Has the use of new media improved African political structures, systems and processes? This book chapter introduces studies examining the impact of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the societies and politics of African countries. It argues that, a decade after the introduction of ICTs, questions about access, inequality, power and the quality of available information are still valid. The value of new media lies in the extent to which they mesh with old media to provide multimedia platforms that allow for greater democratic participation, inclusion and expression.
Discussions of new media often disregard the unusual African terrain, which defies many of the technological innovations said to be reconfiguring the structures and processes of communication globally. This includes poor telecommunication networks in most parts of Africa, resulting in low levels of Internet usage. Nevertheless, online communities are emerging across Africa. And, although they are mostly among the elites, they show Africans taking advantage of new technology to advance their own identities and agendas.
The experience of democracy and communication in Africa can be analysed in terms of three models: (1) diffusion/modernisation (viewing the media as agents of modernity); (2) dependency/dissociation (viewing new media technology as a continuation of ‘Third World’ dependence on the West); and (3) participatory-communication (emphasising participation, cultural identity, empowerment and dialogue).
It is important to consider the type of democracy sought and the technology/ies required. Morrisett (2003) identifies democratic uses of new technology as:
- Access: Problems of access in African countries include power and technical deficiencies, the suspicion of technology transfer leading to increased dependency on the West, and struggles over control.
- Information and education: While the quantity of online content has increased, its quality remains doubtful. Regulatory problems are likely.
- Discussion: Institutional affiliations restrict participation. Further, online discussion currently seems to reflect rather than to challenge existing institutions (such as gender norms).
- Deliberation: This is hindered in Africa by lack of access to technology, rigid structures of organisational and political decision-making, and people’s economic struggles.
- Choices and action: Alternative public spheres are emerging that are structured around interest-based communities. These may not intend to generate sustained action, but arguably communication is itself an action.
The development of ICTs varies across different countries in Africa:
- In South Africa and Nigeria, there are significant challenges to introducing e-governance. It is, nevertheless, contributing to good governance.
- In Kenya, new media may have the potential to monitor and mobilise political activity and encourage political engagement. However, they can also reinforce the position of those in power.
- In Zimbabwe, news organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs) and ordinary people are using the Internet and mobile phones in information-gathering, dissemination and presentation to promote democracy and human rights. Quality and regulation are issues here.
- In francophone Africa, the Internet has enhanced citizen engagement through critical public debates, more access to official information and more interaction of local CSOs with their counterparts abroad.
- In Egypt, NGOs have used their websites to examine socioeconomic and political development – corruption, human rights issues and lack of democratic expression.
- In Uganda and Zambia, ICT projects targeted at women often privilege the Internet when, in fact, many more women have access to mobile phones.
While new media technologies have a role in African democracy, their potential must be questioned in light of the continent’s economic, political and cultural realities. Systems of political communication in most African countries remain centralised. However, while African governments try to monopolise public spaces of popular expression, new spaces of freedom and dissent have been formed. Other findings include the following:
- Elitist and marginalised groups use ICTs for socio-political as well as economic purposes. They operate transnationally, and have become versatile political agents over whom states have less and less control.
- ICTs may be leading to the erosion of African values and of their role in building democratic institutions that are appropriate for the African context.
- Africans in diaspora settings use the Internet for political discussion about their own countries.
- In the Great Lakes region, ICTs have helped local journalists create a better understanding of complex conflict situations, enabling them to contribute to peacebuilding efforts.