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Mideast Tremors and Sub-Saharan Africa: Is There a Media Divide?

Hannah Bowen's picture

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.

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Submitted by Gayatri Murthy on
Related Article: Zimbabwe: Virtually No Revolution

Submitted by Eli Robinson on
Interesting take. But isn't the bigger reason for lack of revolutionary activity on the part of sub-Saharan Africans more simple: low urbanization and a considerably higher reliance on subsistence agriculture? Take Zimbabwe, for example: less than 40% live in cities. Neither the government nor the people depend on each other very much. The government's revenues (as so often in Africa) come from abundant mineral resources. The population lives off the land. The current fertility rate there is moderate (again, for Africa), at around 3.6. (Ironically, the latter went up since Mugabe's land grab reform of the early 2000's, possibly, because of availability of more land for subsistence agriculture and the increased mortality.) Of course, on a very long-term scale, such situation is not sustainable, as Malthusian constraints will kick in at some point. Nevertheless, for now, Mugabe's regime is pretty strong, and certainly, many of his compatriots either approve of most of his policies or have much more immediate concerns, unconnected to his rule. When the situation does devolve, will it look more like Congo rather than Libya or Tunisia or Egypt? Again, I think, for civics and related movements, the key ingredient here is urbanization (directly linking people to the government).

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