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African digital diplomacy

- Bob Wekesa

Digital diplomacy is increasingly taking centre stage as a game-changing concept and practice of global affairs.

Think of digital diplomacy as diplomacy in the digital age where the diplomatic roles and functions that were performed in person-to-person interactions or through non-technological means are increasingly being done digitally. COVID-19-imposed restrictions have highlighted both its professional and academic dimensions. Those who follow international affairs closely would have noticed a recent spike in discussions around digital diplomacy. This can be seen in the works of leading scholars in the field, Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor. However, what we know as digital diplomacy was on the march long before the pandemic – it emerged with the innovation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the 1980s and has risen with them. As the use of digital tools and platforms has spread and intensified, academic studies have followed, so much so that centres for the study and research of digital diplomacy such as the Digital Diplomacy Research Group at Oxford University have emerged and bodies of literature have begun to grow.

Africa has not been entirely left behind in the practice and study of digital diplomacy. One only needs to surf the website of the digital diplomacy tracking organisation, Twiplomacy, to appreciate that Africa is very much part of the ICTs-driven revolution in international affairs broadly and in diplomacy specifically. However, there is a lack of digital diplomacy policies and the absence of digital diplomacy research and publication efforts on the continent. The exceptions are single formative works by Olubukola Adesina of Ibadan University, Patrick Endong of Calabar University, and, perhaps, the relevant sections of South African diplomat-scholar Yolanda Spies’ book on global south diplomacy. 

Theorising African digital diplomacy

The yawning gaps in the literature mean that theorising what may be referred to as “African digital diplomacy” has to start from scratch using a theory-building rather than theory-testing approach. Theory at the basic level is simply the means and ways of explaining something. In a theory-building approach, one collects data and then identifies patterns that speak to the uniqueness of certain phenomenon which can be canvassed as a new theory or as a collection of concepts and ideas with potential for becoming theory. In a theory-testing approach on the other hand, one makes assumptions that a theory is already in place and simply do a test to uncover aspects such as its traits or manifestations.

The theory-building approach is the germane route for theorising African digital diplomacy for at least one key reason. To start with, which African digital diplomacy theory would we be testing if there has been no real attempt at theorising in and for Africa in the first place? Secondly, digital diplomacy is itself not only new but evolving. This means that theorising is not only continuous but underway in various regions of the world with region-specific nuances and considerations.

Because the theorising of an African digital diplomacy has lagged, building one must begin with the question of how digital diplomacy itself being defined, conceptualised, and therefore theorised globally.

There is no straightforward definition of digital diplomacy, which underlines the importance for African scholars to weigh in on the debate around what aspects of it should be emphasised above others. It is sufficient to define digital diplomacy as the use of ICT tools, platforms and skills for diplomatic work. This umbrella definition shelters many other aspects of digital diplomacy. However, the two main areas into which digital diplomacy branches are the private and public dimensions.

Private and public dimensions

The first dimension of digital diplomacy, private digital diplomacy, may be characterised as inward-looking. It is the digital diplomacy of confidential practices that happen behind closed doors such as administrative matters, inter-ministerial liaison, trade or political negotiations, espionage, and consular services. With regards to negotiations for instance, several service providers are developing tele and video conferencing facilities to ensure secure virtual engagements. With regards to espionage or what has been referred to as spycraft, sophisticated technologies ranging from miniature recorders and cameras to online bots have been in place for years and more are being developed. With regards to consular services, many countries have fully gone online, often using contractors such as VFS Global for the issuance of passports and visas, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this process.

Public digital diplomacy, on the other hand, is outward-looking, targeted at both domestic citizens and global citizens. This kind of digital diplomacy is aimed at promoting the images of countries, projecting power, and influencing foreign citizens. This latter version is linked to the older concepts and practices of public diplomacy and soft power in such a way that we start talking about the notion of “public diplomacy in the digital age” and “soft power in the digital era”. This type of digital diplomacy is heavily communications-based and is undertaken through popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, to name a few. Nation- and place-branding via platforms such as YouTube and the use of digital media platforms such as broadcasters and news websites is another form of the outward digital diplomacy.

Clearly, the inbound and outbound dimensions of digital diplomacy are connected. For instance, espionage, an inward-looking form of digital diplomacy, may lead to strategies aimed at managing an issue considered problematic for a country’s foreign policy. For a country like South Africa for instance, internal research by the relevant ministry of foreign affairs officials might reveal waning influence on the African continent. This insight might lead to outward action such as creating content that promotes South Africa’s support for other African countries through its foreign policy communication platforms such as the Ubuntu magazine and Ubuntu Radio.

Some prefer the term “digitalisation of diplomacy” rather than “digital diplomacy”. There is a point in this distinction because the phrase “digital diplomacy” has been used more from the public-facing, public diplomacy and soft power context than the internal and operational point of view. However, the term “digitalisation of diplomacy” seems inadequate at least from two perspectives. First, it suggests a process rather than a type or form of diplomacy. One can for instance surmise that the physical contact restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 accelerate the digitalisation of diplomacy in Africa, leading to enhanced digital diplomacy. Secondly, and based on the first point, the phrase does not really help with distinctions between diplomacies as it suggests a general uptake of digital diplomacies. It would appear therefore that the term digital diplomacy remains germane provided it is understood in its two key dimensions – as well as many other smaller forms (e.g. consular digital diplomacy, bilateral digital diplomacy, corporate digital diplomacy, etc).

African dimensions of digital diplomacy

If we agree that the basic premise of digital diplomacy more broadly is its inward-looking and outward-looking pillars, then its African dimensions also need to be founded on the same premises. The inward-looking aspects of African digital diplomacy would have to do with the uniqueness of African international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy with regards to how issues such as negotiations, consular services, espionage, and the like are approached at the national, sub-regional and continental levels. Concepts such as Afrocentrity, African agency, Afropolitanism, Ubuntu, African socialism, global south, and others have been advanced as speaking to and informing African international relations. The same would apply to the essential nature of outward-bound African digital diplomacy drawing on African international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy with regards to public diplomacy, international communications, cultural diplomacy, nation and place branding and others.

A further point to note in building a theory of African digital diplomacy is that this would be a multi- and inter-disciplinary project. On the one hand is the quest to find out how Africa undertakes its continental regional and individual-country international affairs. On the other is the whole area of the use of digital technologies for internal and external affairs. This shows the intersection of the fields of international politics including diplomacy and geopolitics, and the fields of communication such as media, journalism, and digital media. For instance, as a developing region, is Africa more likely to play the soft power game digitally, or is it more likely to be on the receiving end of things? 

In a theory-building epistemology towards the creation of an African digital diplomacy theory, methodology would have to greatly grounded and data-driven. Foundational research would have to be undertaken on the use of digital tools and platforms for diplomacy. Research and instrumental questions would have to focus on how these countries are accomplishing their internal diplomatic duties, tasks, and responsibilities? Which hardware and software are they using for communication within the ministries of foreign affairs, between the ministries of foreign affairs and diplomatic missions and with external partners? Have some of the internal services such as negotiations stalled due to the current travel restrictions? Are they outsourcing their consular services or are they maintaining internal operations and if so, to what extent are these digitalised?

In conclusion, theorising African digital diplomacy is an exciting area for the simple reason that it is at its formative stages, allowing for a great deal of innovation.

Dr Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at The African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University.

This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University and featured on Africa Portal - a research repository and an expert analysis hub on African affairs.