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Lessons in Digital Rights Advocacy from The Kenyan 2017 Elections

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Babatunde Okunoye

In an earlier blogpost, I had drawn the attention of the world to watch out for digital rights violations during 3 critical African elections in August – in Kenya, Rwanda and Angola.

Digital rights violations such as Internet disruptions, social media clampdowns and arrests have been known to coincide with election time on the continent, as our 2016 Digital Rights in Africa report reveals.

However, with the conclusion of both Presidential elections in Rwanda and Kenya earlier this month without incidents of digital rights violations reported in both countries, in retrospect, I wondered if we could have, with some confidence, predicted the outcomes anyway.

It turns out that perhaps that might have well been the case. Studying the countries which led the continent in digital rights violations in 2016, particularly through Internet disruptions, there seems to be a common thread which links them.

Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Uganda and Zimbabwe shut down the Internet or Internet applications in 2016.

With the exception of perhaps Algeria, none of these countries have healthy democracies. Most have governments propped up against the will of majority of their population and have poor human rights records.

It becomes clear therefore that perhaps by joining forces with the wider human rights community – who strive for greater political participation, civil liberties and developmental goals, digital rights advocates can work with the long term strategy of achieving digital rights for all through the fostering of broader human rights and civil liberties.

It is interesting to note that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) has a mechanism to track the human rights climate globally. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations gives country level assessments of the state human rights across the world.

Digital rights advocates can tap into this to understand the general state of human rights in their regions, as a pointer to where digital rights abuses are likely to occur. This is because where other human rights like freedom of civil and political association aren’t respected, digital rights such as the right to freedom of expression, especially online, can’t be taken for granted either.

In the last four elections in Africa where the ruling governments did not shut down the Internet – In Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya, there has been a recent history of regular democratic change of governments in 3 of those countries, demonstrating a deepening culture of healthy democratic practice. Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya have had successive, if not, perfect, changes of governments.

And here I note “not perfect” because during the 2007 Kenya elections there was an Internet disruption but the country has moved on, learnt its lessons and produced a better outing in 2017 where human rights, including digital rights, were respected through the combined efforts of all the entire human rights (including digital rights) community.

In particular, the example of the Kenyan ICT Action Network (KICTANet) working closely with other civil society actors in championing the ethical use of technology (including the Internet) during the Kenyan elections is praiseworthy and instrumental to the outcome in Kenya.

It is hoped this lesson isn’t lost on all as we work for the protection of digital rights in Africa.

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