Kenya Tweets, a Kenyan social media research and consultancy firm recently released the first of several reports investigating the use of Twitter by various presidential candidates ahead of the 2013 national elections. This first report (a mini-report really) investigates Martha Karua’s engagement on Twitter: mentions, hashtags, sentiment analysis, key words used in tweets by her or about her and other such interesting tidbits from analysing her activity on Twitter.

While the Martha Karua Twitter report has some interesting observations (such as the fact that most engagement comes via mobile Twitter clients), the overall issue of how social media and other Internet-enabled technologies are changing the face of government, governance and how citizens engage with their political systems is quite interesting.

Africa’s history as far as government and governance goes (generally) has not been entirely positive. Many countries faced, significant governmental challenges shortly after gaining independence from colonial masters. Many African states have in times past been associated with coups and dictatorships with citizens rights being trampled upon with impunity. There are still many challenges for African states as far as governance goes. But there has been some progress in recent times. There are states that have had great improvements in governance while others have trudged along but overall the situation is improving. The 2010 McKinsey Global Institute’s Lions on the Move cited the reduction of armed conflicts across the continent as one of the key enablers of Africa’s changing economic environment as well as key government initiatives to improve macroeconomic conditions and a better business climate.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has led the way in trying to highlight the issues of governance in Africa and measuring how well African states are governed. The organization, founded by Mo Ibrahim one of Africa’s premier business people particularly in the mobile telephony industry, aims to encourage good governance and leadership in Africa through various initiatives. Two key initiatives carried out by the foundation are a $5 million prize awarded annually to an exceptional African leader and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). The IIAG gathers data on a variety of indicators and ranks African states according to how well they are governed. The ranking scores nations on the broad issues of Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development in an attempt to statistically measure the state of governance in African states. According to the index, overall continental governance has improved from 2000 to present despite there being countries and regions that have shown mixed signs over the period – in fact this year, no African leader was able to win the Ibrahim Prize!

Back in 2009 Mo Ibrahim published an article in the ‘Innovations’ journal titled “Prerequisite to Prosperity: Why Africa’s Future Depends on Better Governance” in which he argues that good governance is imperative for Africa’s growth. To quote the article:

“Africa and its citizens will never take advantage of the opportunities presented by its own boundless potential without good governance. The most pressing issues hinge on proper rule: without the proper administration of a state’s resources, there can be no environmental sustainability; without rule of law, no human rights… Nothing will happen without good governance”.

But the question is – how is technology affecting the state of governance in Africa?

Power to the people

What happens when ordinary citizens are exposed to a wide array of information and ideas from all sorts of places?

There is a saying that ‘knowledge is power’ if there’s one thing that today’s information technologies (led by the Internet) have done is to empower people. We live in a world where we are overwhelmed by information, in fact access to information has become as cheap as typing a search query into Google or whatever other search engine and you automatically get millions of results even for the simplest of queries. Furthermore, the information we are exposed to is not limited to sources that agree with our cultural context. We are exposed to divergent concepts and foreign ideas, ideas that challenge our assumptions and give us a window to other possibilities. Clay Shirky in his… asks “What happens when a new medium puts a lot of new ideas into circulation?” from the telegram to the radio to the the printing press, the television, the telephone and today, the Interent? Clay answers, “The more ideas there are in circulation, the more ideas there are for individuals to challenge those ideas”.

Not only is the Internet and the World Wide Web exposing us to loads of infomation, and new ideas (a consumer perspective), the same medium is allowing people to contribute to the body of knowledge and ideas on the web (a producer perspective), never before has it been easier or cheaper to create and disseminate knowledge in a wide variety of formats (text, images, audio, video), than it is today (the producer perspective). Other mediums prior to the advent of digital technology and the Internet have mostly been limited to consumption. With today’s technology individuals are not only exposed to new ideas but can react to those ideas almost instantaously by for example commenting on a blog post or even faster, hitting the retweet button or ‘liking’ something on Facebook.

This capability is also being made more and more available to people at all levels of society. Internet-enabled services are finding their way and diffusing even to the ‘fringes’ of society though they are not being delivered in the way we would normally expect i.e. access via a browser. Google for example leveraged ubiquitous SMS technology to deliver some of their services including search and chat, other companies have figured out how to bring Facebook and Twitter to ‘dumb’ phones, or take BiNU that aims to ‘turn your phone into a smart phone’. So the argument that rural folk or the continent’s poor population cannot be influenced by the internet is not that accurate.

So what happens when citizens have this kind of power?

  1. Influence: Citizens are more than ever susceptible to being influenced by external ideas and concepts. One of the hallmarks of dictatorial rule is that citizens are usually limited in terms of access to information. Usually, all media in dictatorial regimes is closely monitored or even directly controlled by the regime. The logic is very simple – if people are easier to control if they are ignorant of other possibilities, they have nothing else to aspire to. Africans across the economic spectrum are being introduced to the internet even on dumb phones, giving them a gateway to a whole new world of information, new ideas. That means that they have alternatives they can aspire to other than the status quo.
  2. Expression: Secondly, this is giving citizens a voice. People quickly figure out that they can leverage internet-based technology and services to air their opinions on all sorts of things. Governments can expect to find citizens openly asking questions about all manner of things. At times public discontentment on the state of affairs has it’s roots online but eventually spills over into the physical world. A recent example of this in Kenya is when Kenyans on Twitter turned to protests against the government when MPs proposed outrageous pay packages. Today, a tweet can lead to a revolution
  3. Connection: The previous two points are made even more powerful by the capacity to connect and share on the internet & with internet-enabled technologies. The social web gives unprecedented scale to the reach of influence and expression.
    Scale of expression – Individuals can find an audience for what they have to say, even if their government is not listening to them and even sympathize with them
    Scale of Influence – Individuals through their actions online can influence thousands and millions from behind their computer screen

How government reacts?

It would appear that governments, even democratic ones are not designed to cope with this kind of scale of public opinion. Governments today have to deal with the complexity of a context where flow of information is pervasive, rapid and difficult to control. Even when governments shut down internet access as we have seen happen in recent times such as during the Egyptian uprising, there are groups that will go even further. Hacktivism has become a serious threat to governments around the world. So what can governments do? How are they reacting?

Maintaining status quo

“We spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.” (Eddie Obeng)

Governments have to deal with the reality that things have changed. Technology has changed the game and governments have to deal with it. They have to expect citizens who are ‘switched on’, who know more and question more, are demanding more transparency from their leaders and putting pressure on their government.

  1. Engage citizens (particularly youth) on the internet: The worst thing any existing government can do today is to ignore the reality of today’s cyber-connected world. It’s here and it’s here to stay. Governments should make efforts to engage their citizens on the web, particularly the youth. Today’s youth are digital natives, they reside on Facebook and Twitter and other online communities. Governments should seek innovative ways to create a presence and engage in these very communities. Africa’s population is headed in the direction of having a youth bulge. With the youth forming the lion’s share of populations in African states, and those same youth being digital natives, it goes without saying that governments should seek out these young people in the places where they are to be found – online and on mobile.
  2. Leverage technology:Furthermore, governments should seek to leverage technology in the actual process of governing. This goes beyond just service delivery. It now involves open data initiatives and other such initiatives that demonstrate transparency.

It would be quite interesting to emperically measure the impact of technology on governance in Africa. Perhaps something Mo Ibrahim’s foundation should consider investigating?

Do you know of any such research? Do you have a story that exemplifies how technology is influencing governance in Africa? Share with us in the comments section.

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