Cell phones may be the key to the 2012 Ghanaian Election

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.



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2 Responses to Cell phones may be the key to the 2012 Ghanaian Election

  1. Anna says:

    Great post, Sybil. The question I have been grappling with is: even if mobile phones are used more than the internet, why aren’t Ghanian politicians doing more to reach out to the one million Facebook users? I think part of the answer could lie in quality of internet access. Documenting the sheer number of Facebook/internet users in a country–as Internet World Statistics has done–can be useful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
    Part of the appeal of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that they are fun, interactive, and easy to use. Most Americans don’t set aside time during their day to log onto Facebook or check Twitter, because logging on can be as big or as little of a commitment as one wants it to be. But a significant number of those who are able to access the internet in West Africa have very slow dial-up connections. Thus, although Ghana may have one million Facebook users, I wonder if the amount of pages visited each day is less, on average, than it is for a user in a country that has widespread Broadband access.
    If this is true, though, everything might change very soon. Ghana has aggressively pursued faster internet connections over the past three years, and according a study released three days ago by the Net Household Download Index, Ghana has the fastest internet download speeds in Africa.
    On a separate note, Harold Pontez, the President of HPI technologies, gave a speech today at the Yale Alumni in Energy Conference about rural electrification in Ghana. He said that one of the key factors driving electrification in rural areas is that more people are using cellphones. According to him, Ghanians are increasing pressure on politicians to provide more ways to charge cellphones. Maybe cellphones will be the key to the Ghanian election in more ways than one: not only can they serve as a means of communicating political information, but being able to use them is an important goal for voters.

  2. Julia Averbuck says:

    What is interesting about this post is to observe the differences in culture between Ghana and the United States. In the US, the mobile phone is seen as such a personal device and such an extension of the self, that if I were to receive calls, texts or e-mails from a candidate without having signed up for the service – I would be infuriated! It would be like crossing boundaries. However, Facebook, which has a similar potential to be personal (your face, your e-mail, your friends, your photos – everything’s there!), doesn’t actually feel as personal as a cellphone and I wouldn’t mind being contacted there. Maybe that’s just me? But I’ve just gotten so used to seeing status updates from people who I don’t remember, receiving invites from events that I don’t want to go to in places I’ve never heard of, seeing inappropriately specific ads on the side of my page, that I honestly wouldn’t mind receiving an invitation to an app of a candidate that I might support. In Ghana, I’m assuming this personal level is reversed. Because people have less access to internet than they do to cellphones, Facebook is considered a personal space, where they would not like to be intruded upon by political candidates.

    Another key differentiation between Ghana and the US is that when Barack Obama ran a social media campaign in 2008, he did it, to some extent, because it was cheap. Cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – these were cheaper methods than traditional campaigning. However, for a candidate to maintain these avenues in Ghana would be costly. In that sense, social media does not act as a democratizing factor in Ghana as it did in the US.

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