The Disproportionate Exclusion of Persons With Disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Evelyn Lirri |

For Persons with Disabilities, access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can be an enabler for social and economic inclusion. Yet across Africa, despite the various laws and policies that have been passed and adopted by countries, persons with disabilities continue to lag behind in terms of access and use of digital tools.

Barriers such as low levels of ICT skills, high illiteracy levels, poverty and the high cost of assistive technologies such as screen readers, screen magnification software, text readers, and speech input software, and digital inaccessibility of websites and mobile applications and services are shared across Sub-Saharan Africa. These barriers are often accompanied by limited clarity on what actions are being taken by states and companies to address these gaps.

The digital inclusion of marginalised and vulnerable communities was among the issues discussed at the September 2021 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica). In a panel discussion titled Technology and Disability, various speakers noted that persons with disabilities continue to face numerous barriers that have prevented them from fully benefiting from the opportunities that technology enables, including access to crucial information and services such as education and health, civic engagement, and employment.

Speaking at the Forum, disability rights activist Clodoaldo Castiano from the Forum of Disabled Persons Organisation in Mozambique noted that despite the country being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), it has not set a specific agenda to enable ICT accessibility. The CRPD requires states to undertake measures which ensure that persons with disabilities have access to ICT, including assistive technologies and resources to realise the right to access.

“Although we have ratified the CRPD, the government has not been able to define a specific legal and policy agenda to address the obligations of the Convention,” said Castiano, adding that ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities also remains largely unregulated. He further added that although Mozambique has a Universal Access Fund, it does not include programmes that benefit persons with disabilities.

Some countries are, however, trying to put more effort into addressing the disability digital divide. Uganda’s State Minister for Disability Affairs, Hellen Grace Asamo, noted that the country has introduced a number of initiatives to support the promotion, inclusion and accessibility of ICT tools for persons with disabilities. In addition to laws such as the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2020 which recognise the rights of persons with disabilities, the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance has drafted the ICT and Disability Policy as an intervention to close gaps in the use of ICT by persons with disabilities.  Furthermore, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has made it a requirement for television stations to have sign language interpreters to facilitate access and inclusion of people with hearing impairment.

“In Uganda where we have 16 per cent of people living with a form of disability, it is critical that we have programmes that ensure they are not left out. We have made available access to Braille and we are working to ensure that all government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) have sign language interpreters,” said the minister.

The discussion also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had amplified the gaps in digital access for marginalised and vulnerable communities including persons with disabilities. This resonated with a CIPESA report, ‘Access Denied: How telcom operators in Africa are failing persons with disabilities’ which investigated how operators have made minimal efforts in addressing the needs of consumers who are also persons with disabilities.

Across the world, the pandemic forced many activities to go online which disproportionately affected persons with disabilities especially in developing countries where it only served to further alienate them from access to information, public health updates and online civic participation. In countries where data costs are high, the drop in economic activity also  served to further isolate the community from accessing the internet due to prohibitive costs.

Despite progressive legislative efforts in some countries, while a number of laws and policies have been enacted in various African countries to ensure access to services for persons with disabilities, their implementation continues to lag behind. This, coupled with the lack of awareness by persons with disabilities of their rights has made it difficult for them to demand for ICT-friendly and affordable services.

Robert Nkwangu, the Executive Director of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf, spoke to this issue.  “Majority of people with disabilities have not gone to school and many do not know their rights. Similarly, digital rights are not seen to them as a challenge because they don’t know,” he said. “We need to do more capacity building of members to give them a firm ground to demand for what is rightfully theirs.”

To address these challenges, participants at the Forum acknowledged that increased domestic funding by governments for digital innovations that support people with disabilities will be critical.  This echoes recommendations in a CIPESA report which called for the relevant government agencies such as communication regulators and consumer protection units to enforce legislation on accessible communication products and services. The report also called for more vigilance in enforcing implementation of national disability laws, codes of practice, consumer rights regulations, and ICT and disability policies. More vigilance is also needed in monitoring compliance to avoid empty claims when in reality products and services are still inaccessible.

Africa Law Tech Festival 2021: CIPESA Demystifies the Role Of Lawyers And Courts In Ensuring Digital Access To Justice Amidst The Covid-19 Pandemic

By the Lawyers hub |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA) administered a masterclass at the Africa Law Tech Festival 2021, which is hosted yearly by the Lawyers Hub. The CIPESA team was represented by Edrine Wanyama and Prof. Anthony Kakooza, who discoursed the effects of COVID-19 on the Justice sector. The session interrogated the various responses by different African States; the challenges faced, and possible recommendations to ensure timely access to justice for all, amidst the pandemic.

While lawyers and courts, including court officials, play an important role in facilitating access to justice, COVID-19 and the ardent restrictions that came with it, fundamentally affected this role. Courts could no longer be physically accessed; clients could not fulfill their obligations and witnesses could not undertake their roles. In the circumstances, technology-based alternatives for enhanced access to justice have emerged.

Over the past year there have been multiple opportunities and initiatives for innovation in the justice sector in Africa. Edrine Wanyama began by pointing out that the advent of COVID-19 has seen a shift from the traditional approaches of administering justice to E-Justice approaches which do not necessarily require physical interface and meetings.

In Kenya, the courts were quick to embrace the use of digital technology with the Practice Directions on Electronic Case Management being gazetted as early as 24th March 2020.[1] The electronic case management system’s interface allows lawyers, law firms and individuals to register through the e-filing portal on the Judiciary website or through e-citizen portal while also allowing judicial officers access to court documents and issue rulings through the portal or email. The use of video and audio conferencing through virtual platforms such as Zoom or Skype has also been integrated into the system.[2]

Nigeria’s National Judicial Council (NJC)[3] issued Guidelines for Court Sittings and Related Matters in COVID19 Period to guide the courts in implementing remote justice systems, amongst other COVID-19 related measures. Rwanda’s judiciary also outlined an Integrated Electronic Case Management System. The Online Cases Division clearly outlines the purpose of the Integrated Electronic Case Management System, benefits, account creation, case filing and follow up, a self-service user manual and video recording on how to access the system.[4].

Prof. Kakooza further delved into the various tech-innovations which have been motivated by COVID-19 to promote access to justice despite the associated challenges. The professor stated that the use of online court systems and videoconferencing to hear and determine cases had narrowed the gap between the courts and the affected individuals who no longer have to travel to courtrooms to have their matters heard. Further, the use of Online Records Management systems has made the process more efficient and accelerated the adjudication of matters and rendering of judgments via email. This has thus cut down on the case backlog and undoubtedly promoted access to justice.

However, the adoption of tech facilitated justice has not come without its challenges. In Kenya, for instance, most people do not have access to the internet and neither are they familiar with the technology in use by the courts.[5] As of January 2021, only a mere 26% of the Ugandan population used the internet[6] and as a majority of the country was unable to access the internet and geographical discrepancies forced courts to transfer cases to those capable of facilitating smooth video conferencing facilities.

While video conferencing has acted as a substitute for physical court appearances, the assessment of non-verbal cues such the defendants’ emotions and eye movements to gauge credibility is limited when compared to physical court appearance.[7] Additionally, virtual court appearances do not allow for proper detection of signs of torture and ill-treatment of accused persons and may also potentially skew the criminal justice system against persons deprived of freedom as they may feel intimidated and lack confidence when they are not able to physically appear before a judge.  This would ultimately lead to a breakdown in the justice process and negatively contribute to access to justice across the region.

Furthermore, due to the digital divide and increased exclusion, access to justice for certain groups has not been possible. Exclusion on the continent is facilitated by factors such as high internet costs,[8] not being able to afford the right technology like a laptop or smartphone, lack of access to information or communication and weak ICT infrastructure[9]. Additionally, unreliable internet connectivity and provision is prevalent in remote localities, resulting in virtual courts being out of reach for rural and marginalized communities in Africa.[10]

In addition to the fore highlighted challenges, data protection and privacy has become a major concern for tech users across the continent with laws falling short of robust protection standards such as for Botswana,[11] Kenya[12], Lesotho[13], Nigeria,[14] Rwanda,[15] Uganda,[16] and Zambia[17] among others.  For instance, there are data security concerns which potentially stem from the use of virtual courtrooms, digital storage of case records and the protection of personal information relating to litigants and witnesses and the evidence they provide in the courtroom.

In spite of the challenges that come with access to justice in the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to build a versatile technological adaptation and resilience of our judicial systems is critical for the promotion of access to justice on the Continent. The embrace of technology is indeed the path towards a digital legal ecosystem. It is also one that will require proactivity from all the stakeholders involved and the strengthening of cross-border interactions that support access to justice in Africa. The adoption of policies that contribute to lower internet costs, and embrace as well as facilitate the use of technology across the internet is indeed no less a venture to embark on. Public private partnerships and the integration of uniform e-justice systems across the Continent also require similar attention if the desired justice system is to be realized.

You can find the session’s recording here.

Cyber Security Symposium Africa (CSSA)

The Cyber Security Symposium Africa (CSSA) is aimed at bringing together those in the security sector to share knowledge and ideas, and identify possible collaborations.
For more details on the event, please click here.

Lessons on Flying from the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa

By Jason Pielemeier |

“Since men have learned to shoot without missing, we have to learn to fly without perching” — African Proverb

By citing these words in his opening message, Dr. Wairagala Wakabi, the Executive Director of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), captured both the daunting reality and the irrepressible optimism surrounding the state of Internet freedom in Africa. This dynamic was also captured in Charles Onyango-Obbo’s keynote address, “Many African Governments Hate the Free Internet — And That Is A Very Good Thing.”

I was fortunate to represent the Global Network Initiative at the 5th Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica18) in Accra, Ghana from September 27–28, 2018. The event, co-hosted by CIPESA and the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), featured a range of activists, academics, journalists, and government representatives from across the continent and the world discussing topics like censorship, big data, and gender-based violence online. While the topics were familiar to me, FIFAfrica18 offered a unique opportunity to hear fascinating African perspectives, narratives, and stories that are often absent from larger, more international Internet freedom conferences.

Over the two days, it became clear that while authoritarian governments in Africa may have come late to the Internet repression party, they are quickly catching up thanks to their own creative tactics, as well as foreign technology and knowledge transfer. As Onyango-Obbo noted in his keynote, African dictators are weaponizing the Internet for political purposes through the control and manipulation of a new digital bureaucracy (or as he calls it, the “digitocracy” and the “surveillance securitocracy”). Other speakers pointed out how anti-terrorism laws — sometimes left-over colonial versions, in other instances newer, Global War on Terror-inspired copies are being misused — to prosecute speech that should be protected. It was also pointed out that long legacies of information manipulation, combined with the fragility of the free press, have left many African countries susceptible to disinformation campaigns.

Other tactics are more creative. For instance, Tanzania and Uganda have pioneered taxes on social media and blogging respectively, which other governments are now seeking to replicate. And of course, when threatened, these regimes have not been afraid to order brute force network disruptions. Interestingly, the case was also made that the success that some repressive regimes are having with “fake news” may be leading them away from more scorched earth tactics like Internet shutdowns.

These efforts to clamp down on online freedom are often aided and abetted by technology and services procured from outside Africa. The role of China in financing and providing information and communication infrastructure that is perceived to facilitate state surveillance was a consistent topic across the sessions I attended. In addition, participants decried the increasing availability of more targeted hacking tools, peddled by Western and Israeli firms.

The combined power of these two forces — unreliable infrastructure and targeted hacking software — have been perhaps most prominently displayed by the government of Ethiopia, and FIFAfrica18 offered a fascinating opportunity to hear from the Zone 9 bloggers, a group of independent activists who were on the receiving end of their government’s oppression for several years until their recent release. Appearing as a group outside Ethiopia for the first time, the bloggers offered lessons from their experience, including the importance of solidarity, appreciation for support from activists abroad and diplomats at home, and gratitude to social media platforms for limiting the extent to which the government could persecute others in their networks. Perhaps more important though, was the inspiration they engendered through their ongoing commitment to continue to fight for human rights in Ethiopia and beyond.

Consistent with these notes of optimism and defiance were demonstrations of new tools like Netblock’s COST (Cost of Shutdowns Tool), which is already being used to underscore the disproportionate impacts of network disruptions in Chad and Ethiopia, and the power of collaborations like AccessNow’s #KeepItOn campaign. Building on the addition of several, new, Africa-focused members — CIPESA, Internet Sans Frontieres, and Paradigm Initiative– the Global Network Initiative hopes to do its part to harness this creative energy and facilitate new partnerships between the private sector and digital rights groups in Africa.

At the end of the day, the enduring commitment to freedom demonstrated by the Zone 9 bloggers, which was echoed across the Forum by brave journalists, committed activists, human rights commissioners, and others from Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe and across Africa, that helped me understand and appreciate the intrepid spirit behind that admonition to learn to keep flying without perching, even if your wings grow tired.