The internet increasingly enables people in Senegal to express their opinions and be part of democracy – this has become clear in digital initiatives such as Sunu 2012 or #FreeSenegal. Senegalese activist Cheikh Fall explains in an interview how important (pan-African) networking is in this context.
You describe yourself as a “change agent” and cyber activist. What made you an activist?
Cheikh Fall What made me an activist, a committed actor, and a committed African was a key moment during the 2007 presidential elections. We had to watch the then-President Abdoulaye Wade – despite us having heavy criticism of his governance – being re-elected for a second term. I had never voted in any election before, as I didn’t see the point. But when my brother came back from his polling station in 2007, we talked. He said that in a democracy, if you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice. This simple statement suddenly woke me up, because it came from the mouth of a person younger than me. Since that day, I have been determined to fight and use my skills to help my country and my continent as well as to encourage others to do the same. I started using the internet and information technology to promote civic engagement and create a participatory democracy through “mature citizenship” (“citoyenneté augmentée”). The possibilities of the internet eventually made me an activist.
Ten years ago you launched the online project Sunu 2012 (Our 2012). Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It was triggered by my brother’s wake-up call in 2007. After that, I started programming an intelligent digital platform to help organise the next elections in 2012. The aim was to inform and mobilise citizens as well as to monitor the elections with the help of digital surveillance networks. At that time, this was a novelty in Senegal: a digital citizen’s platform designed by one Senegalese for other Senegalese.
What exactly was new about it?
With Sunu 2012, for example, we took a look at the electoral laws and the constitution and summarised the very formal legal language in a series of tweets and posts on Facebook before presenting it in a simplified way using infographics. Information and suggestions such as “Presidents have a lot of power – take a close look at the political agenda and the election programme before the election,” but also concrete tips such as “If you wear your candidate’s T-shirt to vote, you can be punished for it!” were thus quickly made accessible and brought to people’s awareness. Then there were also messages about the general importance of voter turnout and the analyses of problems of previous elections.
In the run-up to and during the 2012 elections, there were also an incredible number of demonstrations, especially due to the controversial candidacy of outgoing president Abdoulaye Wade. The opposition and many citizens found their “mouthpiece” in the movement Y’en a marre (“We are fed up”). Sunu 2012 was on the ground, posting live on Facebook and other channels, informing the whole world about what was happening in Senegal. We equipped hundreds of young Senegalese with mobile phones and distributed them to different polling stations to monitor the process and record the results. At our headquarters in Dakar, we collected and collated the information. This made it possible for us to send the preliminary results – or at least forecasts – as early as 9 p.m. on election day. We know from internal circles that our news on the preliminary results was the basis for outgoing President Wade to call his opponent, Macky Sall, to congratulate him on his victory. Thanks to our work, the traditional media, especially the TV stations, were also able to broadcast the results in real time.
You are also the co-founder of the pan-African network of online activists and bloggers, Africtivistes. Was the success of Sunu 2012 also a kind of “launching pad” for this network?
After the success of Sunu 2012, I was invited to several African countries to share the Senegalese experience of the revolution and the monitoring of the presidential elections by the citizens. Many young people I met, whether in Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, or elsewhere, expressed a desire to do the same in their respective countries. They all wanted to replicate the Sunu 2012 model, which I offered free of charge under an open-source licence and which could be coded freely. I supported the young people in building their networks and founding citizens’ initiatives. Thus, many other initiatives such as “Guinea vote”, “Mali vote”, “Benin vote”, “Burkina vote”, and “Togo vote” were born.
The great interest of the young people showed me that the desire for political change and co-determination is great, but at the same time fear prevailed because many of them lived under very restrictive regimes. So I asked myself: What is the point of young people forming networks and setting up initiatives if in the end they lack the freedom needed to implement them? This is how the idea of a pan-African network was born, bringing together all young political “change agents” in the digital field (bloggers, programmers, etc.). In 2015, Africtivistes was born at a summit in Dakar with 150 participants from different African countries.
You spoke about the fact that many of the young activists move within restrictive political contexts. Are activists from the diaspora also part of Africtivistes?
In fact, most Africtivistes activists live outside the continent. We are talking about young people who are not free enough at home to express their commitment and are forced to flee or leave. Many of them end up in Europe, and some we have helped to flee, for example by buying their plane ticket. Others we support by finding them a safe place to stay. I am talking about young Africans who live in other countries, on other continents, and “fight” from there. In Congo and Chad, the internet is often switched off during political events. In these cases, it is the African diaspora that stands in for the local actors through Africtivistes and becomes the mouthpiece of the people who are being silenced. The silencing of the voice of civil society is thus prevented. It is the diaspora that succeeds today in making itself heard and in carrying out the civil society struggles that are often not possible in their own countries. That is why they play such an important role in all our activities.
Only in March of this year, massive protests took place in Senegal (#freesenegal), whereupon the government shut down the internet – and thus essential social communication channels.
This practice of restricting the internet and social networks is not unique to Senegal. And it is such a shame that it is an issue at all. It is 2021 and we should be talking about democratisation, access, and closing the “digital coverage gap”. But our political leaders can think of nothing better than to legally, subtly, and brutally stifle civil society. Censorship and “internet shutdowns” prevent people from expressing themselves freely and publicly. Internet surveillance and online threats are ubiquitous.
How influential do you think big international companies such as Google and Facebook – who give free access to many people with Facebook Zero etc. – are but collect data for their own economic interests?
Here we are stuck in a dichotomy. We depend on them for many of our activities and especially for mobilisation. They offer us seemingly free services, but in return they use our personal details and data. Therefore, it is very important for users to understand the economic interests of these companies. Understanding how they work means protecting yourself, and that is the whole logic of cybersecurity. We need to take the time to read privacy policies.
And it is also essential that not everything can be accepted at the state level when the “digital giants” come. If data centres are provided or the internet is offered free of charge, a legal framework must regulate this provision. The top priority should be digital sovereignty and the protection of citizens and their personal data.
What do you see as the hopes and risks of information and communication technologies?
There are still many hopes. Today, Africa is making progress towards more democracy, accountability, transparency, and a fairer justice system, thanks in part to these technologies. Thanks to the internet, corruption has been exposed and crimes punished. Young people have realised innovative and groundbreaking projects. The youth are increasingly producing not only the “typical protest” but also concrete proposals for improvement. We are moving in a digital environment where it is those with ingenuity that cheer each other on. That is exactly what is happening.
What worries me is the increasing restriction of the civil society space – also in the digital sphere – through censorship, internet shutdowns, manipulation, and misuse of technology. We can only counteract this if we work together – and with the involvement of political actors – on the following points.
- First, we need to find ways to raise awareness and promote digital transformation and revolution.
- Second, we need to educate users about “digital hygiene”; this means educating them on how to use the technologies and digital tools well and safely.
- Third, it is essential to make the legal framework that currently applies in cyberspace understandable and accessible and to educate users about their rights.
- Fourth and finally, we need to create a safe framework for discussions and exchanges in which civil society and governments can find digital solutions together. Instead of entrusting our data to foreign companies, we should work on our own digital sovereignty with local knowledge and skills.
What is your message to young activists working in cyberspace?
We are all part of a community, a network. You can go a long way on your own, but it takes a lot of time. You can achieve a lot on your own, but what you create only has value if you make it accessible to others. Only together can we go far, only together can we be strong. And that is one of the values of the internet today: “If I don’t know, I ask – if I know, I share.”
Thank you very much for the interview.
Cheikh Fall is an expert and consultant on digital media, security, and development as well as co-founder of Africtivistes, a pan-African network with more than 200 members from 40 countries on the African continent. He has already received several awards for his commitment to digital development in Africa.