Gbenga Sesan, from Paradigm Initiative Nigeria: “We need to take the African Declaration of Internet Rights to where the people are”

As part of the work to promote visibility of African internet rights, this week we have interviewed renowned Nigerian internet rights defender Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), a social enterprise that connects Nigerian youth with ICT-enabled opportunities to achieve socioeconomic development.

Both you and your organisation are very involved with Nigerian youth. Would you say African internet rights are seen as a priority by young people in Nigeria and in the rest of the continent?

It is hard to speak broadly about being African, since it varies from country to country, and especially between rural and urban, but from the countries I have worked with, the conversation focuses mostly on what we refer to generically as bread, on basic needs like bread and health care. The importance of civil rights issues is often lost because people are trapped in basic needs and it becomes difficult to embrace things as complex as privacy rights, internet rights. This is unfortunate, because these things that are seen as “high level” are connected to basic needs and are key to guarantee them (broadband can help improve basic needs, and so on).

The conversation around internet rights is still at the level of those with a lot of awareness, with a big urban/rural youth divide. For the rural youth, internet rights are not an issue, but they are for urban youth. So there is a lot of work to do to make sure that people perceive rights as something that affects them, or it will be harder to protect and promote those rights. We try to do that at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, with capacity building projects, ICT policy intervention programmes and our #DigitalJobs campaign, connecting individuals, people, institutions and communities with the socioeconomic opportunities that ICTs provide.

You are a renowned supporter of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. Can it be used as a powerful tool for advocacy?

The Declaration is a great tool and we already have it in different languages, which is important. Now we need another type of translation, one that goes beyond the language and helps people understand it and own it. We need to take the message to where people are (schools, public spaces…), find the connection between the bread and the blabla. This is a challenge for internet activists worldwide, because rights can be seen as elitist, but they actually affect everyone, have an effect on everyday life. Infringement on internet rights is an infringement on human rights, and in states where rights are not guaranteed, basic needs like bread, health care, may also not be guaranteed.

That is clear at a local level, but how is the regional aspect key to promoting rights?

Even though there are many differences from country to country, there is an African identity, rooted in our common heritage. Ethnographic maps show that people move around the continent, so there is a regional scope, there is an African identity even though it contains multiple other identities. So yes, it makes sense to focus on the regional level to achieve fundamental rights. Global is important but I don’t see it as my reality, which I do see at a national and local level, and also at a regional level. Regional is about identity, it is an opportunity to share best and worst practices between different countries with the same heritage. It is a very important platform for conversation, Africans talking to Africans.

We need to connect people working on digital rights in the continent, not only institutions, but different kinds of people. Right now most Africans mostly meet in conferences out of the continent, at side events. We need to share stories, information, experiences… I need to know what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mauritius, etc., so that I can compare, see what works and doesn’t, learn from neighbouring countries…

Both you and your organisation, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, are involved in judicial advocacy. What is the role of judicial advocacy in promoting African internet rights?

Everything that we do in terms of rights falls on laws, constitutions, bills and acts… If the judiciary has the ability to make proclamations of what is right and what is wrong, then the judiciary is a space where we must engage. Justice moves slowly but it is key to intervene there. Just to give an example, a few days ago here in Nigeria, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill scaled the first reading in the House of Representatives.  That is something important, something to keep working on.

You have a high profile and are very active on social media. Is this key to engage young people in African internet rights?

Social media is the new town hall, a space where conversations happen. We need to be where the people are, whether it is online or offline.