Power to The People: The Role of Electronic Media in Promoting Democracy in Africa

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Power to The People: The Role of Electronic Media in Promoting Democracy in Africa.

By Dana Ott.

Quick View:

  • Political decisions are always made by small ingroups practising a face-to-face communication. This fact won't be changed by the Internet.

  • But the Net can affect the process preceding decision making by establishing a new channel transporting the citizens‘ wants to the elite. In other words, it allows to put pressure on the political establishment.

  • For functioning like this the Net needs a broad platform of users which it doesn't have in Africa for reasons of an impressive rate of illateracy and extreme high telephone costs. Therefore, it is possible that the Internet becomes a medium of the elite like television is.

  • At the moment no relation between connectivity and democratization is measurable in Africa. Democratization is much more driven by newspapers and would eventually be stimulated by an independent radio broadcasting content delivered by the Internet.


This paper presents an analysis of the role of electronic media in promoting the formation of democratic political regimes in Africa. With the dramatic expansion of various forms of electronic interchange, including electronic mail and the Internet, opportunities for communication across national boundaries, and cross-fertilization of ideas are greater than ever before. This article argues that access to electronic information can have a positive impact in promoting democracy in Africa, by providing civil society with greater leverage vis-à-vis the state and political elites. However, without parallel efforts to insure that access to the Internet is not restricted to urban, elite populations, political instability may result. The paper is structured as follows: Section I makes the theoretical case for the role of increased information access and communication in the promotion of democratic political regimes. Section II presents an overview of the state of electronic access in Africa, including indigenous and international donor supported initiatives to promote African connectivity. Section III presents an empirical analysis of the relationship between access to electronic media and political participation and democratization in Africa. Section IV considers methods to increase usage of electronic media as a tool for increased participation and democratization in Africa.

"The general belief holds that representative government is the only form of democracy that is feasible in today's sprawling, heterogeneous nation-states. However, interactive telecommunications now make it possible for tens of millions of widely dispersed citizens to receive the information they need to carry out the business of government themselves, gain admission to the political realm, and retrieve at least some of the power over their own lives and goods that many believe their elected leaders are squandering" [1].

Since the earliest conceptualization and discussion of the political, communication has held an equally prominent position, both in terms of its necessity for political ideas to be transmitted and replicated, and as a tool by which political actors seek to ensure the predominance of their ideas through improved methods of communication [2].

In the polis, as conceived by Aristotle, direct communication among and between all the political actors in the system was an attainable ideal. The growth of larger and more geographically diverse states necessitated the development of alternative modes of interaction as societies moved from direct political interaction to representative political action. Those chosen to represent the interests of others in the political system have historically used a variety of methods to obtain information about their constituents' preferences, including physically touring their districts periodically, reading letters from constituents, and polling their constituents about key issues. All these methods can be time consuming and costly to employ, limiting the frequency with which they can be used and by extension the quality of information which can be regularly obtained. However, the changing nature of communication ushered in by the dawning of the age of electronic communications, and the concomitant decline in the costs of communication on a global scale has profound implications for political interaction among representatives and their constituents, and for economic and political development throughout the world. This paper focuses explicitly on the impact these changes may have on political communication and potentially on the formation and maintenance of democratic political regimes in Africa.

The Role of Information in Promoting Democratization

"Now as in the past it is difficult to separate the quality and cast of political life from the methods of communication that sustain it. But behind the changes wrought by technology, organization, and the scale of politics, there is also a certain sameness. Linked to the communication structures which characterize a society, and in fact inseparable from them, are numerous face-to-face relationships. Much of the political business of the world is still done in such situations, and it would indeed provide a mistaken view of the communication process to concentrate on machines and organizations to the exclusion of the face-to-face groupings which are a prominent feature of all political systems" [3].

Writing over thirty years ago, Richard Fagen cautioned against reading too much into the impact of technological developments such as radio and television on political communication and ultimately on the conduct of politics. He argued that while technology does matter in the functioning of a political system, that there are more elemental relationships of power in political communication that are unaffected or barely affected by the development of enhanced methods of communication such as television and radio because those relationships are the one-to-one interactions that remain a critical part of the political process. In other words, the political elite will always be small enough to remain relatively unaffected by changes in communications. This paper argues that while it is certainly true that the actual decision-making in a political system (even a democratic one) may remain concentrated at the level of a few individuals, the complexity of information which those individuals use to engage in decision-making processes (especially constituency feedback) is equally important and is subject to influence by the changing nature of communications. As electronic communication enables citizens to directly and instantaneously convey their wishes to their representatives with ever decreasing costs, the nature of political interaction is likely to change.

There are several direct consequences which can be highlighted: In what Grossman (1996) calls the "Electronic Republic", the power of individual citizens is increased is several ways: through greater access, and greater influence. There is greater access to those who represent the individual in the political system, and to information about issues, decisions and pending legislation that might affect the individual. There is greater influence both as an individual who can more easily communicate his or her views on a topic directly to elected representatives, and indirectly through easier access to issue advocacy organizations. There are other, more subtle implications of this shift in public power for elected representatives and for citizens themselves. For representatives, this could mean the transformation in the definition of their role; from the more traditional conception of the representative as someone who is selected to represent his or her constituents by considering the facts surrounding various issues and making carefully reasoned decisions on that basis with the interests of his or her constituents in mind; and someone who is merely a proxy for his or her constituents, adding up the constituency responses on a given issue and voting accordingly. The electronic media has given a larger percentage of constituents than ever before the ability to easily and quickly transmit their opinions on public policy issues to their representatives. The danger is that whereas a representative is supposed to consider what is best for his or her district as a whole (including all members of the district), a proxy is constrained to represent the majority viewpoint. This dominance of a majority faction could have serious repercussions in the African context.

At the same time, and in the same vein, the opportunity costs of participation are reduced. Electronic access could potentially erase disparities of distance and geography, minimizing the rural-urban distinction that has had significant political implications in Africa in the past. Aside from these direct consequences, Grossman sees as an additional consequence a power shift in the electronic republic: "The big losers in the present-day reshuffling and resurgence of public influence are traditional institutions that have served as the main intermediaries between the government and its citizens - the political parties, labor unions, civic associations, even the commentators and correspondents in the mainstream press" [4]. By empowering ordinary citizens to participate more directly in their political system, Grossman argues, electronic communications increases the role of citizens in the policymaking process at the expense of the political "middlemen" who have historically provided the forum by which ordinary citizens could make their interests on specific issues known through interest aggregation and representation. Not only this, but electronic communication and participation in politics may eventually lead to a more direct democracy in which general participation is increased with both potentially positive and negative consequences.

In larger democracies such as the United States, there is a potentially troubling outcome: "As the political system grows ever more responsive to majority impulses, and the legislative and executive branches feel increased pressure to bend to the public will, the judiciary remains the branch of government in the best position to serve as a brake upon the people ... In the electronic republic, the judiciary will have the increasingly difficult and sensitive role of protecting the rights of unpopular minorities and thwarting the popular will when it gets out of hand... Protecting the essentially anti-majoritarian doctrine of judicial review will become the key to preserving democracy in the electronic republic and preventing it from succumbing eventually to a popular tyranny or a demagogic leader" [5].

In other words, James Madison's concern in the early days of the United States democracy over controlling the effects of "majority faction" may once again become a problem in an electronic republic [6]. That this issue could become a concern even in the United States, where strong legal barriers exist to this "tyranny of the majority," has significant implications for the political impact of electronic communications in African countries where factionalism is already a problem and there are weak safeguards to majority domination.

In terms of the role of electronic media in promoting democratic outcomes, it has been well established that radio and television can have significant impact on political participation in developed countries [7]. The case is less clear for the impact of the Internet on popular participation. A recent study on the impact of the Internet on the 1996 Presidential elections in the United States argues that: "The most "wired" of political participators did make some use of the Net to communicate with their elected officials, but for the most part traditional means of communication were still much more important. Where mobilization is concerned, political organizations appear to have made little widespread use of the Internet as a tool of communication and persuasion - yet. Although the Internet may already be significant as a passive information resource about public life, I find that it is still far from transforming active political communication on a wide scale" [8].

Bimber deliberately targeted his survey at those individuals most likely to be involved in political activity, and still found that Internet was not as prominent in their political activity as the literature would predict. It could be argued, however, that in the United States, where many avenues to political participation already exist, and where the opportunity cost of participation is quite low, that the Internet does not provide a sufficient "added value" to make it a better alternative than more traditional methods of political communication. Still, Bimber shows that we would be well advised not to overstate the potential impact of the Internet on fostering better or more political participation.

It has also been argued that the impact of electronic media on democratization can be distinguished by is its potential range versus print media, particularly in the developing world. Radio and television have long provided a source of information for the millions of people who are illiterate and/or unable to afford the cost of newspapers. But the Internet provides an interactive component that radio and television lack. As Graeme Browning and Daniel Weitzner note: "The Internet's greatest strength, however, is its ability to support simultaneous, interactive communications among many people. Unlike the telephone, which primarily supports one-to-one communications, or radio and television, where information flows in only one direction, from a single source to an audience that can only listen passively, the Net allows information to flow back and forth among millions of sources at practically the same time". The implication is that millions of people can be exposed to a medium in which they have an active role to play and can influence political as well as other outcomes.

However, like newspapers, active use of the Internet requires literacy. Perhaps more troubling, access to the Internet will likely require literacy in English, for the most part, to enjoy the benefits. For French- and Portuguese-speaking African countries, this is yet another hurdle on top of the financial and infrastructure constraints that many African countries already face to widespread Internet connectivity. Newspapers in Africa have traditionally been utilized primarily by the elite and urban population. It is possible that Internet access in many African countries will merely cement and potentially expand these disparities, despite the best efforts of donors and others. This is explored in greater depth in Sections III and IV. The next section gives a brief overview of the current state of electronic communications in Africa.

Electronic Access to Information in Africa

Electronic communications is not a new phenomenon in Africa. Radio and television have played a significant role in political life in most African countries since independence. Radio and television ownership and use continue to expand even as the Internet begins to make inroads into Africa. This analysis, while focused primarily on the Internet, also considers the status of radio and television in Africa, as well as their impact on the democratization process.


Despite the growing popularity of the Internet, radio and television still represent the mode through which the majority of Africans receive information about national and international events. Radio is by far the most prominent source of information for Africans in general, even when compared to television or newspapers. For example, a 1995 media survey in Niger's two largest cities, conducted by a French firm with assistance from U. S. Information Agency (USIA), found that radio sets were widely available, while television and satellite television were not. Radio news (both from foreign stations such as Voice of America (VOA), and local stations) was a major source of information for people, even in these urban locations. UNESCO reports echo these findings - their Statistical Survey shows that average radio usage throughout sub-Saharan Africa (145 transmitters per 1,000 people) is far greater than television (23 per 1,000 people) or newspapers (circulation of 10 per 1,000). Radio and television broadcasts can be received (provided you have a receiver) throughout most of Africa, and literacy is not a requirement as it is for newspaper consumption.

There is a ongoing relevance of electronic media (particularly radio) in Africa, particularly when compared with similar figures for print media (newspapers) which show no increase in newspaper consumption in a 22-year period. Even television, which has faced greater obstacles in Africa than radio because of startup costs for television stations, and costs to viewers to obtain televisions, shows a moderate increase during this period. From these data, it seems logical to assume that electronic media will continue to occupy a dominant position in Africa, particularly as a source of political information. We would expect, therefore, to find that increased access to electronic media would be correlated with the transitions to democracy which have been occurring recently in Africa. This assumption is tested empirically in Section III.


It is an astounding fact that where the Internet barely existed in Africa even five years ago, today 44 of the 54 nations in Africa have some form of Internet access in their capital cities. But as Mike Jensen notes, "Of the countries with full Internet access, only Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe have pervasive local dialup facilities outside of the capital city, while Benin, Botswana, Egypt, and Kenya have services in the second major city" [9]. Jensen notes that access costs are generally higher in Africa than elsewhere, and Aden (1995) argues that this may be related to the profit margins of the telecommunications sector in African countries, where the revenue per subscriber line is twice as high as in Europe [10]. Aden argues that the two greatest impediments to the development of electronic communication in Africa are insufficient infrastructure and regulatory barriers. Infrastructure limitations include such problems as scarce and/or poor quality telephone lines, unreliable power supplies, outdated equipment, and a lack of knowledge and training. Regulatory barriers include government monopolies on telecommunications, high access rates for telephone service, and legal disincentives to foreign investment.

The result is that for much of Africa: "In the majority of cases national telecom operators are also guided by policy makers with less background in telecommunications technology and its value for development. These politicians often perceive telecommunications as trivial public utility; sometimes as a utility for "high officials." The guidance of policy makers has made telecom operations management inefficient and unconfident in decision making. Such arrangement has blocked visions towards deregulation and increased conflict in adopting the most appropriate deregulation and privatization models based on national situations" [11].

There are numerous efforts underway by donors and other organizations to remedy some of these deficiencies in partnership with African governments and NGOs including USAID's Leland Initiative, UNDP, and PADIS, among others. There are several Web sites which provide links and comprehensive overviews of ongoing projects, including Bellanet and Information Systems in Developing Countries. The next section explores the relationship between electronic media and democratization in Africa in greater detail.

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