Digital commons and contemporary African struggles

“Bring back our internet,” was a rallying global cry from Cameroon for almost three months after the country’s government blacked out Internet services in the provinces inhabited by the country’s Anglophone minority in late January 2017. The Cameroon Internet shutdown was ostensibly aimed at stifling rising dissent, which had erupted into tumultuous protests against the government of Paul Biya. While doing little to crush the revolt in parts of Cameroon, the blackout had, in the end, massive ramifications for everyday life and especially business in the country’s western provinces. In mid-April the cost was reported to have stood at US$3.2 million. The fervent "Bring Back Our Internet" campaign, which went viral, was eventually successful, and connectivity was restored in late April in the affected provinces.

Over the past few years partial or full internet shutdowns by African governments have become quite common. The digital rights advocacy group "Access Now" has reported recent blackouts in Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, Niger, Togo, and Uganda.

In July 2016 it was Zimbabwe’s turn. Zimbabweans and local news outlets reported a partial Internet shutdown when WhatsApp was blocked during mass protests against the Mugabe government. With these punitive measures governments such as those of Biya and Mugabe, Africa’s longest-serving dictators, try to prevent opposition activists to mobilise protests through social media. In Zimbabwe too, protests flared up against the perceived digital censoring and the government soon retreated.

The filtering of Internet content by authoritarian regimes to prevent access by the citizenry - generally dubbed digital ‘firewalling’ after the well-known case of China’s historically aptly named ‘Great Firewall’ – has become widely discussed in recent years. There is more to these barriers on the network though than the selective exclusion of populations.

Africans are not passive subjects of dictatorship. Battles over access to the Internet have become key issues in social and political struggles in Africa. Across the continent, a new generation of activists for democracy, decolonisation and social justice have made extensive use of digital apps in mobilising and organising protests. While we still need to understand much more about the actual role of the internet and social media in the ‘new’ movements, it is also essential to reflect on how technologies shape, and are shaped by the lived experience of activism in the digital age.

In a recently published novel set in Zimbabwe Leo Zeilig depicts an interesting dialogue between two central characters of "An Ounce of Practice". In conversation in Harare are Viktor, an intellectual leftie and internet activist from London, and Anne-Marie, his lover, scion of a prominent Congolese family, a cynical member of the expatriate NGO set and an activist with a radical opposition group.

Viktor spends his days immersed in his computer. He connects with the world through Facebook and Twitter, writing blogs and posting them on a website of radical politics. Though Anne-Marie is an active user of digital communications too, where she and Viktor engaged each other on different media and even had feverish sexual encounters online before they ever met in person, she expresses doubts about the usefulness of Internet activism. Viktor on the other hand is a strong believer in the possibilities of the communication commons provided in the digital world.

It connects us with each other, “London and Harare, Cairo and New York,” he exclaims; the social media allow for connection and community-making, which otherwise would be impossible in the neoliberal world. He emphasizes, “this is why I have become passionate about the fight to get us… us activists to fight for internet freedom. It’s why the old man (Mugabe) is so intent on monitoring it, checking our emails for insults.”

Zeilig’s character echoes Frantz Fanon, who wrote with reference to the crucial role of the radio in the Algerian revolution that, “a community will evolve only when the people control their means of communication”. The novelist’s imagination mirrors momentous questions, which have been pushed to the forefront regarding the role of social media in Africa today. Popular mobilisations, directed through cellphones, brought about and defended democracy in Burkina Faso in 2014 and 2015; and in South Africa, for instance, a vibrant public discourse on decolonisation has been pushed forward through new online media.

In Harare Viktor admits that there are setbacks to social media; these are however, his argument goes, not inherently technological but caused by the dominant political economy strictures of capitalism. Ever the socialist believer he dreams up a vision of how technology could be used, beyond its potential for mobilising protests, to connect and create a global archive, a fully democratic commons.

“We have in Zimbabwe, in London, in our possession the technological ability to access every book ever written, every painting, song, every recording of every opera, every corner of the planet. … The only thing between us and real access for everyone to total information is capital. The commercialization of the internet is no less a historical defeat than the enclosures of the commons in Europe and the colonization of Africa.”

This hints to a debate about digital commons, which is particularly significant, in Africa as in Europe (and elsewhere). Observations and informal conversations I have had with activists of the ‘new’ student movements in South Africa, supporters of youth movements for urban land and social justice in Namibia, and with pro-democracy activists in Burkina Faso indicate almost unequivocal support among young Africans for Viktor’s ardent belief: “Do not dismiss the value of these digital commons, that we still control, to change the world if we fight and occupy them.” The restoration of the commons as a social and political project, pushed prominently in the West by, for one, the British writer, filmmaker and social and environmental activist George Monbiot, seems to be attractive to young Africans, who want to look for alternatives beyond state and market. How they go about it, and which chances – and hindrances – they find, will need to be explored further.

Update June 9, 2017: "In a bid to defend its national exams against would-be cheaters, Ethiopia shut down its internet on Tuesday and Wednesday, preventing citizens from going online. That’s the official explanation, anyway: persecuted activists and rights groups suggest that the shutdown is part of a broader effort to control and limit access to information in the country." (Mail & Guardian, June 2 to 8 2017)