This paper analyzes continuities and discontinuities of collective efforts toward enhanced cyber security in Eastern Africa, with a particular focus on Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Focusing on the challenges that have followed the contours of East Africa’s distinctive digital cultures, it challenges the view that cyber security and cyber resilience are simply technical problems that can be solved by reducing the gap with more technically advanced nations. On the contrary, it shows how cyber security is an inherently political challenge and that, in the absence of adequate checks and balances, the increasing securitization of domestic and international politics may require costly trade-offs with individual and collective freedoms.
Three concepts are suggested — emulation, extraversion and enculturation — that can serve to better capture how Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have respectively answered emerging cyber threats. These concepts, rather than adding to the already abundant jargon in this area, are simply meant to encourage analysts to pay greater attention to how the technical, social and political interact in unique ways and produce distinctive outcomes in each national context. In Kenya, public and private actors have sought to live up to international standards, keeping up with the country’s reputation as a regional information and communication technology (ICT) powerhouse, but it is unclear how such an ambitious agenda will find concrete applications. In Ethiopia, there is the risk that the need to guarantee better cyber security can further legitimize repressive measures in the new media sector. Finally, in Somalia, in the absence of a functioning state, hybrid solutions have been found that connect traditional practices and new technologies to offer some level of certainty to individuals using services that are vital for the region, such as local and international payments over mobile phones.