Interview with Gbenga Sesan: “What is important in the digital rights campaign in Nigeria and beyond is ensuring that the connection between rights and people’s day-to-day experiences is made”

By Koliwe Majama 11 June 2019

On the sidelines of the Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) held 16-17 May, African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) organiser Koliwe Majama caught up with Gbenga Sesan, director of Nigeria-based Paradigm Initiative.

Gbenga is an AfriSIG alumnus, having attended the inaugural school in 2013.

In this interview, Gbenga talks about policy making and leadership in Africa. Working together with other civil society organisations in Nigeria, Paradigm Initiative is involved in lobbying for the country’s Digital Rights Bill.

Koliwe Majama: What is the mood like in the digital rights advocacy camp following President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to sign the Digital Rights Bill?

Gbenga Sesan: It was a big blow, honestly, but not one that we were not prepared for. When we began the Digital Rights campaign, we gave it 11 years; it has only been five years.

KM: What are the next steps?

GS: We have to wait for the next national assembly. The worst-case scenario is that President Buhari may not sign again and the process will have to start all over again with new national assembly in July. The chances of him signing are very low, but if he does I am going to dye my hair grey. Meanwhile, we have had a roundtable meeting with all stakeholders including the private sector, civil society and even the security agents, and we have paid particular attention especially to those who have issues with the bill and taken a note of their concerns.

Throughout the process, the two problematic areas have been data privacy and protection and lawful interception. These have been removed but not completely. We will work with the current data protection bill that is before the national assembly, to ensure that it respects rights. We will be on the lookout for any lawful government interception. The new draft has to go through the entire government and national assembly, before sailing back to the president.

KM: One of the criticisms of your campaign is that it has not been people-centric, and largely centred on civil society. What is your comment?

GS: Agreed, a lot more can be done to bring ordinary citizens on board. However, from the little effort that has been made to engage the ordinary person, we have received scary feedback. People don’t care about rights. In fact, some of the questions that have been asked are, “Why are you making things difficult by making it look like we have things to hide?” or, “Why are you talking about privacy?”

What is important in the digital rights campaign in Nigeria and beyond is ensuring that the connection between rights and people’s day-to-day experiences is made. People need to see and understand the relationship between their survival and economic opportunities made available by a secure internet. That way they will understand and appreciate the demands that we are making for the recognition of rights in our campaigns. One thing that we are very clear about in Nigeria is that after the Bill has been signed, the real work will begin at its implementation.

KM: Given this experience, what would you say are the biggest challenges with policy making in Africa?

GS: Policy issues are usually based on personal, political interests and passions. When the main players in the policy-making process find that people do not care about the issue, it becomes very discouraging because they convince themselves that they are fighting for the people only to find that the people are fighting them. There are also many more issues that compete with mainstream policy issues like food and shelter. Another challenge is the failure to set realistic targets and timeframes, so that when you have a conversation and put together a policy document it is not dead on arrival. In policy making, you should be prepared for the storm, because it will surely come. Lack of preparedness comes with discouragement and the feeling that the “fight” is not worth it.

KM: From a civil society perspective, what challenges does the sector face in lobbying for more democratic digital policy?

GS: Unlike the private sector and government, civil society’s greatest challenge is resourcing. We will never have power like government has. We need resources to be available to be able to call meetings for awareness raising on the issues at hand and for civic education. There is a need for us to also have conversations with our funding partners on the flexibility of their financial support, so that we can respond to the changing social, economic and political environment. We need funding partners who can give funding for a number of years, for the sake of continuity and sustainability as well as institutional support.

KM: What is your assessment on the role and influence of the African Union (AU) in offering solidarity and a vision for internet governance on the continent?

GS: Africa just needs one country to pass a digital rights law. Should that happen, then we have a point to begin from and cite best practice. This will give the AU more leverage to try and push for the trend on the continent. Currently Nigeria and Cameroon are working on digital rights laws – Nigeria is taking a lead from Ghana. I think there is a high chance of African countries emulating good trends. Just look at elections on the continent, they are looking better now as governments become less and less dictatorial.

KM: Finally, being one of the pioneers of AfriSIG, what is your view on the way the School has developed over the years?

GS: AfriSIG is the continent’s best example of consistency in training. This is becoming a fact. As alumni we meet at continental and global meetings on internet governance, making contributions and making efforts to influence change. This alone speaks volumes. The School now needs a strategy to deal with the growing demand, it is inevitable that there are twice as many more applicants in subsequent years. Unfortunately, only a few can be accommodated. We look forward to the School connecting with other regional training organisations where those that do not make it for the main school can get some more experience and apply again. It would also be good if national schools could feed into the regional school and eventually have two tracks of the school, possibly a track for senior-level people coming directly and junior-level people coming through national-level country schools of governance.

KM: Thank you.

This interview was originally published on the website of the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG).

Koliwe Majama is a Zimbabwean media, information, communications and technologies consultant with over 15 years of experience working in civil society lobbying and advocacy. In the region and globally she has invested in networking and thought leadership on varying internet governance trends, including gender and the internet – which she has a passion for. Koliwe is the organiser of the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG).


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