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Globalization, Mass Communication, Democracy, and Security in Africa: Some Considerations

By Folu F. Ogundimu


Folu F. Ogundimu, Ph.D.

Michigan State University

School of Journalism

305 Com Arts & Sciences

East Lansing, MI 48824-1212



Prepared for the Workshop on Globalization and Human Security in Africa

The UCLA Globalization Research Center – Africa

May 29th, 2002.


Working Paper, Draft #1.


“Globalization, mass communication, democracy, and security in Africa: Some considerations”


Theoretic overview


            The central question for this discussion paper was to assess how the advancement and penetration of mass communication technology positively or negatively affect African democracy and development. In considering the question, we make three important observations for analytic purposes. First, the paper presumes there is a dynamic interplay of globalization and communication, democracy, and development, with a heavy emphasis on the security implications of this interplay. The robust literature on globalization highlights the nature of this dynamic interconnectedness. We will sketch out briefly how this interplay is manifested in the African case. Second, the emphasis on the impact of mass communication technology is applied more broadly to accommodate both mass mediated and non-mass mediated communications, in deference to the blurring of the distinctions between technological platforms and the accelerating convergence of communications technology. Advances in mobile cellular technology, cable, satellite, broadband, fiber optic, the Internet, and other digital interactive telecommunications platforms reveal that the old distinctions between mass communications and interactive interpersonal communications systems no longer apply. At once, an interpersonal, interactive communications appliance can be rendered mass mediated and vice versa. These dynamic platforms have serious security implications for development in emerging democracies of sub-Saharan Africa. We will sketch out briefly how this is so.

Moreover, questions about globalization, communications, and development must look well beyond issues of technological determinism and pay equal attention to the cultural dimensions of communications globalism, especially given the implications for democracy of balancing the desire for free expression and open communications systems with concerns of cultural pollution, informational imperialism, propaganda, and the corroding influences of international political communication (IPC) on national security. Because these influences expose both the softness of power and erode confidence in the quality of governance in weak polities, the cultural dimensions of communications globalism are just as important as the technological in showing how these dimensions of globalization impact democracy and development in Africa.  The third observation concerns the element of globalization and communications as they relate to the concepts of democracy and development. Whereas democracy and development conjure different analytic discourses, as used in this discussion paper, the bias favors systems where individuals are able to freely participate in the public sphere or in the governance realm. This would include participation in the selection of governors via open and competitive systems, institutional accountability and responsibility at the legislative, judicial, executive, and bureaucratic realms, protections of civil liberties, and protections of the rights of ownership, and of participation in the economic domain. 

Communications globalism

            The recent literature on globalization help clarify a number of important core concepts relating to the subject. One is the observation that whereas global trends had always occurred throughout history, coinciding with the “thickness” and “thinness” of globalism, two key characteristics define the present epoch of globalism. One refers to networks of multiple relationships; the other refers to the shrinkage of distance on a large scale, at multicontinental dimensions. Acknowledging the different dimensions of globalism – economic, environmental, military, social/cultural – we note that it is communications globalism – as defined by the thickness and density of the networks – that uniquely shape today’s globalization processes. This includes the effects of communications networks on global governance – as in matters of trade, politics, culture, and military affairs. The impact of communications processes on global governance was made possible by the emergence of dynamic, digital, and instantaneous technology like the Internet, communications satellites, broadband, cable, and fiber optic, as well as a rethinking of the global agenda for governance in the aftermath of the cold war. With the emergence of new communications platforms, communications globalism has enabled both tangible and intangible outcomes. These include the increased flow of ideas globally, reductions in distance between cultures and individuals, reductions in the costs of doing business globally, and the export globally of cultural norms and cultural practices– even when these have negative impacts on local cultures. Significantly, communications globalism has also enabled increased transborder flows of data and the integration of a nation’s communications system into a global grid. This development, unlike none other, has quietly introduced an element of serious security vulnerabilities for developing countries in the sense that their entire system of communications – banking, financial, medical, transportation, electric power, military logistics, weather, agricultural, social perception, mental health, and much more – is subject to data spillages. Data spillages are negative outcomes of communications globalism, as in instances when a nation’s communications system and its data networks can simply be wiped out, terminated, or interrupted by cutting off communications support from data nodes or data warehouses that are typically located in advanced industrial societies like the United States. Without an enforceable international regimen of protocols and controls protecting the uninterrupted flow of transborder communications, especially financial and security data – even in times of war – one must regard data spillages as a real threat to disrupting the globalization of information and communications, especially at a time when there is heightened sensitivity globally to an international war against terrorism. In the present climate, one could see opportunities for coercion and blackmail by powerful actors, especially in instances where developing countries lack awareness and expertise over the management of their own data ports or the density of their integration into the global grid of communications.

Nevertheless, one must say that so far, none of these negative uses of communications globalism have been applied extensively and that the emergence of integrated networks is itself part of the global revolution in governance that followed the end of the Cold War. This is because the global diffusion of enabling communications technologies like the Internet and the breaking down of barriers that previously hindered the transborder flows of data and information were direct consequences of the lessening of tensions in the post-Cold War era. This relaxation of tensions allowed for the export of communications technology like the Internet and advanced generation communications satellites, the migration of linked databases to the world wide web, and the encouragement of a worldwide system of free market systems, free trade and open democracy. With this development, the open ideological divide between East and West was no longer an impediment to promoting global communications systems, including incorporating still existing communist systems like China and Cuba into the new global communications order. But so far, this global expansion of communications technologies and the liberal regimes of governance that manage the Internet in particular has been allowed to proceed unimpeded without much government or inter-governmental regulation or oversight, notwithstanding the history of the Internet as a military/defense technology pioneered by the U.S. armed services during the Cold War era, and made available initially for limited use purposes to American universities before its mass diffusion globally for civilian use.

Communications globalism in Africa     

Now, to address specifically the question of how sub-Saharan Africa is benefiting from communications globalism and how the region also stands potentially liable to data spillages that may result from this development, we turn to a few examples. First, the good news is that emerging democracies in sub-Saharan Africa are benefiting from the reform and restructuring agenda that have moved the region in the direction of popular democracies since the early 1990s. Many more countries than ever before have come under international scrutiny and pressure has been applied by both domestic and foreign constituencies for expansion of the spaces for democratic expression and democratic participation through mechanisms that would ensure both the accountability and the responsibility of the governance systems. Political leaders are subjected to more scrutiny by way of direct elections and are being held accountable by public inquiries in the press and via the legislative arms of governance. Economic liberalism as preferred public policy has ensured that vast arenas of economic domains previously reserved for state monopoly and state control have been liberated to allow for private participation. Legislative and judicial reforms, though still far from being satisfactory, have ensured that protection of individual human rights, particularly in respect of arbitrary and extra-judicial processes and the protection of free expression have been elevated to core issues on the democratic agenda. Clearly, none of these reforms would have been possible without the emergence of communications globalism and the scrutiny it has enabled with respect to governance performance in the emerging democracies. One clear outcome of this positive development is the revelation by the World Bank Development indicators (2001) indicating that for the region, trade is becoming an important indicator of the region’s global economic integration; growth in services is masking the value of trade in goods as an important component of the region’s global integration; and that overall, sub-Saharan Africa has increased its share of international trade as a percent of goods GDP from a weighted average of 78 .1 in 1989, to 95.6 in 1999. On average, growth in GDP was about 4% annually in the last decade.

Perhaps an even more substantive indicator of accelerating global integration is the revolution that has taken place in the penetration of mobile cellular communications technology in sub-Saharan Africa. Just five years ago, telephone density in the region was under one subscriber per 1000 inhabitants and it was thought that the region’s development potential would be severely curtailed for a long time until this low density was reversed. By 2001, Africa reached a historic milestone with a density of one telephone subscriber per 100 inhabitants. The remarkable growth in so short a time has been attributed to the region’s remarkable economic growth, the doubling of export trade, the liberalization of telecommunications, and the marriage between African subscribers to telecommunication services and mobile cellular and pre-paid card services. As we write, 56% of the sub-Saharan Africa countries now allow competition in mobile cellular, up from 7% in 1995; only six countries lacked cellular services in 2001, compared with 28 in 1995; and 4 of 5 subscribers on the continent use pre-paid mobile service. Moreover, the growth in mobile cellular services is outstripping fixed telephone services by geometric proportions. In 2001, mobile cellular overtook fixed telephone subscribers for the first time, with 28 million compared to 22 million subscribers. By 2005, there will be 130 million phone subscribers in the region, 98 million of them mobile cellular subscribers.

            Although the initial boon in mobile cellular telecommunications services in the region has come surprisingly from a new breed of pan-African mobile companies, not state-owned or large multinationals as was previously speculated would likely be the case, the pioneer telecommunications service providers have three major weaknesses that make them vulnerable to international control, international sabotage, or to predatory economic practices even as the region is poised to expand rapidly. One, in virtually every country so far observed, there is either lax regulation or weak regulatory framework for protecting both the new market providers and domestic consumers of cellular telecommunications services. This weakness is a major threat to the viability of the sector from the standpoint of the potential economic benefits that might accrue to the domestic environment. Because multinational corporations in more developed countries have huge advantages in technological and marketing capability, they enjoy clear advantages over local industries and can be expected to enter the market and put local operators out of business as soon as local sub-Sahara Africa markets become attractive to them. Two, the emergent players in the private telecommunications markets of sub-Sahara Africa are not only small in market capitalization, they are failing to recognize the advantages of economies of scale. Rather than cooperating with each other, they are presently engaged in highly predatory and ruinous competition that leave them exposed and vulnerable to larger international entities who might seek entry into the African market. It will be a shame to see the lucrative profits and revenues still to accrue from the sector end up in the pockets of foreign shareholders. Three, where strategic alliances are being made between providers of domestic mobile cellular services and foreign investors, the locus of control and strategic opportunities for both dominating and disrupting the markets of sub-Sahara Africa countries are located either in the United States, Holland, England, or the Middle East. And in some of these cases, the foreign partners have strategic alliances with military, industrial, and intelligence services in their host nations. For example, the major players, along with their home country affiliations in the African market include: RSA Security (Dutch/U.S.A.); MTN or Mobile Telephone Networks (South Africa); ECONET (Zimbabwe); PM Tech (U.S.A./UK); Oracle (U.S.A.); Microsoft (U.S.A.); and Orascom (Egypt).

Security implications of foreign control

            The density of integration of the African communications networks with the foreign operations is as remarkable as it is invisible to all but the most critical observers. First, there is the element of platform interconnectivity, as in the joining this past March, of the West African Submarine Cable (WASC) system with the South African Far East (SAFE) cable system. This system is anchored in Kochi, Kerala (India). But its operations and the profile of the services it provides have significant implications for Africa and many non-African countries. With the integration, cable and satellite services have been linked between Far East Asia, Africa, and Europe, with connection points in India, Durban, the Reunion Island, Mauritius, Malaysia, Melkbosstrand (S. Africa), Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, the Canary Islands, Spain, and Portugal. The system, with its controls in India, already has 42 telecommunications companies located in 35 countries using its services. Another example is by way of platform interconnectivity via computer and database-linked systems such as those provided by the U.S.-based Microsoft and the Oracle corporations. Although they provide no visible mobile cellular telecommunications services, they control and virtually own the hardware operating systems platforms, the routing networks, the databases, and the appliances that run and remotely monitor every computer and database operation in the region. Already, Microsoft, a latecomer to the region has struck strategic partnership with PM Tech Holdings for software solutions development, networking, database management, e-security, and IT (information technology) consulting. PM Tech already has extensive holdings in the petroleum, financial, telecommunications sectors of Nigeria, Cameroon, the Congo, Swaziland, Botswana, and it is rapidly expanding its operations throughout West Africa. Also, it is targeting Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique, and Zambia. Oracle Corporation has already set up shop in Abidjan as a regional hub and with its business applications suites and networking solutions already controls 80% of all public administration projects in West Africa, all banking operations, telecommunications services, and is seeking to establish strategic partnerships with companies with defense industry links. RSA Security, a major South-African military defense industry subsidiary at one point, has Dutch and U.S. affiliations with headquarters in Bedford, MA. The company’s expertise includes electronic security solutions and e-security intelligence and it has established strategic partnership with Schlumberger-Sema, a global information technology services company, to provide smart card-based solutions that interface RSA Security smart cards operations in banking and other services throughout Africa. RSA Security already boasts 12 million customers worldwide. In 2001, e-security solutions accounted for 100% of RSA Security revenues. In 2000, the company reported a gross income of $280.2 million and an after-tax profit of $205.8 million. Econet, a small Zimbabwe wireless company, secured in 2002 contracts worth $50 million to deliver international commercial satellite services to customers, providing linkage between African countries and Europe, allowing Econet to gain European footprints, but with heavy reliance and dependence on UK companies that provide the gateway into Europe. And then, there is Orascom, to cite one last example. Orascom is an Egyptian company, with 57% of the stock held by the Sawaris family of Egypt, presently operating in 18 Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa countries, with a mobile cellular link hub in Belgium. Orascom’s core business activities are extensive and touch on a wide swath of sub-Sahara Africa life -- IT, computer-related services, hotels, medical, dental, hospital supplies, construction and petroleum services. Last year, they claimed $9.9 million profits on revenues of $580 million.

Policy implications

            Whereas the examples cited illustrate the rapid and bourgeoning development of communications globalism in sub-Sahara Africa, there are a number of unsettled issues that have implications for security, development, and the viability of democracy in the region. Clearly, the positive aspects of communications globalism must be emphasized in Africa for continuing expansion of democracy and development. But this also means minimizing the negative aspects of globalism. It means the use of public policy to:

(1)   Encourage the expansion of communications for global integration without sacrificing the rights and privileges of domestic consumers for open systems of information exchange, free expressions, and the continuing exploitation of benefits deriving from the commercial uses of communications globalism. Given the unequal access to communications resources and the lopsided advantages enjoyed by multinational and trans-global media companies, national regulatory commissions need guidance and help in evolving effective monitoring and management mechanisms for dealing with this problem.

(2)   Assuring ownership and control over transborder flows of data and information is another tricky enterprise sub-Sahara Africa democracies face, given the commercial and security value of transborder data. How to effectively protect local data from subversion and from abuse once data is exported requires some innovative thought, given the history of distrust between developing countries and those of Western governments, scholars, and commercial enterprises who previously accused the governments of developing countries of being authoritarian over the control of information.

(3)   Thirdly, there is the matter of the widening gap in knowledge and technical expertise over information, communications technology, and investment capital for communications enterprises. As communications globalism proceeds unimpeded, we are seeing in its wake not just the shrinkage of global distance on a massive scale with real-time consequences, we are also witnessing rather distressingly in the international context the emergence of informational monopoly rather than informational democracy. If monopoly proves to be the norm, then smaller countries and weak polities will definitely be at great disadvantages in maintaining both their own sovereignty over information and in partaking in the global governance of information.

In conclusion, we have tried to show that without effective public policy, emergent sub-Sahara Africa democracies are in danger of losing control over core aspects of governance in their own countries. Because of the limitations of space, we have not dealt with the particularly unique forms of communications globalism that is represented by cultural artifacts such as entertainment programming in broadcasting, films, videotapes, computer discs, books, magazines, and other forms of intellectual property. These cultural products are broadly discussed in the literature as having particularly insidious forms of cultural pollution. Although seeking controls over them raise potentially troublesome issues of freedom of expression and the freedom of international exchange of ideas, their unrestricted exports to other societies also represent serious forms of data spillages. Attempts by the French and Middle Eastern Arab countries to stem the flow of American cultural export programming in this regard, even at the risk of letting the global agreement on trade (WTO agreement) unravel shows the international sensitivity toward this form of communications globalism. For Africans, there are both costs and benefits to regulating these forms of communications globalism. The stakes are simply too high to leave matters of control solely in the hands of those that wield monopoly over communications resources. With the convergence of communications hardware and ever more powerful software, control of communications resources is a flip side of control in the globalization of power.


Suggested Readings

Braman, Sandra., and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi. 1996. Globalization,

  communication and transnational civil society. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.


Cogburn, Dennis L. “Globalization and state autonomy in the information age:

   telecommunications sector restructuring in South Africa”, Journal of International

   Affairs, v.51, no.2 (Spring 1998), p. 583-604.


Giddens, Anthony. 2000. Runaway world. How globalization is reshaping our lives.

  New York, NY: Routledge


Golding, Peter., and R.W. McChesney. 1997. The global media: The new missionaries of

  global capitalism. London, UK: Cassell.


Held, David., Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, Jonathan Perration. 1999. Global

   Transformations. Politics, economics and culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University



McPhail, Thomas L. 2001. Global communication. Theories, stakeholders, and trends

   Allyn & Bacon.


Mittleman, James H. 2000. The globalization syndrome. Transformation and resistance.

   Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Mowlana, Hamid. 1996. Global communication in transition: The end of diversity?

   Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Nye, Joseph S., and John D. Donahue (Editors). 2000. Governance in a globalizing

   world. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution Press.


Globalization Research Center - Africa