Africa in the age of a global network society: The challenges ahead

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Nigeria's president, Rtd. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, has never been a favorite of Nigerian journalists. His disdain for them when he was head of state the first time around was returned in full measure, with regular reports and cartoons about his famous "uncouthness." Days before the February 27, 1999 presidential elections, Obasanjo's reputation as a "bush" man (Nigerian for an " uncultured" man) received a boost from the man himself. During a televised interview with journalists, Obasanjo reportedly reacted to questions regarding the Internet by playing on the words " download" and "upload." If he is to download, he asked, when does he upload? On a serious note, he said, he did not particularly care about technologies that download unless they meet the basic needs of Nigerians. He was quoted in a Reuters report as saying that he was not against the Internet or information technology, "but (acquiring it ... should not be a priority over the technology to produce food or pound yams". This indication of his future policy direction--a preference for "appropriate technology over newfangled ideas of globalization and information technology"--generated vociferous attacks on Obasanjo from Nigerians at home and abroad. One subscriber to Niajanet, a US-based Nigerian Internet discussion forum, expressed concern over Obasanjo's "warped policy preference" and the "need for enlightened people in leadership positions". This episode is symbolic of the two major perspectives of the coming of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to Africa. Frequently the debates are framed in either/or language, slotting advocates into uncomfortable positions of sounding either too elitist or not " enlightened" enough. This structuring of the debate has been replicated at the scholarly level. It becomes a "war" between the pessimists, such as Jegede, and the optimists, such as Olivier Coeur De Roy. But there are also those who argue that it is not an either/or position and present a middle ground between becoming " cyber-struck" at the perceived wonders of the new ICTs and articulating policy strategies aimed at meeting the basic needs of African populations. The debate is clearly rooted in the classical theories about the role of communication in development. The present focus may be on new communication and information gadgets, but the debate goes as far back as the 1950s and 1960s when modernization theorists were engaged in intellectual speculations on how to transform the newly emerging, formerly colonial states into western-type societies. Although many modernization theories of economic growth and political development have since been abandoned, or reformulated, their assumptions structure much of the current debate on the prospects for African countries advancing to industrialization and modernity via their modem connections. This paper examines the classical arguments on the causal link between communication and development. It also considers the possibilities and constraints for sub-Saharan Africa in acquiring and utilizing the new knowledge and information technologies. It addresses the following questions. How important is it for Africa to get " connected" when juxtaposed with the urgency to provide basic needs for most of its populations? Are the new ICTs the solution to many of the challenges that face sub-Saharan African or are they mere distractions? If one takes the position, as Nigeria's Obasanjo does, that the priorities should be about addressing the basic needs of the population, can these states afford not to be part of the global network society? In the first part of the paper, I will explore some of the arguments that represent the two extreme positions: the need to be part of the global network society and the urge to provide basic needs for sub-Saharan Africans. In the second section, I will attempt to resolve the tension between the two approaches by pointing to a third way, one that does not sacrifice the basic needs of the people and at the same time does not place the region in an even more disadvantaged position by ignoring the implication of the new ICTs. First, it is necessary to define some of the concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAfrican Journal of Environmental Assessment and Management
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modeling
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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