Bringing African digital interests into the spotlight

The EU-AU Summit in February 2022 is an opportunity for the EU to ‘anchor its geopolitical interests and initiatives to African strategic priorities’. Yet the digital partnership will not be a focus area of the upcoming summit, contrary to what might have been expected after the joint communique was adopted at the AU-EU Ministerial Meeting in Kigali in October 2021, to guide the partnership to a more action-oriented relationship.

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      Africa is taking strides to enable the unveiling of its digital single market by slowly implementing continental initiatives. The secretariat of the AfCFTA, Africa’s trade framework, and Afremixbank launched the Pan-African Payments and Settlement Systems (PAPSS), a platform to boost cross-border payments. And last week, the AU followed suit by endorsing the Continental Data Policy Framework, to facilitate a shared vision on data regulation. The EU’s continued support to these African-led initiatives will be crucial if the long term goal is to harmonise their respective digital regional markets.

      High level speeches ahead of the summit have pointed towards a new alliance with Africa, followed by a strong focus on the importance of digitalisation for economic growth in recent years. Yet, the EU might be speaking for itself rather than addressing Africa’s digital needs in meaningful dialogues. Over the next few months, the French Presidency of the Council of the EU will focus on the institutional negotiations over the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), to deepen the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM) and position the EU as a global digital regulation standard setter. ​​This could mean that much attention will be put on increasing political support in the run up to the French elections and keeping the momentum on regulation at home with a view to empowering European tech companies.

      The EU is likely to announce big flagship initiatives with Africa during the summit that will need deeper coordination between member states and their African counterparts than there is at the moment. But how can Europe and Africa better align their interests on digitalisation?

      Articulating African digital demands within the EU-Africa strategies

      The EU and Africa have enjoyed a stronger political dialogue over the past years as African leaders articulated better their interests within the existing continent-to-continent frameworks. Nonetheless, despite symbolic efforts at bringing both African and European digital stakeholders together, the EU-AU bilateral policy engagement on digital risks being unbalanced due to the few dedicated staff and weak technical expertise in the AU, just to mention one challenge. A stronger digital capability would strengthen African official’s ability to negotiate on digital issues including data regulation.

      Both the European Commission and individual member states have been increasing their engagement with Africa as demonstrated by the proliferation of African strategies being developed in recent years, including their commitment to support Africa’s digital transformation. For instance, initial analysis of the EU’s multiannual indicative programmes (MIP), which detail how the EU plans to spend its external budget over the next seven year period, show that digitalisation is mainstreamed in many programmes with a focus on skills development and e-services. While the MIPs for Nigeria, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire clearly articulate the digital economy as a key priority, Team Europe initiatives are also being developed in Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique and Ghana on digital technologies for education, employment and public services among other sectors.

      In 2021, the European Commission launched the Global Gateway Initiative, with a 150 billion euros investment plan for Africa, it is aimed at helping the bloc coordinate infrastructure investments on the global stage. Even though this initiative is in line with African leader’s frequent calls for greater infrastructure investment, it has a very strong “geopolitical competition” rhetoric with little space for what Africa has to say on global digital issues. Africa should not rely on a ‘wait and see approach’ to this initiative. Rather, Africa should clearly articulate the continent’s digital infrastructure needs and push cooperation between its international partners.

      The AfCFTA, which is central to achieving continental integration and accelerating intra-African trade, will help the continent strengthen its common voice and policy in global negotiations. The AU’s strategy on digital transformation, with a strong focus on human-centred digitalisation, will also contribute to this end by pushing regional digital policies. However, while the AU works to reduce dependency on foreign funding, building digital capability and skills will be central to re-balancing the AU-EU partnership on digitalisation.

      Furthermore, by leveraging Africa’s growing market for digital technologies, Africa should be able to shape global digital priorities to benefit Africa, starting by articulating them within the continent-to-continent relations.

      Understanding better the African digital ecosystem

      Amidst the growing proliferation of international actors on the African continent, African leaders are certainly taking advantage of competition to align their national interests with international offers, albeit on an ad hoc basis. African leaders should scale coordination to strategically ‘exploit rivalries for Africa’s benefit', as well as to be able to speak to the EU with a strong voice.

      The EU will need to do more than making financial promises on connectivity infrastructure, and understand the African context better if it wants to differentiate itself from other actors.

      As part of the EU’s effort to have a stronger and policy-first approach to development cooperation with Africa, the EU and the EU member states put emphasis on principles such as 'ownership' and 'synergies'. These concepts have been used too often in the EU official documents; this time the EU will need to make sure that they do not remain hollow promises.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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