Will Africa be able to move and stand on its feet?
"Africa is rising" is a phrase we are accustomed to hearing nowadays. We Africans also seem desperate to make that positive narrative about Africa. From the vantage point of the digital Africa that I seat, it is most promising, but only if we can face some of our own self afflicted stagnation.
Having been in the African Domain scene for nearly a decade now, I am always challenged to view our situation with a pinch of salt, a fact that doesn't attract many friends. But I am willing to go at it and point out the shortcomings.
ICANN has been in a process to find its place and expand the footprint in Africa, but this has not been easy coming; with very few performing ccTLDs and a small number of new gTLDs, it seems like a long way off. Let us look at a few scenarios.
The formation of ICANN Africa Strategy
When the current CEO joined ICANN, there was a proposal for an 'ICANN Africa strategy' with a view to endear ICANN to Africa, and also get Africa into ICANN. Despite that our organization was excluded from initial meetings and the formulation of this strategy, as an African organization that is very active stakeholder at ICANN and Africa, we however gave our views on the proposal.
Most recently at the center of the Singapore meeting was the ICANN Africa strategy meetings which was accorded a press release by ICANN on Feb 3, 2015 calling on emphasis for participation of the African community. The ICANN Africa team thus hosted two meetings in Singapore namely "The Africa Strategy 2016–2020" on 10th Feb 2015 and "Enhanced Engagement With Africa" 11th Feb 2015. The purpose is said to enhance ICANN's Engagement in Africa leading to the ICANN 55 meeting in Marrakech Morocco next year. DCA members have participated in most of the Africa sessions.
Community Opposition to the Initial ICANN Africa Strategy
Similar to the experience of the NetMundial Initiative, there was a well-known opposition from the African Community that the original ICANN Africa Strategy was not inclusive, transparent, and was unambiguously captured by "special interest group" who pronounced themselves as "Leaders of the African Internet community". This was symbolized by the joint letter they wrote to ICANN prior to forming the strategy.
DCA was also one of the opponents at the time, and wrote a strongly worded letter to ICANN leadership. As with many of DCA's complaints under the current ICANN leadership, this letter was completely ignored.
Decrypting what ICANN Africa Strategy is Not
In a rebuttal, I wrote on CircleID to correct an article written on how the .Africa gTLD was to be at the center of the ICANN Africa strategy, I recall clarifying the conflated issue of ICANN Africa Strategy vs "Africa Agenda".
I made clear to the African and Global ICANN community between the failed "Africa Strategy" in Dakar, which encompassed a rough call to reserve the .Africa gTLD for the AUC, so as to delegate it to a structure that the AUC choose (that included ZACR and the African Community kinship) versus what the new ICANN Africa Strategy is, and should be. We called to dismiss any reference to a .Africa gTLD.
Multistakeholder Model Quashed by Preferential Treatments
For reasons beyond any conjecture of Africans, the African community was widely informed that the ICANN Africa Strategy was architected by ICANN Board Chairman and his close allies on the board. The ICANN Africa Strategy members, who have self selected themselves as "Leaders of the African Community" were then said to have been handpicked by these same ICANN Board members leading to criticism and objections by many. These findings also substantiated the reasons why many were not aware of the initiative on the ground in the first place. It was a top down construct and had no community consultation.
The implications of this preferential treatment became more apparent, when the actions that took place by the ICANN Board Chairman during ICANN Toronto, made a visible promotional effort to the gathered audience, that the launch and strategy of this initiative included their handpicked people as representative of the African Community. There were no representatives invited from DCA, a long term member of ICANN community which was also attending nearly every ICANN meeting at its own expense.
A scholarship award without the merit or grade
It should be worth informing that non of the so called "Leaders of African Community" now selected and consolidated as ICANN Africa Strategy members, except one or two who are already members of other ICANN structure, were even attending the ICANN meetings for the past many years. In particular during New gTLD program development of 5-7 years.
DCA and its members however have had significant visibility and continuous contributions to ICANN since 2005, not only to the .Africa gTLD, but to the success of the New gTLD program, IDNs, Multistakholer model, and beyond.
Equally, this exclusion treatment given to DCA by ICANN was understood by many Africans, as well as the closely observing global ICANN community, as an attempt to endear a selection process of who should be representing Africa, due to the high stakes over the .africa gTLD - a sort of .africa Magna Carta, if ICANN was to succeed in Africa.
Later to be noted by one AfriICANN list member who wrote in the list attributing ICANN's action by saying "we now know whose support ICANN has for the community" giving rise to an what I call "Exclusive MultiStakholderism".
What Measurable Results did ICANN Africa Strategy Achieve so far?
With the link that tied the ICANN Africa Strategy and .africa gTLD cut off, several markers have been mentioned to show the success of the initiative. The budget allocations for the previous quarter to support the strategy are not known.
- However what we do know is that, at first instance, the budget carried along those member appointments who could not afford to attend ICANN meetings at their own cost. This we believe to be nearly all members of the ICANN Africa Strategy other than the ones who are already carried by ICANN's other structures.
- In lieu of "African participation to ICANN", there were many African Governments sponsored by ICANN to GAC at the last minute. These Government Representatives had no understanding of ICANN, the New gTLD program, nor .africa gTLD, but were directly made to object to DCA's .africa application, amounting to simply a planned invasion on DCA. I guess some would say this is quite an achievement to ICANN Africa Strategy program.
- There were also mentions of the DNSSEC roadshows that are said to have resulted to a few ccTLD DNSSEC signings and one DNS Forum in Durban.
- We also hear of announcements that some supporters of the African kinship get fellowship awards and continue to be sponsored to ICANN, or noise makers, such as tech day organizers, have been given roles to be occupied and keep them quiet.
High Level Appointments and Expat Hires - A witness protection program
Perhaps it will be right to say that the Africa Strategy has benefited a few individuals more than the community. This also extends to other high-level ICANN appointments and numerous salaried positions that have been concluded so far. Almost all those who proclaimed themselves as "Leaders of the African Internet Community" now seem to have escaped to salaried positions at ICANN in different parts of the world. These are newly created positions by ICANN CEO which issues titles of "Vice President", positions which amounts to a witness protection program. Therefore, one would wonder if the Africa Strategy was meant for the real African community and/or even be sustainable in the long run?
The Special Session on "Africa on the Road to Marrakech" — A Surprise ICANN Africa Strategy 2.0, Call for African Governments
Before the shock has even left the scene of the original ICANN Africa Strategy, and its performance or lack thereof, we are now introduced to a version 2.0. From looking at the design of things in the report, the 2.0 seems to call for more African government's involvement in Internet Business. In reality, the African private sector has moved ahead on its own with little or no engagement from the governments.
Statistics on Internet development, innovation, startups and Entrepreneurship have demonstrated that Africa's rise is private sector led, with government acting as a support rather than catalyst. What the African Strategy needs is not a new 2.0 strategy but a total revolution of the working structure, involving more stakeholders and voices. Finally, a workable formula that is SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-related.
Déjà vu Dakar Masquerade — An "Africa Agenda 2.0" in Marrakech?
It is noteworthy to observe that while the whole internet governance ecosystem is becoming wary of government involvement, the ICANN Africa Strategy 2.0 is heading in the opposite direction. Customarily, DCA was not invited to be part of the development of this ICANN Africa Strategy 2.0 document, but we believe this strategy is potentially problematic.
However, if I shall give a heads up, should the script to bring in more governments in Marrakech be written by the same playwright, and mirror what we experienced with "Africa Agenda" Dakar, it will be another tragedy for ICANN and the African Community's expectation.
Finally, having followed the ICANN Africa Strategy closely, it is almost hard to quantify the benefits to the African Community. In fact, the implementation of the strategy, so far, in the opinion of many Africans, is a failure in the multi-stakeholder model of Internet Governance we aspired for. The entire ICANN Africa Strategy is an apparent usurpation of the model by a Special Interest Group who has appointed themselves as "Leaders of the African Internet Community" and has used it to their limited benefit rather than the wider African community.
By Sophia Bekele, CEO of DotConnectAfrica. Ms. Bekele is a former ICANN generic Names Supporting Organization (gNSO) Council policy advisor & contributed to policy over the new gTLD programme & IDNs. She was also policy advisor to various UN Agencies on ICTs. Founder and spearhead of the Yes2DotAfrica campaign. Bekele is a business and corporate executive, an international entrepreneur, a thought leader in Corporate and ICT Governance, international policy, Business Strategy, Internet, ICT & development. Her Profiles on sophiabekele.com / wikipedia.