The construction of independent and pluralist media sectors is increasingly included in debates on popular empowerment, good governance, and poverty reduction. A liberalised media environment – in which the state opens up media ownership to private parties – is particularly regarded as contributing to developing nations’ democratic and hence developmental progress. As a result of widespread media liberalisation the African media landscape has diversified rapidly; most notably private radio stations have flourished. But introducing media liberalisation whilst simultaneously introducing multi-party politics, in a country context where (1) identity politics play an all-determining role in defining the social contract between state and society, (2) poverty, deprivation and international marginalisation persists, (3) formal democratic institutions are weak or not yet institutionalised and where imposed external policies have (4) weakened the state’s capacity to govern, the opening up of  the radio market to private parties can and has shown to produce undemocratic outcomes in Africa. Radio stations have not only become co-opted by competing (ethnic) political forces in pursuit of protecting vested interests or obtaining political power, they have equally become a ‘battlefield’ on which ethnic differences and ethnic power struggles are fought. A more balanced approach to media liberalisation in which reforms are directed at building institutions and structures that will reduce the incentives for state capture and partisan abuse is needed to inform international policy making.

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Table of Contents

Abstract …………………………………………………………………………………..

Acknowledgments …………………………………………………………………….

Africa’s Private Radio Stations: The Next Best Thing for African Democracy?

1. Characterising Africa’s Democracies ………………………………………..

1.1. Ethnicity Matters: Laying the Basis for Identity Politics ……………..

1.2. Introducing Neo-liberalist Policies and Liberal Democratic Values

1.3. Undemocratic Democratisation: Responses of State and Society

1.4. Africa’s ‘Virtual Democracies’ ………………………………………………..

2. Characterising Africa’s  Media …………………………………………………..

2.1. Information as Power …………………………………………………………..

2.2. Information as Commodity ……………………………………………………

2.3. Private Radio Stations in Kenya and Ghana: A Comparison ……..

2.4. The Politics and Business of Information and Opinion-Formation

3. Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………

References ………………………………………………………………………………

















Africa’s Private Radio Stations: The Next Best Thing For African Democracy?

By Anne-Mieke Minderhoud

September 2009

On 7 January 2009, John Atta Mills was inaugurated as president of Ghana, an event that signified the country’s second peaceful transition of power from incumbent party to opposition, despite remarkably close election results (BBC News 10 July 2009). The country’s political stability after four presidential and parliamentary elections in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004, is rare among new democracies both in Africa and elsewhere in the world (Gyimah-Boadi 2009). An achievement that was rewarded by US President Obama’s recent visit to the country (Ghanaweb 11 July 2009; New York Times 11 July 2009). According to Gyimah-Boadi (2009), media vigilance helped to keep the electoral campaign issue-based and peaceful by informing the electorate about the parties and their programmes. Television and radio stations sent reporters all over the country to cover the voting process providing constant and instant updates on the vote tally through mobile-phone text messaging and calls to radio stations.

The importance of the Ghanaian media in the country’s democratic progress was equally pointed out by Temin & Smith (2002:586) in their research on Ghana’s first transition of power in 2000 in which they concluded that ‘it is no coincidence that one of Africa’s most democratic countries is also home to some of the most vibrant and outspoken media outlets on the continent’ (see also Karikari 2000).

As the platform through which the liberal democratic freedom of, and the human right to, free expression and information is exercised, the media and its potential to contribute towards democratisation – regarded as critical in countries’ development – has in recent years become the subject of growing attention amongst a range of international development actors, policy makers, academics, and donors (see survey results BBC WST 2009a; World Bank 2002a/b; Commission for Africa 2005; UNECA 2007). As such, the construction of independent and pluralist media sectors is increasingly included in debates on popular empowerment (Norris & Zinnbauer 2002; Puddephat 2008; Odugbemi & Jacobson 2008), good governance (UNESCO 2005; DFID 2002; Locksley 2009), and poverty reduction (Sen 1999; GFMD 2005; UNESCO 2006; Panos Institute 2007b; CIMA 2007).

In particular, privately owned media have been championed as injecting an element of independence and pluralism into a country’s media environment. Private media organisations are considered to be more responsive to the public, more keen to keep a watchful eye on government, and more open to opposing perspectives (Tettey 2001). Media liberalisation, whereby the state opens up media ownership to private parties, has therefore been actively promoted by influential actors like the World Bank (Carver 2000; Alhassan 2005). A liberalised media environment – it is argued – positively contributes to a country’s democratic and developmental progress: an assumption – which will be critiqued in this paper – that continues to dominate and inform contemporary donor approaches to media development (see also Sandbrook 1998; World Bank 2002a/b; Hyden et al. 2002; Norris & Zinnbauer 2002; UNESCO 2005; CIMA 2007; Tettey 2008; BBC WST 2009a; Locksley 2009). Underpinning the assumption is the notion that with state control of the media opening up to private ownership, people’s access to information will increase and state censorship and control of information will reduce. This will give the public greater access to a plurality of media outlets which in turn will expose the population to a larger diversity of perspectives which will assist in making them informed citizens. Once media liberalisation has taken place, democratic consolidation and human development will be strengthened as journalists in independent media will, in their function as society’s watchdog, facilitate greater transparency and accountability in governance; provide a civic forum for multiple voices in public debate; and highlight social problems to inform the policy agenda (Norris 2006:2, see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Analytical framework (Source: Norris 2006) As a result of widespread media liberalisation, the media landscape in sub-Saharan Africa – the region of focus in this paper – has evolved rapidly in the last two decades (Tettey 2008). The opening up of the airwaves as well as the privatisation and intensified commercialisation of media operations have led to a more dynamic African media environment (Ogbondah 2002; Blankson 2002; Myamnjoh 2005). In particular, private radio stations have flourished: in almost all sub-Saharan African countries, state radio is coming under increasing pressure from regional or local commercial radio (AMDI 2006). African public cultures are radio-driven cultures (Fardon & Furniss 2000): no other medium has remotely the same reach and accessibility on the continent (Bourgault 1995; Carver 2000; IREX 2008). About 80% of African people cite radio, in comparison to 42% citing television and 26% citing newspapers, as their dominant source of information and news (Afrobarometer 2009). Private FM radio stations are, according to Collier (interview in BBC WST 2009a:21), the ‘big phenomenon in Africa at the moment’. A feature of these stations has been their introduction of political talk shows and call-ins, which have emerged as a new and popular way to stimulate citizen participation in public affairs (Mwesige 2009). In Ghana, these discussion programmes have crucially contributed to and ‘broadened the political debate’ (Karikari 2000:27).

Private radio talk shows can, however, demonstrate both ‘democratic functions and dysfunctions’ (Mwesige 2009:1 emphasis added); individuals participating in call-ins can equally heighten social tensions through expressing uninformed opinion, cultural stereotypes and prejudices. This has recently been illustrated by the 2007/2008 post-election crisis in Kenya, home to an equally vibrant and outspoken media. When the news broke that President Mwai Kibaki was being returned to power, violence erupted across the country and Kenya grabbed the headlines all over the world as it ‘descended into chaos and voilence and left more than a thousand dead in less than a month and 300,000 others displaced from their homes’ (Kiai 2008:163). Some local radio stations in rural areas were accused of ‘fuelling ethnic conflict and encouraging violent confrontations’ before, during and after the election (Guardian July 23 2009). According to Human Rights Watch (2008:36) although there was no ‘clear evidence’ that the popular Kalenjin-language radio station KASS FM actively sought to disseminate hate speech, ‘it did not prevent guests from using the airwaves to do so’. The unmoderated expression of citizens’ opinions heightened ethnic polarisation (BBC WST 2008).

The reality of ‘substantial democratic reversals’ (Puddington 2009:101), both in Africa and elsewhere in the world, frequently challenges media’s assumed positive democratic contribution. Media effects are ‘neither direct, simple, or immediate’ (Nyamnjoh 2005:1) as a country’s political context tends to ‘rub off on its airwaves’ (UNESCO Courier 1 April 2001). Critics argue that a ‘romanticised’ (Temin & Smith 2002:603) view of media’s democratic role – such as expressed by leading development actors – overlook the many, oft interdependent, challenges countries face in processess of democratisation and development. In this paper I will argue that the inevitable positivity that is argued to arise between a liberalised media environment and democracy is overly optimistic: media liberalisation policies do not automatically result in democratic outcomes. When divorced from a country’s prevailing societal and political character, they can produce highly undemocratic effects. It is therefore paramount that in assessing a media’s potential for democratic contribution, the political character vis-à-vis a country’s media character has to be examined more closely (an argument made by Nyamnjoh (2005) which I strongly support).

This paper is divided into three chapters. The first chapter explores how, influenced by historical legacies and external interference, social and political patterns and power relations frame the incentives for democratic transfor-mation in African politics and societies; this affects the character of African democracies. Chapter two examines how a liberalised and commercialised media – with a particular focus on private radio stations – both mirror and shape these patterns and power relations using Ghana and Kenya as the dominant examples to demonstrate how the democratic contribution of radio broadcasting can be affected by a country’s prevailing political character. The final chapter presents this paper’s concluding arguments in which I will emphasise that although a liberalised media can have positive democratic effects, its positive effects are not inevitable. Divorcing the notion of media liberalisation from a country’s political context (see Allen & Stremlau 2005) risks actually reinforcing the prevailing (and often undemocratic) social patterns and power structures (Snyder & Ballentine 1996; Snyder 2000; Price & Thomson 2002; Putzel & Van De Zwam 2006).

To support the analysis, I have mainly used secondary sources in the fields of political and social sciences as well as media and Africa studies. Furthermore, I have looked into a range of grey sources, from online radio, news media and blogs to domestic and international non-governmental and governmental organisations. It is important to note that at the time of writing and to my knowledge, specific academic research on the political effects of radio and on the relationship between media and democratic and development outcomes particularly in new or fragile democracies was still limited or in progress (see BBC WST 2009b; personal communication D. Moehler June 26, 2009).


Characterising Africa’s Democracies

The end of World War II introduced Africa’s independence from colonial rule: in 1957 Ghana became sub-Saharan Africa’s first new nation-state with the vast majority of African countries, including Kenya in 1963, following suit (CIA 2009). Independence started off as a – partly internationally supported and funded – project aimed at driving African ‘modernisation’ through development and nation-building. But as time went by, the disappointing and often adverse results of Africa’s incorporation into the global political economy and its quest to modernise, led to a loss in Africa’s new leaders’ democratic legitimacy to govern the newly created states (Thomson 2004). Fearing their potential loss of power, the leaderships started to increasingly reinforce the central role of the state as they resorted to authoritarian and coercive measures; oppositional political forces were co-opted or silenced, voices of dissent eliminated and the political process personalised (Young 1999). Throughout the 1960s-1980s post-colonial Africa became ‘renowned’ for its ‘Big Men’, regular military coups, widespread patrimonialism and ostentiously displayed wealth by the few alongside recurring famines and extreme poverty for the many.

During the ‘90s, as the democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe triggered a worldwide pressure for political liberalisation, it became increasingly clear to Africa’s leaders that their legitimacy could no longer be sustained by coercion alone; new or revived political parties started to oppose the leaders and, as the continent relied heavily on international aid, the donor community was increasingly forcing states to adopt liberal democratic principles (Joseph 1999) emphasising the (re)introduction of free, fair and regular multi-party elections, the rule of law, the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, and the protection of the civil liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property (Zakaria 1997). As a result, more than 140 competitive elections were held in sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade of the 20th century (Thomson 2004). In both Ghana and Kenya, the respective regimes of Lt. Jerry Rawlings and president Daniel Arap Moi acceded to pressures and restored multi-party politics in their countries in 1992 (Kafewo 2006; Chege 2008).

Almost 20 years have passed since the change to multi-party rule, but Africa’s democratisation paths continue to be highly variable (Carothers 2004); today, its political regimes are felt to be ‘neither consolidating nor fully democratic’ (Afrobarometer 2009:1). In the year 2008 the continent actually experienced substantial democratic reversals with civil unrest and violence following a contested re-election of the incumbent president in Kenya, political pluralism being undermined in Burundi, political opposition facing crackdowns in Cameroon and Nigeria, severe media restrictions and an enhanced environment of fear emerging in Equatorial Guinea and crackdowns against civil society and threats to freedom of expression being on the rise in Gabon and Gambia (Puddington 2009:102).

What makes transitions to and consolidation of democracy so difficult in sub-Saharan Africa? Failing democratic reforms are often explained away as a ‘lack of political will’, but Booth et al. (2005:2) rightfully point out that the reasons why countries are apparently unwilling to confront the need for fundamental change are rarely examined. In this chapter I will examine what these underlying reasons are as I will explore how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘identity politics’, as well as the external introduction of neo-liberal policies and liberal democratic values have critically affected and shaped the character of democracy that has emerged in Africa. First I look at how the development and politicisation of African ethnicity has laid the basis for the identity politics of today. Second, I examine how the introduction of neo-liberal policies and the promotion of liberal democratic values have further intensified Africa’s identity politics. Third, I explore how – in a context of democratisation – the pervasiveness and persistence of identity politics have led to undemocratic responses by both the state and society. Finally, I will conclude that identity politics, exacerbated by externally introduced forces, has resulted in the emergence of what Joseph (1999:61) has described Africa’s ‘virtual democracies’.

1.1. Ethnicity Matters: Laying the Basis for Identity Politics

Ethnicity embodies a common identity built on a shared culture, language, history, grounds, or even ancestry (Ottaway 1999). Ethnicity has in some form or other always been crucial for human beings, and most likely always will be (Allen & Eade 2000). Ethnic identities are not necessarily fixed; whether voluntary or forced, individuals can come to see themselves as part of a particular ethnic group or nation. Colonial policies, conquest or a redefinition of political boundaries are all instances of what Bertrand (2004:10) calls ‘critical junctures’, exogenous changes that can reshape or politically mobilise identities. As a consequence of such changes, political and societal power structures go through a process of reclassification and redefinition which introduces the possibility (or threat) – depending on whether one stands to gain or lose – of changing the political balance of power. This increased struggle for power is often a source of ethnic conflict (Bertrand 2004). In this and the next section I will look at the critical junctures that have affected and shaped these struggles in Africa.

Colonial powers have been instrumental in the construction of contemporary African ethnicity as they both created and politicised its notion (Allen & Eade 2000). Their bureaucratic need to ‘locate, demarcate, classify and count the population’ (Berman 1998:321), and their expectations about African cultures, reinforced by missionairies and anthropologists, resulted in an externally imposed invention of African ethnic identities (Ottaway 1999). But more critically, as the colonial state had full control over the extraction of natural and the organisation of human resources, it introduced the practice of making the indigenous people’s access to these resources dependent on social differentiation: a differentiation that was based largely on (invented) ethnic designation. This institutionalised the notion that contests over access and property were linked to contests over the definition and political legitimacy of different ethnic communities (Bratton & Van De Walle 1994).

The partially intended and partially unintended consequence of this divide and rule strategy brought about underlying economic, political, and societal processes that have been crucial to the construction of Africa’s identity politics. Ethnicity became a major factor in people’s relationships with the state as a pervasive client-patron relationship emerged where African people became more related to an authoritarian state as subjects and clients, than as citizens (Berman et al. 2004). Furthermore, ethnicity evolved as a form of trust and security for African people, not only in opposition to a foreign and coercive state, but also in relation to competing ethnic communities (Ekeh 2004:36), an assertion of significance which I will repeat throughout this paper.

At the time of independence, Africa’s new sovereign states inherited the geographical borders that had been previously defined by its colonisers. Many communities with – often conflicting – ethnical identities and interests found themselves divided amongst different states or being made part of political entities they perceived as foreign (Bourgault 1995; Berman 1998; Ottaway 1999). But without a sense of common experience and a common set of political values, the boundaries of a state, are ‘meaningless’ (Bertrand 2004:15) and many African leaders therefore embarked on a process of nation-building which called for a move beyond the ethnic communities and transforming Africa’s subjects into (national) citizens (see Mamdani 1996 in Nyamnjoh 2005:26). The building of nations and national identities, however, inherently involves processes of inclusion and exclusion; nations are organised around political, cultural, or ethnic principles of membership such as official language, national symbols, religious practice or formal representation in political institutions. Africa’s nation-building process therefore not only constituted constructing new (national) identities, it more critically involved the renegotiation of Africa’s new ‘national models’ and their principles of membership (Bertrand 2004). This meant that previously established principles in ethnic relations, such as had been defined under colonial rule, were open for reclassification. In the construction of a new nation-state ethnic conflict started to arise as each group competed for recognition and representation (Berman et al. 2004).

As Ottaway (1999) convincingly argues, gaining people’s loyalty to a new ‘ imagined’ national community (Anderson 1983 in Fatton 1995:88) does not tend to succeed unless the new identity offers rewards. But as the new independent countries were economically weak and its economic development faltered, African leaders were not well placed to provide their citizens incentives to identify strongly with the new nation and give up on ethnic allegiances. Ethnic bonds had evolved as a form of trust and security, not only in opposition to the state, but also in relation to competing ethnic communities (Ekeh 2004). Ethnic membership remained a means for Africans to cope with the ‘vicissitudes of historical change and the material deprivations of daily existence’ (Fatton 1995:75). The ethnically-based competition over power and resources that was introduced under colonial rule persisted.

Because Africa’s resources remained scarce, tensions between the different ethnic groups competing for their share rose. To avoid full-scale ethno-regional challenges, leaders began to manipulate ethnic differentiation, by promoting their own ethnic group to the exclusion of others and co-opting powerful ethnic opponents through effectively buying their support with state-controlled revenues (Thomson 2004). The effect of this patrimonialism or patronage system was that the actual operation of African public affairs became dictated, not by formal administrative structures and the rule of law, but by a different set of principles; state resources, including bureaucratic positions, the power to allocate rents, provide services, and determine policies and their beneficiaries, became captured by personal or private networks in the hands of dominant patrons. Thus, instead of being governed by explicit objectives and legal rules, the state became effectively an apparatus exclusively serving the interests of particular (ethnic) groups and of those individuals that had managed to capture it (Booth et al. 2005).

1.2. Introducing Neo-Liberalist Policies and Liberal Democratic Values

Regimes, however, built on ‘personal loyalty rather than bureaucratic authority are susceptible to institutional collapse when patronage resources run out’ (Bratton & Van De Walle 1994:460) which is what happened when in the ‘80s. Africa’s economic growth stalled and the consequent debt crisis resulted in, international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposing large-scale economic and state reforms as a strategy to get African countries to meet debt-repayment schedules. These neo-liberal reforms, so-called Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), liberalised Africa’s economies by opening them up to international and domestic private capital, reducing the role (and size) of the state and privatising state enterprises and services (Thomson 2004). The SAPs had a colossal social and political impact as Africa’s economies with their small industrial base proved incapable of withstanding and surviving foreign competition without public protection (Fatton 1995). The widespread adoption of market-oriented economic strategies (whilst the continent’s marginalisation in the global political economy persisted) led to mass unemployment, left the vast majority of African citizens without access to basic needs and exacerbated poverty (Joseph 1999; Potter 2000; Nyamnjoh 2005; Bond 2006; Ferguson 2006). Structural adjustment plunged African society into uncertainty and ‘polarized instability’ (Fatton 1995:84). With the state having fewer opportunities to bestow patronage to clients this not only increased the ethnic competition over resources, it declined the governments’ legitimacy; food riots and industrial strikes emerged and public demands for multi-party democracy in Africa grew (Thomson 2004).

As a result of these growing democratic demands and the inspiring democratic transitions in Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe that characterised the ‘90s, the international community started to embrace democracy ‘as not just a luxury that only rich countries could afford’ (Hyden & Okigbo 2002:44). Aid agencies and donors began to attach political conditionalities to their aid packages, advocating liberal democratic values such as multiparty politics, public participation and the respect for civil liberties (Fatton 1995). The granting of loans became dependent on a regime’s human rights record and commitment to democratic reforms, culminating in the introduction of the ‘good governance’ agenda and the emphasis on participatory development whereby civil society was celebrated as a major source of social and political change and a critical agent of democratisation; the ‘counterweight’ to a ‘bad’, corrupt and predatory state (Fatton 1995; Potter 2000; Thomson 2004; Puddephat 2008; Odugbemi & Jacobson 2008).

Today, powerful IFIs, donors and transnational institutions such as the United Nations continue to – effectively and often not so effectively – rule large domains of African economy and society (Ferguson 2006). But whilst pressuring African leaders to democratise as Mkandawire (1999) and Olukoshi (1999) rightfully point out: these organisations are themselves not accountable to those people that are affected by their policies – the African populace. Their neo-liberal policies have reduced the African state to the point that ‘it cannot provide physical protection and access to basic social services’ (Przeworski 1995 in Fatton 1999:8; see also Berman et al. 2004). Under such conditions, ‘it is not only democracy that is threatened, but the very bases of social cohesion’ (Przeworski 1995 in Fatton 1995:8). As a consequence, material survival and even physical safety can only be – as before – ethnically secured and decentralised and widespread ethnic (violent) conflict is likely to emerge (Fatton 1995). The fear and subsequent potential for violence are direct results of a political system in which one group dominates the instruments of state power and uses them to deny similar access or privileges to other ethnic groups (Bertrand 2004).

The transition from authoritarian regimes which depend on state control, to democracy and liberal principles of individual ‘inclusive’ citizenship, which depend on power-sharing, public participation and is driven by majority consensus, can – as Bertrand (2004) correctly argues – create serious problems of representation for particular groups. Without taking into account some level of group recognition, the less dominant cultural groups (in actual citizen numbers) may find themselves excluded from access to the state, particularly in situations – such as is the case in many developing nations including in Africa – where judicial and political institutions that can secure equal representation are weak. The period between the initial opening of an authoritarian regime and a fully consolidated democracy is crucial for relations between ethnic groups. If conflicts between the most powerful groups can be resolved immediately prior to a democratic opening, such as in South Africa, then it is possible to open up to less powerful groups through a pact-making process leading to a transition. But South Africa has been the exception on the continent and not the rule (Bertrand 2004).

1.3. Undemocratic Democratisation: Responses of State and Society

African leaders recognised early on that actual popular participation had the potential to dismantle the mechanisms that had regulated ethnic relations in the past and had kept them in power (Clapham 1993; Herbst 1999). The introduction of competitive politics would impact that balance of power as competing ethnic groups now had their own access: through the ballot box (Clapham 1993; Herbst 1999). But, especially in a context of poverty and deprivation, increased competition is likely to spur the use of political patronage (Lindberg & Morrison 2008) and as a result, identity politics intensified; the process of preferential inclusion of some and exclusion of others from the claim to economic and political opportunities and entitlements became more visible and in some cases more destructive (Nyamnjoh 2005).

In response to this threat and to ‘legitimize their power without endangering their privileges’, African leaders embarked on a process of ‘controlled liberalization’ (Fatton 1995:79); whilst paying lip service to the demands for democratisation, they looked to maintain the political order and protect the interests of dominant social groups (Joseph 1999). In the process they neutralised and disabled democracy’s transformative mechanisms by allowing some space for independent civic and political action while carefully controlling its implementation and avoiding the politically tough decisions that genuine democratic reform would necessitate (Booth et al. 2005). By denying African citizens any meaningful sense of citizenship coupled with ‘the social and economic emasculation of the state’ this ‘is generating a descent into a “war of all against all” that constitutional design and electoral processes are unlikely to stop’ (Fatton 1999:8). Not only the genocides of Rwanda and Burundi are examples of an ‘exploding and uncontrollable civil society’, other ethnically charged violence has occured in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Congo-Brazzaville, Niger, Angola and Sudan (Fatton 1999:2).

In a politically accountable environment, the state must play a central role in organising production and investments, in correcting market failures, in reducing material inequalities, and in securing public peace through the enforcement of predictable rights and obligations (Fatton 1995). Far from engaging in this task, African states – weakened by neo-liberal reforms – have become not only incapable of effectively administering their own economic reforms, but also institutional restructuring and grassroots participation in the political process (Berman et al. 2004). And although the state is –albeitly slowly- reclaiming part of its crucial role in the process of development, to what point state capacity should be strenghtened continues to be a matter of international debate and continues to be directed from outside of Africa. There is and has shown to be a risk of states strengthening themselves at the expense of its citizens, but as Berger (2002) convincingly argues, this should not result in complete anti-state attitudes (see also Carothers 2007); in order to be able to safeguard and develop democracy, ‘the African state must not be rolled back so much that its basic function withers away, for it is through the state that human and citizens’ rights are secured’ (Ronning 1999 in Berger 2002:26; see also Joseph 1999).

Furthermore, the African political agenda appears to withhold significant freedom in public participation with regards to countries’ economic policies due to international pressures to adopt neo-liberal reforms. But African citizens regard their political empowerment as a way for increased economic opportunity and equality; for them, political freedom without economic success seems meaningless (Olukoshi 1999; Potter 2000). In terms of electoral programmes, by offering little choice for political parties to compete over, this effectively encourages the personalisation of the political process along ethnic lines (Mkandawire 1999; Olukoshi 1999).

This is best illustrated by Africa’s voting behaviour. When people have been exposed to ethnicity being a (predominant) means of gaining access to patronage and therefore is a viable livelihood strategy, as voters, they tend to vote along ethnic lines (see research Elischer 2008 on Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana). Identity voting is strongest in ethnically fragmented societies. In a context where others are assumed to vote along identity lines, voters will use information on the assumed ethnic identities of parties and cast their ballots for those they calculate will best defend their group interests (Bratton & Kimenyi 2008). The fear of ethnic domination and suppression becomes a motivating force for the acquisition of power through the ballot box (Bertrand 2004). Even if people prefer to vote on policy, they find themselves at the same time ‘trapped in an equilibrium where ethnic favoritism is the rule, and where they lose out in access to resources if they ignore its implications for political behavior’ (Posner 2005 in Bratton & Kimenyi 2008:7). They do not need to be primarily motivated by their own ethnic origins in order to behave in this fashion but as Bratton & Kimenyi (2008) convincingly assert: they only need fear that their opponents will vote ethnically.

1.4. Africa’s ‘Virtual Democracies’

In Africa, who is included and who is excluded from economic and political opportunities and rights continues to be based on ethnicity and ethnic membership, rather than the broader liberal democratic concept of citizenship (Berman et al. 2004). The resulting identity politics combined with a widespread system of patronage therefore have come to define the character of the social contract between the state and society; ethnic and social groups competing for close connections to the state has remained a principle way to obtain protection, status, basic needs and wealth (Berger 2002; Nyamnjoh 2005). The introduction of multi-party, competitive politics in a context of economic deprivation and international marginalisation, have increased the political mobilisation of ethnicity. It seems that in Africa democratisation is itself a threat to democracy, because it unleashes forces that tend to spur political instability (Ogundimu 2002).

For African leaders, the transition from autocracy to democracy has therefore been more a strategy for maintaining and securing power, than a vehicle for popular empowerment (Ake 1993; Chabal & Daloz 1999; Tettey et al. 2003; Berman et al. 2004). They have learned to talk the talk of democratisation while controlling processes of political liberalisation and manipulate democratic transitions to the benefit of (re)legitimising their power (Fatton 1995; Booth et al. 2005). In the process they have constructed ‘virtual democracies’; combining a seemingly formal basis in citizen rule but excluding key decision-making from popular participation (Joseph 1999:61).

For society, ethnicity has remained a form of protection and a means to provide basic needs vis-a-vis the state and competing ethnic communities (Ekeh 2004). Ethnically based opportunism is not only prevalent in state politics but is part of many Africans’ daily life (Chabal & Daloz 1999). The emphasis the international community puts on strenghtening civil society in opposition of the state therefore obscures the fact that local communities can include very persistent and undemocratic structures of power: as the separation of political and economic power remains non-existent in many countries, participation in public affairs may simply be a means of concealing ongoing patronage (Mohan & Stokke 2000; Hickey & Mohan 2005).

In Africa popular democratic legitimacy is ultimately derived from the politics of development (Alhassan 2005), but the reality of Africa’s slow and at times adverse economic progress seems to contradict democracy’s believed instrumentality in the process (Van De Walle 1999; Berman et al. 2004). Given the continent’s persistent underdevelopment, the ‘politics of the belly’ therefore continue to be a viable strategy as ‘people cannot eat democracy’ (Mkandawire in Olukoshi 1999:459). For African democracies to effectively democratise this involves a transition ‘from a politics based on cultural identity to a politics based on policy choice’ (Bratton & Kimenyi 2008:13). Democratic consolidation is less likely to happen in states in which political parties are based on a struggle for power driven by a pervasive culture of ethnic patronage. As Bratton & Kimenyi (2008) rightfully point out: a transformation from an ethnically and patronage-based identity politics towards an issue-based politics and from ethnic voting into policy voting requires social and economic structural change, including greater contact, integration and economic equality among ethnic groups.

This paper analyses African media’s contribution to African democratisation and development. To assess this contribution, the character of African democracies vis-a-vis the character of a liberalised African media – as argued in the introduction – needs to be examined more closely. The ‘dynamics of democracy are intimately linked to the practices of communication’ which means that a ‘concern for democracy, therefore necessitates a concern about media’ (Jacobs 2002 in Tettey 2008:2). This chapter has explored the character of African democracies, the next chapter will continue to explore how this relates to the character of the African media environment.

Chapter Two
Characterising African Media

The constitutional introduction of multi-party politics and the widespread adoption of media liberalisation have been key factors in the growth of the media sector in both Ghana and Kenya, most notably the radio sector (Karikari 2000; Kafewo 2006; Maina 2006; see also fig. 2). In Ghana, where the state-owned Ghana Broadcasting Corporation was the only station until 1994, up to 86 FM and 3 shortwave stations had been licensed by 2007. The Kenyan state’s broadcasting monopoly opened up in 1996 and currently 24 AM, 82 FM and 6 shortwave radio stations can be found throughout the country (both data taken from CIA 2009).

Figure 2: Growth Radio Stations (Source: Moehler & Luyimbazi 2009:2).

In particular, local (vernacular) radio stations have flourished, who – although also often in English – largely broadcast in the predominant languages of the areas in which they operate: in Ghana, the largest audiences in the five most populous parts of the country belong to private commercial stations; Peace FM in Accra, Fox FM in Kumasi, Sky Power FM in Takoradi, Space FM in Sunyani, and Diamond FM in the Northern Region (Gadzekpo 2005 in Kafewo 2006:14). In Kenya, whilst targeting listeners from the main ethnic communities such as the Kikuyus in Central Province, Luos in West, Kalenjins in Northwest, Kambas in Southeast, and Kisiis in Southeast, local language radio stations had 27 percent of the radio market by 2007, compared with 33% held by mainstream radios (Ismail & Deane 2008:322).

Early content of these stations in both countries was music and entertainment-based, but audience demand soon turned the focus of much of their airtime on public discussion fora (BBC WST 2008). As outlets for ‘active citizenship’ (Kodi 2005:24), by providing people the opportunity to join public debate and express their voice, talk shows and phone-in programmes have become a distinguishing and popular feature of private radio (Karikari 2000; Tettey 2003).

On the surface, these regional stations have played a significant role in democratically empowering Ghanaian and Kenyan local communities particularly those who have long been excluded from public administration (Karikari 2000; Ilboudo 2003; Kiai 2008). But this empowerment has not only invigorated, it has also undermined the emergence of a democratic political culture (BBC WST 2008). Whereas in Ghana, independent radio stations are said to have been ‘crucial’ (Karikari 2000:2; see also Temin & Smith 2002; Norris & Zinnbauer 2002; Tettey 2003) to the peaceful transitions of power from incumbent party to opposition in 2000, and later in 2008 (Gyimah-Boadi 2009), the role vernacular radio talk shows played in the 2007/2008 post-election crisis in Kenya tells a different story (Ismail & Deane 2008; HRW 2008; Chege 2008; BBC WST 2008; Kaia 2008). The violent ethnic conflicts that followed the contested election of the incumbent president Kibaki were exacerbated by frequent broadcasts of hate speech both prior as well as after the election and brought back to mind that radio can also play a destructive role: Rwanda’s popular but infamous private radio station Radio-Télévision Libre Mille Collines (RTLM), crucial in the organisation of the country’s 1994 genocide, being the most disturbing proof of that on the continent.

In this chapter I investigate whether a liberalised African media environment, which has resulted in the growth of private radio stations, has indeed been the next best thing for African democracy. While international aid agencies and donors increasingly focus on the positive role these media outlets play as core constituents of ‘the enabling environment of democratisation’ (Daloz & Verrier-Frechette 2000:181) and thus critical in a country’s development, I intend to make evident that this assumption is overly optimistic and can in fact have an adverse democratic effect when divorced from a country’s societal, political and economic context. I will first start by asserting that information is not neutral (Nyamnjoh 2005); as a means of power, control over the platforms that disseminate information is an important political tool (Chabal and Daloz 1999). Second, when information is turned into a product that can be bought and sold, this commercialisation affects media’s public responsiveness, inclusiveness, and professionalism. Third, I examine and compare the Ghanaian and Kenyan experience by evaluating the relationship between the political character of the respective countries vis-à-vis the character of its media and in particular private radio stations. Finally, I will conclude that both the politics and business of information and opinion-formation can severely narrow media’s and radio’s democratic potential.

2.1. Information as Power

As explored in chapter one, identity politics play an all-determining role in defining the social contract between the state and society in Africa. The introduction of competitive politics (under conditions of poverty, deprivation, persistent international economic marginalisation and a weakened state), have only further increased the ethnically-based struggles for political and economic power and has spurred the use of political patronage. Processes of preferential inclusion of some and exclusion of other social groups from the claim to economic and political opportunities have exacerbated. Both the state and society have responded to these changes in ‘undemocratic’ ways, that is to say they have both made ethnic membership instead of citizen membership leading in their actions and decisions. The state has, by controlling the process of political liberalisation, aimed to protect the interest of dominant social groups. Society has through their voting behaviour reinforced the importance of ethnicity at the ballot box and in some cases both the state and society have been involved in instigating and exacerbating ethnic (violent) clashes in pursuit of protecting or gaining political control.

As a means by which citizens become engaged with political processes, the media have a fundamental political function (Panos Institute 2007a). This was and continues to be well-understood by African leaders; under its authoritarian regimes, media organisations predominantly served the interests of those in power and media freedom was severely constrained through often heavy-handed censorship (Bourgault 1995). Today, media freedom remains ‘chequered’ (Temin & Smith 2002:588) as political leaders have a tendency to ignore or arbitrarily interpret legal and constitutional rules. Legislation – introduced under colonial rule – can limit press freedom in the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health through measures like the interruption or cancellation of airwaves and/or harassment and detention of journalists (MISA 2008; IPI 2008; Freedom House 2009). Examples abound from various corners of the continent: in Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Nguema banned Radio Africa 2000 following critical reports of the country’s first multi-party elections. In Niger, Radio Anfani and other radio stations were shut temporarily in 1996 following an order by military strongman, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who seized control of the counting of votes in an election meant to bring the country to civilian rule (Ogbondah 2002:66).

As the international emphasis on good governance and participatory development celebrating civil society as the counterweight to a ‘bad’ state (Fatton 1995; Nyamnjoh 2005) led to pressures to shrink the state’s power through privatisation and deregulation (Ronning 1994 in Berger 2002:26), for the African media this took the form of opening up access to airwaves for private broadcasters (Blankson 2002). The assumption behind this notion of media liberalisation was that it would stimulate an increase in the number of media channels to become available to the public and as such would generate an increase in media independence and pluralism thereby nourishing a more competitive media environment more responsive to the public, more keen to keep a watchful eye on government, and more open to opposing perspectives. As a result a more democratic environment (considered critical to a country’s development) would arise (Tettey 2001; World Bank 2002a/b; Norris 2006 – see fig. 1).

In this section, however, I argue that media liberalisation policies do not automatically result in democratic outcomes. When divorced from a country’s prevailing societal and political character, these can produce highly undemocratic outcomes as well. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa whereby its countries’ political characters are dominated by highly competitive identity politics (see chapter one), media liberalisation policies can actually reinforce ethnic struggles for political power. Because of widespread patronage dominant social groups can monopolise the media market to protect their vested interests, to exacerbate social fragmentation and, at its most extreme, to incite ethnic violence (Snyder & Ballentine 1996; Snyder 2000; Price & Thomson 2002; Putzel & Van De Zwam 2006). In the context of competitive politics where formerly excluded voices now have a chance to enter the political arena, media liberalisation allows for previously unavailable communication channels to become available. The growth of for instance radio stations can result in an unleashing of highly polarising voices (Fardon & Furniss 2000; Bertrand 2004).

First, prevalent patronage structures allow dominant individuals or social groups to gain control of the media market (Price & Thomson 2002; Putzel & Van De Zwam 2006). As commercial licenses are often granted directly by the government rather than by an independent regulatory agency protected by law (Van Der Veur 2002), the subsequent monopolisation of the media by the economic and political elite, can lead to private media outlets becoming the mouthpiece for ruling power centres (Carver 2000; Berger 2002). This became evident in Rwanda, when – under the supervision of the United Nations – a power sharing agreement was signed between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in preparation for the 1995 multi-party elections. These so-called Arusha Accords included the development of a liberalised media (Carver 2000). But as the Hutu elite felt threatened by their potential loss of power, one reaction was the introduction of the ‘privately-owned’ radio station RTLM of which the vast majority of founders were associated with the incumbent president Habyarimana (Des Forges 2002; Mitchell 2007).

Furthermore, a marketplace can be manipulated; private media outlets depend on advertising revenue to survive and this can and has shown to foster a culture of self-censorship (Tettey 2006). In order not to jeopardise their own economic viability, businessess avoid advertising on stations with a reputation for being hostile to the government. One representative of Gabon’s Radio Soleil explained that companies were reluctant to invest in its airwaves because ‘we were not subservient enough to the central government, which has close ties to the business world’ (UNESCO Courier 1 April 2001). In April 2007, an e-mail message by the Kenyan government instructed its public sector institutions not to advertise in The Standard newspaper and Kenyan Television Network, but send their ads to media organisations that were more favourably disposed to the government’s policies (Tettey 2008:14).

Second, private radio stations work in a societal and political context where many people have historically been excluded from equal political and economic recognition and representation (Nyamnjoh 2005). Opposing ethnic groups have through the introduction of competitive politics obtained opportunities to secure group interests and claims through the ballot box; political ethnic mobilisation has therefore become a means to obtain political power. In early stages of transition from autocracy to democracy, formal institutional structures that define how group interests and claims can be expressed or negotiated are typically weak, missing or not neutral. Informal structures such as open criticism via radio channels can therefore become viable strategies to secure those interests and claims (Bertrand 2004; see also Snyder & Ballentine 1996; Snyder 2000; Putzel & Van Der Zwam 2006). By targeting captive ethnic or regional groups, for instance through vernacular radio stations, competing political powers can manipulate the dissemination of information and opinions to further their conquest for political power. The greater the rivalry between these elites, the more dependent and partisan the media are likely to be. As a result, African private radio stations have assumed a partisan and highly politicised role (Nyamnjoh 2005). In Kenya, certain politicians own FM stations, particularly vernacular ones, and their editorial content tends to reflect their political interests (Ismail & Deane 2008). Talk shows in particular seem to have been seized by those with the strongest and most organised political views. According to Mitch Odero of the Media Council of Kenya, both before and after the 2007 election, there were many cases where radio stations championed hate speech on live talk shows as politicians called on people to rise up and fight (in BBC WST 2008:5).

The struggle for power, however, is not only taken up by the competing groups’ elites. Many private vernacular radio stations argue that their partisan coverage is being driven by their audiences; not being radical loses listeners, thus jeopardising their commercial existence. Many of these media consumers have historically had very few (if at all) channels through which they can communicate their perspective into public debate (Nyamnjoh 2005). Once given the opportunity, those who have ‘kept quiet’ before, now have the opportunity to break their silence and these individual or communal voices suddenly have the potential to ‘explode into the public stage’ (Fatton 1995:86). Private regional radio stations have provided them a channel; many of the voices on these popular talk shows and phone-ins express anger, are disaffected and determined on change (BBC WST 2008; Mwesige 2009). In Kenya, where many vernacular stations are serving specific communities with each its own political orientation, their audiences often only want to hear one side of the story; ‘objectivity and neutrality is often seen in those areas as a sign of hostility’ (W. Waruru, chairman Media Council of Kenya in BBC WST 2008:6).

Serious disputes are held over whether media (in situations such as transitions from autocracy to democracy) should emphasise their critical role as watchdogs, in opposition to the state, or their constructive role in the development and strengthening the new government’s ability to rule effectively (Kuper & Kuper 2001). In the case of Rwanda, the conclusion drawn by many journalists, human rights and media NGOs, was that the country had failed to liberalise its broadcasting: an early development of a plural and diverse media environment could have prevented the genocide, advocating more (instead of less) free speech (Carver 2000). But critics persuasively argue that the ‘drive towards political liberalisation’ (Allen & Stremlau 2005:6) helped create the environment that allowed the genocide to occur. Rwanda’s formal institutional foundations were typically weak and because of the Hutus’ fear of losing power, informal means such as a private radio station could be co-opted for undemocratic purposes and protecting vested interests; the conflict was in fact intensified by greater media liberalisation (Snyder and Ballentine 1996:33).

It is important to remember that none of the countries that ‘make up’ the international community have perfectly liberalised media markets. While formal state censorship may be minimal, there are nevertheless mechanisms and codes of conduct that serve a similar role; mechanisms that are rarely in place in new or fragile democracies. The current Rwandan President Paul Kagame publicly stated that his country is not ready for an entirely free media environment and according to Allen & Stremlau (2005:2) he has a point. Promoting media regulation should be an essential part in building or strengthening the capacities of the state to govern, particularly in situations like the aftermath of a major change (a ‘critical juncture’), such as the introduction of competitive politics, or extreme violent conflict such as in Rwanda, where national cohesion and consensus first needs to be built. As Price & Thomson (2002:15) aptly assert: the ‘longer-term good of the society’ might require a ‘short-term censorship of media outlets’.

Placing limits on media, however, is a difficult and controversial balancing act as it can all too easily become an excuse for self-serving government censorship (Putzel & Van De Zwam 2006). In response to the 2007/2008 post-election crisis, President Kibaki, stating that press freedom must go hand in hand with responsibility, signed into law a media bill that gives the Kenyan authorities the power to raid media offices, tap phones and control broadcast content on ground of national security. Under the new bill, it will furthermore be illegal for an individual or company to own broadcast stations and press publications (BBC News 2 January 2009).

Putzel & Van De Zwam (2006) contend that continued state involvement in the media can be a constructive force in a country’s democratisation: institutional foundations of free and balanced debate are not instantaneously achieved by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market (Snyder & Ballantine 1996:34). In South Africa, the transformation of the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) into a non-partisan public service broadcaster aimed at the social, economic and political reconstruction and development of the country was put onto the negotiating table at the time of the transition from Apartheid to democratic rule. In 2000, SABC ranked highest as most credible social institution – far beyond the president, the parliament and the army – in all population groups (Mattes et al. 2000 in Kivikuru 2006:10).

The question of media ownership in relation to media’s public role also arises in the next section where I will briefly address the undemocratic consequences of the profit-seeking character of private media outlets before continuing to compare Kenya’s and Ghana’s experience with private radio stations’ democratic potential.

2.2. Information as Commodity

According to Shafner (2006 in Tettey 2008:3) the extent to which elections are useful instruments of democratic accountability is closely related to the ability of citizens to acquire and utilise information to make informed electoral choices. Collier (2008) makes a bolder statement: without an informed citizenry, ‘elections just won’t work’. The increase of media outlets on the continent have constructed a more dynamic African media landscape, but it has not necessarily led to a broadly inclusive environment in which a plurality of views are expressed and heard. As the vast majority of the world’s poor live in sub-Saharan Africa it is difficult to distinguish between whether someone has chosen not to buy a media product because he or she does not want it or because he or she cannot afford it (Myanmjoh 2005); there is a difference between people wanting access to media as consumers than needing access as citizens and voters (Besley et al. 2002). For a media to be truly democratic, it needs to be inclusive of and responsive to a broad citizen base.

Private media organisations, however, are businesses and therefore foremost concerned with profit making and their commercial viability; an imperative that often leads to the exclusion of ‘commercially unviable audiences’ (Berger 2002:37) such as minorities, the poor and women who are excluded from having their social problems highlighted and from being able to inform the policy agenda. The geographic and demographic selectiveness of private media outlets does more to reinforce the broader societal features of inequalities and democratic deficits in Africa than to break them down (Jacobs 2008). Furthermore, as democracy’s ‘fourth estate’ the press is to act as an impersonal and unbiased source of information and opinion-formation (Myamnjoh 2005). But the emphasis on commercialisation has led to a ‘collapse in journalistic standards’ (Berger 2002:38). Sensationalism – whether in Africa or elsewhere in the world – sells (Hyden & Leslie 2002); breaking a blockbuster story or attacking the incumbent regime seem ‘too often to be prioritized over fact-checking and accuracy’ (Temin & Smith 2002:594).

Some scholars therefore rightfully contend that true pluralism can only be fostered and sustained in a media environment that includes vital, well-financed public service institutions (Berger 2002; Puddephat 2008). One of the key policy reforms, which most transitions to multiparty rule typically fail to realise, is the transformation of the state broadcasters into independent nonpartisan publicly funded broadcasters (Carver 2000). Public broadcasters are unable to compete in a liberalised market as media liberalisation has brought in a competitive dynamic private sector that has rapidly achieved dominance in both the advertising market and among the urban, consumer audiences advertisers are interested in (BBC WST 2008). Governments, stressed by neo-liberal reforms, have gladly left public broadcasting without subsidy and as a result, all former monopoly broadcast stations in Africa have faced major problems over the last decade, and most of them are in decline (Kivikuru 2006).

Media liberalisation has up to now not led to truly independent and inclusive media channels, as private media channels are neither free from either political (see 2.1.) or commercial interests. It has effectively replaced a government-controlled concentration of media power and control over media content, with a commercial and political one (Ogundimu 2002). Vital channels of communication in ‘weak’ markets cannot survive without state support (Ogundimu 2002). Although there is always the danger for state media to fall into the hands of repressive or violent regimes (Price & Thomson 2002) or of governments selectively not supporting media outlets that may act as their critic (BBC WST 2009b), to achieve a democratic media environment responsive to a true plurality of perspectives and truly representative of a broad citizen base, provisions and regulations need to be put in place to promote, regulate, and strengthen both private and publicly funded media (Randall 1993; Berger 2002; Kivikuru 2006; Puddephat 2008).

The next section examines and compares the Kenyan and Ghanaian experience with regards to private radio stations and their contribution to the countries’ democratisation.

2.3. Private Radio Stations in Kenya and Ghana: A Comparison

In both Ghana and Kenya, multi-party politics was restored in 1992. Their media landscapes are equally dynamic and outspoken, their private regional vernacular radio stations share the same popularity as do their talk shows and call-ins and both countries face similar challenges regarding radio partisanship and lack of professional standards (Kafewo 2006; Maina 2006). But whereas observers of the political scene in Ghana credit the transparency that characterised the 2000 elections (and later the 2008 elections) partly to the relatively large numbers of private FM stations around the country (Karikari 2000; Temin & Smith 2002; Gyimah-Boadi 2009), in Kenya vernacular radio stations stand accused of having exacerbated the ethnic conflict that followed the contested re-election of President Kibaki in 2007 (HRW 2008; Kiai 2008; BBC WST 2008; Chege 2008; Ismail & Deane 2008). Why is it that the Ghanaian and Kenyan experience has led to such different outcomes and have their respective radio stations played an instrumental role in this?

As I have argued at the beginning of this paper, to fully assess whether a media contributes to a country’s democratisation (and hence development), it is paramount to analyse the relationship between the character of its democracy vis-a-vis the character of its media participating in that democracy (see Myamnjoh 2005). After first examining the Kenyan situation and second the Ghanaian one, I will conclude that given the similarity of the Kenyan and Ghanaian radio environments, the difference in democratic outcome has to be explained by the difference in the countries’ overall political character. Whereas radio stations became highly politicised tools for competing ethnic groups in Kenya, the progress made in Ghana in institutionalising democracy has resulted in a less ethnically polarising radio environment.

Since independence, Kenya – home to an estimated 38 million people and inclusive of 42 African ethnic groups – has been driven by issues of ethnically divided inequality. Those communities that have had greater access to presidential power and its accompanying patronage are seen as beneficiaries of favoritism (Kiai 2008). Foremost on Kenyan citizens’ minds with regards to their democratic expectations, is political and economic equality resulting in a more equitable distribution of opportunity and resources in their society (Logan et al. 2007). Kenyans acknowledge that an ethnic division of patronage is an important subtext in national electoral contests; when the pan-ethnic National Rainbow Coalition (NaRC) swept into power in 2002, less than a third of respondents (30%) saw the ethnicity of candidates as an important consideration for the electorate, but the December 2007 general election was regarded as the most polarised contest of all as half (50%) of respondents said that the ethnic origin of candidates was an important consideration for their fellow citizens. By this time, the NaRC coalition had broken down and the presidential race had crystallised into a Kikuyu-Luo struggle over the presidency (Bratton & Kimenyi 2008:7).

The most compelling policy issue is ‘majimbo’, or the decentralisation of political control over development resources (and by implication, from the Kikuyu-dominated highlands of Central Province), a policy that was a major campaign issue for the opposition party of 2007, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by Raila Odinga (Chege 2008). The ODM grassroots campaign turned the election into a contest of ‘forty-one tribes against one’, pitting the Kikuyu against Kenya’s other African ethnic groups as the former was accused of having taken an economic lead as a result of political patronage under Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta. The campaign highlighted Kikuyu domination in banking, government, trade, out-migration, education, and commercial farming: Kikuyu success was blamed for the marginalisation suffered by other groups, thus creating an atmosphere of ‘resentment and retaliation’ (Chege 2008: 134).

The incumbent President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) campaign equally played on ethnic fears. Rumours were spread that ODM was backed by the US and Britain whereas PNU advocated Kenya’s independence from these forces. Whilst the anti-Kikuyu rhetoric increased, rumours began to take hold amongst the Kikuyu that if the ODM would win, they planned to perpetrate a Kikuyu genocide. The Kikuyu took this threat seriously and began to mobilise as many voters as possible as they ‘saw the contest more as a matter of their survival than of Kibaki’s victory’ (Chege 2008:136). The polarising ethnic rhetoric turned into hate speech, getting mass circulation via FM radio stations; in particular, via the vernacular radio stations who were as a result turned into political ‘tools’. On live radio talkshows, politicians and citizens were heard spreading hate speech and calling fellow ethnic members to stand up and fight (BBC WST 2008). Live national coverage of the election showed heated debates between the competing politicians as well as the delays in announcing the electoral results which raised the concern that, according to the head of the Kenya’s Electoral Commission (ECK), the results ‘were being cooked’ (Chege 2008:137). When in the midst of these debates, the state television station presented the ECK quite suddenly announcing that Kibaki had won, ethnic conflict began immediately (Chege 2008).

In Ghana, with a population of 23.8 million people today and inclusive of a diversity of ethnic groups, successive elections have had a reassuring effect. Ghanaian citizens are increasingly satisfied with its democracy; a satisfaction that ‘stands in marked contrast to a trend in which average satisfaction among Africans fell from a majority to minority sentiment (from 58 to 45 percent) across 18 African countries between 2000 and 2005 (Afrobarometer 2008). People’s satisfaction with ‘the way democracy works in Kenya’ plummeted from 79% in 2003, to just over 53% in 2005 (Logan et al. 2007). Private FM stations around the country are said to have brought credence to the results that were declared as in both the 2000 and the 2008 elections, the presence of these stations made it difficult to rig results, because they were able to announce results from their local communities (Gyimah-Boadi 2009). In 2000, an open debate among presidential candidates was broadcast live on TV and radio at the eve of the general elections (Norris & Zinnbauer 2002:26) and when at a polling station in Accra soldiers started destroying voting boxes, someone called an FM station and it was reported on the air. Minutes later JOY FM interviewed the president of the Ghana Bar Association who stated that in the Constitution citizens had the right to resist interference in a polling station. JOY FM kept playing the interview over and over and a couple of hours later the soldiers had been chased off by voters (Friedman 2001 in Tettey 2003:100).

Similar to Kenya, also in Ghana both incumbent as well as opposing political forces use  their power to influence elections through the media. During the 2000 elections, Chriss FM, a private radio station in the Brong-Ahafo Region, was closed down by the Regional Minister alleging that the opposition was using it to destabilise peace and security of the area (Temin & Smith 2002:593; Tettey 2003:98). And although the 2008 electoral campaign started of as relatively issue-based, when the competition for the presidential seat increased, both the opposing National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the incumbent New Patriotic Party (NPP) resorted to negative and non-issue-based campaigning as both parties attempted to mobilise ethnic votes (Gyimah-Boadi 2009). Ghana in fact faces similar democratic challenges as Kenya: political and economic power is highly centralised resulting in excessive ethnically based patronage, the system of checks and balances is weak and limits the effectiveness of oversight institutions such as Parliament as well as leads to deficits in transparency and accountability, formal democratic institutions and processes fail to give adequate voice to the poor and other marginalised groups, poverty rates and the levels of inequality across regions remain high. In short, there is ‘no shortage of class and ethnic resentments to be exploited for political gain’ (Gyimah-Boadi 2009:148).

But, critical to Ghana’s democratic progress are the advancements that have been made in institutionalising democracy. The country’s key democratic institutions – the judiciary, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, and arguably Parliament – continue to develop and solidify (Gyimah-Boadi 2009). This is further underscored by generally positive popular assessments of the degree of democratic freedom enjoyed in the country and high levels of popular confidence in key institutions and processes of democratic governance (Afrobarometer 2008). These popular evaluations have influenced voting choices, and even though identity voting is still part of people’s voting behaviour, retrospective assessments of the condition of the national economy or future expectations of personal economic wellbeing have trumped ethnicity in selected elections (Lindberg and Morrison 2008).

In Kenya competitive politics have consistently failed to integrate all major groups of the Kenyan state into one political force; consequently all are ethnic competing parties (Elischer 2008). In making electoral choices citizens voting patterns show a country that is largely divided along ethnic lines (Bratton & Kimenyi 2008). Media liberalisation has resulted in a growth of local language radio stations. But in a context of increased political (ethnic) competition, making available previously unavailable media channels has reinforced the ethnic power struggles that dominate African politics as previously excluded voices can use these radio stations as channels for political mobilisation to secure competing group interests and claims.

Ghanaian competitive politics, on the other hand, is less clear-cut: political parties exhibit ideological agendas, while incorporating clientelistic elements (Elischer 2008). The progress made in Ghana in institutionalising democracy and the popular confidence this has generated, has influenced voting choices and although identity voting is still dominant, issue-based voting – inspired by the country’s perceived economic progress –  is on the rise. As a result, the radio environment has become less polarised and has therefore become more contributory to the country’s democratic development.

2.4. The Politics and Business of Information and Opinion-Formation

The contribution of Africa’s private radio stations to African democratisation cannot be analysed in isolation from the political, societal and economic environment in which they broadcast. The media are, in many ways, a reflection of their society: as the politics of African society have remained organised along competitive ethnically-based patronage lines, it is unrealistic to expect that the media will be any different (Puddephat 2008). The inevitable positivity that is argued to arise between a liberalised media environment and democracy overstates that media’s independence from Africa’s prevailing societal and political patterns and power structures. It furthermore understates the media itself as an active, political agent as it ignores the possibility that both the state and competing ethnic communities can use these channels for political mobilisation to secure group interests and claims (Bertrand 2004; Nyamnjoh 2005). This can lead to an exacerbation of social fragmentation and, at its most extreme, to ethnic violence (Price & Thomson 2002; Allen & Stremlau 2005). As private media channels are often not independent from political interests, media regulation (without falling into the trap of full-blown censorship) and continued state involvement in the media should be made integral to building or strengthening the state’s governing capacities, particularly in situations where national cohesion and consensus first needs to be built (Putzel & Van Der Zwam 2006)

Private media outlets are furthermore not independent from commercial interests as their profit-making imperative reinforces prevalent social inequalities as it excludes weak markets (Jacobs 2008; Berger 2002; Ogundimu 2002). To achieve a media environment responsive to a true plurality of perspectives and truly representative of a broad citizen base, both private and publicly funded media need to be promoted, regulated, and strengthened (Randall 1993; Berger 2002; Kivikuru 2006; Puddephat 2008). But as the case studies of Kenya and Ghana demonstrate: without the right political culture, a ‘diverse media ecosystem will not thrive’ (Moehler 2007:30). Priority must be given to the building of institutions and structures that will ‘reduce the incentives for state capture and partisan abuse’ (Gyimah-Boadi 2009:150). A media environment, inclusive of private and public radio stations, will only contribute to African democratisation (and development) if their broadcasting environment is effectively democratised.



The construction of independent and pluralist media sectors is increasingly included in debates on popular empowerment, good governance, and poverty reduction. A liberalised media environment – in which the state opens up media ownership to private parties – is regarded as a positive contributor to developing nations’ democratic and hence developmental progress. As a result of widespread media liberalisation the African media landscape has diversified rapidly; most notably private radio stations have flourished. But the inevitable positivity that is argued to arise between a liberalised media environment and democracy is overly optimistic: media liberalisation policies do not automatically result in democratic outcomes. When divorced from a country’s prevailing societal and political character, they can produce highly undemocratic effects. It is therefore paramount that in assessing a media’s potential for democratic contribution, the political character vis-à-vis a country’s media character has to be examined more closely.

In chapter one, I have analysed the dominant political character prevalent in many sub-Saharan African countries and have concluded that identity politics play an all-determining role in defining the social contract between the state and society in Africa. The – externally driven – introduction of competitive politics (under conditions of poverty, deprivation, persistent international economic marginalisation and a weakened state) have increased the ethnically-based struggles for political and economic power and has spurred the use of political patronage. Processes of preferential inclusion of some and exclusion of other social groups from the claim to economic and political opportunities have intensified and both the state, as well as society have responded to these changes in ‘undemocratic’ ways: both have made ethnic membership instead of citizen membership leading in their actions and decisions. The state has, by controlling the process of political liberalisation, aimed to protect the interest of dominant social groups. Society has through their voting behaviour reinforced the importance of ethnicity at the ballot box and in some cases both the state and society have been involved in instigating and exacerbating ethnic (violent) clashes in pursuit of protecting or gaining political control. For African democracies to effectively democratise, a transition is needed from ethnically-based patronage politics to issue-based politics and from ethnic voting to policy voting aided by both social as well as economic structural change by increasing the level of economic gains and the equal distribution of these gains.

In chapter two, I have explored how this democratic defect has affected the potential democratic contribution of Africa’s private radio stations and have concluded that their democratic promise cannot be divorced from the political, societal and economic environment in which they broadcast, a conclusion further underpinned by the case studies of Kenya and Ghana. African private radio stations have taken up a highly partisan and oppositional political role. They have not only become co-opted by competing (ethnic) political forces in pursuit of protecting vested interests or obtaining political power, they have equally become a ‘battlefield’ on which ethnic differences and ethnic power struggles are fought. Furthermore, the emphasis on a private over public media has reinforced prevailing social inequalities as private media organisations, as businessess, prioritise commercially attractive audiences. Both the politics and business of the media market severely narrow private radio’s democratic potential.

For African private radio stations to play a positive role in African democratisation, the media environment in which it operates needs to be regulated (instead of fully liberated) and needs to be made inclusive of both private and publicly funded media. But without the right political culture this will still not necessarily lead to a democratically contributing media. Priority must therefore be given to the building of (democratic) institutions and structures that will ‘reduce the incentives for state capture and partisan abuse’ (Gyimah-Boadi 2009:150). Only when the environment in which media players participate, is effectively democratised, will private radio stations contribute to African democratisation (and development).  References

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One Response to “Africa’s Private Radio Stations: The Next Best Thing For African Democracy? (dissertation)”

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