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Unequal Empowerment: African Civil Society in the Digital Age

Lukas Goltermann wrote “Unequal Empowerment: African Civil Society in the Digital Age” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship


During my last trip to Nairobi, I found myself rather accidentally sitting in a planning session for a new civil society program that a Kenyan friend of mine was developing. The program was about fighting digital violence against women – a problem that has recently become more and more of an issue in Kenya. This encounter got me thinking about the impact of digital communication devices on the existing social and political hierarchies in Africa. Although we often read that we are witnessing an era of global transformation brought about by technological innovation, I feel that we still have too little insights about the socio-political trajectory of these developments. 

With the following article I want to contribute to our understanding of the implications of this global transformation on dynamics of empowerment and exclusion. In particular, on the ways in which governments and civil society on the African continent interact. Rapid population growth and economic developments in many African countries currently intersect with the fast rise of digital technologies and increasing accessibility to global communication networks. The consequences and trajectories of this intersection have important repercussions for the organization of state-society interactions. As my work focuses on the work with civil society organizations, I have a particular interest in getting to know more about how this particular sphere is affected. Academic research on the topic is rare. While some observers of the “digital revolution” argue that we are witnessing a shrinking space for civil society, others point to the empowering effects of technological advancement. In the following, I will argue that the truth lies somewhere in between and we should be more aware of the ways in which technological changes affect regions, countries and social groups unevenly.


Civil Society Advocacy

For a long time, political scientists have been studying and observing the ways in which civil society organizations have impacted on social and political change processes. Most observers agree that organized groups of citizens have been a crucial factor at social and political turning points. What observers often disagree on, is what is actually meant by the term “civil society”. Of course, it should not be assumed that all civil society actors pursue “positive”, “progressive”, “inclusive” or “sustainable” intentions. As Robert Cox has eloquently pointed out, “Civil society is both shaper and shaped, an agent of stabilization and reproduction, and a potential agent of transformation.” (1) Without denying the ambiguous nature and role of civil society, the following chapter orients itself more closely with the notion of civil society brought forward by Alexis de Tocqueville as the intermediate institutions between society and the state through which citizens realize social freedoms and equality. In particular, the chapter is interested in those activists and organizations of civil society that engage in advocacy work on the African continent. So how has the technological landscape in which these actors work in changed over the past decade and a half?



The Changing Activism Landscape



The ITU estimates that since the year 2000 the number of people who have access to the internet has increased tremendously from 400 million users to 3.2 billion in the year 2015. Technologies for accessing the internet have become cheaper, more easily available and smaller. The rapid developments in mobile phone technology makes it possible to purchase handheld devices, capable of accessing global community networks practically in every part of the world. This has also greatly affected the African continent. The number of people in African countries using the internet has increased from 4.5 million estimated internet users in 2000 (half of which lived in South Africa) to around 23 million in 2006 and then exploded to over 320 million in 2015. The number of internet users on the African continent has thus increased by an astonishing 300 million people in just one decade. This rapid spread of digital communication technologies has brought the internet penetration of the total population to 28 percent, a figure which continues to rise. (2)
The accessibility of digital communication services is closely interlinked with the rapid spread of mobile phones on the continent. The social media platform Facebook – the most widely used social network – claims that over 50 percent of internet users in Africa now use its services, 80 percent of which access the internet through mobile phones. (3) A recent survey compiled by Pew Research Center highlights the magnitude of the rapid expansion of mobile phone usage by comparing data from the US with selected African countries. In 2002, 64 percent of Americans owned a mobile phone compared to 8 percent of Ghanaians. In 2014 this number has increased to 89 percent of Americans who own a mobile phone and 83 percent of Ghanaians. 
These rapid changes are also often seen as a disruptive force for the existing socio-political regimes on the African continent, simply because these changes have happened in such a short time span, leaving little space for gradual adjustments. Through low costs and potentially large audiences, the internet - and social media platforms in particular – offer an unprecedented access to information and new spaces for political participation, mobilization and civic engagement. The popular social media websites Facebook and Twitter have become an integral part of the social and political developments in several countries with higher internet penetration rates – such as Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. For raising public awareness, as venues for political mobilization and the voicing of political discontent, these platforms have surpassed several traditional media outlets in less than a decade. The World Wide Web Foundation reported for a 86-country sample that “the Web and social media are making a major contribution to sparking citizen action in over 60% of countries we studied.” (5) In the words of Aziz Douai Olorunnisola, we are witnessing the creation of an “online public sphere” with new possibilities, rules and audiences. (6) We can already see some of the first shifts in state-society relations of this development, but the social and political consequences remain largely under-researched. The following part will provide several examples of how this rapid spread of digital technology and access to global communication has changed the opportunity structure as well as the methods employed by civil society organizations to engage in political participation.

Effects on State-Society Interaction

Perhaps the greatest potential for altering state-society relations is brought about through the countless new opportunities for enhancing political accountability and governmental transparency. I will introduce some noteworthy examples in the following to illustrate the trajectory of changes.
As a response to frequent allegations of fraud and manipulations, various organizations across the African continent have started using digital technologies for monitoring national elections. Among the first to do so was the Kenyan platform Ushahidi, which revolutionized the use of geo-data for monitoring elections and created a whole new method of political activism. (7) Other prominent examples include the Citizens’ Situation Room Project (8) in Sierra Leone (2012) or the Ghana Decides Project (2012). (9) Both projects used social media and mapping to spread information and document the respective elections online. The Ghana Decides project was run by a handful of active bloggers from the organization BloggingGhana. Their online coverage of the national election was flanked by decentralized social media trainings for civil society organizations. Since the national electoral institutions in Ghana had little to no presence on social media, BloggingGhana quickly became a key source of information on the election process, in particular for young people and foreign media. Through the use of digital technologies, a relatively small civil society organization suddenly became an important element of the checks and balance system of a national election. 
Local civil society activists passionate about transparency and accountability have not stopped at election monitoring. Numerous participatory websites for legislative oversight have been created in recent years. Prominent examples include Tunisia’s Marsad.tn, Uganda’s Parliament Watch and Kenya’s Mzalendo. These websites set out to document government initiatives as well as the activities of members of parliament. Additionally, they also provide information about the political landscape and constitutional rights and responsibilities. With the Shujaaz award the Kenyan Mzalendo website lets users vote on the quality of the work of selected parliamentarians, thus bringing attention and recognition to the work of members of the Kenyan national assembly.
As a result of being able to collect and analyze growing amounts of data, a newer generation of projects are seeking to make data (generated by public authorities and citizens alike) more accessible. These attempts are yet another step forward in making government activities more transparent and more accountable on the African continent. Noteworthy examples include the DataShift project hosted by Civicus and the SmartGov Project. (10)
This illustrates how civil society organizations have used digital tools to enhance the checks and balance systems of national democratic systems. The speed with which already successful initiatives from other countries can be adapted to local contexts further adds to the transformative impact. In this way, digital technologies, sharing of information and adaptive learning have been used to stabilize existing political institutions by rewarding respect for democratic rules and procedures, as well as providing a platform for publicity in case of rule breaking. In short, the growing use of digital technology is used by local civil society organizations as a way to hold political power to account and reach out to young populations to engage in political debates.
However, technological changes to civil society-state relations are not a one-way street. Governments are also realizing the scope and reach of new communication channels. In Nigeria’s 2011 election, for example, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced his candidacy via Facebook. Today, most national governments have some sort of Twitter activity - “twiplomacy”. (11) In some cases, political leaders have used Twitter to engage directly with their electorate by staging online Q&A sessions in Rwanda, for example, by using the hashtag #askPMRwanda. In the 2015 elections in Nigeria and Tanzania social media has been used excessively by all candidates as well as by the electoral institutions, with some opposition candidates gathering as much as 350,000 followers. (12) It should be noted, however, that in contrast to civil society, governments in the region have mostly been slow in strategically utilizing these channels. The traditional bureaucracies of national governments still lack the knowledge, resources and flexibility to react to the fast changing technological developments and the resulting governance challenges.
Lastly, innovation of digital technologies has enabled a new form of remote civil society activism that can function almost without any support from local staff or supporters. The general trend of electronic devices becoming cheaper, smaller and, thus, more readily available, has increased opportunities for gathering data and information, by using GPS devices, forensic and identification technologies as well as remote sensing equipment, such as remotely controlled drones and even reconnaissance satellites. Today, “a wide array of digital technologies now offers human rights organizations opportunities to gather massive amounts of data about abuses, often from locations that cannot be visited by fieldworkers,” says Professor Steven Livingstone from Washington University, asserting that this will further "enhance the core activity of transnational advocacy." Among other projects, he is particularly interested in the Satellite Sentinal Project (SSP). The project was launched in late 2010 by George Clooney and Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast after visiting South Sudan. The SSP uses satellite imagery, data patterns and local eye witness accounts to track mass atrocities, establish an early warning system for civilians as well as to monitor compliance with human rights obligations in South Sudan. The project has documented human rights violations from thousands of kilometers away from the actual crisis. In this way, the project seeks to put pressure on local, national and international authorities to act against these violations.
Another very successful transnational initiative in the sector of peace and security affairs is the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). ACLED collects violent incidents in different parts of the world by gathering and triangulating data from various media sources. The data is then visualized using geographical information systems, thus enabling relevant state and non-state actors to trace patterns of violent conflicts. A recent case in which data sets were widely shared was when clashes in Burundi intensified in 2015. (13) These two examples provide some insights into how new and cheaper technologies (in the case of SSP satellite imagery) have enabled civil society organizations to affect state-society relations even when they are themselves not directly “on the ground”.
Consequently, we can observe an impact of digital communication devices on the work of civil society activists on many different levels. The above mentioned examples illustrate that the spread of digital communication technologies…
1)… offers new checks and balances in the local political landscape.
2)… supports the establishment of networks and connections of social activists across borders at lower costs and in real time.
3)… pushes for innovation in information gathering and distribution.
4)… enables the actors involved to work in political situations or geographical locations, in which it was previously impossible to work in.
5)… stimulates learning from experiences made in geographically distant locations.
6)… creates possibilities of collaboration, support and solidarity across long distances.
Perhaps most strikingly, technological changes have empowered civil society to increasingly target both local and global audiences at the same time. As internet access and digital technologies have become more readily available, the “local” and the “global” aspects of advocacy work are now more and more interwoven. Furthermore, we can observe some positive changes in state-society relations, adding new intervention points for civil society organizations to improve accountability and bring attention to social grievances. This has empowered civil society organizations vis-à-vis political elites tremendously in some parts of Africa and strengthened political accountability. At the same time, technologies have also made it less and less significant where exactly civil society organizations are located.

Unequal Empowerment 

When looking more closely, at who is actually empowered, however, big differentials between locations become visible. The first stark contrast can be seen between African countries. While some countries have two-digit annual growth rates of the number of people with internet access, other countries have made little to no increases in recent years. Almost half of all African countries have an internet penetration of less than 12 percent, while internet penetration in the other half exceeded 35 percent. This also means that countries, such as Egypt (54 percent), Kenya (63 percent), Morocco (60 percent) and Nigeria (59 percent), with the highest internet penetration are increasingly on a very different development trajectory than some of their neighboring countries such as Eritrea, Guinea, Somalia and Niger with internet penetration between only 1 and 2 percent of the population.
The digital divide cannot only be found between, but also within countries. Widely accessible internet connectivity is limited to the more densely populated urban areas. Unfortunately, reliable data on the urban-digital divide is still lacking. However, websites like OpenSignal.com show how patchy mobile internet access is and the extent to which it is concentrated to cities. This already excludes roughly half of the population that lives in rural areas. Considering the increasing importance of digital technologies for the socio-political dynamic in many African countries, this urban-rural divide in terms of access and availability is worrying.
Despite the countless possibilities of bringing more accountability and transparency to African politics through the strategic use of new technologies by some elements of civil society, we should be aware of the emerging power imbalances this entails. This is a dialectic that directly results from the ambiguous nature of civil society itself and needs to be looked at in more detail in future research. For example, while new digital communication technologies have afforded feminist activists with new opportunities to empower girls and women, the internet itself has become a scene of online threats against and harassments of women. (14)
Indeed, the WebIndex Report 2014-15 finds that “civic engagement online is most prevalent among the affluent, urban, male, and well educated — reproducing, rather than reversing, disparities in political participation and social capital.” (15) The digital divide may thus reinforce existing or even create new economic and political inequalities. Better knowledge and participation opportunities are likely to favour urban populations. This, in turn, creates an urban civil society which is being more visible, more likely to be connected to global networks, has better access to global media channels, and engages in more exchange with inhabitants of other metropolises.
Lastly, there are some signs that several African governments are becoming more repressive in their relations to online media and social networks. The Ethiopian government, for example, has in recent years started to target bloggers and online activists. In July 2014, seven members of Zone 9 – a collective of bloggers writing about contemporary events and social issues – were charged under the anti-terrorism law. Several other governments in the region, however, also seem to be worried about the growing political power of digital communication. Wikileaks recently published records of the controversial Italian surveillance company HackingTeam, showing that governments of Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Sudan and Kenya had negotiated with HackingTeam to purchase the company’s spying software. Documents reveal that the Kenyan negotiator even requested the company to take down a government critical website as a proof of concept – a step the Hacking Team itself refused. (16) Meanwhile, during the Ugandan elections in 2016, the authoritative government of President Yoweri Museveni was so afraid of digital mobilization that access to social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, was completely blocked during elections. Increased surveillance, control over content and restrictions of access are thus becoming critical tools for authoritative governments. As was pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, “Today, to be disconnected from the net is to be silenced.” (17)
In this chapter I have argued that the rapidly changing technological reality on the African continent has empowered a new generation of online activists to hold governments to account. Increasingly, this technological change opens up possibilities for creating new methods, forms and structures of transnational civil society activism. This development already greatly changes the way politics is conducted in several countries and alters the way (civil) society and governments interact. Although this development holds great potential for stabilizing democratic institutions in some countries, a backlash against this power shift is becoming increasingly visible. Only few countries have taken a repressive stance against online activism so far, but the Wikileaks revelations indicate that it is likely to be only a matter of time until more governments will get their hands on technologies to exercise greater control over online activism. Lastly, the less cheerful side of the rapid technological changes and growing access to online communication poses the risk of unequal empowerment, potentially creating new or reinforcing existing mechanisms of exclusion. With the current hype around the digitization of many African societies and economies, citizens should be careful not to avoid the question of who controls, owns and can access the means of digital communication. In fact, more attention needs to be paid to the social, economic and political consequences of this unequal empowering of digital communication. Only by looking at the critical challenges that digitization poses, civil society and governments can start to think about improving digital inclusion as a way of bridging emerging gaps and in finding a stable socio-political equilibrium for state-society relations.


Many thanks to Boris Moshkovits for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.

About the Author

Lukas Goltermann supports various non-profit organizations in developing better projects and working more effectively. He is based in Berlin, where he graduated with an MA in International Relations from the Free University of Berlin, Potsdam University, and Humboldt University. Lukas previously worked as a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Studies focusing on the impact of multi-stakeholder partnerships. He has also worked for the Partnership with Africa Foundation, where he developed and implemented capacity-building projects for grassroots civil society activities in various African countries. He received his BA in International Relations from Sheffield University.


1.  Robert W. Cox, “Civil Society at the Turn of the Millennium: Prospects for an Alternative World Order”, Review of International Studies 25 (1999), 4-5.

2.  “Internet Usage Statistics for Africa”, Internet World Statistics, accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm.

3.  “Facebook Hits 100M Users in Africa, Half Continent’s Internet-Connected Population”, Tech Crunch, accessed November 5, 2015, http://techcrunch.com/2014/09/08/facebook-africa/.

4.  “Cell Phone Ownership Surges in Africa”, PewResearchCenter, accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/africa-phones-7/.

5.  World Wide Web Foundation, “The WebIndex Report 2014-15”, Washington (2015), last accessed. January 16, 2016.

http://thewebindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Web_Index_24pp_November2014.pdf, 20.

6.  Aziz Douai and Anthony Olorunnisola, New Media Influence on Social and Political Change in Africa (Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global, 2013).#

7.  “Raise your voice,” Ushahidi Inc, last accessed January 16, 2016, https://www.ushahidi.com/.

8.  “Citizens’ Situation Room,” National Election Watch, last accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.salonevote.com/.

9.  “Ghana Decides,” BloggingGhana, last accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.bloggingghana.org/projects/ghana-decides/.

10.  “Africa,” Smartgov, last accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.africa.smartgov.co/ and “DataShift,” CIVICUS, last accessed November 5, 2015, http://civicus.org/thedatashift/.

11.  “List of African Leaders,” Twiplomacy, Twitter, last accessed November 5, 2015, https://twitter.com/twiplomacy/lists/african-leaders.

12.  “Zitto Kabwe Ruyagwa,” Twitter, last accessed November 5, 2015, https://twitter.com/zittokabwe.

13.  Cara E. Jones, “Why the experts are worried about Burundi,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage (blog), July 21, 2015, accessed November 5, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/07/21/why-the-experts-are-worried-about-burundi/.

14.  Jennifer Radloff, “Hacking Exclusion: African Feminist Engagements and Disruptions of the Internet”, in perspectives (Berlin:  Heinrich Böll Stiftung, 2015), 18 – 23.

15.  World Wide Web Foundation, “The WebIndex Report 2014-15”, Washington (2015), last accessed January 16, 2016,

http://thewebindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Web_Index_24pp_November2014.pdf, 23.

16.  Daniel Finnan, “Kenyan government asked Hacking Team to attack dissident website,” RFI, July 17, 2015, last accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.english.rfi.fr/africa/20150717-kenyan-government-asked-hacking-team-attack-dissident-website.

17.  David Kaye, “My Agenda as New UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression”, October 28, 2014, last accessed January 16, 2016, https://www.justsecurity.org/16822/agenda-special-rapporteur-freedom-expression/.



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