Technology and Democracy in Africa

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In the wake of the so-called ‘twitter revolutions’ in North Africa, domestic political leaders, academics, and donors are becoming increasingly interested in the role of the media and new technologies in effecting social and political change.  But what does current use of these technologies tell us about the relationship between technology and democracy in Africa?  Here, Ben Armstrong, a researcher on African politics and a former employee of Google, shares his take.

While it is clear that new mobile technologies have increased business opportunities for those with access to them, what have they done for democracy? Does unequal access to technology only exacerbate class divides, or do more powerful technologies – even in the hands of a few – help improve accountability and the capacity of government to connect with the people?

A recent summary of geo-located Tweets from Sub-Saharan Africa begins to highlight where new technologies are emerging and who is using them. Tweets serve as a proxy for the degree of engagement with mobile technology. Citizens who use twitter tend to be power users whose use of mobile technology reaches beyond communication with friends, families, and colleagues by SMS. Twitter power users use mobile phones to broadcast information and extend their current social and political community. The map below from Portland Communications only displays the gross number of tweets, not tweets per capita or tweets per mobile phone user, which would more accurately capture technology usage in each country. Tweets per capita and Tweets per mobile phone subscriber – in the table below – reveal a more surprising pattern, which speaks to the tenuous relationship between technology, free speech, and democracy. (For a PDf with larger versions of the figures and tables in this article see the link at the bottom of the page).

The top countries in tweets per capita are the usual suspects. South Africa has nearly one mobile phone per citizen and is the continent’s commercial hub; Kenya has a burgeoning technology community focused on developing SMS as a commercial tool; and Nigeria is the commercial hub for West Africa, where telecommunications is exploding as an industry. Perhaps most surprising is that Kenya surpasses South Africa in tweets per mobile phone user. It seems Kenyan mobile platforms like Ushahidi and M-PESA have been effective in establishing Kenya as a center of technological development on the continent.
Sources: Portland Communications, Inc. (Tweets, 2012); Human Development Report, UNDP (Population, 2011; HDI by country ranking, 2011); The Economist Intelligence Unit (Democracy Index, 2011); Frederick Pardee Center for International Futures (% population with a mobile phone, 2011).

Rwanda has undergone a well-documented post-conflict reconstruction, but it has a small population with low democracy scores and a comparatively low mobile phone penetration (only 28% of Rwandans own a mobile phone). Rwanda’s technology adoption, however, has been remarkably rapid, which speaks to the efficacy of President Kagame’s proclaimed focus on growing the telecommunications and technology sector. It is unclear thus far whether a comparably small coterie of Twitter power users will help spur democratic development. The risk is that mobile phone penetration will remain low while the number of power users continues to grow, consolidating the power of technology in the hands of a few.

The country with the fewest tweets per mobile phone on the list is Ghana, commonly ranked among the most democratic on the continent. Ghana’s democratic experiment has unfolded concomitantly with economic volatility.  The telecommunications sector is clearly growing in Ghana; however, investment capital and infrastructure still lags far behind neighboring Nigeria. Ghanaians enjoy a vibrant civil society and over 90% mobile phone ownership. The data suggest that while there are more Ghanaian cell phone users, they typically use “dumb” phones or Java-enabled phones rather than smart phones equipped for power users.

The lack of Twitter usage might not suggest Ghana’s lack of democratic development through technology – quite the opposite. The Rwandan example highlights how an unequal distribution of technological resources can create a limited number of power users who have the social and political influence to direct the agenda. Ghana’s more equal distribution of technological resources – nearly one cell phone per capita – has not produced a large community of power users, nor has it seemed to tilt power toward government or the traditional elite. The Ghanaian user is just as likely to be illiterate – using emoticons rather than names to save mobile numbers as farmers do in Yendi – as they are to be opinion leaders and tycoons. Commercial opportunities derived from technology are fewer, but democracy is perhaps better served.

To download the figures and map as a PDF, click here

For more technology data, see

For updates on technology and media in Africa, visit Ethan Zuckerman’s blog or CP-Africa.

For free podcasts on the role of media and new technologies in Africa, click here.

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