According to Internet World Stats, there were approximately 2 million internet users in Ghana at the end of last year. Half of these Ghanaian internet users have a Facebook profile, indicating that social media is a big part of Ghana’s online presence. One could expect then that the popularity of Facebook would translate into high Ghanaian political engagement on the site, right?
Wrong. A quick scan of the leading political candidates’ pages on Facebook show small fan numbers and minimal citizen engagement. It is evident then that social media isn’t the tool of choice for Ghanaians looking to engage virtually in the upcoming election. But if popular social media cannot facilitate political engagement, what will?
Interestingly, the answer might lie in Ghanaians’ cell phones.
Cellular phones (or mobile phones as they are referred to in Ghana) have been growing in popularity and usage since the late nineties in countries all over Africa and, Ghana has not been left behind. Ghana’s National Communication Authority (NCA) reported last week that mobile penetration in the country reached a record 88% of the country’s population in January of this year , a figure which represents about 21,265,706 active mobile phone lines and is 10 times the internet penetration of the country. This is no inflated statistic; it can be corroborated easily by simple observation of the society in Ghana today. A majority of Ghanaians, even the ones living in rural areas, use cellphones and do so frequently.
The pie chart below, featuring data from a survey conducted in 2009 by Audience Scapes, shows just how frequent cell phone use in Ghana is for the average citizen.
Cell phone use has become close to second nature for many Ghanaians, with people going as far as severely ridiculing those who do not have these devices. This wide popularity of cell phones in Ghana thus presents an exciting opportunity for politicians to connect with the masses in this year’s election.
This concept of using cell phones in elections is not new to Ghanaians however. In the 2008 election cycle, mobile phones were used to help monitor practices at the various polling stations across the country. The practice was successful as it gave voters confidence in the fairness of the election process.
Cell phones can be used for much more than monitoring election practices though. They provide a direct means of communication between candidates and citizens and as such can be used to cultivate voter interest and investment in a campaign. In the 2008 US election, President Barack Obama did a wonderful job of this: His campaign used text messaging to inform over 3 million supporters of his pick for the vice presidential candidate. Ghanaian candidates could follow suit and make use of this service to offer information about their platforms as well as send out reminders about campaign events and ultimately encourage supporters to come out and vote on election day.
Keeping in mind the scope of possibilities of the cell phone medium, there are some potential hindrances to be considered. As with internet service in Ghana, problems with infrastructure affect the quality of connectivity ; many cell service providers have only a few cell towers scattered across the country. This makes cell service spotty and unreliable at times. Furthermore, the cost of incorporating a cell phone component to a campaign would be very high – too high for certain candidates.
For the candidates who can afford to go down the cell route in this election though, I say, “Don’t let anything stop you!” In 2012, the ability to capitalize on a population’s investment in new media, be it social media or cellular devices, could be the key to winning an election.