persons. This year, two police officers from the Zambia Police Service – Allan Malenga and Michael Ilishebo – joined the faculty in a session titled “Perspectives on cybercrime: Responses and regulation”.

Strategic alliances and partnerships have ensured that AfriSIG remains significant as a pioneer school on internet governance spheres on the continent. Among themselves, the conveners of the school add value to the school. RIA brings with it an academic and research rigour. This complements APC’s thrust for an approach to policy formulation on internet governance that is evidence-based and not shaped by the whims of politicians or institutions.

Meanwhile, according to Esterhuysen, the AU’s involvement in the school has increased its legitimacy and relevance among all stakeholder groups involved in internet governance. “So having an academic, civil society, intergovernmental organisation partnership sends the message that AfriSIG is speaking to different stakeholder groups and that it is relevant whether you are from government, civil society or the academic community,” she explained.

“Partnership is absolutely critical to building the solidarity that one requires in order to caucus and in order to represent Africa’s interests in [internet governance] forums,” agreed Gillwald. “African governments, and governments in general, have not been as well represented at [forums like] the IGF as they should. So having the African Union and African member states really participating and endorsing has made quite a big impact,” she added.

This year the school received financial support from a wide range of partners working in or supporting internet governance initiatives on the continent. Some of AfriSIG’s long-time partners that extended financial support to the school this year include the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Afilias, the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Public Internet Registry (PIR) “The fact that these institutions commit to support AfriSIG affirms the value that they feel it delivers on internet governance,” Esterhuysen said.