That technological change is transforming economic and social relations in Africa has become something of a cliche and is often presented as a panacea for Africa's ills. Mobile-phones and the internet are being used to coordinate agricultural prices, transfer money and coordinate famine relief. However, the political impact of new technologies has received less attention.
Rigging. Innovative non-governmental organizations including the National Democratic Institute in the United States have pioneered the use of mobile phones in the process of election monitoring. The first recorded example of the exclusive use of a mass coordinated mobile phone network to monitor an election occurred in Montenegro in 2006. In recent years, a decentralized system of releasing election results first at the constituency level combined with the spread of mobile phones, has allowed opposition parties and monitors to construct their own version of the 'real' election results in Africa:
•During the Sierra Leonean elections of 2007, National Election Watch coordinated 500 election observers who used mobile phones to text in reports of electoral irregularities.
•In Kenya's 2007 polls, the opposition Orange Democratic Movement announced that their own results -- based on the party's election monitors -- two days before the official results were declared, claiming that their candidate, Raila Odinga, had won by about 400,000 votes.
•In Zimbabwe's March elections, independent observers and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) claimed to have figures showing that Morgan Tsvangirai had won 49% of the vote, limiting the ability of incumbent President Robert Mugabe's supporters to claim victory.
However, the ability of opposition parties to construct 'real' election results in Kenya and Zimbabwe was underpinned by the release of election results at individual polling stations and their later collation by the electoral commission. A return to a more centralized process would tilt the balance of power back in favor of the government.
(Mis)information. While many rural residents previously relied on government controlled radio for news, in many African countries there are now a large number of independent radio stations broadcasting in vernacular languages. The impact of these radio stations has been highly contested and controversial, reflecting a wider phenomenon in which new technological developments have been used to communicate rumors and misinformation.
•The relatively unregulated explosion of radio stations, manned by often untrained presenters, has resulted in accusations that irresponsible broadcasts have contributed to civil conflict in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria. There is some evidence that callers to talk-radio shows helped to fan the flames of ethnic conflict during the recent 'Kenya crisis'.
•Fake documents on internet sites were used by supporters of President Mwai Kibaki to discredit Odinga prior to the 2007 election. One forged document purported to record a secret agreement that committed Odinga to establish a sharia state in return for the support of Muslim leaders.
•In Zimbabwe, the ruling party 'leaked' forged documents designed to taint the opposition MDC as national traitors on the internet. The files suggested that the party was funded, and its policy priorities specified, by white farmers and the British government.
Outlook. The obvious political import of new technologies has not gone unnoticed by Africa's ruling parties, who are likely to look for new ways to assert control over information flows. The spread of new technologies will empower opposition parties in the short term, but incumbents are likely to work out how to turn these resources to their own advantage. Access to greater levels of unregulated news has weakened the monopoly of governments over information, but may also have negative implications for political stability.