This week, as mass protests continued to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, observers keep asking, “Where will be next?” Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, currently under siege, has campaigned throughout his long tenure for African unity, arguing that the similarities tying the continent together outweigh the differences. The events of the past few weeks have highlighted differences between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, however, including one which may be critical in determining whether long-serving leaders south of the Sahara face the same challenges Qadhafi is now battling: access to media and communication technology.
This issue was strikingly evident in Zimbabwe on Saturday, when police arrested nearly 50 people who had gathered to watch videos of international media coverage of the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. As reported in the New York Times, the gathering “allowed activists who had no Internet access or cable television to see images from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt” and was intended to start a discussion on the implications of these events for Zimbabwe.
The fact that access to international news is harder to come by in Zimbabwe and many other Sub-Saharan African countries is related to the myriad other differences (particularly economic ones) that may prevent popular opposition to long-serving leaders from coalescing. The average Zimbabwean has far fewer options for getting news than the average Egyptian. Local media are tightly controlled by the state, and international news is fairly effectively blocked as well. Granted, Zimbabweans still find many ways to get uncensored news from around the world, including short-wave radio, low-cost satellite dishes and decoders that receive free-to-air programming from South Africa, and DVD (or VCD) recordings such as that shown at the gathering last Saturday. But the costs (time, money, effort, risk) are high, and beyond the means of many citizens.
In addition to limited or difficult access to news, many in Sub-Saharan Africa have fewer communication tools in general than their neighbors to the North. Leaders need not worry about shutting down internet access to prevent the mobilization of opposition forces in places where fewer than 10 percent of the population uses the internet anyway, such as Ethiopia, Togo, or Angola, according to the most recent estimates from the International Telecommunications Union. While low-cost mobile phones are fairly widely available, governments’ hands are in several countries deep enough into the entire telecommunications sector to cast doubts on the privacy of communication over mobile phone networks. Outside of organized political parties, there may be limited communication infrastructure to support mobilization of public calls for change.
These differences in the media and communications environments will not necessarily keep long-serving leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa in power any longer than their North African or Middle Eastern counterparts. The barriers to gathering and sharing the types of information that fuel popular movements are by no means insurmountable, but they do help to explain why the current wave of protests has been slow to cross the Sahara.
Photo Credit: Internews Network (on Flickr). Radio technician for Internews Network in Abéché, Chad installing a radio tower.