Book review: Disrupting Africa - Technology, law and development

In his TEDxEuston talk, Telling the African story, Komla Dumor argues that “there must be a balance…or else don’t patronise me”. In the light of all the funding news and successes of tech startups across the African continent, this recommendation offers the right introduction to this Kat’s belated but still relevant review of Disrupting Africa: Technology, law and development, by Professor Olufunmilayo B. Arewa, Murray H. Shusterman Professor of Transactional and Business Law at Temple University. The book is the winner of the 2022 STAIR Best Book Award.

In the light of past, current and continuing developments in technology and the digital economy, generally, this book offers an incisive examination of laws, regulations, law-making and policymaking processes of colonial times in the African continent as a way to understand the impact of colonialism on law and governance in Africa’s digital economy.

I expressed an interest in reviewing this book at a time when many in my country, Nigeria were still reeling from the abrupt and tragic end to the #EndSARS protests. On a personal level, how the Nigerian Government (national and state government) handled the protests and continues to handle discourse around the protests (and public unrests, generally) is cause for sadness and some despair. This week (on 20 October 2022) marked the 2-year anniversary of the tragic end to the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. The protest was one of the subjects discussed in Arewa's book. 

More significantly from the perspective of Arewa’s book and in line with the focus of The IPKat, it is evident that regulating the digital economy across African countries must (or at least, should) be a journey in understanding and learning from the influences of precolonial and postcolonial policies and process. These lessons must then influence and inform the how and why of regulations and regulating in the digital economy in Africa.

As a starting point, when writing on law on the African continent, my experience and those of colleagues and friends has been that publishers better identify with “Africa” in the book title even though Africa is not a country and even though in most cases, it is near impossible to comprehensively cover legal discourse on the vagaries of 54 African countries. Arewa’s book takes the path that scholars from Africa or those writing about African countries know well: the book focuses on Nigeria, but “also discusses commonalities in experiences related to law in British and other colonial contexts” (p.2).

Chapter 2 titled "Colonialism, governance and law" examines governance in colonial contexts and lays the necessary foundation to explain how countries should not be run as corporations – one unfortunate extension of colonial corporate governance in Africa. This links beautifully to Chapter 3 (Relationships and accountability) which explores the influence and role of colonial rule in how the government in many African countries perceive and relate to (and with) the governed – the citizens. Does the government in Nigeria, for example, act in a manner that suggests that it feels and/or knows that it is accountable and must account for its actions to the citizens? The same question could be asked across Africa. How has colonial perceptions of Africans as natives and savages influenced how requests for accountability and transparency are perceived by those in power?

Chapters 4 and 5 respectively analyse the operation of colonial legal structures and issues related to colonialism, language and law. This remains one of my favourites. As Arewa elaborates, “[a]ttitudes about language reflect broader conceptions of culture that incorporate hierarchies of culture that impact borrowing…practices of borrowing based on these worldviews are important reasons that lawmaking processes during colonialism that imposed the external with insufficient consideration of internal needs and priorities have continued to a significant degree long after the end of formal colonialism”. (pp. 141-142). Thinking about this in the context of implementing copyright exceptions against the backdrop of the three-step test underscores the need for clarity in legislative language and in executive activities so that copyright owners (and users) can focus on licensing and/or use as opposed to litigating. 

The book is not all rooted in Africa’s past. Chapters 6 to 8 and 11 looks somewhat to the present and to the future. Influences of past legal and other institutions on the diffusion of digital economy technologies and the tension between such technologies and existing institutions are discussed in Chapter 6 as issues that affect not just Africa but the world at large. Chapter 7 focuses on digital technology issues in Nigeria, the rise of tech startups in the country against the backdrop of scams involving Nigerian princes. Chapter 7 is one to really keep coming back to what with the recent passage of the Nigeria Startup Act 2022 (more coverage on this in another post) and increased scrutiny of corporate governance and employment law issues in tech startups across Africa. In many ways, IP powers tech startups and the digital economy generally. Chapter 8 brings to light  the implications of digital economy trends for issues related to insecurity and precarity. Chapter 8 is somewhat directional. “The #EndSARS protests underscore fundamental differences between visions of governance evidence in the desire of both the legislative on executive branches in Nigeria to substantially restrict freedom including freedom of expression seemingly without any other major reforms of government practices the led many to protest. This view of governance appears contrary to the desire of many Nigerians to have a government that actually invests in Nigeria and Nigerian people rather than serving as a platform for performance of the prebendal politics noted by political scientist Richard Joseph of use of public resources by those in government for personal benefit. Government responses to #EndSARS protests may play a significant role in setting future paths for Nigeria”. (p. 215). As earlier stated, Thursday, 20 October 2022 marked the 2-year anniversary of how Nigeria’s government at both national and state levels did respond to the 2020 #EndSARS protest. 

Chapter 9 makes some suggestions on how to factor in elite attitudes in poverty alleviation policies. What is and should be the responsibility of those who govern to those over whom they govern? Chapter 10 looks at the influence of colonizers’ activities on business institutions and opportunities across Africa. Opportunities and competitiveness and the relationship those concepts have with corporate law reform processes across Africa are examined. The considerable length (in terms of duration) of law reform processes in a digital economy environment where things change very rapidly is an issue Arewa argues is one for concern. This Kat readily agrees with this sentiment what with her Long Walk to Copyright Reform that went from one blog post to an ongoing series following South Africa's copyright reform process that started since 2015. Arewa further emphasises the need to customise IP conventions for local contexts and to use "robust intellectual property frameworks within Africa" to facilitate local innovations, knowledge and information from Africa" (p. 262).

Chapter 11 concludes the book by discussing potential future paths in the digital economy based on lessons from the past and present. In this regard, Nigeria's Nollywood and Kenya's inroads in digital finance (e.g. M-Pesa) are models of "flexible regulatory approaches and integrated innovation ecosystems" that may be instructive.

I would recommend this book to researchers, policymakers and anyone interested in regulating technology for development on the African continent.

Published 2021 by Cambridge University Press
332 Pages 
Available as paperback, hardback and ebook 
ISBN 9781107156692
Book review: Disrupting Africa - Technology, law and development Book review: Disrupting Africa - Technology, law and development Reviewed by Chijioke Okorie on Saturday, October 22, 2022 Rating: 5

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