Digitization and Democratization in Africa

Digitization africa
Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Many African countries became authoritarian states in the early phase of their post-colonial state. Many leaders were able to combine elements of a democratic state with authoritarianism to command some form of legitimacy. This was the case in Uganda where the 2011 elections were held under a tightly controlled and government-influenced environment to provide Yoweri Museveni with an opportunity to claim power – despite having remained the leader of the country since 1986. More so, other leaders like Paul Biya (Cameroon), Gnassingbe Eyadéma (Togo), and Daniel Arap Moi (Kenya) at different times held and won multiparty elections despite the widespread criticisms of dictatorship that characterized their regimes. Meanwhile, elections have been used to legitimize the indefinite stay in power of leaders in Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo. The consequence of these anomalies is an increase in electoral violence, identity-based politics, wanton destruction of life and property, lack of trust in the political system, and an increase in voter apathy. These have impacted negatively on the democratic process and have invariably thwarted the efforts towards democratization. This is because as Akinyetun argues, the militarization of the electoral process in Nigeria heightens voter apathy, disrupts elections, and reduces public confidence in Nigeria’s faltering democracy.

To be sure, these cases of electoral violence constitute a major bane to democratization in Africa because the political culture of violence in Africa which is a product of ‘military cum authoritarian overhang’ overshadows the democratization process. This view was substantiated by Animashaun that ‘Africa is locked in permanent transition to democratic consolidation even though the continent has scaled, fairly successfully though, the tests of transition and inauguration phases of democratization.’ After all, the persistence of electoral violence withers the fabric of democracy.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of the internet which presents endless possibilities promises the transformation of politics and electioneering. The internet was heralded as being able to engender a guided transition from authoritarian regimes to democratic rule and entrench citizens’ participation in governance by providing a medium of information dissemination and by influencing the opinion of electorates in the political process. Indeed, it is fast replacing the traditional media – which has come under government censorship – and providing uncensored news. Put differently, digital tools are instrumental to promoting transparency in politics and enabling citizens’ decision-making through online platforms. To be sure, the application of digital tools to improve democratization and enhance the political process is referred to as digital democracy.

This view on the transformative ability of digital tools in a democratic society is aptly captured by Sarungi  that ‘the  future  challenge  of democracy in Africa will  be  balancing economic interests,  national  security and  democracy,  and  understanding  that  through  digital  media anyone can  become  everyone.’ However, scholars have distinguished between the minimalist perspective; encouraging citizens’ interaction with the government, maximalist perspective; encouraging citizens’ collaboration with the government in decision-making. These standpoints regardless, it is generally agreed that digital democracy involves the use of digital tools to improve democratic structures and processes as well as engender greater transparency. On the whole, it emphasizes the significant relevance digital tools hold for democracy irrespective of the forms – representative, direct or participatory.

One of the most popular offshoots of technology and digitization is social media which significantly influences communication, participation and civic engagement. Social media – which is directly related to slacktivism; supporting a political cause using the internet – was also used to publicize, like, comment, and share information on the #Blacklivesmatter protest and to arouse debates on inequality and racial injustice in the United States of America. This was also the case in Hong Kong where protesters – the majority of whom are young students – used their social media platforms to spread the message all over the world by recording and posting videos on Twitter and tagging major news agencies as events progressed. In what was represented by five main hashtags (i.e. #hongKong, #standwithhongkong, #hkpolice, #fivedemands and #noextraditiontochina).

In addition, social media was used to expose police brutality in Nigeria and to disseminate information about the protest. It also assisted in drawing the attention of the world to the #Endsars incident as evidenced in the tweets by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden who lent their voices in support of police reforms in Nigeria. The daily activities of the protest, logistics, volunteering, infographics, helplines, and information on legal services were widely circulated on social media. For instance, a Whatsapp group was created for the protesters in Akwa Ibom to strategize and share daily plans for the protest. SM also helped to intensify the conversation and gain more support. More so, social media became an archive for the daily activities of the protesters to garner more support.

As stakeholders, citizens get to contribute through volunteering, voting, crowdfunding of elections, national service, and activism such as demonstrations and protests. Civic engagement is a necessity because citizens’ right to influence decisions is often truncated; there is a lack of capacity among adults to equip young people with the requisite to be civically engaged; young people are stigmatized due to their characteristics and role in society; and because the poor, disabled and marginalized are disadvantaged in accessing opportunities for civic participation. There is evidence that digitization shapes civic engagement in Africa. One of such is Txeka which shaped the Mozambican elections and became a tool for election monitoring and observation through the spread of #Txeka, #Mozambique2014, and #EleicoesMoz on Facebook and Twitter. This was effective as activities at the polls were reported in real-time while videos and photos were also shared on the platform. Tsandzana avers that over 3000 messages were received by the Txeka team during the election period.

Undoubtedly, social media enhances participation, promotes democratic struggle, and is instrumental to political change. It is useful in influencing the thoughts of citizens and increasing civic participation. In addition to this, it also plays a critical role in the electoral process of various countries.

Digitization has also improved the electioneering process in Africa because digital tools provide timely and accurate information from polling units thus reducing the tendencies for electoral irregularities and institutionalizing new civic cyberspace for political engagement. The use of social media for election is visible in South Africa where the African National Congress recorded a Twitter follower base surge from 120,000 in 2014 to 293,000 in 2016 while that of the Democratic Alliance grew from 77,300 to 209,000 within the same time frame. The 2014 and 2016 municipal elections created a digital space for increased communication between politicians and voters.

Furthermore, digitization strengthens electoral monitoring and observation and encourages political engagement in public affairs. That is, the use of digital technology in an election, particularly social media, makes everyone an electoral observer rather than making it an exclusive duty of the press or the international community. With this, the results and proceedings of elections at various polling units can be streamed live and monitored by all interested. The introduction of digitization to the Gambian national election in 2018 allowed citizens to monitor election results. The National Electoral Commission created a website where electorates could find their polling units and another to publish the election results. Meanwhile, in Kenya – one of the most electronically advanced countries in Africa – digital technology has been successfully used for voter registration, biometric verification, electronic voting, vote tallying, and the transmission of results. Meanwhile, countries like Nigeria and DR Congo have adopted biometric voter registration, while Namibia was the first country in Africa to use electronic voting machines in 2014.

Although the politicians recognize its relevance for political participation, they still view it as an unguarded space that needs to be tamed. The results have been the entrenchment of digital authoritarianism, erosion of civil liberties, restriction on freedom of expression, invasion of privacy, limitations to online assembly, lack of transparency, democracy deficit, and restricted citizen participation. Despite these antagonisms, the spread of digital tools and their attendant uses will continue to impact the democratization process around the world and entrench digital democracy. Can Africa afford to be left behind? Is it worth it?

Join the discussion