More mobiles, more freedom?

Mobile operator Tigo’s headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Emma Kvennberg

Needless to say in 2017, mobile phones are of great importance when it comes to communication. However in Africa, just like in any other continent, there are differences between the countries when it comes to citizens’ access to it.

If you look at UN data of mobidensity, i.e. mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants* in 2015, which gives a hint of the extent of access, it varies widely among the countries:

Source: International Telecommunication Union

There were 169 mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in Botswana. In Eritrea on the other hand, that number was significantly lower by only 7 per 100 inhabitants.

Graphics: Top five and bottom five lists of countries (mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2015)

Source: International Telecommunication Union. Visualisation made in Datawrapper.

In Botswana, where there are three main mobile operators providing different offers, “people routinely have more than one SIM card so that they can take advantage of specials and promotions when they travel to other parts of the country.” (Understanding what is happening in ICT in Botswana, 2013) whereas in Eritrea in 2015 “many citizens believed the government monitored cell phones in particular, since permits are required to use SIM cards (Country Report on Human Rights Practices).

If you compare the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 2005 and 2015, one can see that Botswana also has had the biggest increase by almost 139 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Eritrea, on the other hand, had the smallest increase of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

Given that mobile phones make citizens potential whistle blowers and can play an important role in the protection of individual human rights, such as freedom of expression through political engagement in the community, a question comes to mind.

Do the countries’ levels of freedom, as estimated by Freedom House** which annually measures citizens’ political rights and civil liberties, correlates in any way with the countries’ levels of mobidensity?

Based on aspects such as the rule of law, the electoral process, political participation and freedom of expression, Freedom House lists each country with a number from 1 to 7. Countries with 1 represent the most free and 7 the least free. Did the countries that had a higher level of mobile subscriptions in 2015 also had a higher level of freedom, and the other way around?

At first, looking at the report of 2015 and at the top and bottom lists of countries when it comes to mobidensity, it could definitely seem like one is onto something. Four out of five countries on the bottom list of mobidensity in 2015 also had figures suggesting a lower measure of political rights and civil liberties. Eritrea and Central African Republic both hold the worst (7) and Djibouti 5.5 and Chad 6.5.

Meanwhile, on the mobidensity top list, three out of five countries, i.e. Botswana (2.5) , South Africa (2) and Seychelles (3) had better figures when it came to freedom. However Gabon and Libya, also on the top five list of mobidensity, scored 5.5 and 6 which means they are “not free”. And Malawi, which is on the bottom five list, had 3.5 which suggest its citizens are only “partly free”.

And if you compare the maps below you can see that there is no obvious overall pattern:

Source: International Telecommunication Union and Freedom House

N.B. It’s important to note that, in this post on mobidensity and freedom, there are difficulties regarding the comparison, especially when it comes to the color scale of the maps. The countries’ levels of mobidensity are based on the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants rather than on a scale from 1 to 7, like the freedom index. The major difference between the countries level of mobidensity also affects what is considered “average” and there’s also no suggestion, like in the freedom index, as to what level is regarded as high or low.

When told about my findings Johan Hellström, Information and Communication Technologies for development (ICT4D) researcher and program manager at Sida with a special focus on how mobile phones can improve accountability, transparency and participation, is not surprised.

“I would be surprised if you saw a connection there. For some individuals and groups, such as human rights activists who use mobile phones as tools in very specific ways, you can see a change in terms of them experiencing a larger amount of freedom and increased opportunities. But if you look at society at large it’s pretty unchanged”, he says and stresses the fact that mobile phones are also tools for a government to keep track of its’ citizens. For instance, he mentions how mobile phones played a key role during the Arab spring but that there since then have been a backlash in many of those countries.

What role do mobile phones play in terms of being tools for political mobilisation?

“In countries where citizens are censored and surveilled by the government, encrypted communication by mobile phones has become incredibly important. Oppositionals and human rights activists for example wouldn’t be able to carry out their work if they didn’t have the tools of encrypted communication by mobile phones. They know what capacity the governments have to surveil them. Some also chose to communicate openly, as a way to go “under the radar”. There are different ways of doing this in different countries”, Johan Hellström says.

How important are mobile phones for development?

“It has become the tool number one for communication, including calls, SMS, applications, data and internet access. If you don’t have access to a mobile phone you’re excluded from parts of society”, Johan Hellström says.

Like the Nigerian activist Sokari Ekine points out, quoted in a recent London School of Economics blog post “there is no doubt that mobile and internet technology is democratising social change in communities across Africa… We must, however, also recognise that technology has the capacity to concentrate power and therefore could be used to reinforce existing power relations.”


* Mobile cellular telephone subscriptions, as defined by the International Telecommunication Union, refers to “ the number of subscriptions to a public mobile-telephone service that provide access to the PSTN using cellular technology. The indicator includes the number of postpaid subscriptions and the number of active prepaid accounts (i.e. that have been used during the last three months). The indicator applies to all mobile-cellular subscriptions that offer voice communications. It excludes subscriptions via data cards or USB modems, subscriptions to public mobile data services, private trunked mobile radio, telepoint, radio paging and telemetry services.”

** Although cited by journalists and scholars, Freedom House has also received criticism. For instance by Noam Chomsky who claims that the organization excessively criticizes states that are opposed to US interests.

About the maps presented above: There is no data regarding South Sudan which gained its independence in 2011. The map also points out the territories of Western Sahara and Somaliland which are territories not recognised as sovereign states.

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