Increasingly, our “online” lives intersect with the lives we live “offline”. As mobile technology expands its footprint in Africa, connections are made and views exchanged through email or chat rooms as much as they are in face-to-face contact. Political discourse and action is coordinated through Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp as much as through printed pamphlets. In short, information and communications technologies (ICTs) have fundamentally altered the way we do things, from the most personal to the political.
Such platforms have created an unprecedented expansion of our public sphere. It is now readily possible to share ideas across sections of society and national and continental borders. Easy access to information facilitates wider and faster dissemination of news reports, including those captured by ordinary people. Censorship has become harder to enforce. Twitter and YouTube challenge hierarchies by allowing “unknowns” to contend with high profile voices. In some contexts, the anonymity enabled by the internet is key to defying political power and restrictions.
A game-changer, yes. But towards what end? Widespread information exchange can promote violence and prejudice as easily as tolerance and openness. Rapid news dissemination can inform or obscure. Anonymity enables dissidence – but also surveillance. And most importantly, while it may be a forum for breaking down hierarchies, these technologies are open only to those not already excluded through geography, class, gender, race or origin. As Sarah Chiumbu writes in the opening article here, ICTs may “have radically changed the media and communications landscape in Africa”, but it is no foregone conclusion that they signify “deepening democracy and accountability”.
The idea of enhancing democratic processes with the help of ICTs is not new. Since the end of World War II, three ages of “electronic democracy” can be identified. Between 1950 and 1960, computers were introduced to aid government effectiveness, particularly in the West. The 1970s and ’80s was the age of “teledemocracy”, when telephone, radio and television communication became increasingly sophisticated. The present age of “cyber-democracy” began with the emergence of the internet in the 1990s. Each of the preceding periods held dual optimistic-vs-pessimistic views about the meaning of technology for democratic processes. Similarly today, at least in some quarters, the initial euphoria about what ICTs can achieve in Africa has made way for more cynical responses. After all, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has proved unhelpful in summoning Nigerian and global political will and resources to bring back the more than 250 girls abducted by Boko Haram in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014.
So how is ICT use changing African societies? To what extent are ICTs fostering inclusive and participatory democracies? To what degree do they reinforce existing political and social institutions, practices and exclusions? The articles gathered in this edition of Perspectives capture the complex and plural ways in which Africans are attempting to use ICTs to democratise democracy on the continent, the challenges they face, and the valuable lessons learned.
When it comes to advancing good governance and accountability through ICTs, as Adi Eyal puts it, “technology is there to facilitate and support processes. It cannot solve any problem on its own”. The Tendai project uses mobile technology to help collect evidence about health services, but this evidence becomes politically relevant only once it is used in traditional advocacy and lobbying activities. In Bagega, the tracking of government funds via social media only becomes meaningful when combined with on-the-ground monitoring, mobilisation and consultation. Political changes do not come about simply because social media tools are available or because hashtags are tweeted, but rather because of an effective combination of factors including levels of dissatisfaction with those in power; the legal extent of freedoms of association, expression and information; an active citizenry; and access to ICTs and other resources, as well as the skills to use them.
Politicians in sub-Saharan Africa have started to embrace ICTs as essential tools of the trade – particularly in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, where ICT usage is comparatively high. As in other places, social media have become central components of election campaigns. In 2011, for example, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced his candidacy on Facebook. While ICTs can facilitate political participation, however, it is a challenge to ensure that they do not reinforce the digital divide (and the associated power differential) between, for example, urban and rural folks or between the genders. Connecting online and offline communities is vital, as are projects that directly challenge discrimination. Jennifer Radloff’s contribution attests to the efforts of African women and feminist organisations to appropriate ICTs to amplify the demands and lived experiences of all women on the continent, and to strengthen African women’s influence in cyber-government.
Unfortunately, such initiatives are too often confronted by online intimidation and violence against women, gays and lesbians, and mass surveillance by repressive (and less repressive) states. Moreover, in line with global trends, cyber-security legislation is being used to sneak in provisions that enable government interception of communications and limitations on free speech and access to information. Such developments threaten to undermine the democratic potential of ICTs altogether.
And this is perhaps the most important message the articles in this edition carry: ICTs offer radical possibilities to advance democracy and social justice. However, greater mobilisation and popular education are required to ensure that this remains the case, and that national, regional and continental internet governance finds the correct balance between issues of security and fundamental political rights.