Internet in Africa
A Less Than Random Sample
by John Edward Philips
They were the best of trips, they were the worst of trips. They were trips that I wasn't sure I wanted to take in the first place, and I'm not even sure I want to talk about it now. It's taken me over a year to give AJ editor Mike Lloret the article about it he asked for at the time. Well, you'll read about the disaster below, although it happened on the second of two trips to Africa, where I least expected it.
In February and March of 1997 I spent about a month and a half in Nigeria, and then the first week of April in Ghana. Later, during the summer, I went to Kenya for my first ever trip to east Africa.
Nigeria has been going through some rough times, as you may have heard. In fact the political problems are one reason I delayed writing this for so long. But you don't want to hear about all that political crap. You want to hear about the Internet situation. THAT I can talk about.
Nigeria is behind most of the other African countries, especially ones at similar levels of income, education and technological advancement, as far as computerization and connecting to the Internet goes. Universities in the north were just getting hooked up when I was there. A few universities in the south were supposed to have had connections already, but I had never been able to get Internet e-mail through to anyone.
I was able to meet someone whom I had only known by e-mail, though. A professor, who also happened to be one of the editors of the Arabic script Hausa language newspaper, Alfijir, had been invited to the U.S. for an American Studies program and shown how to use the Internet. He and others in the program were introduced to an American studies mailing list I'm on. Seeing an e-mail message with a Hausa name and a sig file which identified him as working at a university I knew well, I wrote the guy back in Hausa, and established a lively exchange in English and Hausa. In Nigeria I was able to meet him in person and chat about the Internet, his newspaper, and the problems of Nigerian universities. But I haven't been in touch with him by e-mail since I got back.
Nigerian universities are seriously underfunded, so the computer network at Bayero University Kano (BUK), in one of Nigeria's largest cities (Kano), had to be patched together from freeware by an amazingly talented and resourceful computer geek. They were using the Linux operating system, PINE e-mailer, Mosaic web browser, anything that could be picked up for nothing. It was inspiring to see the way it had all been patched together despite the budget problems they had. BUK has a website at http://www.expovideo.com/bayero/ but it's not hosted on their campus.
I mentioned to the network administrator that Netscape was free to academic users, but it would take so long to download (at their connection speed, with constant risks of being thrown off by bad phone lines, power outages etc.) that it wasn't worth it for them.
They couldn't get an actual Internet connection for free, of course. They had to access a commercial dialup service in the town that connected to one of the better known U.S. Internet providers. I'm not sure the U.S. provider knows they have an outlet in Nigeria, so I won't mention their name, but it cost $10/hour to hook up, which is a lot of money to a Nigerian academic. I have been able to get e-mail through to some Nigerian universities since coming back, but I use it strictly for business and I don't always expect a reply.
I was there for BUK's test run, the day before the system was shown off to the university's computer committee. We got a good connection, and were able to visit a number of interesting sites. The professor in charge was quite interestedin my own site, especially the links I had been able to put together.He downloaded some pages to read later. He was especially interested in, and bookmarked, the Foreign Academics Japan site at http://www.issho.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=237 to visit again. He told me he wanted to show my page (now at http://www2.gol.com/users/philips/ or http://culture.cc.hirosaki-u.ac.jp/english/philips/jphilips.htm instead of where it was then) to the committee as an example of what could be done related to African studies on the web. I had to go down to the capital the next day, so I didn't get to meet the committee, but I was able to read about it in the paper the next week.
I showed him some of the old e-mail I had in the laptop computer I brought with me. It was not only personal stuff, but also from such lists as
The Internet is such an important means of intellectual communication these days that lack of access is one of the main things hampering African scholars' interaction with their colleagues in the outside world.
Since the university didn't have a direct Internet connection the main problem in Kano was the phone lines. Even trying to call friends in Nigeria is a real hassle. Things have deteriorated from even a few years ago, when telephoning was relatively easy. The quality of even local connections is poor, when you can get one, although the phone company is slowly digitizing the system. If you get a modem connection to the Internet, prepare to be bumped off regularly. Japan's other Hausa specialist has some amusing comments on his own experiences using e-mail in Africa (including Nigeria) at http://www3.aa.tufs.ac.jp/~mshuji/MOBILIS/africa1.htm and the pages linked thereto. The Post office in Abuja offered e-mail service, but they just dialed up a BBS in Lagos once a day to send out messages and upload them.
I talked a lot about Nigeria's Internet and phone problems with an engineer friend who works for NITEL, the national phone company.My friend was very interested in getting Internet access offered by his company. He's the kind of guy who soaks up all the technical manuals I can send him and wants more. I showed him hypertext on the laptop I brought with me, and explained how with an Internet connection we could travel all over the world to visit the resources of different computers. He wanted to surf the web, but he wasn't able to interest his superiors at the phone company in dialing a provider so that I could show them the potential.
The usual explanations Nigerians offered for this reluctance had something to do with the bureaucratic mentality. If the Internet project works, the government functionary who did the work won't get much benefit out of it. If it fails that same functionary is likely to lose his job. So why bother? Why stick your neck out? Other Nigerians were even more cynical about the government's attitude to information, but you didn't want to hear all that political crap. There is an interesting story about trying to set up a FIDONET node in Nigeria at http://www.funet.fi/pub/netinfo/isoc/isoc_news/issue2-3/014.102. Another article about the problems of e-mail access in Nigeria can be found at http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Padis/telmatics_Inyang.html and a more general (and technical) study of telecommunications in Nigeria can be found at http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/ECA/aisi_inftl.html.
It was not unusual to hear people advocate the privatization of the telephone company, and in fact after I left it was announced that private companies would be permitted to compete, but the logical person to buy NITEL or set up a competitor, the former head of ITT Nigeria, was cooling his heels under house arrest for having declared himself president after apparently winning an election. Although there were definitely opposition newspapers making very sharp criticisms of the government, things in the Nigerian press were not as liberal (or maybe out of control) as they usually are. Was the government really going to open up the flow of information to mass Internet connectivity? Anyone who's read some of the posts on soc.culture.nigeria could tell you why the government might think the Internet was for external consumption only.
Well, I already said you didn't want to hear about all this political crap. It's just hard to discuss the barriers to the Internet in Africa without looking at the political situation. Maybe if Nigeria's current transition really leads to a freely elected democratic government things will change. One friend who had just spent a sabbatical in South Africa said that the South Africans had been surprised how good democratization had been for their economy. For an interesting and technical explanation of the struggles to set up connectivity in that much better connected Africa country check out http://apies.frd.ac.za/uninet/history/ and read for yourself.I guess Kwame Nkrumah was right, though perhaps not in the sense he meant, when he said "Seek ye first the political kingdom."
It would be unfair to suggest that the infrastructure problems in Nigeria were only on the telephone lines, though. Auto production was down, and who could afford a new car anyway? My host insisted on personally taking me almost everywhere I wanted to go, even though I was afraid for the health of his car. On every trip something went wrong. We broke down in a forest one time and had to push the car out (up a slope!) to get out of the woods before it got dark. Then later on the same trip a tire blew out and caused us to get back a day late.
I wanted to fly down to Lagos to catch my plane out to Ghana, but my friend wouldn't hear of it. "No." I tried to insist. "I know something is going to go wrong with your car. It always does." But before I could make arrangements the price of air tickets rose sharply.
He said not to worry, and had everything in his car worked on. I think he had been looking for an excuse to do some maintenance anyway. He had the wheels replaced and aligned, the electrical system rewired (the lights had gone out on us one night on the highway coming back) and a lot of other work done. I was really impressed, and couldn't refuse, but I knew something was going to go wrong.
Something went wrong, all right, but it wasn't with my friend's car. On our first day out we had trouble finding gasoline for sale. As we neared Lagos we had to wait hours for service in lines that wound around blocks and seemed to grow as we waited. Luckily I had scheduled an extra day (being so sure that something would go wrong) and we made it to the airport on time. Is this life in an oil-exporting country? Well, I hear Indonesia's having worse problems now. OPEC isn't what it used to be anymore.
Probably the biggest surprise of the whole trip was the Lagos airport. I didn't see the notorious "60 Minutes" episode on the Lagos airport, but I heard about it. The government had really cracked down and cleaned up the situation after it was exposed on US television. Things can get done in Nigeria when people put their minds to it. But I wasn't going to talk about all this political crap.
Ghana was the next stop and was such a relief after Nigeria. I hadn't been there to see my friends since Ghana's far worse economic problems in the late 1970's. This time the economy and production were really booming, a popular military president, Jerry Rawlings, had proven his popularity in freely contested elections, and there were even minimarts that took credit cards at the gas stations. If you want to visit someplace in Africa, now is the time to visit Ghana. Ask Bill Clinton, he just had a great time there.
But you didn't want to hear about all that political crap. This article was supposed to be about the Internet. Ghana's Internet connections were impressive.Ghana is one of five African countries listed on the home page of Africa Online at http://www.AfricaOnline.com/ and it's easy to keep up on the news from there.Yahoo now lists five Internet providers in Ghana, and it wasn't unusual to see companies list their webpages in their advertisements. I've had no trouble contacting the University of Ghana (http://www.ug.edu.gh/) through e-mail, and even phoning home wasn't the problem it had been in Nigeria. This was like a vacation after my trip to Nigeria. And it was great to catch up on so many old friends and find out how they had been doing.
After I got back my wife left for her research trip in Kenya. This time I really did have a vacation when I visited her, although I had to give a talk and stopped on the way to give another paper at a conference.
Visiting Kenya was my first time in a coffee-exporting country.Nigeria produces coffee, but not enough for internal consumption. There was really good coffee and plenty of it everywhere. I really enjoyed having so much good, cheap coffee available, and made sure to get a kilo in the airport on the way out. That was my favorite souvenir!
Kenya was having its own political problems (but I keep forgetting you don't want to hear about all that political crap,) and was not in as good shape as Ghana, but it was not hard to get on the Internet, and I could see billboards advertising Internet service providers all around Nairobi. I spent a lot of time websurfing and using e-mail. The phone lines were still a little testy, and I got thrown off a lot, but my real problem was back in Japan.
One of my main e-mail boxes was closed without my authorization, or even my knowledge. All mail to that account was forwarded to a boxI didn't know how to access, but that didn't matter, since I didn't even know where it was going. This happened in the middle of a flame war on a mailing list. I asked someone to forward me the relevant messages so I could at least keep up with what was going on, but when I got back I found out I had been sent less than half the traffic in the flame war. I had been firing blind. You can imagine the results. ;-(
Maybe now the AJ will put my old article "How to flame (not)" up on the Website, so I can read it myself.
Well, that's one snafu that couldn't be blamed on the Africans. I was pretty upset at certain Japanese, but I think it had been an honest mistake, so I handled it indirectly and diplomatically, just so that they got the message. I hope. :-(
Yes, that's right, Japanese make mistakes too, and the real disaster of last year's African trips for me was a very typical "human error" made by the proverbially efficient, careful and attentive to detail Japanese. Well, I just have to take it in stride. As they say in Hausa, "Allah ya ba mu hak'uri!" (May God give us patience!)
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