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date: 14 October 2019

Communication Technology and African Politics

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: information and communication technology, media, mobile phone, digital, authority, resistance, state, colonialism, independence, African politics


Digital communications are altering the exercise of political authority and its contestation: from democratizing knowledge economies to the “datafication” and commodification of social and public realms; from supposed “Twitter revolutions” to mass surveillance, voter manipulation, and algorithm-driven policy decisions; from a new digital public sphere to “slacktivism,” “fake news,” digital populism, and political marketing bots. In Africa, where digital communications infrastructures have transformed hitherto weakly connected societies, the stakes seem particularly high. Digital communications are bringing about profound changes and providing opportunities for pervasive surveillance and new extractive commerce while also supporting vibrant publics and political action. Who wields political power, as the capacity to structure, control, and manipulate connectivity becomes digitized? What role are data analytics firms, telecommunications companies, and surveillance firms playing in identifying, ordering, and acting upon citizens? How are the nature and possibilities of protest changing as they unfold over networked digital infrastructure, bringing the diaspora into local politics and changing forms of action and inaction?

This article situates recent attention on digital communications in Africa within a historical enquiry into the role of communications in political authority, contestation, and change. By using communication technology as a primary lens and object of analysis to revisit and rethink the past, the article provides new vantage points for comprehending politics on the continent in an increasingly digital age. It asks new questions of existing empirical knowledge, suggesting that deeper insights into the nature, contestation, and distribution of political power and rule in Africa are possible by making communications more central to the enquiry. The article argues that a communication perspective on power unearths a different category of lived processes and concrete means through which relations of rule, competition, and collective belonging take shape.

Questions about who rules over whom on the African continent are not new, nor is attention to their relationship with information and communication technologies. Central authorities have long struggled with how to broadcast power across the scattered people and vast spaces they seek to rule (Clapham, 1996; Herbst, 2014; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982). Perennially resource-strapped, “make-do” strategies have characterized efforts to establish control over the legitimate means of violence as well as over the hearts and minds of those who are ruled. Rule has also entailed contending with issues of accumulation for continued coercive control and bureaucratic administration. Advantages in communication technologies enabled European colonialists and post-colonial states to attempt to project coercive rule toward distant territorial boundaries (Herbst, 2014), to surveil populations (Breckenridge, 2005), and to produce hierarchical, ossified, and more compliant social orders (Falola & Heaton, 2005). Equally, the relative and shifting distribution of communication technologies has been central to political change. The colonial state imported a revolution with clerks, scribes, interpreters, and writers as human nodes in new configurations of power over subjects. This simultaneously allowed them to act as gatekeepers and enabled nationalist collective action and the capabilities of formative independent states (Austen, 2011; Eckert, 2006; Lawrance, Osborn, & Roberts, 2006; Pratten, 2006). Evidently, historical scholarship on political authority and state formation in Africa is punctuated with inquiry into communication technologies, but often as a supporting actor.

This article foregrounds communications as a primary object and lens on politics in Africa. It begins a rethinking of the past by revisiting forms of authority prior to European colonial imposition. What sorts of authority prevailed or were pursued? How were they made possible through particular capabilities for communication and information transmission and control? Through insights into precolonial political organization, the intricate and close-knit relationship between communication technologies and forms of exercising of authority are already visible. The networked and fluid nature of oral communications and their role in circuits and webs of power and belonging also provoke some parallels to digital technologies. Turning to the colonial state, challenges of rule pertaining to logics of accumulation and control of an outside actor pursuing centralized authority were met with the introduction of new communication technologies to circulate information (e.g., broadcast media), and to acquire and process knowledge about colonial subjects (e.g., the database, the census). Here, new communication technologies are examined in relation to the actors that introduced them, as well as how they were appropriated and acquired further meaning by other actors, seeking and resisting forms of authority. Changes in communication technologies in the first two decades of the 21st century, particularly with new capacities in broadcast, networked, and interactive media, are interwoven into the nature and presence of the postcolonial state in a rapidly globalizing world—both bringing greater opportunities for control and surveillance as well as more widespread participation in information production, processing, and reception, including beyond borders.

In its historical sweep, this article is limited by available scholarship in how it weaves the threads of a communications perspective that can equip scholars with alternative ways of examining political change in Africa. Findings are presented as a narrative synthesis with illustrative examples that look at disruptions in communication technology in relation to changes in political authority and its contestation. The article takes a broad view of “communication technology,” including anything made or used by humans to facilitate the production, transmission, processing, and storage of information. However, the article focuses on technologies most closely related to the exercise of authority and its contestation. These include language, the spoken and written word and human intermediaries; print, broadcast, and digital media; databases; and mobile telephony. Most formats of popular culture are excluded. Popular culture in Africa is undoubtedly relevant to the contestation and exercise of political power (Kilonzo, Magak, & Omwalo, 2015; Pype, 2012; Willems & Mano, 2017), including in a digital age (Srinivasan, Diepeveen, & Karekwaivanane, 2019), and a fuller history of communication, authority, and contestations of power in Africa requires bringing these communication media into scope in future study.

The central theme in what follows is that who rules, and the limits and precariousness of rule across Africa are bound up with developments in communication technologies. From the precolonial period to the early 21st century, communication technologies have made possible the flows of people, ideas, and resources. These in turn give shape to the nature and limits of central authority. At the same time, communications give rise to forms of fragmentation and uncertainty. These dynamics have always been part of the story of politics on the continent, but how they unfold shifts with changes in both the purpose of rule and the communication affordances at different people’s disposal. Greater insight into political change in Africa in an increasingly digital age requires looking at past intersections between communication and politics. This article is an important bridgehead into that inquiry.

Communications, Authority, and Political Moralities Before European Colonialism

A more nuanced understanding of politics in Africa in a digital age may be arrived at by starting with the communicative underpinnings of political authority and its contestation prior to European colonialism. In precolonial societies, forms of authority and means of communication were bound together. Communication tended to be oral and networked through trade, religion, and movement of people. Political authority also materialized through networks. Territorial boundaries overlapped and changed. Authority was more concerned with power at the core than with the liminal areas of territory. Such fluidity was vulnerable to, but also capable of absorbing, new political ideas and agents, including those from distant lands. Arguably, the networked and fluid nature of precolonial communications, albeit slower, less dense, and of smaller scale, bear resemblance to the characteristics of digital media. Today, a rapidly dominant digital communications landscape is once again marked by networks, fluidity, and decentralization. However, these characteristics sit less comfortably with the centralized and territorially bound modern state. Further, digital communications are clearly different, with their affordances for scale, surveillance, accumulation, and state control. Such indications of similarity and difference in the nature, form, and logics of political authority from the precolonial to the present, and the role of communication technology within this, reach across this longue dureé and demand this breadth of perspective.

Forms of Political Organization, Less or More Centralized, in Precolonial Africa

In contexts of low population densities and hazy territorial boundaries, centralized political authority proved either not valuable or immensely challenging in precolonial Africa (Herbst, 1989, 2014). In Herbst’s formulation, this was a problem of “broadcasting” authority across territory and population. People’s loyalties could easily shift, taking advantage of the ease of exit (spatially) from one authority’s sphere of influence to another. For Herbst, “broadcast” does not refer to communication technologies. Rather, he has in mind the material and coercive capabilities of any central authority aspiring to control territory and population. Yet his choice of “broadcast” is perhaps salient. One enduring deficit for centralized authorities in their ability to broadcast power involves relationships between communication, including information transmission, processing, and control, and effective forms of political organization. Nevertheless, defining the story of political authority in Africa by its lack, as Herbst does, is problematic. This focuses on the narrow question of why precolonial Africa did not follow the same trajectory toward increasing centralized authority and state formation as European and other Western nations did. Scholarly inquiry may do better to account for what the forms of political organization were and how they operated on their own terms. This can then show how fluid boundaries did not mean the lack of both centralized and decentralized political organization. Forms of political organization rose and fell, usually clustered around a core with intra- and interauthority relations manifesting through oral communications.

Prior to the disruption of colonialism, dynamic, decentralized, and socio-culturally specific forms of political organization were prominent. Sophisticated interrelationships linked autonomous societies (see Afigbo, 1975; Falola & Heaton, 2005). A common form of organization was an autonomous village led by a “big man” or senior descendent of the original inhabitants (Iliffe, 2007). Authority was vested in a person or clan, as opposed to being territorially bound. This meant the village could operate from a relative state of flux or through changing locations (Conrad, 1994, p. 361). Communities of belonging were present but transgressed. For example, linkages built through marriages and secret societies resulted in a class of businessmen and travelers who identified across communities.

Communications flows were de-centered and more networked than radial. In West Africa, communication flows giving rise to social and political order were partially shaped through overlapping environments: savannah, forest, and desert edge (Manning, 2006). Communication within and between political entities was largely oral, and was privileged because of its efficacy and adaptability. Few political communities invested in written signs (Iliffe, 2007, p. 94). Within political communities across the continent, a recurring image is that of the palaver tree, which highlights forms of discussion in public life with origins prior to the colonial experience. Political and social order were maintained through public discussion aimed at governance, conflict resolution, and consensus, usually from within a “hut” or under a tree (Bidima, 2013; Hagensen, 2014; Kamga & Dong’aroga, 2005; Ndue, 1994). This allowed for diverse people to “articulate a commentary upon power relations in society and indeed create knowledge about society” (Furniss & Gunner, 1995, p. 1).

Still, forms of centralized authority and political dominion were far from absent. They existed where conditions, political agents, and contingent events made them possible. The Kingdom of Mali was formed in the first half of the 13th century and disintegrated by the late 15th century. The Kingdom of Benin was ruled by a patrimonial bureaucratic government through the 15th and 16th centuries. This took shape after King Oba Ewuare replaced lineage chiefs with appointed military and administrative chiefs to solidify and broadcast power (Iliffe, 2007). In southern Africa, precolonial kingdoms of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland self-selected to become British protectorates (Brownlie, 1979), enabling aspects of their monarchical and hierarchical structures to survive and structure the postcolonial state. In East Africa, Rwanda existed as a small territory with intricate hierarchical and centralized structures of authority, with aspects of its surveillance tendencies surviving into the postindependence state (Purdeková, 2016). The Buganda Kingdom in modern-day Uganda also existed as a highly centralized authority prior to colonialism, with a monarch that broadcast authority through lineage networks and the incorporation of chiefs (Hanson, 2009).

These empires, kingdoms, and proto-states drew upon and developed distinctive communication infrastructures and were not comparable to modern European states in important ways. They tended not to be defined by clear territorial boundaries but are best understood along a continuum with decentralized societies. Oral traditions also remained dominant in how authority was practiced, negotiated, and contested (Bloch, 1975; Comaroff, 1975; Comaroff & Comaroff, 1997; Furniss & Gunner, 1995; McAllister, 1988; Parkin, 1984; Werbner, 1977). Even where kingdoms existed, the networked nature of trade and oral communications meant boundaries remained porous and fluid. In East Africa, the coexistence of pastoralist and more settled communities, and more centralized kingdoms, further preserved the dominance of flexible boundaries between political authorities.

Africa in the World: Early Circuits of Communication, Identity, Moral Authority, and Political Change

Centralized authorities operated through dynamic global networks. In turn, these networks informed their rise and disintegration. For example, the growth and prominence of the kingdoms of Mali and Songhay in West Africa were significantly related to the spread of Islam (Kaba, 1984) and the emergence of new moral forms of authority. Especially under the reign of Mansa Musa (1312–1337), sometimes referred to as the empire’s “golden age” (Conrad, 1994; Levtzion, 1963), the Malian Kingdom’s growth in power and reach were enabled by a rise in long distance trade and the institutionalization of Islam.

The Kingdom of Mali underscores how communication and information technologies, which were part of global networks of religious proselytization and trade, shaped political authority. Well before European colonialism made its mark on the continent, trade in goods, commodities, and also people, together with the circulation of ideas through Muslim and Christian travelers, integrated African societies into global communication circuits. In West Africa, traders, manufacturers, and clerics, among others, spread Islam to indigenous communities (Iliffe, 2007; Obeng, 2006, p. 158). Here, also, Christianity spread through encounters between European merchants and Africans from the 16th century, leading to the combination of elements of indigenous religions with Christianity and Islam (Obeng, 2006). In East Africa, Islam spread through Indian Ocean trade routes. Such global networks brought significant changes, including the movement of disease, crops, cultures, and religion (Falola, 2013). They also facilitated the exchange of ideas and the formation of new identities.

Precolonial political organization on the East African “Swahili” coast provides an example of how political organization and collective identities formed through global networks. Political communities were organized through a series of city-states, through what Brennan (2008), drawing on Sugata Bose, describes as “layered and shared,” separate but also linked through trade, family, and ideologies (pp. 384–385). The Portuguese colonial presence along the East African coast began in 1498, but was limited and irregular. This provided space for different systems of political and economic order to remain and become entwined. In 1832, the Busaidi Sultanate took residence in Zanzibar. Rather than being a basis for territorially expansive political authority, the sultanate, focused on economic activity, retained a system of political organization defined by a series of locally controlled urban “centers.”

Alongside the more limited purposes of political authority, movement of people and ideas in various forms sustained new senses of share identity. Further down the coast, migration and enduring ties between “homes” old and new established links between Durban and the Indian Ocean world. People from the Indian subcontinent largely came to South Africa between the 1860s and 1890s, many as indentured laborers but also as traders. Predictable trade routes tied to costal monsoon winds enabled regular movement from Hadramawt, and between India, Malay world, and East Africa. People would go back home for learning, tied to spiritual and lineage origins. While “India” as a single shared imaginary did not exist at the time of migration, it remained a religious and cultural reference point for diverse imaginings of culture and authority distinct from others residing in southern Africa (Blom Hansen, 2012).

The growth of text and literacy further deepened and integrated the continent into global networks. They strengthened forms of belonging based on social ties and ideas that crossed oceans, which were manifesting alongside precolonial trade and religious networks before taking on new relevance under colonial state administration. In eastern and southern Africa, the circulation of text around the Indian Ocean region is important to understanding the production and articulation of shared identities. Similar to the spread of Islam in West Africa, text and print facilitated the formation of increasingly concrete collective ideas of belonging, independent of place, among Indian communities (Bang, 2011).

Whereas networks of trade and social and religious exchange point to how moral and political ideas and identities were shaped by and through communication technologies, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic slave trades remind us that the precolonial period had far more disruptive and pernicious forms of global exchange. Both slave trades depended on communication technologies and information logics and practices that had lasting consequences. Indeed, some of the logics of this precolonial global experience of extraction anticipated what followed during the zenith of European colonialism. The Atlantic slave trade from the 15th century onward profoundly affected the economic, political, and demographic makeup of West Africa (Falola, 2013; Iliffe, 2007). Peaking in the late 18th century, it reshaped West Africa’s networks with the wider world. It reaffirmed certain existing authorities in individual “big men” and introduced new dimensions to the nature of political and economic power. While arriving Europeans found existing practices of seizing and purchasing slaves, the Atlantic trade dramatically altered their scale and economy. Small-scale networks of traders and merchants continued as key nodes, becoming integrated into the operationalization of the slave trade. As big men sold slaves to acquire goods and then attract more followers (Iliffe, 2007, p. 139), we see early indications of a state in which political and commercial power are fused together, for rulers and for slave traders. The slave trade was a form of global integration premised on the movement of Africans and marked by forms of violence, racism, and persecution. It both integrated Africans into global trade and segregated them on the basis of color (Falola, 2013). These forms of unequal integration would continue to evolve, deepen, and crystallize with the colonial state.

Communication, Information, and the Colonial State

The division of most of the continent into colonial territories in the late 19th century changed the logics of political authority. Colonialism was not the networked relations of commercial outposts, traders, and religious travelers, who had mostly adapted to the authority in place. These earlier influences shaped political organization but their effect was often indirect. The Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884–1885 set off the rapid division of the continent among European colonial powers, each seeking to secure commercial and geopolitical interests. In making territorial claims, colonial states faced a common challenge: colonial control to protect and facilitate commercial gain, but not necessarily with designs or means to establish extensive rule. Much of this turned on collaborating with, co-opting, or subduing local sources of power. Despite differences in motivation between European colonizers and any single colonizer’s territorial possessions, there were similarities in how communications informed and enabled techniques of rule. Despite aspirations toward centralized authority, Portuguese colonizers relied heavily on African administrators and worked through private companies. The French, too, though aspiring for direct rule from Paris, ended up relying on administration through African middle men to foster efficient political order (Cooper, 2002; Mamdani, 1996). They increasingly worked with “traditional” rule and tempered calls for assimilation of African populations.

The British more explicitly sought a system of decentralization, which relied on “traditional” chiefs and middle men as the face of the colonial administration. Educated Africans and traditional rulers awkwardly straddled the colonizer-colonized divide. The educated African civil servant lacked the rights or status held by racialized “white” citizens. The designated traditional chief did not fully map onto the fluid forms of belonging and authority that mostly characterized precolonial societies. The shared reasons and context for European colonialism brought commonalities in the logics of rule, and these, in turn, were deeply reliant upon the introduction of particular channels and structures of communication, both within the colonial state and with the colonized populations.

Early Colonialism: Communications Infrastructure for an Extractive Foreign State

Early colonialism is difficult to imagine outside of the communication structures that enabled foreign overlords to navigate—rarely smoothly, successfully, or intentionally—the economic and security logics of colonial rule. Sustained economic accumulation in the colonies required, to different degrees, acquiescence of African populations and their participation as labor and cooperation with taxation. In one sense, the communication structures of early colonialism were fit for a very limited and commercial purpose. In another sense, they were flawed and left colonial authority deeply vulnerable. Yet it was precisely within this tension that the communicative logics of colonial rule were being established, and they would have lasting implications well after independence. Three important themes characterize early colonialism from a communications perspective. First, the European imaginary of Africa, born of prejudicial claims to superiority, narrowed and distorted the view of what needed knowing about African peoples. Second, there was a limited need to know given that commercial extraction was the dominant motivation of rule and thus compliance was a sufficient objective of political relations. Third, colonial authorities’ limited ability or desire to take account of the social and political complexity of colonialized peoples directed them to rely heavily on flimsy and readily biased sources of knowledge.

Ideas about “Africa,” “Africans,” and legitimate forms of knowledge production undergirded the logics and repertoires of colonial rule. How Africa was seen by colonial overlords was underpinned by deeply held views in Enlightenment-era Europe and a racial hierarchy that placed Africans among the lowest rungs of “civilized” peoples. These ideas became embedded in administrative structures. Limited attempts at knowledge gathering, and strong views about what existed, informed the sort of structures colonial authorities saw as appropriate and feasible for ordering African subjects.

Still, knowledge of subjects was a basic input for extracting wealth, collecting taxes, and managing labor. Systems for gathering and organizing information about people on the continent were often poorly conceived and resourced. In early British colonialism, colonial officials relied heavily on travelers’ accounts and oral testimony to learn about extant forms of rule (Berry, 1992). Amid conflicting stories, African subjects could take advantage of interest in tradition to give information that might favor them. Practical anthropology also shaped how British colonialists produced information on their subjects (Afigbo, 1975). Some attempts were made to employ government anthropologists in Nigeria in the early 20th century, but in the end Governor Lord Lugard preferred the work to be done by existing colonial officers. Pragmatics and preferences around what constituted social data collection influenced how colonial rulers interpreted activities among colonized people.

The disjuncture between realities and these kinds of partial and biased knowledge of African subjects meant that the forms of authority introduced were often ill-fitting. Mamdani (1996) illustrates this clearly through his study of the arbitrary creation of Native Authorities by the British colonial administration. Colonial rule became a project of attempting to impose stable ideas of customary law upon forms of authority that were decentralized, fluid, and complex. Communication infrastructure thus acquired central importance for the ability, and inability, of colonial rulers to establish a form of workable order in support of maintaining economic activity and a complicit colonized population on the cheap.

African intermediaries, importantly, enacted communication between the colonizer and the colonized. Colonial powers had insufficient personnel, resources, and understanding to administer rule without working through and with educated African allies. Intermediaries helped to create the communicative binding of the colonial state, which was both its strength and vulnerability. Colonial officials relied on low-level African bureaucrats, clerks, translators, and interpreters as nodes to communicate information with African subjects and to mediate understanding between the colonial state and African populations (Austen & Derrick, 1999; Kirk-Greene, 1980; Lawrance et al., 2006). In court, political officers had to trust the clerk to translate outcomes and proceedings, while letter writers had the power to translate subjects’ concerns into a language that would be recognized by the colonial political and legal system. In drawing upon print and literacy to circulate ideas in forms recognized by European powers, intermediaries also gave print a new role in maintaining order, as well as in resisting that order.

The unique positionality of intermediaries also served to reinforce colonial rule. Lawrance et al. (2006) provide examples of instances in which African intermediaries internalized colonial discipline, from clerks in British colonial Nigeria tending not to subvert colonial rulers (Pratten, 2006) to clerks in Tanganyika identified as products of “character training” (Eckert, 2006). In French West Africa, independence leaders often aspired to equal and full French citizenship. Watson (2014) identifies similar conservative tendencies among educated intermediaries in the earlier decades of colonial rule in Nigeria.

A survey of communication technologies during early colonialism reveals the logics and limits of how partial, self-interested knowledge of African societies was produced and authority over subjects propagated. Not only are the mechanics of a prejudiced and racialized view-in-the-making of the continent brought to the fore, but these mechanics also reveal crucial vulnerabilities to contestation. During late colonialism, these vulnerabilities played out with and through changes in communications and information technologies in distinct ways.

Late Colonialism and New and Varied Dialectics in Communication and Authority

Once introduced, the communications of the early colonial state proved adaptable and changeable. Communication networks, capabilities, and structures could be used in ways other than the colonizer’s original intent. This was partially due to the dependences that were embedded in the use of communication and media technologies, including the role of African intermediaries. Also, the colonizer’s interests and presence further diversified during late colonialism. Some colonies began to support “white” settlement, bringing new demands for control and the policing of race. New pressures arose in the post–World War II environment, with increasingly resource-strapped European overlords unable to manage their colonies and facing growing international pressure for self-determination. Through late colonialism, a more complex dynamic dialectical relationship materialized between the affordances of communication technologies and constructions of and contestations over colonial rule.

As noted previously, colonial powers had different interests and designs, even if the underlying economic justification for and challenges of colonialism were similar. Differences in communication structures and practices were mapped on divergences in the implementation of colonial rule. Some areas of the continent had to contend with the presence of growing white settlement populations, particularly in southern Africa, British East Africa, and Lusophone colonies. In such cases, pressure mounted for greater policing of a political and social order, as opposed to primarily economic extraction and accumulation. Apartheid South Africa provides an extreme case of the role of information and communication control in a settler state to order people and separate their interactions, movement, and activities. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 pushed for the use of Afrikaans rather than English (Horwitz, 2004). Radio broadcasting was concentrated around one voice, the South African Broadcast Corporation. Black press was repressed and postal and telecommunications service networks often excluded black settlements. Integration into communication networks was territorialized and racialized. The Population Register, a biometric database, shows an obsessiveness in data gathering to realize apartheid (Breckenridge, 2005). Nevertheless, as with other communication and information projects, it did not achieve complete domination but rather actualized the limits of state control. This register was made up of multiple, messy databases. Its accuracy was limited by the decentralized and labor-intensive task of collecting data across homelands.

Across Africa, there was not just one vision of colonial rule, and the means for mass communication helped give public voice to competing ideas. Newspapers evolved into a more flexible medium for African elites and intermediaries to contribute to public narratives, in addition to colonial and foreign authorities. Literate African elites used the newspaper format to have a public voice and posture among themselves for influence within imperial and colonial contexts (Newell, 2009, p. 2). Print was also used to express and circulate more explicit anticolonial sentiment, albeit within highly constrained political structures. Diverse print publications and their circulation complicate the binary of settler versus native in colonial Africa, as they highlight the role of merchants and indentured laborers in shaping shared ideas of belonging as well as anticolonial nationalism.

Print was not confined to voices of the powerful. In South Africa, for example, print, music, and film productions facilitated the growing circulation of diverse ideas among Indian populations, linking them to the culture and politics of the Indian subcontinent. By the 1960s, newspapers in Durban shared content from Indian religious groups and cultural productions (Blom Hansen, 2000, 2012). In the later decades of apartheid, materials coming to Durban through Indian Ocean trade networks included tapes, DVDs, internet content, and printed publications in both English and Zulu (Kaarsholm, 2011).

Broadcast media brought different possibilities for projecting rule and reconfiguring relations among subjects, citizens, and the colonial state. Radio’s reach was much wider than print, given limited literacy and education of African peoples. Mass communication presented a clear dilemma for colonial overlords: these new infrastructures were not easily controlled. When radio was first introduced in northern Rhodesia, colonial officers urged against only allowing for preset radios that were set to one station, arguing that the vulnerability of the radio to other stations was worth the relative cost in its popularity (Heinze, 2016, pp. 48–49). A British Committee on Broadcasting Services in the Colonies published the Plymouth Report in 1937, and aimed for broadcast as “an instrument of advanced administration”; that is, a means for “the enlightenment and education of the more backward section of the population and for their instruction in public health, agriculture, etc.” (quoted in Head, 1979, p. 40). It recognized broadcast’s indirect propaganda value to Britain. The radio infrastructure was not new, but the British began to actively use it to target African populations during World War II in response to the need to mobilize people for the war effort (Armour, 1984). Information departments were set up to facilitate war propaganda. After the war, these structures were repurposed to deal with social and labor unrest, and growing nationalism. The “saucepan special” (low-cost battery-powered radios) provided greater access to middle and working class Africans (Heinze, 2016; Mytton, 1983, p. 28). As Larkin (2008) has argued, such technologies were in one sense themselves the “message” that colonizers sought to transmit. The allure of technological advance projected ideologies of modernization closely linked to the kinds of “modern subjects” late colonial authorities imagined and sought to produce.

Though first primarily conceived as a tool of state propaganda, radio was quickly appropriated to transmit alternative ideas of rule and belonging. Brennan (2008, 2015) provides a detailed look at competing radio broadcasts in coastal Kenya, investigating the British Voice of Kenya and Egypt’s Radio Cairo. Under Egypt’s independence leader, Gamal Nasser, Cairo’s broadcasts on the African continent had an explicitly political agenda and tone. The British responded to Egyptian broadcasts with counter-offensives on a territory-by-territory basis, but their regulatory and administrative efforts proved weak.

In everyday state administration, literate and educated Africans continued to play a role in communications into the late colonial period. Increasingly, however, their location between the colonial state and the colonized positioned them to challenge the state’s legitimacy as well as facilitate its operations. They found themselves equipped with a position and set of capabilities that could be adapted to other ends, including to serve nascent nationalist projects. They could redeploy their education and position to lead, communicate, and debate nationalist causes. An emerging African literate elite became actors who both realized the colonial order and formed early unions advocating nationalism (Eckert, 2006; Pratten, 2006).

In promoting limited literacy and importing print technology, colonial administrators introduced tools that could be used to challenge their authority. In the hands of a growing literate African elite, print became a means and an expression for different nationalist ideas. Examining the Gold Coast Leader, a print newspaper produced by West African elite in the early 20th century, Newell (2008) finds newspapers allowed for clerks to express their own interpretations of World War I. Competing aspirations about nation-building tempered the revolutionary nature of their use of the printed press. Activists in French West Africa in the 1940s would advocate for expression and self-governance as a territorial unit within France, achieving equality as French citizens. Equally, new technologies, a growing African elite, and spreading literacy provided a fertile context for the formation of new national modernities. In mid-century British colonial West Africa, newspapermen used the press to launch anticolonial political movements, thereby contributing to a transcolonial reading public (Newell, 2013). Independence leaders integrated print into their efforts to challenge colonial rule and establish their credentials—including Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Azikiwe, Nyerere, and Toure (Njubi, 2001). Jomo Kenyatta’s founding of the Kikuyu Central Association’s monthly journal, Muigwithania, in 1935 is one such example, claiming in its name to have the authority to speak about Kikuyu society (Berman & Lonsdale, 1998).

Alongside print, broadcasting infrastructure was appropriated as a platform to raise and contest ideas of authority and nation. French authorities sought to limit resistance voices by creating a dominant French parastatal, SORAFOM, to build and manage radio stations in Africa (Bourgault, 1995, p. 71). Nonetheless, radio infrastructure could not be fully controlled and became part of the functioning of anticolonial movements. For the African National Conference and the South African Communist Party in exile, radio facilitated an active link between exiles and those within South Africa and was part of building cooperation between military and political wings (Davis, 2009). Resistance also took more everyday forms. The British-initiated Sauti ya Mvita radio program in coastal Kenya was shaped by local volunteers, hosts, and programmers, such that the broadcast was not fully the expression of the colonial state’s intent (Brennan, 2015).

By the late colonial period, communication and information infrastructures introduced to facilitate colonial administration acquired new meanings and roles in relation to authority. Many African intermediaries, educated to serve the colonial administration, shifted from being nodes in the administration to agitators, collaborators, and leaders in nationalist campaigns. In doing so they capitalized on their communicative skills and knowledge of the colonizer. Radio producers, hosts, and audiences had the scope to shape and interpret what was aired. Printed press both gave voice to some of African elite’s more conservative ideas, and became convening points for discussions of nationalist ideas. Throughout, communication technologies and those with the advantages to control or use them helped to configure the possibilities of colonial rule, both making such rule feasible and shaping its vulnerabilities and demise.

Communication Technology and the Postcolonial State

The purpose and form of rule shifted with independence from European colonial imposition, but not always decisively. New independence leaders were charged with the task of nation-building and delivering government for the citizenry as a whole. However, changes in the information and communication capacities for broadcasting authority were more gradual. Printing technology advanced, for example, with the introduction of photo-offset printing systems in the 1960s in Nigeria, allowing for mass production of print runs (Furniss, 2006). Radio was increasingly accessible, facilitated by growth in the number of radio transmitters and radio sets (Nugent, 2004, p. 390). Yet developments in communication remained unequally distributed across the continent, with transport networks, telecommunications infrastructure, and catchment areas for radio stations concentrated around urban centers and capital cities. Over time, the affordances of communication technologies in the postindependence period, particularly when arriving at the early 2000s, expanded, and communications were increasingly networked, interactive, and distributed.

With varied dynamics in rule and communications, it is unhelpful to try to build one or a few narratives about the intersection of communication technologies and authority in independent Africa. It is more useful to begin by highlighting patterns in how communication legacies of colonial rule both enabled and constrained possibilities for broadcasting authority in postcolonial states. New independence leaders operated within communicative constraints that were physical, institutional, and capability-related: their experiences operating within and resisting colonial rule were their reference points for imagining what a state looked like. Further, for states progressing to independence through negotiations, departing colonial powers came with external expectations of what sovereign independence should entail. While there were dramatic changes, first in the purpose of rule and later in communicative infrastructure, it was difficult to fully break from the past. Strategies and processes of exercising postcolonial political authority were heavily bound to inherited structures, institutions, and expectations. From an information and communications perspective, the extent to which the early transition to independence was disruptive to the nature of rule becomes questionable.

New Visions, Enduring Communication Realities: Predicaments of Postcolonial States

The justifications of political authority for the postcolonial state were distinct from what preceded. Independence leaders faced expectations that they would create autonomous states unyoked from servitude to colonial overlords. However, they were resource constrained to set up a working state apparatus, build their legitimacy, and forge a social contract with citizens. While only part of a wider story of economic, social, and political state-building, the disjuncture between the task of creating independent government and the legacies of colonial communication structures was one key manifestation of new political leaders’ problems.

In some cases, political instability and uncertainty at independence quickly fell into a series of military interventions and coups. Opposition voices and organizations were suppressed and control of communication infrastructure became a key aspect of establishing oneself as a recognizable authority across the people and territory of interest. Each coup tended to involve quickly obtaining control over the primary national radio broadcaster, given its relative dominance and reach in public communication (Nugent, 2004, p. 390). Radio was crucial in making people aware of changes in the capital city concerning the authorities that ruled over them.

Many postcolonial regimes that veered toward centralized one-party rule appropriated and adapted colonial communication infrastructures to strengthen their authority, just as they did with other colonial state institutions. Colonial structures were a ready resource by which to establish order and broadcast power under a centralized authority. For President Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, the Provincial Administration, a legacy of the colonial administration, was appropriated to control relations between local areas and central executive power. Colonial broadcasting structures were similarly adapted to support centralized authority. Soon after independence, regional stations were closed and replaced with one national broadcaster, Voice of Kenya (Brennan, 2015). Used for propagandistic purposes, the radio became a tool to build a nation and foster an identity of being “Kenyan.” Even with international pressure to liberalize the airwaves in the 1990s, attempts to control public broadcasting manifested in censorship over content by ruling party officials (Kilonzo, Magak, & Omwalo, 2015).

In postapartheid South Africa, the former apartheid state’s Population Register, mentioned earlier, was repurposed and became the basis for administering welfare services and policing (Breckenridge, 2005). The database could easily be put to different uses, providing messy but detailed information on each citizen (Breckenridge, 2005, pp. 277–278). This repurposing of colonial information systems raised questions about the systematic and implicit forms of bias and racism built into the underlying data.

Still, in such cases where governments seemed to stabilize post-independence, the story cannot be so simply constructed as one of the successful instrumentalization of colonial communication and information structures by new political authorities. The scope of possibilities for technology to acquire new meanings and use was limited by technological affordances and by the resources and capabilities of actors involved. From Heinze’s (2016) research on colonial and postcolonial Zambia, authorities’ success in using radio broadcasting to create a common Zambian identity was limited by contextual, technical, and financial constraints. Programmers could not account for all of the different languages spoken within available infrastructure and resources. Any attempt to create a common Zambia identity through mass media was met with debate and resistance (Heinze, 2016, p. 60).

Contestations over statecraft through broadcasting did not only occur internally within states. As the fractious debates over the New World Information and Communication Order in the late 1970s and over “state” versus “public” broadcasting demonstrated, liberalization became a new battleground between outside interveners and local elites in the midst of the emergent “information society” (Roach, 1997). The “information society” was arguably an economic and political project with neoliberal roots, not a statement of fact. This project professed opportunities for developing countries to “leap-frog” industrialization and promoted new market opportunities for the growing global communications industry. By the early 1990s, external pressures and domestic demands for political reform converged alongside technological advances but with myriad trajectories and tensions.

Authority and Its Contestation in a Diversifying Communication Landscape

Media liberalization took off in earnest in the 1990s across of much of sub-Saharan Africa alongside the demise or weakening of one-party states (Nyamnjoh, 2005; Spitulnik, 2002; Wasserman, 2011). These changes came on the heels of Structural Adjustment Programs mandated by international financial institutions as well as a conducive post–Cold War backdrop of democratization. Nonetheless, the influence of protest movements and civil society action in opening up the public realm was crucial. Here, communication technology such as print pamphlets, posters and audio tapes were central to capabilities for dissent, mobilization and protest. When political change came, liberalized media introduced new ambivalences and challenges.

There is little doubt that since the 1990s, African mediascapes have been transformed by a flourishing of print, broadcast, and, latterly, digital media. Media liberalization was, however, largely a commercial phenomenon. Existing large African media houses that had negotiated space in an era of state dominance thrived as regulations were relaxed, and businessmen and politicians secured FM radio licenses in the cities and the countryside. Smaller commercial stations together with religious and community broadcasters multiplied. A plethora of local radio in local languages grew.

Radio easily surpassed print and television as the most accessible and popular form of public communication. A diversifying and growing broadcast sector remained caught between competing tendencies toward state control and increasingly open and unpredictable public spaces for discussion. On one side, stations remain politically vulnerable and subject to cooption and censorship (Fraser, 2016; Willems, 2012). Often around elections or moments of political instability, governments sought to limit public discussion including broadcasting. Suggested linkages between the content of radio broadcasts and widespread violence around the Rwandan genocide and Kenyan 2007 elections have provided some justification for governments to restrict what might be said on air (Desforges, 2007; Ismail & Deane, 2008; Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, 2008; Media Council of Kenya, 2012; Mitullah, Mudhai, & Mwangi, 2015; Somerville, 2011). On the other side, radio shows have presented as unpredictable sites for the projection, negotiation, and rejection of political power (Srinivasan & Diepeveen, 2018; see also Brisset-Foucault, 2013a, 2013b). Studies of local language radio in Zambia, Malawi, and Mali illustrate how shows have become convening points for people to collectively imagine forms of belonging beyond the dominant political order (Englund, 2011, 2018; Schulz, 1999).

As interactive and broadcast technologies became more prevalent on the continent and were swept into the exercise and contestation of authority and belonging, there has been a tendency in scholarship to assume causation between political outcomes and communication media. The analytical precision of why and how communication media relate to politics, as well as this longer story of their interaction with rule, are lost when analysis shifts from interrogating a dialectical relationship to one of cause and effect. For example, the role of radio in spreading hate speech around the Rwandan genocide has sparked popular views of its capacity to incite violence. However, upon further study, ascribing this role to radio gives too much agency to the medium itself. This fails to capture the relations of authority, forms of coercion, and wider relations that helped to give radio its power in influencing participation in the genocide (Strauss, 2007).

By the 1990s, attempts by postcolonial states to centralize control over information and communication, often in the service of one-party rule, had roundly failed. Government efforts were ultimately undermined by a combination of domestic, international, and technological change. Domestic failures in postindependence political, economic, and social projects combined with a changing international order and changes in communication technologies themselves. Broadcast technologies progressively became the means through which alternative ideas of authority and visions of independent African nations could be transmitted and amplified. Nonetheless, the independent African state and powerful domestic and international commercial and security interests sought to wrestle control and extract value from new information and communication frontiers. These possibilities and tensions became especially evident in the “digital revolution” that engulfed the continent in the 21st century.

Politics in Africa in a Digital Age

This article began by acknowledging the growing attention in scholarship to intersections between digital media and politics in Africa: from new forms of transnational public campaigns to new ways that governments exercise control. After bringing communication technology more explicitly to the fore in the continent’s political history, this article now returns to the digital; not as fully distinct but nevertheless revealing profoundly new manifestations of the relationship between communication technology and politics. Despite early optimism that digital connectivity could serve to “disintermediate” information flows and enable greater civic democracy, the “network effects” that led to a concentration of control over communications in a handful of multinational corporations has laid bare new questions of how political power is wielded. States have also pursued new strategies to broadcast authority, control populations, and enable accumulation through their jurisdictional control of information territories. Yet, digital communications are also introducing distinct uncertainties and ambivalences into how power is contested and negotiated.

Digital infrastructures add new affordances, possibilities, and constraints to how authority is shaped through, and by, information and communication technologies. We focus here on three crucial dimensions, building from our analysis of what has come before. First, the long history of global configurations of authority in African politics appear more intense, dynamic, and complex in a digital age. Interweaving logics of accumulation and control continue, and are even heightened, with digital affordances. Similarly, the circuits through which people, ideas, and finance move are more dense and fast-flowing, creating new possibilities for political solidarities, but also new forms of fragmentation. Second, African states have new capabilities to broadcast authority and pursue accumulation strategies using digital means. Often, this takes shape through collaborations with foreign states or with commercial technology providers or multinational communications companies, leading to new dependencies and political economy logics. Third, the digital accentuates the dialectics between authority and communications that both enable and constrain how dominant power is exercised and contested.

People, Money, Ideas: Africa in the World in a Digital Age

Beginning prior to the colonial disruption, our analysis underscored the need for a multifaceted understanding of how political authority and its contestation in Africa have taken diverse shapes within networks and circuits of communication. We see the influence of global networks on shared political identities and ideas of authority through trade and religion in the precolonial period, and around independence through the circulation of ideas such as pan-Africanism and negritude. During the Cold War, the transmission of political ideas and ideology played a significant role in elite contestations over power as well as armed and civil political struggle.

Since the 2000s, the global and local movement of people, finance, and ideas have been profoundly affected through possibilities presented by diverse digital media. Yet before moving to analyze how the use of digital media relates to political dynamics, it is appropriate to first stop and recognize how their effect on political life on the continent begins with the crucial role of the extraction of material wealth from Africa in the production of digital communications. This maps onto the continent’s previous integration into global economic flows, from the slave trade to the extractive colonial state economy. Most coltan, a mineral vital to small computer technologies such as mobile phones and laptops, is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rather than stimulate economic development, coltan mining has reinforced patterns of instability and precariousness. Mined in areas that are in either in conflict, precariously postconflict or unstable, but used far beyond in societies enjoying relative stability and affluence, coltan profoundly shapes economic, social, and political life across the world in a digital age. Militias and traders operating in the DRC organize their activities through mobile phones. Local communities are locked into the extraction of coltan and uncertain global prices for their livelihoods (Smith, 2011). In Sierra Leone, this new strategic mineral is reproducing an extractive industry marked by corruption, smuggling, and illegality (Akiwumi & Hollist, 2016). In short, precariousness, violence, and uncertainty in the conditions of life around coltan mining are driven by demands and practices in global digital communications. “Africa,” as a place of extraction and exploitation, remains vital to global economic structures and practices.

Nevertheless, shifting attention to the use of digital communications, the dominant view of their impact in Africa is ahistorical, somewhat deterministic, and mostly optimistic. For many, the “digital revolution” promises Africa, or at least parts of it, an opportunity to “leap frog” into advanced economic modernity. The “liberation technologies” that it has spawned are seen, on balance, as democratizing (Diamond, 2010; Rotberg & Aker, 2013). For others, the power of surveillance and commodification points to exactly the opposite conclusion. On both sides of this debate, the digital is seen to reinsert Africa into the world in unprecedented ways. This is exactly where the short-sightedness about their political effects begins.

International actors are surprisingly blind to the history, complexity, and multifaceted nature of communication networks through which political authority has changed and taken shape over many centuries. An ahistorical perspective that fails to fully account for what was there during the precolonial, or fails to see the contradictions, fragmentation, and uncertainties of colonial and postcolonial states, allows for the view that digital technology is all new, or is all threatening, or simply full of possibility.

Take, for example, how the dense digital interconnections between Africa and the world seem to go unnoticed in international development efforts. Here, digital communications are reintroduced to Africa as part of development and security agendas. Information and communication technologies (ICT) are taken as preformed tools to bring to “Africa” through a discourse of development (e.g., by the World Bank; Thompson, 2004). They are components integrated into the Sustainable Development Goals to improve reach, accuracy, and learning around development efforts. Duffield (2015) highlights how ICT in development is advocated with almost a religious conviction that makes it difficult to criticize. He questions this optimism, pointing out how the technologies sold by the aid industry to improve the timeliness and intelligence of humanitarian initiatives, such as geospatial technologies, are used for surveillance and security. It is in the ambivalences and divergent possibilities of digital communications, as in previous changes in communications, that new distributions of power, forms of authority, and logics of contestation are shaping political futures across the continent.

New Affordances, New Dependencies: Digital Communications, Authority, and the 21st-Century African State

Looking back through to the precolonial era, what it means to exercise central authority across Africa has been bound up with communication and informational affordances. It has also been clear that the nature of these interdependencies results from the nature and purpose of rule—the moral and political projects that rulers pursue have been, and are, diverse. In the precolonial era, fluid and decentralized modes of rule were both a strength and vulnerability for forms of political authority. The vulnerabilities or “lack” of the centralized colonial state in effectively broadcasting authority were tied to its predominant purposes of extraction, accumulation, and control. States in independent Africa have pursued diverse agendas, but nonetheless have often shared a challenge in seeking to broadcast authority over defined territories and populations without the communicative capacities to foster strong nation-building and legitimacy. Despite this, state control over communication and information infrastructure has often thwarted attempts at contestation in important ways.

The digital age intersects with politics in Africa at a time of considerable flux in the purpose of rule and the types of political regimes on the continent. Recent decades have seen the rise and then retreat of the influence of Western liberal norms, increased attention to security concerns, rapid growth in influence of new global and regional powers, and commodity booms and rapid demographic change that have altered domestic economic horizons. Extractive states, developmental authoritarian regimes, populist parties, and social democratic coalitions mean that political agendas are many and varied. As before, digital communications intersect with these political projects in similarly diverse ways yet retain some common characteristics. A common theme is how the consolidation of control over digital networks among large foreign corporations, and state communications and security agencies, with the capacity to use connectivity and data in powerful ways, is altering the actors, capabilities, and implications for how political power is distributed and contested. Temporary, nationwide blackouts of internet use are common around elections or times of political instability (Freyburgi & Garbe, 2018). Digital media also alter who is seen to have authority. Perceived exploitation by mobile phone companies compelled a protest involving mass switching off of mobile handsets in Nigeria (Obadare, 2006).

The rise of digital networks and infrastructure on the African continent largely followed its introduction elsewhere. As a result, the introduction of digital technology has seemed particularly rapid. It has provided the opportunity for states to consider the sort of networked infrastructure they might want, including building in certain forms of control and surveillance. The affordances and structures of the internet do not necessarily have to take the form of an open internet that transcends national borders. There is another view of the internet that is bounded and based on national sovereignty. Recent developments in networked infrastructure in African states show the possibility for both visions of the internet to manifest.

In cases where states seem to have the interest and capacity to invest in controlling networked communications, heightened forms of general surveillance and that of individuals have arisen (Gagliardone, Stremlau, & Aynekulu, 2019; Lamoureaux & Sureau, 2019). The qualities that define strong and centralized authority become tied to control and monitoring of digital communication. As Ansorge (2011) argues, digital data gathering and processing through databases constitute a tool that “features an unprecedented ability to combine both variety and quantity of information to a system productive of new forms of immediate legibility of populations and identification of individuals” (p. 66). The Sudanese government provides a clear example of a government that has invested heavily in monitoring and surveilling networked infrastructure. This strong security state on a perennial war-footing did not see a need to close down the digital public realm as much as one would expect. Instead, surveillance and control have proved sufficient to weed out key nodes of digital dissent and opposition leadership. The government was contented to provoke and dare protesters to take to the streets, where it purported to have supreme coercive control. Having successfully repressed forms of civic opposition politics for decades, the government apprehended little threat from digital spaces of dissent. Instead, surveillance has been of individuals and has been hidden: people do not know what information is held about them, where or by whom, and who has the capacity to make use of this information. Yet, the non-violent protests in late 2018 and early 2019 that deposed President Bashir once again reminded of the uncertain dialectics between authority and communications. The state had belatedly and repeatedly tried to shut down social media platforms, but protesters often found ways, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), to circumvent these controls.

The Ethiopian government followed a careful process to building networked infrastructure. Initially, framed within a strong developmental state discourse, this seemed to reinforce a clear image and experience of the state within the country. Corresponding with its developmental vision, the Ethiopian government favored more centrally directed services (Gagliardone, 2014). The strength of the Ethiopian state allowed it to determine what networked digital communications became. Two exemplary ICT projects, Woredanet and Schoolnet, were created to provide one-way broadcasting through video-conferencing to local administrations from the center and for political education. Equally, as shown by the ultimate inability of the Ethiopian state to control and restrict the transmission of popular street protest to online platforms, which ended up in major political changes in 2018, their approach to centralized control brought vulnerabilities and contradictions in state authority (Gagliardone et al., 2019).

In both the Sudanese and Ethiopian cases, technological capabilities for controlling and surveilling digital communications increasingly shape the expansion and contingencies of state power. Such flows include state-to-state cooperation (e.g., U.S. military cooperation with Ethiopia), investments in long-term infrastructure by foreign state and multinational companies (e.g., Chinese internet hardware providers to many African states), and importing of software and data analytics capabilities from specialist companies (e.g., Italian, British, and Israeli companies, in the cases of Sudan and Ethiopia).

New Solidarities, New Fragmentations: Vibrant But Uncertain Identity and Belonging in a Digital Age

Fragmentation and uncertainty around identity and belonging have long characterized the relationship between communication technology and politics, from the vulnerabilities of the colonial state-building project to the appropriation of broadcasting for nationalist causes, to the vulnerability of centralized precolonial kingdoms and the strengthening of competing political projects as people moved around given their “ease of exit.” Here, arguably the distinctiveness of the digital lies in the basis and forms of collective belonging that are taking shape.

As they provide for new heights and precision in surveillance, digital communications also facilitate new connections and fragmentations (Falola, 2013, pp. 249–250). Strong centralized authority sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside new forms of escape, mobilization, and resistance. Ease of exit was a key feature of political authority in the precolonial period, given the reliance on oral communication and authority that radiated from a center. This plays out differently now: ease of exit and the choice to participate in a political entity seems to be placed on those living in the diaspora. Digital communication is inseparable from the diaspora’s engagement and connection with the continent: from remittances, to personal connection, to engagement in debates and financing and mobilizing political projects.

In Bernal’s (2005, 2014) work, the Eritrean diaspora are analyzed for how they become part of domestic politics through online discussion. The diaspora form a contradictory relationship with the Eritrean government. The state seeks to levy taxes on them while disallowing their participation in a national referendum and being unable to control online activity. The diaspora both inform political authority and sit outside of it, not dissimilar to how the circulation of ideas in precolonial and early colonial societies could inform the basis of the Malian Kingdom’s authority, as well as ideas of political identity and organization among immigrant South Asian communities.

The combination of the diaspora and digital media has also allowed for the materialization of shared identities that cut across divided territories. Tracing the circulation of political cartoons by Amin, a Somali cartoonist based in Canada, Chonka (2016) looks at how someone from the diaspora can create and circulate content that resonates across a politically fragmented territory, indicating a common identity as “Somali.” By virtue of Amin’s position in the diaspora, he seems to have the security and technical means to circulate content that might be less feasible for local journalists.

Outside of international diasporic engagement in politics on the continent, Twitter has been studied as a means for new forms of self-organization of popular protest and activist campaigns, within and transcending national borders (e.g., Ogola, 2019). Campaigns such as #RhodesMustFall (Bosch, 2017) begun by students in South Africa, or #ThisFlag and #ThisGown in Zimbabwe (Gukurume, 2017) suggest how a collective voice might form out of digital communications. Social media enables a message to be picked up, becoming “viral” as it circulates quickly and extensively. Hashtags help to organize content and configure a collective voice (Tully & Ekdale, 2014). Equally, the voices and experiences that emerge are not monolithic. Campaigns can take different forms and meanings in different localities. Territory is not irrelevant to people’s engagement in digital protest. Maxfield (2016) shows how #BringBackOurGirls was tied to a physical reality and personal experience in northern Nigeria, while globally it operated along the trope of silent and victimized women. Other forms of social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook are also deployed as spaces for new public and semipublic political discussion and debate, both with and beyond the participation and presence of state officials (Diepeveen, 2019; Karekwaivanane, 2019; Omanga, 2019).


The study of politics in Africa from a communication technology perspective is both underdeveloped and urgent. A historicized analysis that foregrounds communication as both a lens of inquiry and object of analysis in political studies on the continent offers new and different understanding. Through history, the nature and means of political rule, its contestation and its alternatives have changed with and through changes in how ideas and information circulate and are controlled. Unravelling how political relations have changed over time as media and communication technologies are introduced, adapted, and appropriated offers valuable perspectives on what is distinct about the digital age. Thinking through a communications perspective reveals particular disruptions and changes to politics, while also pointing out how the “digital,” however new, can reflect, and indeed reveal, aspects of political authority and organization in the past.

Central to a communications perspective of politics in Africa is an enquiry into power relations: how the purposes, forms, techniques, relations, and institutions of power are made possible and constrained by the capacity to transmit and control information and ideas. Indeed, a communications perspective can shed new and different light on the most basic question of politics—Lenin’s “Who? Whom?” This cleaves as an analysis of two dimensions of political power: the capabilities of power over others and the possibilities of power with others. A communications perspective shows how this cleavage is dialectical. Power over others is rarely primarily coercive. It is sustained with and through information and communication capabilities that also make possible power with. What a historical enquiry into communication technology and political change shows is how political order and change go hand-in-hand, just as with political domination and struggle. The bureaucratic authority of a centralized state relies upon information capabilities that intermediaries or nonstate actors can also accrue. Conversely, the power with of collective action among citizens and subjects, such as in broadcast-mediated public realms, associational life supported by mass circulation of text, or networked civic activism through digital connectivity are invariably sustained with and through organizational forms, laws, rules, and extant social hierarchies that can ossify in new forms of power over. Much more of the history of political change in Africa using a communications perspective remains to be examined, to give scholars the foothold required to make more systematic sense of current and future politics in Africa in a digital age. It is arguably time for a new subfield in the study of politics in Africa that champions this enquiry and focuses on communication technology.

This article reveals how the networks and circuits of flows of information and ideas since precolonial times have often mapped onto more material flows of resources and illuminate a long history of the global configurations of African politics. This shows stark and sobering continuities in Africa’s unequal integration into global political and economic networks. There appears to be a persistence of the continent’s utility to outsiders for extraction of resources and wealth to sustain social, political, and economic activity elsewhere (e.g., from the slave trade and colonialism to the mining of coltan). Advantages in communications and information capabilities also bring different powerful global actors, such as telecommunications multinationals, internet giants, and data analytics firms, to the center of how political authority is configured, enacted, and contested.

Finally, besides such global political economy logics, the communication capacities that underpin them have played a long-standing role in shaping political identities, moralities, and solidarities on the continent. These potentialities are dynamic and contingent, opening up new ways in which people and ideas from outside (e.g., diasporas) influence political change on the continent, but also how the continent contributes to global changes (e.g., hashtag campaigns). An inquiry into the role of communication technology reveals how communications both enable contestation of existing political orders and inhibit profoundly transformative projects to re-order. A communications perspective sheds light on the constant negotiation and circulation of ideas that inform social and political change. Since precolonial times and through colonial occupation and political struggles postindependence, changing moralities, identities, and belonging have been configured and reconfigured within communication circuits. These circuits have been local and global, with opportunities to appropriate and resist the techniques of dominant rule often made possible by, but bounded within, the existing technologies by which power is projected. The globalized, plural, and networked nature of digital communications introduces new contradictions and possibilities with regard to the manifestation and negotiation of belonging, which is highly contingent on how different actors are able to shape communicative spaces relative to others.

Further Reading

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Bernal, V. (2014). Network as nation: Diaspora, cyberspace and citizenship. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Gagliardone, I. (2016). The politics of technology in Africa: Communication, development, and nation-building in Ethiopia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University PressFind this resource:

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Nyabola, N. (2018). Digital democracy, analogue politics: How the Internet era is transforming Kenya. London, U.K.: Zed Books.Find this resource:

Nyamnjoh, F. B. (2005). Africa’s media: Democracy and the politics of belonging. London, U.K.: Zed Books.Find this resource:

Srinivasan, S. Diepeveen, S., & Karekwaivanane, G. (2019). Rethinking publics in Africa in a digital age. Special Issue: Journal of Eastern African Studies, 13(1), 2–17.Find this resource:

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