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ICTs and Democratic GovernanceWith the advent of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Liberia, and with the introduction of the internet component of ICTs in the second half of the last decade, the uses and powers of ICTs have quickly caught on with access to the technology having grown vastly over in the country over this period.
When ICTs, especially the Internet, were introduced in Liberia in the latter 1990s it was a luxury that was largely the preserve of the wealthy class of the country’s capital and high ranking government officials who mostly belonged to that class of rich and affluent people.
At the time, the country was just emerging from seven years of civil war with the holding of democratic elections in July of 1997. Those elections saw the election of former Liberian warlord Charles McArthur Taylor, who up to that point purportedly controlled the biggest militia group in the country. Many attributed his victory to the fact that he held the fear factor over the population of the countryside.
After Mr. Taylor took over the reigns of power in Liberia, he initially tried establishing his democratic credentials. But perhaps due to his militant past, he miserably failed to make a proper transition from his status as a warlord during the time of chaos, to the statesman in charge of a war ravaged country that badly needed to be put right again.
Being a technology savvy person, he allowed technological advances like the internet and cellular phones to be introduced into the country. This move on Mr. Taylor’s part was probably to satisfy his own needs. That was the most likely reason why the cost of accessing the internet or using cell phones was so exorbitant during his tenure as president.
But the population some how caught on to the advantage of using these technologies. With the use of web based systems like Net-2-Phone, the internet in Liberia, for example, became the primary source of making telephone calls from the country to other places around the world. As it was far cheaper, though not so convenient to place calls through the internet, but this was offset by the fact that the only alternative was cell phones since no land lines existed at the time nor do they exist now in Liberia.
As the government’s mandate wore on, its style of governance of the country began to be more and more an issue of concern to Liberians both within and outside the country. Issues of abuses and repression started to be highlighted. The cost of living from one day to the next for ordinary Liberians began to skyrocket.
The government started to act against the independent media for broadcasting the truth – in the government’s words for spreading lies and preaching hate messages. On March 15, 2000 it closed down the two main independent radio stations operating in the country, the Hirondelle Foundation sponsored Star Radio and the Catholic Church owned Radio Veritas. Radio Veritas was later opened, but Star Radio remained closed for the remainder of the Taylor presidency which ended in August of 2003.
With the resulting vacuum that was created, it was left to ordinary Liberians to continue the fight of making the world know what was happening in the country. Most Liberians did this by using the internet to send information to web based Liberian news organs. Notable among these Liberian internet news outlets were the New Democrat, which ran a newspaper in the country prior to the Taylor presidency and The Perspective, which ran its operation from out of the United States. Both these organs, along with others ensured that the plight of the Liberian people remained on the world conscience and that Liberians in the Diaspora and international partners were kept adequately informed of occurrences within the country.
After the demise of the Taylor government and coming into being of a transitional government in October 2003, the use of the internet to debate national issues, especially among the intellectual class became more prevalent. This was so much the case that by the time the latest democratic polls were held in the country in October and November of 2005, there were tens of internet sites that were devoted to keeping the nation informed of the governance and electoral processes.
There was a lively debate and everyone joined in. If someone wrote an article that was disagreeable to another’s viewpoint, there was an immediate a rejoinder. And in most instances the internet news organs made space for the publication of every viewpoint.
This contributed to the vibrancy of the governance and electoral processes and ensured a high level of participation among Liberians. For perhaps the first time in the country’s history there was genuine participation of the people in the governance of the state. And also probably for the first time, Liberian politicians were very mindful of the views of their subjects.
As it was the order of the day during the Charles Taylor tyranny, when his officials wanted to point out the damaging nature of some article that had been published about his government, most politicians were and are now using the well worn statement “it is all over the internet”. This meant in effect that anything that was published online was deemed to be true. Regrettably this mindset continues to be the case even today. But the good of this is that these officials were always mindful of making the wrong moves.
Although the focus of the world is not on Liberia in a negative sense as it was during the immediate past leadership and the Taylor period, the country is still trying to grapple with decades of mismanagement and despotic rule.
The internet has become more available to more Liberians since the demise of the Taylor regime some 4 years ago. The cost has dramatically reduced from US$10.00 an hour then to US$1.00 at present.
But even with this prevalence, many media practitioners in the country still lack the rudimentary capacities to use ICTs. Although there have been general attempts by several local and international organizations to help change this situation in the country, it still remains dire. And the need still remains stronger than every before to provide training for Liberian journalists and the Liberian population as a whole in ICTs.
As has been the case in many post conflict countries, the pace of growth of technologies usually out paces the abilities of the people to adapt to the new trends. This is probably the reason why Liberia continues to lag in the process of using ICTs to foster growth and development.
But the desire exists among the people of the country to keep their leaders mindful of the fact that their actions and activities are being watched and discussed at every level – in the streets, in public transport, in internet chat rooms, on blogs, etc. What is lacking, though to ensure that the people truly catch on, is the cultivation of the requisite expertise within the nation to spearhead this technological drive.
As things stand, there is no clearly defined government policy on ICTs in the country. Since it came to power nearly 2 years ago, the government has made only faint attempts at discussing ICTs but very little to implement a all encompassing program that would be geared towards drawing more of its citizens towards the technology.
As of this writing, there are very few places outside the country’s capital in which there exist internet and computer facilities that are for the use of the general public. And in such places, the facilities are usually made available by military contingents of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) who are based in those localities.
The problem now is what would happen to these facilities once these soldiers at whose largesse they are being provided withdraw from the country. Will they be left behind for the benefit of the locales? If they are left with the local people, will these people have the capacities to run and maintain those facilities? These are tough questions that need to be addressed by every Liberian, most especially the government.
Author : Lamii Kpargoi, Nigeria
Article produced at the occasion of Haayo Call for articles n°4.
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