Weak States, Strong Backbones: Telecommunications Policy and Internet Infrastructure Development in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia

Over the course of the early 21st century, internet infrastructure across the equatorial region of West Africa has developed to support large-scale international network traffic. However, this development remains unevenly distributed, both between and within the region’s nation-states. Curiously, the growth of backbone-level network infrastructure far outpaces rates of access to those very networks for people in the region. This pattern runs contrary to most of the internet’s global history. Of all the potential actors who could direct this unusual flow of information and capital, we might expect that weak or developing nation-states would rank low on the list. Yet, in Equatorial West Africa, we find that Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia act, both internally and externally, to shape the global internet’s relationship to their national interests. This anomaly raises the central question of this dissertation: how, and why, would the telecommunications policy strategies of these ostensibly weak states lead to the deployment of backbone-first architecture for large-scale networking across West Africa?

This dissertation argues that the answer to this puzzle is that telecommunications policy which promotes backbone infrastructure strengthens gatekeeper states. Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia have each pursued policies that reinforce their existing political-economic institutions and structures, acting as gatekeepers in pursuit of effective gate-keeping internet infrastructure. Further, backbone-first network infrastructure development itself serves to preserve and strengthen the extant conditions of these states’ power. To explain how we arrive at this answer, we must consider several factors: technological change over time, historical contexts and conflicts, and telecommunciations policies.

This project works to understand those factors from a variety of layered perspectives, to explain how such patterns of networking arise in the region, why they take those forms, and what these trends suggest for future development in the region. It shows that the telecommunications policy which arises from the particular historical and political context of gatekeeper states precedes the backbone-first network development that we observe in the region. The outcome of previous and ongoing network infrastructure development, in turn, affects the future conditions in which states pursue particular policies, such as the internal and external pressures on the state. Out of this recursive relationship, it suggests, these gatekeepers may set the stage for their own political-economic transitions to new state formations.

This dissertation will soon be available online through ProQuest.

Degree/Department Information

Degree Date: 2018
Degree Awarded: Doctor of Philosophy
Year Manuscript Completed: 2018
Department: Cultural Studies
Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair: JP Singh
Committee Members: Denise Albanese, Sharon Leon