In Western equatorial Africa, comprised of Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, national borders and cultural identity strike a balance between fluidity and rigidity. They navigate a tangled modern history of French and British colonialism. Anticolonial uprisings drew deeply on Marxist and Leninist principles, as well as precolonial concepts of African sovereignty, while political borders remained demarcated on colonial lines. Periods of revolution, coups, dictatorships and crisis wove together with periods of democratic governance, economic expansion, liberalization, and modernization. Contemporary national economies in the region continue to undergo transitions between agrarian and industrial production, liberalized and state-controlled markets, rapid growth and withering stagnation. In this context, the emergence of contemporary information and communication technologies, built from the infrastructure upwards, pose a challenge to the region’s policymakers, as they confront the horizon of internetworked societies that bridge local with global politics, commerce, and culture.
Telecommunications policy in the region has included mandates for state control, monopoly, duopoly, limited competition, or liberalized competition, depending on the service provided and the country in question. And in terms of real hardware on the ground, personal computer use in the region remains minimal, available to only a small fraction of people there on a regular basis. Internet access is similarly limited, still only barely in the double digits across the coastal populations of these countries. Further, the Anglophone states – Ghana and Nigeria – are discontiguous, with two Francophone countries – Togo and Benin – between their borders. Yet internet traffic continues to grow at an immense rate between Ghana and Nigeria, along with online commerce and trade.
The global scope of digital communications technologies arises in concert and conflict with the international institutions, policies, and market conditions that sustain the development and implementation of each layer of that technological stack. From transfer control and internet protocols to the cables themselves that provide their physical backbone, each element of contemporary information/communication technologies has undergone significant deliberation and evolution. While adoption of mature, stable ICTs continues to grow, it is not yet a fact of life for the vast majority of the world’s citizens. However, the negotiations of global governance institutions over these technologies, both private and transparent, have lasting impacts on the conditions of access to new communication opportunities and the ability to implement technological responses to developmental, political, economic, and social problems at the local level.
One such constraint is expressed in the form of “national webs,” or the mapping of the internet’s architectural layers and access points on political boundaries. Indeed, in authoritarian regimes from pre-revolution Libya to contemporary Iran and Syria, among many others, the network architecture supporting Internet access is far more likely to have “choke points” at which information can be literally cut off from entering the (usually state-owned and -controlled) physical infrastructure. The roots of national webs also arise out of extrapolitical factors, including linguistic relationships, economic conditions, and diasporic communities, including those of religious or ethnic groups. We can understand national webs in terms of political boundaries, then – but also in terms of cultural identity.
The formation of international institutions in the region has followed these patterns, with negotiations taking place largely between Anglophone or European corporations, these two Anglophone governments, and the world governance bodies along with the International Telecommunications Union. At stake in these negotiations, many of which take place in private, are the conditions of access, transparency, and inclusion that will impact available knowledge and resources for millions. The national boundaries and cultural assumptions brought by the major players to these tables requires a conscientious unpacking.
To that end, this project proposes to address the puzzle of how nationalism affects the creation of internet policy for these five countries. In particular, it seeks to understand how the institutions that support the creation and enforcement of internet policy draw on nationalist concepts for legitimacy. Questions it must answer along the way include how to understand nationalism in this context, what the primary institutions are in this context, and what the relationships between states, institutions, and populations are, regarding internet policy across the region.
The methodology deployed to research and answer these questions begins from a comparative cultural perspective. It undertakes an analysis of extant and in-progress telecommunications policies put forward by each country in the region. It aggregates policy elements that draw on nationalist sentiment, marked by statements and arguments that reference national values, national identity, state identification, and collective identification. It also collects the available data of the region’s internet architectures. With these two variables, the research attempts to determine the relationship, if any, between the intensity of nationalist sentiment in policy making (sorted by the processes used to make that policy, such as open vs closed negotiations, institutional support available, and ability to enforce said policies) and changes to the architecture of the internet in the affected country or part of the country.
There are several possible answers to the question put forward for this paper. It may be the case that nationalism’s role is negligible, or entirely indiscernable based on these methods, in the construction of the internet in the region. On the other hand, nationalism may be found to play a central purpose in shaping the negotiating positions of governing bodies, in identifying the structure and rules for digital communications networks, and in supporting or constraining economic transactions and patterns such as the emergence of internet service providers. And there may be something else entirely uncovered by this research, in which nationalism’s role is not so clearly defined as to make other elements of technology or communications dependent upon itself, nor to be seen as dependent on the outcomes of technological development. Overall, the study aims to provide a clear understanding of the interaction between the cultural politics of identity, international (especially continentally scaled) institutions, and the implementation and growth of key communications technologies. If it succeeds in demystifying its puzzle, it can provide a tangible piece of knowledge on which to conduct future research on specific cultural, political, and technological interactions, as well as help guide policymakers’ planning and discovery towards thoughtful, useful policy.