January 2022 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) – an instrument that was adopted with the goal of inspiring African states to uphold the principles of good governance, public participation, the rule of law and human rights. Africa reaches this milestone in the midst of significant highs and lows in the arena of governance. On one hand, the continent has seen the successful mediation of longstanding conflicts and the ushering in of democratic dispensations that brought an end to authoritarian rule. Yet on the other hand, these successes have been fragile. Countries such as South Sudan relapsed into conflict and required a revitalised peace agreement, and most recently in Sudan, a people’s revolution towards democracy was threatened by a military coup.
There has also been the emergence of new conflicts such as in Ethiopia and a series of disputed election outcomes on the continent that have resulted in mass protests, shrinking civic space, and loss of life in extreme cases. Most worryingly, 2021 has seen countries such as Mali, Guinea and Chad revert to military regimes as opposed to civilian-led governments. In the latest edition of its Africa Governance Report, the African Union stated that the continent’s strongest performance lay in the area of socio-economic development, while the weakest performance was in the areas of democracy and political governance.
Civic Tech: technology at the service of citizen participation
How then can the continent consolidate its gains and address gaps as far as democratic governance is concerned? The consensus has gravitated towards calls for a transformative approach to governance; one that entails vision, innovation, integrity, inclusivity, responsiveness and effectiveness. Indeed, Africa’s leaders have articulated their collective vision through Agenda 2063, which includes the goal of “An Africa of Good Governance, Democracy, Respect for Human Rights, Justice and Rule of Law”. The realisation of this vision requires a governance framework that encourages public participation to centre people’s needs in policy making and respect the people’s will in the election of political leadership. A lot can be said of methods to enhance public participation, but the recent experiences of youth-driven revolutions during the Arab spring, the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, the 2020 Sudan revolution and now the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the aspect of civic technology into sharp focus.
Civic technology in this context refers to the digital tools that make it easier for citizens to organise and mobilise on matters of governance, and also to engage with those in power. If properly deployed, civic technology can help strengthen democratic processes and promote inclusive decision-making. During the 2011 Arab spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia, smartphones and social media platforms were credited with facilitating an organising structure that outpaced the governments that were trying to suppress the protests. In 2008, Kenyan civil society successfully deployed crowd-sourcing technologies to map out the unfolding post-election violence in the country that year. This contributed greatly to informing the mediation efforts that brought an end to the violence.
In Mali, the mobile application MonElu has been utilised as a medium to strengthen citizen participation in governance by facilitating dialogue with elected officials and in the process increasing accountability to citizens. In Zimbabwe, Justice Today is a mobile application that bridges the gap in legal aid by utilising “artificial intelligence to educate citizens on the steps to take when victimised.” Given the experiences of restricted movement and assembly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, civic technology has become an essential tool to coordinate state responses to the pandemic, maintain civic engagement and promote solidarity across civic movements.
CivicTech Fund Africa : Accelerate technological innovation for participatory governance
It is for these reasons that greater investment should be made to harness the potential of civic technology in enhancing democracy in Africa. One such initiative was launched on 30 November 2021 – the CivicTech Fund Africa. As part of a pan-African project called the Charter Project Africa, the CivicTech Fund Africa is a mechanism designed to amplify the work of young African innovators who seek to use technology as a way of enhancing public participation and democratic processes at the local and continental levels. The CivicTech Fund Africa will achieve this by providing seed grants, technology and data support to the innovators who successfully apply for the fund.
The CivicTech Fund Africa will initially target 11 African Union member countries (Benin, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia) and expand to supporting initiatives elsewhere on the continent in a future phase. With financial support from the European Union, the fund will be administered by the Charter Project Africa consortium which consists of 6 organisations, namely: AfricTivistes, Code for Africa (CfA), the Gorée Institute, the Democracy Works Foundation, the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) and the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD).
The CivicTech Fund Africa also enjoys the support and endorsement of the African Union that will see essential organs such as the African Governance Architecture (AGA) Secretariat and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) engaged as critical stakeholders who preside over policy processes such as the Africa Youth Engagement strategy and monitoring the implementation of the ACDEG. Ultimately, it is hoped that the CivicTech Fund Africa will not only highlight innovative uses of technology in democratic processes, but will also diversify the voices in the African Union policy spaces by promoting citizen engagement and youthful voices more specifically.
However, in appreciating the possibilities of civic technology, we must also be aware of the challenges faced within this space. In some countries civic technology has triggered a backlash from governments in the form of internet shutdowns and cyber-surveillance. And while in other countries the smartphone has accelerated the penetration of civic technology, the reality is that internet penetration on the continent is approximated to stand at 43%. It is for this reason that the enthusiasm for civic technology needs to be matched by support for maintaining open internet spaces and investment in infrastructure that enables access for citizens. In the end, initiatives such as the CivicTech Fund Africa will not be a silver bullet that completely resolves Africa’s democratic challenges; rather, they open the door to broadening the conversations to resolve these challenges and invite vibrant ideas from the youth as Africa’s largest constituency.