How Digital Technology Has Energized The Quest For Change Across Africa.
Watching the the Egyptian crowds as they listened to a speech by their now former president, Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, who had been in power since the assassination of Anwar El Sadat in 1981, only confirmed what is becoming more and more obvious: that for Africa there is no going back to the way things were; the only way we can move is forward. But Egypt is only the latest evidence of this trend. Any astute observer is aware that the desire for democracy is spreading through the African world like a contagion.
In 2010 there were at least adozen presidential democratic elections in African nations, places like Guinea that hadn't had an election since 1958. In 2011 there are scheduled to be nearly two dozen presidential elections in various nations -- including Egypt, which is currently in the midst of what could most certainly be called a people's revolution.
Though the methods being employed by protesters can be alarming at times in their ferocity, the demand for freedom itself is not altogether surprising. Just as there were signs, over a half century ago, foreshadowing the collapse of colonialism on the continent, there have been signs recently pointing toward the end of an era of dictatorship. What is, however, most fascinating about this inevitable death is the pivotal as well as provocative role that digital technology is playing to bring it about.
For the most part in recent times, we Africans have taken our requests for democracy to the polls, not the streets. Unfortunately, in some nations, that has not resulted in any real change. And ultimately, that is what sparks all revolutions: the urgent, non-negotiable need for sustainable change.
When Tunisian authorities in the city of Sidi Bouzid seized Mohamed Bouazizi's unlicensed produce cart and the unemployed computer-science graduate set himself aflame, it took no time at all for that act of protest to turn into a trending topic. After Bouazizi's self-immolation, the youth in Sidi Bouzid took to the streets. Because of the broadcasts of a single satellite channel, the world watched as those young men displayed their rage and frustration -- and a hashtag was created.
The final condition to create this perfect storm was, of course, the WikiLeaks release of classified U.S. State Department communications, revealing that even the ambassador of one of the nation's strongest allies shared the beliefs of most Tunisians about their leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: out of touch, surrounded by corruption, determined to stay in power. It's no wonder that when protests began in Egypt, one of the first measures authorities took to quell the burgeoning insurrection was cutting off all access to the Internet. No Facebook; no Google; no YouTube; no Twitter; no WikiLeaks. Also cut off were SMS and BlackBerry Messenger services. And satellite television as well -- no Al-Jazeera.
In December I made my first official visit to Egypt as vice president of Ghana. I met with the prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, and toured the Smart Villages high-tech park in Cairo, where more than a hundred technological companies like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are housed. I was impressed with how fully Egypt had embraced IT and thought that they might even serve as a model for other African countries. In many ways I was right to assume that; of course I had no idea that the example they would set with technology would be the attainment of social justice.
Repressive regimes thrive on ignorance -- the ignorance of their people, and the ignorance of the outside world. For too long, the image of Africa has festered under the haze of the Western world's ignorance and its resulting apathy. A relevant example of this is the unofficial annexation of Tunisia, Algeria and the continent's other northern nations, for reasons of race alone, to the Middle East. (Though the majority of Egypt's land mass is in Africa, a portion of that nation, the Sinai Peninsula, is in the Middle East, making it transcontinental.)
Africa is, and has been for the past several centuries, a continent of artificial boundaries and of divisions constructed along the lines of race, class, tribal and ethnic grouping -- divisions cleverly constructed for the purposes of conquering. It is an infrastructure that, by design, lends itself to dictatorship, to the powerlessness of the masses.
It wasn't so long ago that if you wanted to post a letter from Ghana, a former British colony, to any of the countries that border us -- Côte d'Ivoire, Togo or Burkina Faso, all former French colonies -- it would be routed through Europe first before finally arriving at its destination. The same was true of telephone calls, and it was virtually impossible to travel by air from one African country directly to another. Now all you need to be connected via computer or mobile phone to anyone anywhere in the world is a signal.
A little over a decade ago, as minister of communications, I was privileged to be part of the process of deregulating and liberalizing the previous monolithic state-owned telesector in Ghana. Initially, people did not understand the new technology and were hesitant to embrace the monumental changes that seemed to be required. Mobile telephony as a communication tool was, for all intents and purposes, in its infancy, and only a privileged few had access. Looking back now, I can feel only a sense of satisfaction in seeing how telecoms and ICT have exploded not only in Ghana but across the continent.
Every year since 2000 the Internet population in most African countries has doubled. Over the past decade, the spread of telecommunications and ICT in Africa went from below an average of 3 percent teledensity to a whopping almost 50 percent.
"Knowledge is power, and information is liberation," Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general, has been quoted as saying. Mobile phones and the Internet are liberating Africa in a way that even independence from colonialism could not. Digital technology is redefining our political landscape and will continue to do so in ways that we have yet to even imagine.
What makes digital technology such an ideal tool for social and political empowerment in the formation of new democracies is the fact that it is ever changing; new media and applications are constantly being produced to meet the shifting needs of users. When President Mubarak shut down the Internet in Egypt, Google and Twitter joined forces to create "Speak to Tweet" to help people circumvent the block and post their tweets.
History has shown that when it comes to the fight for freedom in Africa, as one nation goes, so goes the entire continent. I am hopeful that now democracy will ultimately prevail in Egypt. The people of Africa deserve to live with dignity and in peace, to have their voices heard, to be free. Perhaps then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama said it best when, in his presidential-campaign speeches, he noted, "Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change." Especially when they are armed with the unifying force of digital technology.
Written By John Dramani Mahama, Ghana’s Vice President