Cheikh Bakhoum

Cheikh Bakhoum, Sénégal Numérique: "Geopolitical rivalries in the digital sector could foster positive competition for Africa”

Cheikh BAKHOUM, is the Director General of Senegal Numérique SA (ex - Agence de l'Informatique de l'Etat (ADIE). He was the Head of the IT Department of the Presidency between 2012 and 2014. Cheikh Bakhoum is also Director of the Smart Senegal Programme and led the construction of a national data centre in Diamniadio and the establishment of digital spaces called "Senegal Services" in all departments of Senegal.

This interview is also available in French.

What are the main axes of the digital development/digital transformation strategy in Senegal? How does this strategy fit into the wider African regional context?

At the state level, this is the so-called SN2025 strategy, "Sénégal numérique 2025", which was drawn up in 2016 as part of the implementation of the Plan Sénégal Émergent (PSE) to serve as a catalyst for modernising the economy and improving competitiveness. Digital technology is, in fact, one of the driving sectors of the economy and contributes to GDP growth in all other economic sectors. And this transversality must be strengthened for greater productivity.

This strategy embodies Senegal's ambition to maintain its position as an innovative leader in Africa. It is within this framework that the Smart Sénégal programme, which is linked to SMART Africa, has made it possible to put in place structuring digital infrastructures and systems. These include the deployment of a largescale fibre optic network spanning the entire country and interconnecting most of the public sector facilities and a Tier III datacentre. In addition, our digital strategy focuses on the digitisation of administrative procedures, the promotion of innovation through the creation of an innovation laboratory, the development of skills by setting up a Digital Academy, the security of information systems, expanding our undersea fibre-optic links, and developing a national network of Senegalese service centres to provide a one-stop "phygital" shop for the delivery of administrative services in all 45 regions of the country – to name but a few.

How does Senegal choose its external partners in the development and implementation of this digital strategy? Who are your main partners?

In the field of technology, benchmarking is an essential practice, and we regularly practice it at Sénégal Numérique SA to find out what the best practices are in other countries to implement them in Senegal, in accordance with the guidelines of our national strategy. In this regard, we regularly interact with partners such as Estonia, the United Arab Emirates, Quebec, Rwanda, and Cabo Verde. The interactions with these partners revolve around issues relating to the digitalisation of administrative procedures, digital health, the operation of "phygital" counters, customer experience (to better address the concerns of end users of the public service), the promotion of ICTs among young people, and the launch of an ambitious training programme for one million coders over the next three years, among others.

Also, following study visits to Senegal, cooperation projects have been completed or are being negotiated with counterpart African agencies, for example Niger, Benin, Chad, Cameroon, the Comoros, Gabon, Burkina Faso, and the Gambia.

Finally, we collaborate with many other countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, the United States and China in bilateral cooperation projects. The areas of cooperation are diverse and varied depending on the partner: dematerialisation, cybersecurity, geomatics, operating licences, infrastructure deployment, among others.

What is China's role in the development of digital infrastructure in Senegal, particularly in the establishment of the Diamniadio Datacentre? What are China's comparative advantages as a digital partner?

The SN2025 strategy provides a framework for the reforms undertaken in the digital sector as well as the major projects of the President. Collaboration with China began with the establishment of the connectivity infrastructure now managed by Sénégal Numérique SA, which connects the various State agencies. The various phases of this turnkey project are financed by an Eximbank loan from China to the Senegalese government.

It must be said that cooperation between Senegal and China in the digital field has grown significantly in recent years. Our two countries have signed several cooperation agreements to promote the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Senegal, notably the Smart Senegal programme, which has led, among other things, to the establishment of a data centre in the new city of Diamniadio, some 40 km from Dakar.

Regarding the Diamniadio datacentre, it should be noted that although China's role as a partner was important, it was Senegalese expertise that was at the forefront during all the design, construction, and operation phases: today all the engineers operating in this state data centre are exclusively Senegalese. In addition to the data centre, we have worked with China as a partner on other projects such as the deployment of fibre optics, the SHARE submarine cable, and the departmental digital spaces, commonly known as Senegal Services.

How is the transfer of technology and skills negotiated in these contracts? What difficulties are encountered and how are they overcome?

The highest authorities of our respective States have steered the negotiation phase according to the guidelines and needs identified. And the experts concerned took over at each phase of implementation. The fact that Senegalese experts and engineers have taken over all the infrastructure developed with China without difficulty shows that the transfer of technology and skills in these contracts is effective. Senegal Numérique SA has the advantage of having all the engineering profiles necessary for the proper management of our infrastructures.

There is a strong rivalry between powers (US/China/EU) in the digital field, especially between the US and China. How does this affect Senegal in its digital development strategy?

Rivalries between the two countries can foster positive competition for the benefit of African countries, and thus contribute to their economic and technological development. However, African countries with relatively fragile economies can be adversely affected by these rivalries, which in some cases negatively impact their political and economic stability.

As mentioned, Senegal's Digital Strategy provides a framework for the President's major projects. Given the nature of digital technology, which offers a broad spectrum of infrastructures, solutions and innovative and technological applications, African states would benefit from multiplying and diversifying their partnerships by establishing cooperative relationships with all parties, including those in the same sector. From this point of view, the government of Senegal maintains partnerships in this field with China, the United States and/or European Union countries. We do not note any particular constraint to access other Western partners, as a result of the partnership relationship with China. In fact, in many cases, it is these countries that are now coming to us with proposals for partnerships with different funding mechanisms.

We are cooperating with China, through Huawei, on the development of the State's digital infrastructure (Datacentre, Senegal Services Centres, Optical Fibre, Safe City, etc.). However, the equipment, applications and other licences are not exclusively Chinese, as Sénégal Numérique SA works with other companies, including American firms, notably Microsoft, in the digitalisation of the Senegalese administration, for example through the government messaging system set up in state structures. The EU delegation in Senegal and bilateral cooperation agencies from Germany, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg are supporting Senegal Numérique and the Senegalese government in its policy of digitising procedures and securing information systems.

Ultimately, this rivalry has not impacted our sector because the State knows how to collaborate with its partners in an intelligent manner. To date, we do not perceive any direct or even indirect negative impact from this rivalry.

At the same time, African countries, including Senegal, are also demanding more digital sovereignty. What is your analysis?

Senegal has always played a pioneering role in the field of information and communication technologies. In terms of digital sovereignty, initiatives are regularly taken to establish this digital sovereignty. The latest act to date is the commissioning of the new State resource centre (Diamniadio National Datacentre). During its inauguration on 22 June 2021, the President of Senegal emphasised its essential character in the national digital system stating: "this infrastructure is the repository of all these resources and of the billions of data generated in our country, which circulate and are exchanged within our administration, with our partners and users of public services. This is our documentary and audiovisual heritage in a world where the stakes and threats are enormous. This state-of-the-art datacentre allows Senegal to better control its destiny and to definitively resolve the issue of its digital sovereignty.

Thanks to this infrastructure, we can host and secure our most critical data, protect our competitive advantages, make forecasts, learn through artificial intelligence and Big Data, compile, recreate and innovate.

It is for this reason that the President of the Republic has firmly instructed the Government to host, from now on, all the State's data and platforms in this facility aligned with international norms and standards and to proceed with the rapid migration of data hosted abroad or elsewhere. This instruction makes the Diamniadio national data centre the primary solution for the country as well as its technical and financial partners.

What is Senegal's position on issues related to internet governance in international institutions, digital rights, and cybersecurity in international forums?

Senegal is involved in these issues primarily as an active member of several international organisations that deal with these issues, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency responsible for regulating electronic communications worldwide. Senegal is also a member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organisation responsible for managing domain names and IP addresses.

With regard to digital rights, Senegal adopted a law on the protection of personal data in 2008, which aims to protect the privacy of citizens in the digital context. Our country also acceded to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime in 2015, thus strengthening its international cooperation in the fight against cybercrime. It has been represented in various international forums such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), where it has taken part in discussions on internet-related policies and practices.

Finally, Senegal is collaborating with other African countries to strengthen cyber security on the continent. In this regard, Senegal, as a member of the African Union, adopted in 2014 the Convention on Cybersecurity and Protection of Personal Data, which aims to fight cybercrime and protect citizens' rights in the digital space. Senegal also participates in regional awareness-raising and capacity-building initiatives on cybersecurity in the West African regional body ECOWAS.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).