The Political Ramifications
of the Internet in Africa
A Paper Submitted to the International Communication Group,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
David N. Dixon
910 Ransom Lane
Bloomington, IN 47403
[log in to unmask]
The Political Ramifications
of the Internet in Africa
A Paper Submitted to the
International Communication Group,
Association for Education in Journalism
and Mass Communication
David N. Dixon
910 Ransom Lane
Bloomington, IN 47403
[log in to unmask]
The Political Ramifications
of the Internet in Africa
According to recent estimates, about 20 million people use the Internet.
But then again, who can keep track? Thousands more join every month.1
users live in the United States or western Europe, where the Internet
steadily introducing a radical new structure of relationships and even
language. New words like cyberspace and e-mail have been invented, and
traditional rhetorical methods have been altered with computer-based
organizing techniques, such as hypertext. The Internet has made the
information revolution a reality in much of the western world.
Nor has the Internet gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Countries in
Asia and South America are gradually tying in, and eastern Europe is
scrambling to overcome cold war fears of its computer connectivity. As in
so many other measures of development, however, Africa lags behind. In
1991, for instance, FidoNet (an amateur network system) had thousands of
nodes in the United States. There were just six nodes in subsaharan
Africa--three in Botswana and three in Zimbabwe.2 There were no Internet
Africa's isolation from the Net will not last forever. Already several
South African universities and commercial services are connected. LDDS
Metromedia Communications, a Mississippi-based telephone company, now
offers a phone card called the "Mandela PhonePass" because the South
African president's picture appears on the card. This card offers access
not only to an array of conventional telephone services such as
but also to the Internet.3 Universities and nongovernmental
(NGOs) across the rest of Africa are also looking for ways to link up.
As with the introduction of any new technology, the Internet has not come
without controversy. But to this point the problems described have
largely technical. Some, arguing in favor of the Internet, have begun
outline the benefits of the Net in terms of national development,
particularly in an economic framework. Few, however, have looked in depth
at the political ramifications of the Net in Africa. These political
factors may justify or undermine the Internet from its earliest stages.
The Internet and National Development
Before considering the political impact, several general questions about
the Internet must be answered. Most significantly, how does the
fit into current models of national development? Is this simply
inappropriate technology being transferred to the Third World,
yet another cycle of dependency? Will this new technology benefit the
truly needy, or will it result in further polarization of elite and
If general benefits are presumed, what form will they take? The answers to
these questions will influence the political outcomes to be considered
Early national development schemes emphasized a top-down, one-way flow of
information and technology from the western nations to the Third
Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schramm were among the first to propose
theoretical models for development, and they focused on development at the
macrosocial and infrastructural level. Following this model,
projects including roads, dams and industrial plants were built.
many of these projects benefitted only a few initially, the effects
expected to trickle down to the entire population.
In the 1970s, however, the failure of the top-down plan to lead to
broad-based development became increasingly obvious. Following the lead of
Paulo Freire, theoretical models began to emphasize development at the
grassroots level, characterized by high levels of conscientization and
participation.4 Development was now to be driven by empowering local
to critique their own societies and respond to their own needs. As Melkote
has pointed out, however, the model of bottom-up, participatory
development has been difficult to operationalize.5
The case of the Internet's introduction to Africa sheds light on the
problem. On the one hand, the Internet is technology intensive, requiring
significant amounts of capital as well as technical skills. For the
part, it relies on an infrastructure of telephones and electricity.
none of the equipment needed is currently manufactured in Africa, and
software and training come from overseas. From this perspective, the
Internet is yet another example of the one-way flow of goods and
information from the core to the periphery. Third world countries are kept
economically subservient by their need for western equipment and
Unable to produce manufactured goods for sale in the west, they must sell
lower-value raw materials in exchange for value-added products from
This view of computers has led to concerns such as those voiced by Ali
We must first redefine development in the Third World to mean modernization
minus dependency. Some of the gaps between the West and Africa have indeed
to be narrowed--but this narrowing must include the gap in sheer power. To
narrow the gap in, say, per capita income in a manner that widens the gap
in power is to pursue affluence at the expense of autonomy. To
gap in the utilization of computers while increasing western
control over the Third World is to prefer gadgetry to
On the other hand, as it has developed in the West, the Internet functions
in a highly participatory manner. Electronic mail, listservers and other
forums invite all comers, allowing discussion among disparate group
members. Bellman and Tindimubona have already observed some of the benefits
of the Internet's participatory function in Africa. In their experience,
the anonymity of the medium promotes critical discussion, while the
connectivity fosters a friendly attitude toward others engaged in the
Furthermore, computer technology need not doom Third World countries to
dependence forever. One of its primary strengths is its flexibility.
Schoenhoff, discussing how computers can be adapted to reflect
knowledge patterns points out:
The computer is a unique tool because its purpose is constantly being
reinvented by its users. Its power consists in the fact that it is a
machine, and its symbols and their interpretation can be altered.8
While the computer carries with it western values and the portent of
economic dependency, it retains the potential to be used for new purposes
reflecting African values and realities. Clearly an important first
would be to begin developing software for Africa by Africans.
On balance, then, the Internet can be seen as an ambiguous technology,
raising concerns about economic and cultural domination, while
new possibilities to achieve the kind of dialog theorists suggest is
necessary for real development. Indeed, its effects in the West have been
ambiguous as well, promoting academic, scientific and social
while providing yet another medium for the spread of pornography.
sociologist Jacques Ellul has pointed out this duality inherent in all
technology, and noted that technology promises more than it can deliver
costs more in human terms than just economic terms.9
In today's global society, the countries of Africa will have difficulty
keeping out the Internet even if they want to. The challenge, then, is
understand the potential of the technology and to drive it toward
The Internet and the Politics of Development
Paulo Freire's concept of conscientization was self-consciously
political--the problems of the peasants as rooted in the power structures
of society. Therefore, when the people became aware of their
they would respond with political force.
In contrast, David Goldsworthy suggests that many development plans
initiated by western donor countries have failed to adequately consider
political factors.10 These factors sometimes override the good
of the donors, so they should be carefully considered in the planning
any development scheme. He proposes three dimensions for evaluating
impact of politics on development projects: values, interests and
his model, values represent the beliefs and moral attitudes that are
prevalent in a given society, and interests are the material resources
available. The application of values to interests leads to questions of
power--whose interests are at stake or are benefitting, who determines
values are applied, and so on.
The introduction of the Internet to Africa will have political
implications on several levels, affecting the political structure of
African countries both internally and externally. It will influence
and drive political change for better or worse. Goldsworthy's model can be
used to evaluate the benefits and potential pitfalls of the Internet in
Technologies by their nature reflect the values of the cultures that
created them. They are responses to the felt needs, thought patterns,
worldviews of those particular cultures. At the same time, they
cultures, even the ones that gave them birth. Following are a few
ranges that might be important to consider when determining the
impact of the Internet in Africa. This list is not comprehensive, but
suggests some starting points for uncovering the underlying values of the
technology and how those may conflict with existing cultural values.
A commonly recognized distinction between the West and Africa is the
emphasis on individualism versus community. Not surprisingly, the
tends to promote individualism. Each machine can be custom configured
is used by one person at a time. As a stand-alone machine, the
inherently individualistic. The Internet, however, links individuals
together into an electronic community. Though the interface of the
monitor is impersonal, the communication link creates a personal effect t
hat can override the inherent impersonality.
The political implications are evident: if African cultures stress
community over individualism, the Internet may drive the introduction of
computers. In the United States, on the other hand, computer sales
already strong when on-line services became available. Organizations
seeking to promote the Internet in Africa, then, should emphasize the
community-building aspect of the technology rather than pointing out the
files and information available, which is the typical American
Similar to individualism versus community, a second value range runs from
reductionist to holistic. In her book on computerized expert systems,
Schoenhoff points out that Western science tends heavily toward
reductionism rather than holism.11 This is reflected in computer
technology. Databases, for instance, divide information into fields and
records, and printers use dot matrices. Many African cultures, in
take a more holistic approach to the world, and see systems more
organically. In this case, the multifunctioning of computers might be
cultivated. The computer would not be limited to just word processing or
number crunching. Instead, the value of computers in a wide range of
activities would be emphasized. This would help to counteract the
reductionist tendencies of the technology.
Another key value range runs from the primacy of local culture versus
global culture. As the world continues to shrink, cultural impacts
all the more significant. Peter Judge, reporter for The Guardian,
There is a price to be paid by newcomers to the Net: they have to adopt
American technology and the English language. For the majority of
world, even the alphabet on the keyboard is foreign. But most
ready to pay this price, for without telecommunications, they will be
excluded from business in the 21st century.12
Still, most countries are concerned about protecting as much local culture
as possible. Paradoxically, Schoenhoff points out that "the computer
unique tool because its purpose is constantly being reinvented by its
users. Its power consists in the fact that it is a symbol machine, and
symbols and their interpretation can be altered."13 In other words,
local and global culture could potentially exist simultaneously in the
Politically, then, the pressure to produce software in the Third World is
not just economic, to prevent spending foreign exchange. Impetus also
from the desire to protect local culture by producing software that
displays in local languages and organizes in locally recognized
The Internet will probably remain English-based, because of the need for a
global trade language. But local networks and programs need not be
restricted to using a foreign language. Already computer operating systems
run in several European languages, Arabic and Japanese.
should become more common as software develops.
Finally, a value range that receives little academic attention runs from
secular to spiritual. Western society tends to be highly secular,
much of Africa is religious, whether that religion is indigenous,
Christianity, or Islam. Bernard Woods, Director of Communications
Technologies for Development Ltd., describes African spiritualistic
thinking as an expansion of holistic thinking, and part of "`the reality of
Africa' which few westerners comprehend."14
The computer, then, may have spiritual significance in Africa that it does
not have in the West. For instance, few Christians in the United States
see the computer as threatening to their religious beliefs. Even here,
though, the Internet does present a challenge to religion and its moral
values. One widely publicized example is the use of the Net as a
Questions of morality are compounded by issues of authority. In the Middle
East, the availability of the Qu'ran and hadith on compact disc has
allowed nonprofessional theologians to mount religious arguments over
cultural issues.15 Politically speaking, then, the power of some
clerics may be threatened by the introduction of new technology that
imports new ideas and new rhetorical weapons.
A second dimension of politics that Goldsworthy recognizes surrounds
material interests. Who stands to gain or lose from the introduction of a
new technology? How is technology harnessed to economically benefit
in power? The Internet presents a struggle over the control of
the opportunity to generate revenue, and social stratification.
One reason computer networks have not spread into Africa and other Third
World countries is the lack of infrastructure. In Harare, Zimbabwe,
instance, the Posts and Telecommunication Corporation has a backlog of
nearly 100,000 applications for connections, according to 1992
In other countries and cities, phone service may be unreliable or
nonexistent. Superficially this appears to be a mere technical problem. In
fact, it has a strong political dimension. Regardless of the potential
long-term benefits of Internet connection, the system requires a
initial capital investment. While economists may argue that e-mail is
expensive than fax service, African governments are understandably
to spend scarce foreign currency on projects that lack tangible economic r
eturns. This sets up several political confrontations.
One conflict develops between business and the government. Much of the
impetus for developing networks comes from companies that need
often outside the country. In West Africa, for example,
networks have developed largely because foreign oil companies need to
their remote operations with home offices outside the country.17 In
cases, the government views these business needs as an opportunity to
generate revenue, and attempts to impose licensing fees on services such
electronic bulletin board services (BBSes).18
This policy approach is antithetical to current World Bank goals for
development, which place high importance on telecommunications.19 The
second political conflict, then, comes between development agencies and
national governments. Rather than dampening the growth of computer
in Africa, development agencies and businesses both suggest that
governments should actively promote Internet connections. They point to
benefits such as increased investment by companies that use computer
networks and to the possibility of computer-related jobs being created in
countries where labor is cheaper.20 These arguments, however, seem
remarkably similar to ones used to introduce the large-scale,
capital-intensive projects of the past, which failed to have the
trickle-down effect to the poorest segments of society.
Clearly the political struggle here is between elites. Whether national
governments tap computer-based communication as a source of revenue or
provide it as a basic infrastructure for business, it seems unlikely
the common people will soon benefit directly. Experimentally,
computer-based communication is already being put to use even in rural
sites, using packet radio, satellites and solar power. But until the
benefit of a widespread computer infrastructure can be demonstrated in
concrete economic terms, it will probably remain the domain of business
If computers are controlled primarily by the elite, the technology will
have introduced yet another cause of social stratification. This is
new phenomenon: in the past, capital-intensive development projects
benefited the elite more than the common people. Rather than initiating a
trickle-down effect, such projects actually increased the gap between
rich and the poor.21 Computer networks are clearly a capital-intensive
technology. Woods, for instance, estimates that cordless computer
could eventually cost less than $1,000.22 It is difficult to see how
computers will spread to the common people in the countries of Africa,
where the annual per capita income is usually far less than $1,000.
Furthermore, this price represents a pre-tax estimate. Governments are
likely to impose customs and sales taxes on computers, pushing the price
a computer even farther out of reach for the common person.
In response, network developers usually suggest that the Internet would be
less expensive to develop as a public utility than traditional
communication systems such as telephones and especially faxes. The computer
could not be expected to replace those media, but could supplement them
and be installed first, as a precursor to more adequate systems.23
system would probably be based in local post offices, much as telex
equipment is now. It would offer better reliability and connectivity than
those systems, however.
Woods conceives of a more comprehensive, school-based network system. As
for the economic base, he argues:
One's first reaction may well be that the technology's costs and
sophistication will exclude the poor and further benefit the better off.
fact, the outcome may be very different. An electronic delivery system
can, for the first time in history, make the same information,
advice and high quality instructional materials available to rich
alike and can tailor information and instructional materials to
and perceptions of the poor and the uneducated. . . . The
the capacity to help people--all people! It permits mass
information regardless of location, level of education, social background
or economic status.24
The informational possibilities Woods cites as reducing the effects of
stratification still do not address the financial costs of the systems.
Instead, they raise another possible axis of stratification along the
of education and literacy. Woods argues that the medium is not
text-based--that icons and multimedia presentations make the computer
accessible even to illiterate people. In any event, Albert Langer points
out, "literacy is relatively widespread in developing countries
with the overall level of development, and especially compared with
A third stratification that may develop is age-based. In the United
States, computers have become associated with young people, who learn to
use them in school. The older generations often find themselves trying
catch up on technology already familiar to younger people. If computer
networks were introduced in Africa through the educational system, as
have been here, an age-based stratification could be created. It seems
unlikely, however, that the young people of Africa will have priority in
getting computers. Most African cultures are elder-oriented rather
youth-oriented, as American culture is. Thus innovations tend to be
by adults and spread downward, rather than being adopted by children and
spreading upward. For example, both radios and televisions were first
adopted by older males before spreading to younger people and women.
If computer networks are to become tools of ordinary people, significant
economic and educational problems must be overcome. Clearly, technical
optimists such as Woods and Langer believe these difficulties can be
addressed successfully. In the short run, however, it seems likely that
computerization will create yet another source of friction between the
haves and the have-nots.
The third dimension of politics that Goldsworthy describes is perhaps the
most recognized--power. Issues of control are directly related to
community values and to allocating economic resources. But power also
exists as a political end in itself. Governments, whether democratically
elected bodies or strongman dictatorships, seek to wield power not
personal economic ends but also for prestige and the egotistical human
drive for power.
In modern democracy, controlling information is the primary means of
controlling people. It is not surprising, then, that the 1982 coup
in Kenya nearly succeeded because the rebels controlled just one
building in the country--the national radio station. It also explains the
pervasive censorship of the press throughout much of Africa.
The introduction of the Internet could upend the current patterns of
information flow. In the process, the power of certain groups and
individuals will be threatened, perhaps even undermined. Thus computers
present not only a commercial revolution, but the possibility of a
political revolution as well. Analyzing the power structures that stand to
gain or lose power because of computer-based communication allows the
of potential struggle to emerge. For example, Gladys Ganley has described
how the Internet was used by Chinese students during and after the
Tiananmen Square crisis of June 1989.26 Students were able to conduct
fund-raising and to lobby for United States government protection. They
also pressured the Chinese government by posting lists of the children
officials studying in the U.S., carrying an implied threat.
National political power can be described according to two basic
domains--the control of the government over internal affairs and the
influence of the nation in international affairs. A national government,
then, has to control the information circulating within a country, as
as information crossing its borders.
Internal information control has a long history in Africa in the form of
press censorship. The press, for its part, has not been docile and has
continued to push for increased freedom. Progress is slow. In Kenya, for
instance, journalist David Makali recently spent four months in jail,
he was beaten for charging that President Daniel arap Moi had interfered
in a court ruling. Even after Makali was released, however, he refused
rescind his claims. The fact that he was not immediately rearrested
taken as a sign that press freedom was expanding, if only by fits and
Some governments' distrust of the press has carried over to BBS operators,
whose systems provide a precursor to full Internet connection. The
operator of one African BBS expressed the difficulty of getting a system
running: "If the government found out what we were doing, it would
down."28 The key, for now, is that the government does not know, and
provides one important reason why computer-based communication
such a politically potent force.
The strength of the Internet is its decentralization. Even a system as
simple as a BBS, which serves as a basic network, is relatively
to monitor and control. Central offices and heavy equipment are not
required. Unlike newspapers and magazines, electronic publishers do not
rely on imported paper, a resource commonly denied to recalcitrant
opposition papers in many African countries. By contrast, in Kenya for
example, there are an estimated 10,000 computers,29 almost any of which
could potentially be used for dial-up services, and all of which could
used to generate and store information the government might find
threatening. The Internet, then, could allow effective opposition to the
Computer-based communication is not merely destructive of the reigning
order, however: it also provides constructive possibilities for new
In the United States, for instance, some journalists have found that the
Internet provides greater access to government officials, who take
on-line discussions of issues.30 If computer networks became
Africa, a similar phenomenon might be expected. The computer would
open channels of discourse between government officials and local
Such dialog can also break down divisions within countries, such as tribal
animosities. Bellman and Tindimubona, for instance, noted that
computer-mediated discussions fostered friendly attitudes toward other
participants.31 Others suggest even more extensive effects. Financier
George Soros, for instance, has supported the spread of the Internet into
eastern Europe. He believes "the Internet is the prototype of an open
society,"32 which will break down internal divisions like the ones that
have resulted the war in Bosnia. Ken Spicer, chair of the Canadian
Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, says the Internet
provides a forum in which the marketplace of ideas can become a reality.
his view, the presence of alternate views would prevent any one source,
such as the government, from dominating by virtue of exclusion.33
Internet will lessen the power of the government, though, it is likely
that most African governments will allow connection only after
either from within or from outside.
Computer networks promise new possibilities in internal communication, but
their connection to the outside holds opportunities for involvement in
world affairs. Networks operate through diverse and diffuse
connections--via telephone lines, packet radio or satellite links, for
instance--that make it difficult to control by centralized government
agencies. Computer-based communications can handle virtually unlimited
amounts of information and diversity of news, opening the door to highly
specialized audiences spread over vast geographic areas. These
the Net have profound implications for journalism and international
The Internet, for example, is currently being used to electronically
publish China News Digest, a compilation of news briefs and articles on
China from around the world. A staff of 40 volunteers produces the
which is distributed to 30,000 subscribers daily.34 The Internet
an economical means to reach a large, specific audience.
A similar project is being undertaken by the Pan African News Agency
(PANA). The agency, founded to counterbalance the perceived dominance of
western new sources, has found the Internet to be a more reliable
distributing its stories. Connected to the Net by satellite link, PANA
direct access to newspapers around the world without relying on the
infrastructure in Dakar, Senegal.35 Not only is the system less prone
failure than traditional media such as fax and telephone, but the
outside access reduces the possibility of local government pressure.
Spicer suggests that such outside access should result in a freer press
and a reduction of human rights violations. Connection to the Internet
would provide a reliable, decentralized link to international government
and press agencies. If a national government tried to censor the local
press, then, the outside world could be notified and pressure could be
brought to bear in favor of freedom. Likewise, human rights abuses could
also be reported to the outside world more efficiently and
again allowing outside intervention.36
Two unanswered questions remain, of course. First, given the capital
consideration of Internet connection, does the West care enough to help
financially? And second, even if the system were eventually put in
would the outside world care enough to listen? Spicer admits that
backing will be difficult to obtain, since toleration and human rights do
not have an obvious economic return. And even if the Third World does
access to the Net, Schoenhoff doubts the West would really be
significantly. "The aspirations of the Third World community for power
equality in the international arena of money and politics are largely
futile . . . since the nations of the West have never intended power to
transferred with their technology."37
Prospects for the Internet in Africa
The ultimate conclusion, then, must be that the Internet will grow only
slowly in Africa. Despite the promises of greater freedom and access
global economy, and despite the backing of the academic and scientific
communities, powerful political forces are threatened. Neither western
Third World governments have significant stakes in implementing a
network, and in fact both stand to lose some degree of influence. Thus
both are likely to oppose the development of such a project.
United Nations and World Bank efforts to promote the Internet will
be only marginally effective, since the UN is only as influential as
member nations allow it to be. It has no authority to impose values such
freedom of information through computer networks.
The Net will continue to grow in Africa, however, primarily because of
business needs. Companies with large interests already in place will
the incentive to invest in the Internet, even without the support of
governments. Those governments will find it difficult to resist
aims for fear of losing much-needed foreign investment, but at the
time, governments will probably not invest much in the Net themselves.
Local business, especially the local press, will be effectively blocked
of the Internet world.
African universities will be another driving force for the Net just as
they have been in the United States, but unlike here they will take a
seat to business. Professors see the value of the Net to academic
but governments hold the purse strings. Many governments are automatically
suspicious of universities as breeding grounds of dissent, so they are
unlikely to move quickly to attach the schools to the Internet. But
will eventually exist if only by the sheer willpower of the academic
Finally, the Internet will probably not spread quickly to rural areas or
to the masses of common people. Neither African governments nor
have much incentive to make the Internet available inexpensively to
public. The best hope for this kind of development is through the
universities and NGOs committed to grassroots development. As these
organizations gradually tie into the Net, the power of computer-based
communication will become available beyond the offices of government
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