Regional Perspectives at the ITU (#2): Africa

28 Sep 2018

By Richard Wingfield

In this series, we’ve been taking a look at the different regional groupings at the ITU, and their perspectives on a range of issues. In the first post, we looked at Europe and CEPT; in this post, we turn to Africa, and its regional grouping: the African Telecommunications Union (ATU).



The African regional grouping is the African Telecommunications Union, or ATU for short. It was first established in 1977 as a specialised agency of the African Union, as the Pan African Telecommunications Union. In 1999, it took on its present name, while also adopting its Constitution and Convention.

The ATU’s objectives are set out in this Constitution. They focus primarily on developing and adopting Africa-wide telecommunications and ICTs policy and regulatory frameworks, as well as supporting the financing of telecommunications and ICTs development. There’s also an objective of coordinating the strategies and positions of member states in preparation for and during international meetings, which includes all ITU conferences.

The ATU has two kinds of membership: for member states and for associate members.

The member states – comprising 45 of the 54 sovereign states in Africa – are able to participate in all activities, meetings and conferences and elect members of the Administrative Council and senior ATU officials. (The remaining 9 countries, despite not being members, also participate at ATU meetings). Ten African member states in the north of the continent are also members of another ITU regional group, the Arab States, which has its own mandate and priorities.

There are currently 31 associate members, including a range of national and international telecoms and ICT companies. The criteria for becoming an associate member is broad: any “entity in the ICT sector” registered in an African state can apply to become one. Associate members are able to participate fully and vote in all meetings, with the exception of the Conferences of Plenipotentiaries (though they can observe) and the Administrative Council.

As well as a general secretariat, the ATU has three other organs: the Conference of Plenipotentiaries, which is a high-level meeting of all member states held every four years; the Administrative Council, comprising a smaller number of elected member states, which meets annually and oversees the administration and coordination of the ATU; and the Technical and Development Conference, open to member states and associate members, where technical questions are reviewed and working groups established to develop standards, recommendations and guidelines.

With regards to Plenipot, the ATU organises a number of preparatory meetings which are open to both member states and associate members. It is at these preparatory meetings that participants discuss positions, coordinate, and agree common proposals (known as African Common Proposals or ACPs).

There is a wide discrepancy in levels of engagement and activity among the ATU’s members. Only around half of the member states have attended any of the Plenipot preparatory meetings. In some cases, for example Egypt, this may be because they are also members of the Arab States regional group, and prefer to play a more active role there. Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are all particularly influential within the ATU, and played prominent roles at the World World Conference on International Telecommunications in 2012 and the last Plenipot in 2014. Nigeria’s delegation at the 2014 Plenipot was the third largest overall, with over 120 members.


Motivations and priorities ahead of Plenipot 2018

The ATU has not made any public statement about its strategy ahead of Plenipot. However, some clues and insights are available from its reports from the preparatory meetings and from its previous engagement.

1. The ATU is open to ITU involvement on a range of ICT-related issues

In its report to the African Union last year, the ATU noted that “Africa is still lagging far behind” in the field of ICT standardisation, with a number of “key issues” highlighted, including counterfeit and mobile theft, the economic impact of the Over-the-Top (OTT) operators, cybersecurity, and privacy and trust in telecom/ICTs. Interestingly, in its preparations for this year’s Plenipot, it has established a specific policy working group which includes these very issues –suggesting that, in the face of inertia and paralysis at the regional level, the ATU will now push to see frameworks and standards on these ICT-related issues developed at the ITU. This is likely to be a controversial position, and is one which notably runs counter to Europe’s current vision for the ITU.

2. There’s a move towards greater regional cooperation and coordination

Historically, the ATU has not always presented a united front at ITU conferences. At the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, there were disagreements over a new set of Regulations which referenced the “human rights obligations” of states and affirmed that all governments have an “equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance”. While most states signed up in the end, some – including Gambia, Kenya and Malawi – did not sign up immediately, a source of tension at the conference. It is not clear at this stage whether we will see greater efforts to coordinate positions ahead of Plenipot or whether governments may end up taking different positions. The possibility of the latter means that engagement with individual African governments on specific issues is very much a worthwhile endeavour.


THE ATU’S approach TO specific issues

Although the ATU has not yet published any ACPs for this year’s Plenipot, ACPs from previous ITU conferences give an indication of the region’s positions, which, in the absence of any real shift among national governments in Africa, are unlikely to have changed. Reports from the ATU’s preparatory meetings indicate that the ATU is developing ACPs relating to existing Resolutions on the first four of the issues listed below, and is likely to propose a new Resolution on the fifth.

  • Cybersecurity: While the ATU didn’t put forward any ACPs in relation to cybersecurity Resolutions either at the 2014 Plenipot or at the WTDC in 2017, it did put one forward at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) in 2016 (in relation to WTSA Resolution 50). The ACP noted “the need to take appropriate actions and preventive measures at the international level against the abusive uses of cyberspace, including telecommunication/ICT networks” and “the need to counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations on cyberspace”. It called upon one of the T-Sector’s Study Groups to develop “Recommendations, Technical Papers and other publications related to cybersecurity policy, regulatory and economic issues and their impact”. At the WTDC in 2017, a number of African states also expressed their support for proposals from other regions to give the ITU a leading role in developing an international framework related to cybersecurity, suggesting that there is support in this grouping for international standards both in the form of a treaty and through ITU mechanisms. The lack of enthusiasm by African states for the African Union’s own cybersecurity treaty only reinforces the idea that many would like to see a global treaty.
  • Counterfeit devices: The challenge of tackling the large number of counterfeit devices in the region is a significant concern for many states in Africa. Although the ATU didn’t put forward any ACPs relating to counterfeit devices at the 2014 Plenipot, it did put one forward at the WTDC in 2017 on the relevant Resolution (Resolution 97). The proposals did not include any particular changes to the work of the ITU on the issue, but did suggest expanding the scope from “counterfeit devices” to “counterfeit and tampered devices”, with no definition of what constituted a “tampered” device. In 2016 the ATU also put forward an ACP for a new Resolution at the WTSA on counterfeit devices, calling on member states “to take all necessary measures, including collaboration, cooperation and exchange of experiences and expertise with other Member States, to combat counterfeit devices in a country/region, as well as globally”. This ACP notably made no reference to the need to consider user connectivity, a factor highlighted as problematic when a similar resolution was discussed at the 2014 Plenipot.
  • Internet of Things/Digital object architecture: There were no ACPs proposed relating to the Internet of Things (IoT) or digital object architecture (DOA) at the Plenipot in 2014. However, 2016 WTSA proposal for a new Resolution on counterfeit devices noted that an ITU Recommendation relating to DOA “provides a framework for discovery of identity management information” and called upon an ITU Study Group to “to study existing as well as new reliable, unique, persistent and secure identifiers, including those based on the Digital Object Architecture (DOA), that have the potential to be used in combating counterfeit products and telecommunication/ICT devices”. The enthusiasm for DOA is perhaps unsurprising given that three of the eight Multi-Primary Administrators (the organisations authorised to use DOA) are located in Africa.
  • Internet governance: As with IoT and DOA, no relevant proposals were put forward at Plenipot in 2014 by the ATU on international internet-related public policy issues, the subject of Resolution 102. However, it is likely that at least one will be this year. Internet governance is highlighted as a key issue for the ATU, and amendments to Resolution 102 have been drafted by one of the ATU preparatory working groups and are being considered by the full grouping. While there is no clear indication of what will be proposed in terms of substance, the African Union (of which the ATU is a specialised agency), has recognised in its Declaration on Internet Governance that “multi-stakeholder processes have become an essential and unique approach to engagement in addressing Internet and other policy development processed and tackling complex issues”.
  • Over-the-Top Services: The growth in Over-the-Top (OTT) services in Africa has been a concern for many governments and regulators worried about a fall in revenue as users move away from telephony and SMS. The ATU may put forward an ACP for a new Resolution on OTT services, as it did at the WTSA in 2016, where it called for “a world conference on the standardization of OTT services and the economic impacts of such services on the developing countries”. It also called upon the T-Sector to “work on the issue of OTTs, with particular focus on taxation aspects”, to develop “recommendations on the supervision of the activities of OTT operators and on models for revenue sharing between OTT operators and telecommunication operators”, and to develop “appropriate guidelines on the regulation of OTT services”. Finally, it also called upon member states “to incorporate in regulations conditions regarding the taxation of OTT services”.


Opportunities for civil society engagement

There are very limited opportunities for direct engagement with the ATU, as membership and attendance at meetings is limited to member states and associate members. However, civil society organisations may be able to join and engage at national ITU coordination networks or mechanisms where ATU proposals are discussed, and could in this way indirectly influence ATU decisionmaking. Civil society organisations can also try to meet with relevant associate members to discuss specific issues. There is some transparency at the ATU, with limited documentation published before and after meetings.

Civil society is generally unsupportive of greater work being undertaken at the ITU on many of the issues identified as priorities by the ATU. However, given the wide divergence in the positions of many individual African governments, and examples at previous ITU conferences of the ATU not taking a single, unified position, some governments may be more open to positions opposing ITU mandate expansion, and favouring respect for human rights and greater openness, inclusiveness, and transparency.