Digital Transformation in Africa: Is Democracy Under Threat?

Digital Transformation in Africa: Is Democracy Under Threat?

Copyright: © 2024 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/979-8-3693-0477-8.ch019
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Democracy in many African countries faces serious challenges linked to weak leadership, poor governance, malfunctioning state institutions, and slow or stagnant development. For these countries, the challenges can be attributed to an exploitative system rooted in colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid. Digital transformation and the global rise of digital technologies have created new opportunities to meet the challenges of democracy concerning citizen engagement, broadening public debate, increasing transparency and accountability, and improving service delivery. This chapter critically examines whether using digital technologies in political settings strengthens or weakens democracy on the continent. It highlights three main scholarly debates about using digital tools to address the declining quality of democracy. Data from various secondary sources was used to address the problem. The author found that digitalisation undoubtedly exposes democracy to new threats, but its benefits far outweigh the concerns.
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The future of democracy in the digital age is the subject of many scholarly, civic, and civil debates globally. According to the Council of Europe (2021), significant efforts have been made since the 1950s to modernise governance to meet some of the historical challenges linked to poorly functioning states. Tar (2010) argues that this is particularly true for many African countries often classified as conflict-prone societies characterised by continued civil wars and power struggles. These countries often share a traumatic past marked by long periods of exploitative colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid (Khapoya, 2012; Hodges, 1972). Furthermore, they argue that attempts to deal with the democratic development impasse in Africa have also suffered considerably due to a lack of political will, a key ingredient needed for success. The result is often violent service delivery protests, widespread corruption, and a general crisis of political legitimacy especially at the local government level closest to the people (Millstein, 2010).

This chapter aims to answer the question of whether digital transformation strengthens or weakens democracy in Africa. The potential of digital tools such as social media and others to invigorate citizen engagement, promote transparency and accountability and enhance the provision of public services has been recognised by many scholars including Soriano (2013), Oreskovich (2011), Shirky (2008), and Diamond (2010). Others including Castells (2012) have adopted a more cautious approach specifically arguing that social media for instance, potentially enhances access to information, enables citizen interactions, and facilitates discussions and opinion formation only under certain conditions. Current literature also shows that the rise of digital technologies especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic created new opportunities to meet the challenges faced by democracy. Increased Internet connectivity in many African countries also means that people can now interact with politicians or public officials from the comfort of their own homes without fear of public judgment or ridicule (Rumbul, 2015) in liberal societies.

Despite these gains, there are general concerns about the wider lack of access to digital tools and platforms in many African countries, the lack of affordability of digital-based solutions, the lack of knowledge and skills to use digital tools, biases, and exclusions from technology based on gender and race on the African continent. Furthermore, Rumbul (2015) also cautions that there is little evidence by way of research to demonstrate the real-world impact of digital platforms. She argues that current research projects on the subject although robust, do not answer the key basic question of who uses digital technology and why. This also begs the question, how safe is online data in the hands of private actors in democratic societies? Private actors, in particular giant Internet companies and social media platforms, increasingly play a central role in the public sphere in Africa and abroad as providers of infrastructure, content creators, and distributors. This therefore means that big tech companies play a gatekeeping role, selecting and curating information that is shared on social platforms, targeting specific audiences, and potentially influencing public opinion, political debate, and ultimately electoral results (Council of Europe, 2021).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Citizen Engagement: A form of interaction between citizens and their governments that is at the core of democracy and a representative government.

Digital Transformation: The use of computer-based technologies to strengthen democracy and good governance.

Africa: The world’s second largest continent mostly classified as underdeveloped.

Digital Technologies: The use and development of technology to enable citizen engagement and increased participation in political processes and transforming democratic decision-making.

Democracy: A system of government in which people have the power to choose their leaders through free and fair elections.

Technology: The application of computerised knowledge to improve the performance of governments and citizen engagement.

Governance: A system by which a country is governed and controlled, and its officials are held to account.

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