Democracy, human rights and freedom of the press are recurrent themes in the life and work of Aisha Dabo. With support from partners including the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the embassy in Dakar, her organisation AfricTivistes has provided more than 500 journalists, whistleblowers and human rights activists with cyber resilience training. The use of digital technology plays an important role in all of AfricTivistes’ activities. From Dakar, Senegal, Aisha shares her story. This interview has been translated for you by AfricTivistes.
Where does your involvement in democracy, human rights and freedom of the press come from?
‘As a journalist I spent years reporting on crises, historic events and elections. I specialised in women’s rights, and in particular the subjects of female genital mutilation and child marriage. Democracy, human rights and freedom of the press are closely tied to these issues. Gradually I became more and more involved in those fields. In 2015 we set up AfricTivistes with a group of like-minded people.’
What kind of organisation is AfricTivistes, and what do you do?
‘Our organisation is a community of bloggers, activists and change advocates from various African countries. Our goal: to promote and defend democratic values, human rights and good governance through the use of digital technology. Our main office is in Dakar, Senegal, but we’re active all across Africa.’
You refer to AfricTivistes as a Pan-African organisation. What do you mean by that?
‘There is a practical and an ideological side to our Pan-Africanism. AfricTivistes’ goal is to make every country in Africa a democracy in which human rights and freedom are the norm. By rolling out projects and activities across the whole continent, we are not only making use of the knowledge and capacity available in different countries, but also ensuring that African countries can move more quickly towards a society in which fundamental rights are respected.’
And what about the ideological side of your work? Is this a personal story too?
‘The general principle of Pan-Africanism is the notion of a strong and united Africa. I can see opportunities if African countries unite to take up a position and role in the world, on the basis of shared norms and values as well as socioeconomic interests.’
‘To me, Pan-Africanism is more than just an ideology. It’s in my DNA and it’s very personal. I come from a family of African migrants. My mother and father have roots in several countries. I grew up in Senegal, the Gambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and I'm entitled to Gambian, Guinean, Malian, Mauritanian, Senegalese and Sierra Leonean nationality.’
What AfricTivistes project is a good example of your work?
‘In 2017 we carried out one of our biggest projects to date. Through the Dutch embassy in Dakar, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the first party to support this project. The aim of the project was to increase the cyber resilience of bloggers, journalists, whistleblowers and human rights activists so they can do their work safely and securely. We trained more than 500 participants in 11 West African countries and Haiti in the use of secure email software, strong passwords, VPN connections and encrypted data storage.’
So it was quite a technical project?
‘Yes but there was more to it than that. The training not only provided tips and tricks for working securely online, but also discussed the legislation on privacy, data and cyber issues in each country. It’s very important to us that everyone in our network complies with the law when performing their work.’
What effects on democracy are you already seeing thanks to your activities?
‘The most specific example is our direct contribution to more open, fair and free elections in several countries through the use of technology and the internet. During the elections in Guinea, for instance, a local network trained by us was able to reach voters through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, informing them directly about how to register to vote and where to find their nearest polling station, for instance. Bloggers and activists in our network also reported live on the situation at the polling stations via social media.’
‘E-observers did everything they could to help ensure fair elections. If they observed problems, such as a polling station opening too late or closing too early, or a shortage of ballot papers, they reported it immediately to our nerve centre in that country, which is where we were working with various other civil society organisations. If necessary the centre would contact the official channels [noot AVT: hier lijkt er een woord te zijn weggevallen] to request an explanation. Here too, we always abided by the law. In Guinea, for instance, the law does not allow the publication of interim results.’
In 2011 you visited the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What do you particularly remember about your visit?
‘The theme of the visit was “Peace and Justice”. Together with fellow journalists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal, we visited various international organisations in The Hague that work for peace through justice. We learnt a great deal from seeing how these organisations operate and what impact they can have on peace.’
This year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will again be organising a programme for foreign journalists; this time the theme will be ‘The International Legal Order’. How important is this?
‘Working for peace through justice is a task for journalists too. And how can they do that? By doing their work honestly and objectively. Just like the international organisations in The Hague. So it's really valuable for journalists to be able to gain more knowledge about the international legal order, and to exchange views and experiences. And it contributes directly to a more democratic world in which human rights and freedom of the press are the norm.’
How is AfricTivistes working with ordinary citizens at the moment to strengthen democracy?
‘In Gambia, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau we’re organising a series of workshops – the AfricTivistes Civic Engagement Tour – aimed at capacity-building among young people in West Africa who are interested in social engagement, social leadership and social transformation. The workshops are aimed at anyone aged between 18 and 35 who is keen to use digital technology to promote and strengthen civic participation in community development and the promotion of active citizenship. The Dutch embassy in Dakar supports this project.’
‘The young people we train are encouraged to share their knowledge with other people in their communities. That way, they can develop a network of proactive partners who support their activities in their own communities. At the end of the workshops, each of these ‘trained trainers’ will have the set of skills and knowledge they need to promote active citizenship, foster social transformation, encourage local stories on social media and get involved in the strategic planning of short- and long-term civic action. After the workshops, AfricTivistes continues to provide support to the trained trainers so that the knowledge and skills they’ve learnt in the field of civic participation will spread throughout the country like an ink spot.’
Curled from the Dutch Foreign Affairs Website: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/ministeries/ministerie-van-buitenlandse-zaken/het-werk-van-bz-in-de-praktijk/weblogs/2021/aisha-dabo