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There lies enormous potential in a genuinely independent media in assisting in the development and democratization process in Africa

It is Prof. Ali Mazrui who once observed that ‘Africans consume what they do not produce and produce what they do not consume.’ How true this axiom is with regard to media in Africa! Despite compelling evidence of the power of media be it printed or electronic, African governments, private sector, academics and policy experts have not fully grasped the great potential that the media can play in the development and democratization process of Africa. The word is powerful—after all even the most read literary work the Holy Bible makes an assertion to this effect: ‘In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, no one thing came into being except through him.’ (John 1:1-3). In case one has any doubt about the immense power of the word, the book of Genesis in the Bible makes even a more compelling case: 'God said, let there be light, and there was light' (1:3); ‘God said, Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters into two. And so it was.’ (1:6) The famous story of creation continues with ‘God said…’ until all things are created. So we can only ignore the power of the word at our won peril.

With increasing globalization, the world today has all kinds of media never before known to the human race. People all over the world are bombarded with news from all over the world in what is known as ‘information superhighway.’ The challenge now is not whether there is enough information, but rather how to select what information is useful or helpful. From CNN to Aljazeera, from BBC to Fox News, from Sky News to Euro News, from Face Book to Twitter, and from You Tube to Twoo, human beings are as it were besieged by information ranging from the trivial to the serious, from the entertaining to the boring, from the educative to the formative, and the story goes on.

One thing is sure in this media craze: that Africa is by and large at the receiving end. Some great strides are being made in online news, FM radios, some local TV Channels in countries that have liberalized the airwaves such as Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. If the development era we are living in is best described as ‘information-based development’, then it is clear that only those countries that have a vibrant media will join the development train of the 21st century.

With the much talked about Arab Spring that saw autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the Syrian regime of Assad struggling for survival under intense pressure from the resilient rebellion, a new dynamic to media has emerged. Social-networked unemployed youth have discovered the revolutionary and mobilizing potential of social media such as Twitter, Face-book and cell phones. Is sub-Saharan Africa fully aware of the political potential of social media?

In this article I argue that media is the missing link in Africa’s development and democratization process, and all attempts to bring about sustainable impact in these two crucial areas, will have to address the role of independent media in African states.


There is general agreement among scholars and social critics that the media constitutes the fourth estate or arm of state after the executive, judiciary and the legislature. If one wants to test the democratic health of a state, one only needs to look at the media in a given state. It is not surprising that the most repressive states also happen to be the ones where there is lack of vibrant independent media. It is if autocratic regimes are allergic to free media. The reason why autocratic regimes are nervous about independent media seems obvious—fear of being exposed for human rights violations and corruption. It is Napoleon who is famed for saying that he feared one pen more than a hundred soldiers. As the famous adage goes: ‘A pen is mightier than a sword.’

The media is not just about exposing human rights violations, it also informs and educates citizens in civic virtues. An informed citizenry that is sufficiently critical of government policies and programs, is usually a product of a vibrant media. You cannot expect to have well informed and critical citizens where you have one state TV, one state Radio station, one state news paper, whose main goal is to spread state propaganda to gullible citizens.

In addition to forming critical consciousness among citizens, the media is also an excellent pedagogical tool. Nothing better shapes a national ethos than media. Nothing better provides a global outlook than media, in a society that cherishes open and frank dialogue and communication, with well trained media personnel.


In discussing the role of media in Africa’s development and democratization discourse, it has to be stated that the media is situated in the theoretical framework of a useful concept known as civil society. Civil society is a contested, complex and paradoxical concept, but nevertheless useful. Some locate civil society in the infra-political space that is neither the sphere of market forces nor of familial relations. It can be considered as an ensemble of non-state organizations where individuals voluntarily and freely associate with their varied agenda, to further their associational life. Common civil society organizations include human rights organizations, cultural groups, women’s organizations, students’ associations, etc. Independent media fits well in this conceptual framework of civil society.

One of the key features of civil society is its relationship with the state. Several models of civil society-state interaction have been identified. First, a collaboration model. In this model state and civil society work together to accomplish goals for the common good such as building schools, hospitals, civic education, good governance, etc. Second, a confrontational model. In this model, the two are at loggerheads. Civil society organizations at times play a role of watch-dog for the state and it is not uncommon for the two to clash. This has been the case when a rogue state wantonly violates human rights, and civil society organizations have no choice but to challenge such human rights violations. A few African countries such as Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa, have had civil society organizations taking an active confrontational posture with regard to the excesses of the state. Political reforms and a new constitutional dispensation have been effected thanks to dynamic civil society groups. In such cases the media has played a pivotal role as a catalyst for social change.

The third model of civil society-state engagement is that of co-optation. This is where by the state co-opts civil society and uses it to serve its ends. Stories abound whereby autocratic regimes bribe religious leaders and effectively muzzle their prophetic voice. Media can also be compromised in a similar manner. Equally absurd are attempts by government to create their own Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) to counteract the more politically vocal NGOs that are critical of the state.


As is often said, knowledge is power. The link between media and development is easy to establish. One need not do extensive research to see the connection between information and investment or trade opportunities in a given country. In an increasingly globalized environment, countries that are adept at showing to the rest of the global market what commodities they have, have the best chances of attracting investment and trading partners. Using the Biblical proverbial wisdom, what good is light hidden under a basket? A lot of Africa’s economic potential is proverbially hidden under the basket! Africa’s cultural tourism, scenic beauty, untapped mineral wealth, and untapped labor force, are yet to be written about and exposed to the wider world.

A lot has been presented in the global media about Africa’s armed conflicts and abject poverty (the most famous being the number of millions who live on less than a dollar a day). This stereotypical portrayal of Africa has gone on for far too long. Africa needs a new packaging by the media. There are people world over who still think that Africa is a massive jungle full of wild beasts, with millions of people living in trees and forests! The global media is partly to blame for this persistent negative image of Africa. And of course some countries have also fallen prey to this negative portrayal to attract development aid or to promote tourism industry. Africanist scholars are at pains to reverse this image of Africa.

A few media outlets have been consistently presenting Africa as a continent of choice when it comes to investment and trade potential. Just to name a few: ‘New African,’ ‘African Business,’ and ‘African Report.’ A lot more needs to be done. In addition to reporting what is happening on the ground, the media can also offer opinions and economic outlooks that investors and policy makers can use to make predictions and set scenarios. The role of objective political and economic analysis in informing policy cannot be overemphasized.


Samuel Huntington spoke of the Third Wave of democratization in Africa while writing about the period of the 1990s. He was describing the wave of democratic reforms that Africa witnessed in the 1990s that saw the end of military or one party regimes. Now we can start to speak of the Fourth Wave of democratization process in Africa, that has been marked by agitated youth using social networks to mobilize against elected despots in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Analysts and scholars of African politics are still wondering whether this wave of unrest will one day spread to Sub-Saharan Africa. It is too early to tell. But also the social and economic forces in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be radically different from those operating in the Arab North Africa. But politics has a certain contagion effect.

While the Arab Spring is not yet considered a new paradigm in African politics, we cannot rule out its transformative potential in Africa’s political landscape. And the first lesson is the new reality where social media has become a new site of political contestation in Africa. Cyberspace or the new e-universe is clearly a new political landscape that African leaders who grew up only reading printed news papers and listening to radios, have to get used to. Electronic media is much more illusive and hard to control however much some leaders might try.

While the new forms of media have the potential to deliver democratic dividends, a lot will also depend on how ideologically attuned the new cyber generation will be. As things currently stand, it is not clear what operative ideology or political philosophy is guiding African praxis. With the collapse (or alleged collapse) of the Eastern bloc and the declared demise of communism, no alternative ideology has been hatched as a counterbalance against capitalism. The old pan-Africanism that gave rise to struggles for Africa’s independence has been put to question on several instances. Intra and inter-state African wars have questioned the pan-African premise. What ideology can Africa’s cyber generation look to?

The urgent task of media in Africa as far democratization process is concerned, still will be guaranteeing basic freedoms: freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion, freedom of association, and freedom to form political groupings of one’s choice. There are also still procedural issues with regard to electoral politics. The new battleground seems to be around the ballot box. The media can play a crucial role in educating citizens and leaders on the necessity of having free, fair and peaceful elections as an essential prerequisite for democracy. While media needs regulation and proper legislation, the respective states should desist from legislation whose sole purpose is to stifle press freedom.


The media is the missing link in Africa’s development and democratization process. Media in Africa is still in need of capacity despite some great potential. Some African news papers such as ‘The East African’, ‘Mail & Guardian’, ‘The Nation’, ‘The Standard,’ ‘The Monitor’, and ‘The Observer,’ are of relatively high quality and have some degree of independence. Still there is much desired in the area of TV at the continental level. If the African continent is to succeed in the global media competition, there is need for a tripartite pact among the states, private sector and the media to develop a vibrant media in Africa. No sustainable development and democracy is possible without a vibrant independent media.

* Odomaro Mubangizi



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