Africa’s 'forgotten' but growing international security threat: the information revolution

The rate of uptake of technology on the continent has been dizzying, but the pitfalls could be deeper if not anticipated.

IN May, Rwanda to wide international attention hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa, highlighting the nation’s steady progress over the last two decades.

Part of the plaudits stemmed from using technology to change the lives of citizens, from automating fare collection in buses to delivering essential services, with backing for this coming from strong partnerships, according to the host’s city mayor, Monique Mukaruliza. 

Nifty entrepreneurial adopters there are also reducing their cost of entry to trading internationally, helping grow their export markets including through e-commerce.

A departure with many other regional countries is that the push comes right from the top: president Paul Kagame oversees the Smart City initiative of the AU-backed top-level SMART Africa project, in addition to being co-chair of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

It is key—your writer has been recently around the block in many African countries, and it is easy to spot those where a digital economy is only lip-service.

The theme in Kigali was ‘Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation’. But beyond the essential focus on catalysing growth using digitalisation, was a less underplayed theme—that technology has rapidly become an international security issue, Africa included.

International security still tends to be viewed through the Cold War prisms of statist-led interventions, many of which have their roots in realism—the predominant political theory that is about a country’s military strength.  
Even after the détente and the growth of competing collectivist or constructivist approaches, this thinking has persisted, as the skirmishes between the West and Russia show.

But the information revolution should not be overlooked. It has quickly turned into an diplomatic relations arena in itself.  A bone of contention in recent tensions between US and China has been that of cybersecurity, particularly over intellectual property.

Advances in IT now cut across national borders, from the transfer of money electronically to hacking and big espionage.

Strike balance

The challenge is striking a balance between an information and data intensive age that is increasingly the lifeblood of many businesses and governments, and the right amount of vigilance that does not increase threats or harm commerce.

Many African governments are pushing on with national e-government plans, but have not invested as much in security of such data, leaving them at risk of debilitating attacks.

Last year the State of Internet Freedom in East Africa report was released, showing as expected increasing access and penetration in the region. But cybercrime such as identity theft, website hacking, fraud and online violence against women was also prevalent.

An estimated eight in every 10 computers in Africa are estimated to be infected with viruses, while cybercrime has been spreading fastest in the region than anywhere else in the world.

Research shows a correlation between economic growth and cybercrime, a red flag for a continent growing above the global average, but also even less financially developed economies are not spared, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa.

This is where Rwanda earns its stripes. In March 2015, the country approved the National Cyber Security Policy aimed at safeguarding data from cyber attacks. The country’s police has also set up a Cybercrime and Digital Forensics unit. In April that year, the ICT ministry launched an “Stay Safe Online” campaign aimed at raising public and organisational awareness on the current cyber security threats and ways of preventing them.

Other African countries can borrow from Rwanda which is punching above its weight in this area, either in practice or in the role of the government’s hierarchy. 

Urgency

There is also an urgency. The buzz is now of a ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ which anchors the continent’s ‘smart development’ —think the Internet of Things— and which brings together previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, 3D printing and biotechnology, all building and amplifying each another, and making things easier, and more efficient. 

With the race toward this, is important for the continent to have the basics in place first, including its policies and skills base,  or risk being swamped by sophisticated threats.

This also has a direct role on Africa’s economic development, and consequently its future. 

The role of mobile technology in ‘leapfrogging’ the continent towards inclusive growth has been well documented—M-Pesa’s role in financial inclusion continues to be celebrated.

As the continent seeks to accelerate its growth towards meeting 2030 development goals, it will need to be aware of the trapdoors to avoid. But as its dizzying adoption of technology has shown, it can also leapfrog into the security age.

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