State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2021: Effects of State Surveillance on Democratic Participation in Africa

Africa has increasingly become digitalised with technology playing a pivotal role in learning, working, and public participation. However, there is growing concern that rising state surveillance is not only undermining African citizens’ digital rights, but also hindering their willingness to meaningfully embrace these transformative technologies. State surveillance generally refers to measures taken by governments aimed at monitoring and supervising activities of the population. Surveillance involves the monitoring, interception, collection, preservation, and retention of information that has been communicated, relayed, or generated over communication networks to a group of recipients by a third party. In the past few years, increasing state surveillance in Africa has become a key concern. Many countries across the continent have enacted various laws that permit surveillance, mandate telecommunication intermediaries to facilitate the interception of communication, stipulate the mandatory collection of biometric data, limit the use of encryption, require the localisation of personal data, and grant law enforcement agents broad search and seizure powers. In countries such as Chad, Malawi, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zambia, laws prohibit offering encryption services without licensing, and in other cases, encryption service providers are required to decrypt any encrypted information that they hold so as to aid lawful interception. Similarly, while all countries have laws that facilitate lawful surveillance, many of these laws have pervasive flaws, are partially implemented, indiscriminately applied, and widely abused. While state surveillance is justifiable to promote national security, it is increasingly being used by various African governments to entrench political control, including through targeted profiling and spying on activists, human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders, and political dissidents perceived to be critical of the ruling administrations. Surveillance undermines the privacy of communications and the right to anonymity, and consequently leads to self-censorship and the withdrawal of some individuals and groups from the online public sphere. Moreover, surveillance systems, both targeted and mass, “may undermine the right to form an opinion, as the fear of unwilling disclosure of online activity, such as search and browsing, likely deters individuals from accessing information, particularly where such surveillance leads to repressive outcome. This research discusses the nature and adverse effects of state surveillance on human rights defenders (HRDs), civil society organisations, activists, journalists, and political opposition leaders and groups in 11 African countries - Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It maps the prevalent forms of surveillance, the laws and policies that aid surveillance, and the impact of state surveillance.