Emmanuel Ayah Okwabi on Sat, 16 Jan 1999 11:08:30 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> internet & africa

This article looks at the potential of internet to promote
democratisation, a free press and critical discussion, getting on-line in
Ghana. It also examines the recycling of computers from the rich north to
South Africa as one solution to a shortage of computer hardware on the
continent and low demand for used equipment in the west.

New media has great potential to make a contribution to a new era of
participatory democracy and a catalyst for a revitalisation of the public
sphere by facilitating the free-flow of information and a catalyst for the
development of civil society in West Africa. Internet, for example, was
introduced in Ghana in 1994. Today, the independent press in Ghana is
represented on the world wide web by the Ghanaian chronicle and The
independent (http://www.Africaonline.com). In neighbouring Nigeria the
centre for democracy and development (http://www.cdd.org.uk)  based in
London but with branches in Nigeria and Ghana joined other pro-democracy
groups to bring about the end of the late General Abacha's military
dictatorship using its website and on-line among other things. The
world-wide web web offers possibilities for representation of the opinions
expressed in a small but articulate private press, ideas of human rights
groups,non-governmental organizations as well as opposition political
parties in Ghana. 

It is against this background that one explores the impact of internet on
sociological phenomena. This is an encouraging development because
overbearing political intolerance have compromised the integrity and
viability of the Africa's media. Intolerance of media in Africa by the
powerful is common regardless of the political system in place. 
Journalists are routinely harassed,assualted or jailed acrossthe
continent. Successive governments in countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria,
Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Zambia, Liberia, Algeria, Guinea, Kenya, Ghana,
Zimbabwe have habitually infringed on the freedom of the press despite
acceding to the provisions of the organization of African unity (OAU) 
charter on human and peoples rights. (West Africa magazine 23 February-1
March 1998)

The reasons for the disdain of the media by African leaders include
personal vanity, oversensitivity to criticism, near-paranoid concern for
state security as well as class, age and social differences. Virtual
communities could help citizens revitalise democracy or they could be
luring us into an attractively packaged subtitute for democratic

Virtual communities are computer-mediated social groups spread all over
the globe which emerge from the net (interconnected computer networks that
use computer mediated communication) linking people around the world into
public discussions). When enough people carry on those public discusions
long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal
relationships in cyberspace. 

In this regard, technology if properly understood and defended by enough
citizens has a democratising potential just as alphabets and printing
presses facilitated democracy in the nineteenth century. This notion of
internets role in democracy is based on two main concepts, namely, theory
of a public sphere and internet communities as a focus for democratic
discourse. Democracy refers to rights and responsibilities of citizens.
The will of the people, as expressed through representation plays a key
role in legitimising democracy. Consent of the people is critical in a

The free flow of information is necessary in a democracy in order to
enable citizens make informed choices based on available facts. In
addition democracies must have effecient systems of communication in order
to facilitate the free flow of ideas and effecient system of education to
enable people make informed choices. 

Internet, to a large extent is a public space free of interference both
from government control and excessive commercialism. Communications in
democracies can be divided into two dimensions : firstly a democratised
media or participatory and alternative media including computer-mediated
communication (CMC). Secondly, social movements and groups using these
media actively for social change.

To be sure, the public sphere is a part of social life where citizens can
exchange views on matters of importance to the common good to facilitate
the formulation of public opinion. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A
portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in
which private individuals assemble to form a public body.

The importance of this lies in the process of discussion which must take
the form of a rational-critical debate. This debate has a set of rules
which include avoiding the use of emotion and focus on rationality of
content alone.Criticism is vital to this process, so that proposals being
put forward can be tested to ensure that participants can discover a
common meaning together sa a result of the process itself. Public
communication, if unfettered by institutional control might generate
critical consensus which is necessary for public participation in
democratic processes.

If democracy is to be implemented in today's large, complex societies,
then the ideal of a physically present ,mutually consenting members must
be overcome. Instead ,citizens who are not necessarily physically
co-present can develop subjectless forms of communication. The crux of the
issue centres on an attempt to make the media a source of reasoned
consensus-formation instead of a site for manipulating public opinion.

Actually , there are many public spheres, all competing spheres all
competing for attention and the right to define what is talked about. 
Topics that are considered to be of common concern only become so by the
process of debate itself, so nothing should be excluded from consideration

A democratic public sphere means that there must be opportunities for
subordinate groups to convince dominant groups that their concerns are
legitimate and worthy of debate. A case in point is female circumcision in
Ghana which was once considered only of interest to women, but is now
firmly in the mainstream public sphere, so much so that there is now
legislation forbiding the practice. 

In a society where there are different subgroups with different status,
participatory equality is achieved more effectively through numerous
public spheres.Decision-making in the dominant public sphere is to the
benefit of the dominant groups by defining what is important and setting
norms and style of discussion. Subordinate groups must be involved in
discussions with dominant groups before they can participate in the debate
and this may include disregarding crucial issues concerning them.

A socially egalitarian society requires a public sphere that includes
diverse publics including one common public in which participants can
reach compromises about policy that concerns them all. Regarding the issue
of gender and race in relation to virtual communities, the internet
reduces the hierarchies of gender that pervade society generally.

In other words, the structural conditions of communicating in internet
communities reduces the importance of gender and racial differences.  If
one is to be masculine or black,one must choose to be so. Further, one
must enact one's choice in language alone. Voice or physical appearance
become irrelevant.In this way the internet is bridging differences between
races and sexes paving the way for their equal participation of in

Internet presents an opportunity to expand points of view on
available,topics presented and modes of expression. Two important factors
are relevant to internet's potential for democracy.Namely,the anarchic
nature of the internet and interactivity which allow direct feedback to
individual articles and opinions. Certain features of traditional media
that allowed media concentration to occur are not present on the internet.

For example, to be a newspaper publisher one must be able to pay for the
means of printing ,paper and distribution outlets. However, the internet
is not a physical structure.It is spread across many computers across the
world and it would be difficult to identify every participating computer
and take control of it.

The nature of the world wide web offers a solution to various methods of
stifling media in Africa including the wholesale seizure of newspaper
print runs either from street vendors or printing depots as well as
wholesale closure of media outfits. (Three newspapers-the Guardian,Punch
and National Concord were banned for morethan one year by the government
of former dicatator Abacha in Nigeria).

One contraint restricing internet's potential as a medium is the problem
of unequal division of power and resources. Internet is still the preserve
of privileged groups. On the other hand, an internet user is simply not
acting as an individual but as part of a virtual community. This group
action or discussion allows an individual to exert more influence than
they could alone. Traditional media structures audiences as a series of
individuals or very small groups whereas internets potential for power is
based on its ability to form large groups who can organise politically.

A citizen needs to develop a sense of his ability and duty to participate
and an identity as a political voice in a democracy before he can feel
inclined to contribute. A necessary condition for development of a
strong,positive political identity is the ability to talk about politics
with others.

Meanwhile, the limited scope of public space is a major problem facing
democracy.If new settings such as the internet are developed, it is
possible for democracy to thrive. Community has traditionally been seen as
collective kinship,labour and frienship networks which share a common
geographic territory and a shared valued system .One of the main benefits
of the internet is the ability to find others with similar interests. The
interests that you share in common with others on a topic facilitates the
formation of a virtual community.

On the internet space is separated from place when people form
relationships or comunities with people who are physically distant. In an
ideal public sphere, citizens must have access to information about issues
before they can contribute to debate.

More and more public and government databases are going online at local
and national levels. The coexistence of very large and upto date
collections of factual information in conjunction with a medium that is
also a forum for discussion and debate has important implications for the
public sphere .

Discussion backed up by available facts could grow into the real basis for
a possible electronic democracy of the future. However, there are certain
problems worth considering regarding the internet. Firstly, in traditional
media, powerful, individual owners of large conglomerates mean that a few
people can influence media output significantly .promoting their own
interests and those of big business generally. Since many of those
conglomerates are already making inroads into internet publishing it is
extremely likely to apply to their influence on the internet.

Also, while entry to the internet is relatively cheaper than entry to any
other mass medium the costs are still high enough to constitute a class
barrier. Meanwhile, entry costs for an attractive websites have already
risen dramatically and large publishing businesses are creating sites full
of imagery and pleasing aesthetic.This means that individuals and small
groups must compete with professional know-how of commerciallyly produced

Nevertheless, internets structure means that it will be difficult for a
conglomerate or media organization to gain the type of control currently
exercised over traditional media, even if they take control of internet
service providers . 

Compared to traditional media many more people have access to debate and
opportunities for the formation of political will. They also have access
to information that is hard to obtain from traditional news media which
will expand the public sphere and create opportunities for direct feedback
with political representatives. 

Audiences of traditional media act and debate individually or in small
groups while internet allows people with particular interests to form .
This expands the individual's area of influence.People with similar
interests can find each other more easily,creating ' special interest '
communities that are independent of physical location.

Tactical media provide opportunities for the expansion of democracy and
the public sphere. This development, though limited to privileged groups
marks an improvement, however, modest. Indeed, when new technology is
first introduced it is often limited to 'innovator', 'opinion leaders' or
'early adoptor' groups. As the technology becomes cheaper,more accessible
and easier to use,it spreads into other areas of society . It is by this
reasoning that internet is a source of hope for the future. 

Getting On-line in Ghana

Ghana achieved full internet connectivity in 1994, following the
liberalisation of the communications industry by the government.
Unfortunately,internet access has remained a preserve of a privileged few.
At the end of 1997 there were about 5000 internet service providers in the
country,while the number of personal computers is estimated at 50,000,
according to Ebow-Sam Monney, promotions coordinator of AOL. The limited
number of computers is attributable to its high cost at 2,500 dollars per
unit whch is beyond the reach of the average worker (West africa magazine
6 july -26 july 1998). There are a couple of initiatives to facilitate
access of the average Ghanaian to the information superhighway by internet
service providers in Ghana.

In mid-1998 Africa Online(AOL) launched its "E-mail for every Ghanaian
service, (EFEGS) which is intended to popularise the internet and spread
the benefits of information technology to the man in the street at an
affordable cost. AOL is to collaborate with communication centres who are
involved in providing secretarial,word processing,telephone and fax
services in urban areas in this initiative.

AOL plans to creat a domain for each particicipating communication
centre.The centre,in turn will be responsible for creating E-mail
addresses for its customers who can send and receive messages at fixed
rates. Another service provider, Network Computer systems
(http://www.ghana.com) has also been trying to make the web available to
Ghanaian school children. In 1998 company is offered free internet
connection for a year to 100 post-primary schools and since 1996 20
schools have been connected. The project is estimated at 58,000 dollars.

Reducing the cost of internet access remains a big challenge.Initially,
all 3,500 subscribers of the company had to make trunk calls reach the
server in order to get on-line. That implied high telephone bills for
subcribers outside the capital, Accra. NCS has set up points in two
regional capitals with one more on the drawing board. In Kumasi(the
Ashanti regional capital) and Takoradi (western regional capital)
subscribers only have to make trunk calls to get on-line numbers. NCS is
planning to have another point in the northern regional capital, 500
kilometres from Accra. Increasing the number of subscribers of subscribers
is a way to make internet-access less expensive in the country. The lack
of adequate electricity especially in rural communities and a low-level of
computer literacy are fundamental problems.

The Recycling Option: A Case study of South Africa.

South Africa is a beneficiary of the new wave of replacements in pursuit
of the millenium compliance as a result of which there will be an
estimated 55 million discarded computers in the U.S alone according to
Computer aid international (computeraid@cit.org.uk/http://www.cit.org.uk -

Meanwhile,the European commission announced legislation taking effect from
1999 which restricts dumping.For England,this implies many of of the
90,000 units replaced in 1997 have to be recycled in the future.

Profit and non-profit organizations are taking advantage of the situation
by using discarded equipment to meet demand on the continent by
fixing,cleaning and and reformating computers before adding software to
them and sending them out, a process which costs 25 Britsh pounds per PC
which represents only a fraction of the cost of buying a new one.Since the
units are not intended for complex date-specific tasks, the issue of
millenium compliance is not an immediate cause for concern.

Community-heart (http://wwwhomepages.poptel.org.uk/community-heart/), a
London-based charity formed by anti-apartheid veteran Dennis Goldberg
supply the medical university of south africa in Johannesburg with
computers and have begun to export generator powered mobile school science
buses fitted with PCs. Also, UNDP is developing new types of software
using touch-screen multi-media systems that are designed to be
administered by village elders or teachers without excessive training.

Information technology is helping to monitor diseases, logg into
eco-systems, create databases and newsletters and tackle illiteracy,
educate people about populations issues. The emergence of an international
second user market seems to be one result of the negligible demand for old
PCs in western world as well as to the unaffordable cost of a computer for
the masses in Africa.

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