The Muddle that is Africa and Privacy

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By Beatrice Mungai

Since the turn of the millennium, privacy has increasingly become a major concern within the continent. With most governments embracing technology and putting into action projects on E-governance and Digital IDs, as well as the growing interest that Western technology companies have in the continent, long gone are the days when the rhetoric was, Africa is not concerned about privacy. Unlike other cultures, African democracies are mostly viewed as collectivist, with the larger group holding more priority than the individual. This assumption has led to the deduction that in most African cultures privacy would have no place as it would be in opposition with the communal nature of the society.[1]At the face of it, this position seems sound and many academics have stood by this. However, several authors have a different view and Africans seem to be singing a different tune.

Alex Makulilo, who is a Professor of Law at Open University of Tanzania, puts forward that Africa has been unfairly judged and perceived, without proper consideration and scrutiny of the continent’s historical and economic conditions that have affected its culture and development. He extensively discusses the role that trade during the Trans-Atlantic Trade, as well as prior to this, and colonialism had in disrupting the economic and political structures of African societies. This in turn resulted in a paradigm where post-colonial states heavily rely on their former colonizing states not only for financial assistance, but also for development assistance. Quite often, such assistance comes with conditions requiring policy changes. The effects of colonialization affected Africa’s social, economic and political structures, and independence did not improve the situation.[2]

He points out that individualism doesn’t result in comprehensive privacy laws. Case in point, the United States of America which is arguably the most individualistic nation, ought to have a comprehensive data protection legislation at the federal level, which it does not have. The absence of privacy laws in the USA, however, does not mean that Americans do not value privacy.[3] In fact, Sihlongonyane, another African scholar, has argued that the traditional positions of both African and Western values were alike among primitive societies.[4] We share similar core values, despite the different expressions of these values. A clear example of this is the importance both societies place on the preservation of human dignity, which has been used by many scholars as a basis for the right to privacy.

At the heart of most privacy arguments is the right to the esteem and respect of other people, which gives the person the need to safeguard their private affairs from unnecessary intrusion from the outside world.[5] It has been observed that the protection of dignity as a core expression of the EU’s privacy laws overlaps with Ubuntu’s concept of human dignity, the South African Constitutional principle of dignity, as well as the common law concept of personal dignity.[6] When carefully examined, the notion that Africans do not value privacy is based off of a narrow understanding of the communal nature of most African societies. It is borne out of the habit of insisting on the universal application of common values, that are shaped differently so as to suit the environment and people they are meant to serve.

In Africa, several issues have shaped the context of the privacy discourse. Among them are: the need to ensure health information remains confidential to prevent stigma around HIV/AIDS, the increase in cases of governments engaging in communication surveillance, increase in mobile money applications, the roll out of national digital identification systems, the introduction of national DNA databases and passing of privacy-unfriendly laws in the guise of defending national security.[7] Some of these issues are not unique to Africa, like health privacy and the roll out of digital IDs. What is unique is the manner in which Africans view these acts as intrusive and the background behind the mistrust between citizens and their governments.

A recently released global poll done by IPSOS shows that 85% of people are concerned with privacy in the Middle East/Africa with 63% more concerned of their online privacy compared to the previous year, 2018. It is particularly interesting that privacy concerns related to one’s family, friends and others in the economy are higher in developing economies, in comparison to the developed world. Concerns stemming from foreign and domestic governments have increased the most from the previous year. [8]

These figures show that: one, Africans are aware of privacy and secondly, that they are more concerned of how weakening of privacy affects the community. They are concerned about how this affects their immediate family and friends, which seems to be in line with the theme of brotherhood in communal societies. This also gives a basis for the factors cited as catalyzing privacy concerns in Africa. For example, the increase in initiative on national databases, national identification system programs and instances of governments passing privacy-unfriendly laws explains why domestic government’s policies are the top reason for increased privacy concerns amongst citizens.

The blogger adds on to these factors, two others she believes have influenced the discourse of privacy in the continent. First, that literacy and internet connection in Africa is improving. Therefore, Africa is becoming part of the global community and the conversations happening around the globe. It could also be attributed to the fact that a lot of African countries are transitioning from dictatorial regimes to much open democracies with a constitutional revival to boot.[9] This means that African governments are more accommodative of the underlying values of democratic societies such as free speech, free press, freedom of association, right to petition and the right to privacy.

For the blogger, the largest take away from all this is the need to control the narrative of the state of affairs within the continent from within first, and to share a narrative that appreciates the history of the continent. Keeping in mind that the continent’s outlook on privacy will not be singular due to the different cultures in different regions. Northern Africa has large influence from Islam culture compared to the rest of the continent. Secondly, that it is important to remember that the development of privacy in West was to protect the citizens from government interference. And finally, that privacy is intended to ensure the person’s dignity is not diminished for the sake of other’s gain or entertainment, and that this is a value African societies are familiar with. Privacy does not necessarily need to mean embracing individualism, but the respect of the needs of the person to safeguard a personal space in which they can conduct their personal intimate affairs without the unnecessary and unlawful interference of others.

[1] Lee A Bygrave, Privacy and Data Protection in International Perspective, Scandinavian Studies in Law, 2010, p 176

[2] Alex B. Makulilo, African Data Privacy Laws (2016), Springer, p 4 -15

[3] Alex B. Makulilo, ,  ‘“A Person is a Person through Other Person’ – A Critical Analysis of Privacy and Culture in Africa, Beijing Law Review, 2016, p 199

[4] Alex B. Makulilo, ,  ‘“A Person is a Person through Other Person’ – A Critical Analysis of Privacy and Culture in Africa, Beijing Law Review, 2016, p 197

[5] James M., The Ethics of Privacy Protection, Library Trends, University of Illinois, (1991).

[6] Alex B. Makulilo, Privacy and Data Protection in Africa: a state of the art, International Data Privacy Law, 2012, p 172

[7] Alex B. Makulilo, ,  ‘“A Person is a Person through Other Person’ – A Critical Analysis of Privacy and Culture in Africa, Beijing Law Review, 2016, p 200 – 203

[8] Internet Security, Online Privacy and Trust, CIGI-IPSOS Global Survey: Internet Security and Trust (2019)

[9] Prempeh H., Africa’s “constitutional revival”: False start or new dawn?, International Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 5, Issue 3, July 2007, p 469.

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