Mobile Phones and the Emerging Privacy Invasion Issues in West Africa

Introduction Though it came into the continent like an unexpected visitor, the cell phone has become an inseparable companion of most Africans. It has not just become a new daily fixture in the lives of inhabitants of the world’s second most populous continent, mobile phone is fast replacing its old cousin, analog telephony. Since its arrival in the late 1990s, mobile telephony has continued to redraw Africa’s social architecture, with more than 90 per cent of telephones lines in the continent being mobile phones1. Like their counterparts in other climes, a large chunk of Africa’s estimated 1 billion people have embraced this social revolution, using this sweetheart consumer technology to break barriers that hitherto existed in all sphere of their lives.2 Because this leveler provides the much-needed template for staying in touch with their loved ones, transacting businesses more easily, and reaping

See Africa - making money at the bottom of the market, available at (accessed on November 12)

With 49 per cent annual growth rate between 2002-2007, as opposed to Europe’s 17 per cent, Africa’s mobile telephony is poised to achieve enormous expansion potential predicted for it. Identifying informational challenges as the bane of the growth of commerce in developing countries, Abi Jagun, Richard Heeks and Jason Whalley concluded that mobile technology possessed the magic wand to solving the problems militating against the growth of micro enterprises in evolving economies. See The Impact of Mobile Telephony on Developing Country Micro-Enterprises: A Nigerian Case Study. Journal of Information Technologies and International Development. Volume 4, Number 4, Fall/Winter 2008.

many other gains from cheap telephony, mobile phone means more than a new communication device to many ecstatic Africans.

Indeed, cheap telephony has become a tool of empowerment, one that is fast opening up a floodgate of opportunities in knowledge dissemination and harnessing huge economic and technological potential existing in sub-Saharan Africa.3 This mood was captured very succinctly in a landmark study of the impact of mobile telephony on the social, economic and political landscape of the continent:4
One in fifty Africans had access to a mobile phone in 2000 and by 2008 the figure was one in three. This is a revolution in terms of voice communication, especially for areas where land lines were still rare at the end of the 20th century. …this new technology is (re)shaping social realities in African societies and how Africans and their societies are, in turn, shaping the technologies of communication.

Given its pervasiveness in Africa, mobile communication is speculated to be the region’s second most-used information and communication technology in the 21st century – besides radio.5 By the end of 2009, there were 454.8 million mobile


Read further in Information, Communication, and Power: Mobile Phones as a Tool for Empowering Women in Sub-Saharan Africa;

For a cartographical analysis and description of how this technology has altered the cultural, social, economic and political space in Africa, see Mirjam de Bruijin, Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Inge Brinkman (2009: 11-22)

See Gender Assessment of ICT Access and Usage in Africa, volume 1 2010 Policy Paper 5; sourced from Research ICT Africa:

phone subscribers in Africa.6 Yet, the horizon appears very bright and promising for the sector in this developing world. Going by the latest statistics of the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, as global mobile phone connection is expected to jump from 5.3 billion in 2010 to 7.1 billion in 2014, the emerging markets of Africa and Asia will contribute the lion’s share of this projected boom.7 Out of a total 53 countries in Africa, West Africa’s 16 nations, which constituted the main study area of the current research, accounted for 30 per cent of the continent’s entire mobile technology subscriber base by the close of 2009. The remaining three sub-regions, 37 countries in all, provided 70 per cent. (See the diagram 1 below).


Although the global credit crunch reared its ugly head in the African telecom sector in 2009, the region recorded consistent impressive growth record, having 22 per cent growth fact sheet in 2009, 35 per cent in 2008 and 42 per cent in 2007. Read further in (accessed on November 3, 2010)


Source: Industry data & estimates c. 2010 Blycroft Ltd

In Nigeria, for example, the positive impact of mobile communication is so phenomenal that the gains posted within first four years of mobile telephony surpassed what the telecommunication industry achieved in the nation’s first three decades after independence8. Going by current statistics, Nigeria has emerged Africa’s largest mobile market, accounting for 16 per cent of the continent’s mobile subscriptions and 53 per cent of West African mobile phone users. With 78.5 million people now using cell phones out of Nigeria’s 150 million population, the access to information has been able to give democracy an impetus, transform the lives of individuals as well as many hitherto inaccessible communities in

Read Esharenana Adomi further in Mobile Telephony in Nigeria. Library Hi Tech News, Number 4, 2005 (page. 18-20).

Nigeria, having opened vistas of opportunities and closed the wide inequality gap in a country where only the few affluent used to be the only owners of telephone lines.9 Prior to the advent of cell phones in the 1990s, the state-owned but moribund (privatized a few weeks ago) Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL, was only able to provide roughly 450, 000 analog telephone lines in a country that was then peopled by over 100 million.10 Today, millions of Nigerian mobile phone users still remember with nostalgia the infamous statement of one minister of communications who, in response to deafening public outcry against prohibitive costs of owning and maintaining a land line during the era of military dictatorship, remarked that telephones were actually not meant for the poor.11 Like Nigeria, Ghana, the first of all colonial territories in sub-Saharan Africa to gain political independence from British imperialism on March 6, 1957, is having a swell time. Since the first cellular phone service was initiated in Ghana in

Further readings in Christiana Charles-Iyoha (ed.) 2006. Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation of Nigeria. Lagos: Centre for Policy and Development or Nigel Scott, Simon Batchelor, Jonathan Ridley and Britt Jorgensen. The Impact of Mobile Phones in Africa; see

See A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola and Mathew M. Heaton.


David Mark, currently Nigeria’s president of the Senate who was then minister of communications during the military administration of Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, shrugged off mounting criticisms against lack of public’s access to telephony, saying telephone was actually not for poor Nigerians. See or option=com_content&view=article&id=68192:decades-of-mixed-blessings-&catid=37:infotech&Itemid=709 (both accessed on November 12, 2010)

1992, the quality of life has been in an upward swing. In a country where the ratio of mobile to analog phone is touted to be 40: 1, mobile phone user base has increased from 383, 000 in 2002 to 15.360 million by the end of 2009, posting a penetration rate of almost 63 per cent12. And with the launch of one more telecom operator in the year, Ghana seems set to enjoy further boom in mobile telephone market in years to come. With the end of an internecine war in Cote d’Ivoire in 2003, the return of favorable investment climate has rubbed off on mobile phone market as well, making it the third largest mobile telephony market in West Africa. A Frenchspeaking West African country with an estimated 20 million people, Cote d’Ivoire or Ivory Coast (as it is called in English) accounted for 10 per cent of the subregion’s mobile phone strength. Even Senegal, with a population of 12.5million, accounted for 5 per cent of mobile phone subscriptions in West Africa, just as Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Republic and Mali contributed 3 per cent each. While each of Sierra Leone, Niger and Mauritania posted 2 per cent of mobile telephony in the sub-region, Liberia, Togo, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau contributed an average of 1 per cent each. (See diagram 2 below, which depicts in percentages the


For more statistics and analyses of Ghana’s potential in telephony, see

contribution of each of West African countries to the total mobile phone subscriptions in sub-region).

Source: Industry data & estimates c. 2010 Blycroft Ltd

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