From global amplifications of local protests on social media to disinformation campaigns and transformative state surveillance capabilities, digital communications are changing the ways in which politics works in Africa and how and with whom power accrues. Yet while digital information technology and media are relatively new, the role of communication in state power and resistance on the continent is not. The “digital revolution” provokes us to better account for this past to understand a rapidly changing present. From language and script, to print and broadcast, to mobile applications and digital databases, how information is circulated, processed, and stored is central to political power on the African continent. The story of political change in Africa cannot be told without attention to how power manifests with and through changes in the technologies that enable these communication practices. A communication technology perspective on the study of politics in Africa provides a more sober analysis of how power relations circumscribe the possibilities of political change than more normative approaches would. Even so, a communication approach allows for social and ideational factors to mix with material ones in explaining the possibilities of such change. Communication technologies have been central to what political actors in Africa from the precolonial past to the early 21st century can and cannot do, and to how political change comes about. Explorations across time, political era, and technological development in Africa allow us to unpack this relationship. In the precolonial period, across forms of centralized and decentralized political organization, oral communication modalities reflected and enabled fluid and radial logics of authority and power relations. Changes in moral and practical ideas for political organization occurred amid early encounters with traders and Islamic scholars and texts and the movement of people to, from, and within the continent. Colonialism, which heavily focused on narrow extractive aims, required alien central authorities to overcome the vulnerability of their rule through knowledge production and information control. Equally, the same communication technologies valued by colonial authority—intermediaries, print, radio—became means through which resistance ideas circulated and movements were mobilized. In independent Africa, political aims may have changed, but communication infrastructures and their vulnerabilities were inherited. The predicament facing postcolonial governments had a communications dimension. Later, their ability to forge rule through control and allegiance had to contend with a globalizing information economy and demands for media pluralism. A communications perspective on the history of power on the African continent therefore guides a fuller understanding of change and continuity in politics in a digital age by drawing attention to the means and meanings by which legitimacy, authority, and belonging have continued to be produced and negotiated. Transnational configurations of information flows, global political economy logics of accumulation and security, and communicative terrains for contesting authority and mobilizing alternatives have been shown to possess both distinctly new characteristics and enduring logics.
Sharath Srinivasan and Stephanie Diepeveen
Politicians mobilize people to vote by devising messages and imparting them to those people. Many studies examine African electioneering through a framework that distinguishes between programmatic, clientelist and charismatic appeals. Some, but not all, African politicians appeal to people by adopting particular policy positions, the strict sense of “programmatic appeals.” However, almost all solicit peoples’ support by stressing their sincere intentions and their abilities to pursue uncontroversial aspects of public policy, otherwise known as “valence appeals.” Parties’ historic records and their locations in government or opposition affect which issues they can claim to own and which they stress in their campaigns. While appeals over public policy are commonplace in African electoral politics, so too is clientelism. Many politicians give voters gifts, in the form of favorable distributions of public service delivery, in-kind goods, and cash. However, few of these gifts constitute contingent exchanges of goods for votes. Instead, political largesse is used to flatter, to impress and to convince voters of politicians’ virtue. In this respect, public policy and clientelism frequently appear in African elections side-by-side. “Political appeals” is employed by many as an organizing concept which orders the study of political messages. It sheds light on how electoral politics affects public policy. However, it also obscures. A separate canon of work studies political discourses in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most studied subjects in this strain of the literature is populism. African populisms have been conceived of by some as discourses that unite disparate groups against an elite, and as an electoral strategy that draws together particular constituencies by others. Whichever definition one takes, African populists are rare. Only a handful have been identified. Nationalists are much more common in sub-Saharan Africa. Politicians and parties have constructed national missions that act as master discourses, which subsume and order all manner of political issues. Some politicians that employ nationalist discourses stress their liberation credentials as qualifications to govern and delegitimize opponents who did not participate in the struggle. National revolutions or liberations are portrayed as ongoing projects with indefinite points of completion which give nationalism its regenerative qualities. Other nationalisms stress threats from rival groups, whether strangers within the nation’s borders, or nefarious forces abroad. Likewise, ethnic discourses are commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa, but their rhetorical contents differ. Some valorize an ethnic people. Other express an ethnic group’s victimhood, or grievances, or fear of rival group threats. Equally, the goals that they espouse differ. Some propose compensation, others reconciliation, others still the capture of the central state, the devolution of state power, or the creation of a separate state of their own. Equally, they are contested and used by a variety of actors. Ethnicities are created from both above and below. They are used not only to mobilize people for mass actions to but make normative claims on politicians. More broadly, politicians strive to develop conceptions of political morality. They present themselves as moral leaders and recharacterize various political issues as questions of morality or moral character. Putting these common discursive frames aside, African politicians employ any number of esoteric discursive frames which are not found elsewhere. Grand discourses aside, African politicians employ numerous rhetorical and symbolic techniques to suggest, reframe, perform and charm. While messages win people’s support, those messages must be imparted, through mass media or face-to-face contact. Political parties mobilize enormous resources to expose people to their messages on the ground. The ground campaign has received little attention to date, but a scattering of studies show that parties strive to gain local presence. Some establish branches and others recruit local actors. They rely on these local actors to organize their ground campaigns and employ a variety of targeting strategies.
In the European Union (EU), there are two consultative committees, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR). Both, the EESC and the CoR are involved in EU decision-making but lack formal competencies to influence European secondary law directly. Instead of having votes or veto rights concerning EU directives or regulations, the two consultative committees provide recommendations to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. In addition to providing advice to the two EU legislative chambers, the two consultative committees can also approach the European Commission and give input into the drafting of EU policies at the very early stage.
Political scientists use the concept of legitimacy to assess the rightfulness of political rule. Their research can approach legitimacy from two perspectives: When taking a normative approach, political scientists develop and justify their own evaluation of the rightfulness of political arrangements. When taking an empirical approach, they study how other people—such as political elites or citizens—evaluate the rightfulness of political rule. Both approaches have been used in research on the European Union. Scholarly discussions that approach the EU’s legitimacy from a normative perspective revolve around the question of which standards of rightfulness are appropriate for the EU. These depend largely on how the EU polity is conceptualized: as a technocratic regulatory agency, an intergovernmental organization, a federation, a demoi-cracy, or a system of multilevel governance. Since the EU is hybrid polity that possesses elements of each of these models, and is therefore difficult to classify, no consensus has emerged in this debate. Scholarship that approaches the EU’s legitimacy as an empirical phenomenon examines political attitudes and discourses in European society, asking whether, and why, societal actors treat the EU as legitimate. A diverse set of research methods—including public opinion surveys, content analysis of different kinds of texts, and qualitative interviews with citizens—have been applied to shed light on this question. While this research has not provided clear evidence of a “legitimacy crisis” of the EU, it does show that many Europeans relate to the EU with a sense of diffuse unease and skepticism, in part because they find it opaque and difficult to understand.
National broadcasters are a standard feature across Africa. Set up by colonial regimes, they dominate media landscapes with their unrivaled geographic reach. Radio continues to be the main—and often only—source of information outside urban centers, where commercial media struggle to survive and illiteracy remains a challenge. Although access to new media has risen exponentially, use of mobile technology continues to be prohibitively expensive. Some national broadcasters are official state broadcasters: owned, run, and editorially controlled by government. However, many claim to be public broadcasters. By definition, these are accountable to the public rather than the government of the day: accessible to a universal audience, inclusive of a wide range of views; and fair, balanced, and independent in their journalism. This aspiration is reflected in national and supranational policy such as the African Charter on Broadcasting and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. In reality, these broadcasters lack de jure independence, the basic condition for them to be considered “public.” They are, in law and in practice, state broadcasters—owed to a range of historical, social, financial, and political determinants despite attempts by journalists and civil society to change this. Principally, the political will has been lacking—in colonial as well as postcolonial elites—to relinquish control of newsrooms and open up space for dissent. There is one exception: the South African Broadcasting Corporation was granted de jure independence following apartheid and enjoys unrivaled (though contested) legal guarantees and journalistic freedom. Its ongoing difficulties to fully meet its public broadcasting mandate despite this relatively conducive environment demonstrate that de jure independence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful broadcasting transformation, and that organizational culture is an important variable to be taken into account.
Despite predictions that urbanization, economic development and globalization would lead to the recession of religion from public life, populations around the world continue to be highly religious. This pattern holds in most parts of the Global South and also in some advanced industrial democracies in the North, including in the United States. In grappling with the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on political life, a growing body of literature pays attention to how clergy–congregant communication might shape listeners’ political attitudes and behaviors. Considerable debate remains as to whether clergy–congregant communication is likely to change political attitudes and behavior, but there is a greater consensus around the idea that exposure to religious communication can at the very least prime (that is, increase the salience of) certain considerations that in turn affect how people evaluate political issues and whether they participate in politics. Religious communication is more likely to exert a persuasive and a priming influence among those already inclined to select into the communication and when the source of the communication is credible. More research is needed on the duration of religious primes and on the effects of religious communication in different political and social contexts around the world.
Ransford Edward Van Gyampo and Nana Akua Anyidoho
The youth in Africa have been an important political force and performed a wide range of roles in the political field as voters, activists, party members, members of parliament, ministers, party “foot soldiers,” and apparatchiks. Although political parties, governments, and other political leaders often exploit young people’s political activity, their participation in both local and national level politics has been significant. In the academic literature and policy documents, youth are portrayed, on the one hand, as “the hope for the future” and, on the other, as a disadvantaged and vulnerable group. However, the spread of social media has created an alternative political space for young people. Active participation of young people in politics through social media channels suggests that they do not lack interest in politics, but that the political systems in Africa marginalize and exclude them from political dialogue, participation, decision-making, and policy implementation. The solution to the problem of the exclusion of young people from mainstream politics would involve encouraging their participation in constitutional politics and their greater interest and involvement in alternative sites, goals, and forms of youth political activism in contemporary Africa.