Known knowns, known unknowns and unkwnown unknowns in African politics

Even though African politics, like politics everywhere else, sometimes bring a number of surprises, it is often the case that political affairs tend to be rather predictable. For example, in certain countries the outcome of elections is known well before they take place, as a result of the ruling party’s dominant position in politics and society and its nearly total control of the media and public institutions. Generally however, people interested in following, analysing, (even trying to predict) African politics needs to deal with different situations and different degrees of uncertainty which follow from varying levels of information. The problem of “imperfect information” – to borrow a term from the game theory and political science jargon – is particularly accurate in undemocratic regimes, given that these are often the least transparent. Recent news coming from different African countries – all of which, curiously, are examples of national unity governments – can help us see how these different levels of uncertainty play out. And also how this uncertainty and lack of information, relates not only to the more or less democratic character of the regime, but also to how far citizen-driven media and ITCs have mad inroads into the public opinion landscapes of these countries.
The varying levels of information and uncertainty that can be distinguished in any given situation were brilliantly defined by the otherwise unsympathetic (to put it mildly) of the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, back in 2002. In his now famous words:“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Known Knowns

In a few African countries, for a number of reasons, including: a more visible traditional media – TV, radio and, especially, newspapers (as this entry on A Bombastic Element notes) – more developed world of ITCs (with a brand new iHub), various blogs and citizen journalism initiatives, stronger connections to the international media and public opinion, etc – people can have access to a greater level of information, which in turn allows them to have a fairly accurate idea of what the situation is, and what is to be expected. The position of the Kenyan unity government is one such example and, as I have blogged before here (in Spanish though), it is widely known that the accountability of the government and the political class, falls well short of what it is expected, and that in-fighting within the government often hampers political decisions.
Thus, the news last weekend that Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s decision to remove the Ministers of agriculture and education from their posts as a result of a fraud investigation, had been revoked by President Mwai Kibaki, was another example – even if this time a more serious one – of a known situation. Below you can see the NTV report on this decision.

Known Unknowns

A second degree of uncertainty relates to those situations where there is a general awareness of the situation, but the lack on information is important. This has been the case, for example, in the recent events in Cote d’Ivoire, where Friday’s announcement that President Gbagbo was dissolving the national unity government as well as the Electoral Commission to be named, came as a surprise. But only a relative one, given that the elections, planned for next month, had been repeatedly delayed since 2005, and that this time round, doubts had been cast on the electoral roll, after it was found that the electoral commission had fraudulently added nearly 500.000 names to the voting list. All these situation was only briefly covered by the traditional media, and citizen journalism and new media, only partly could cover for this absence, as Miquel brilliantly writes over at Subsaharska. This situation continued during this week, with some blogs and Twitter users – such as @hudin, @eliaws, @ourmaininafrica, @cartunelo, @tndzulo – commenting on the protests which occurred on Monday and yesterday, after there was a delay in naming a new government.
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President Gbagbo makes his announcement – Foto Subsaharska

Unknown unknowns

Finally, Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbour, Guinea-Conakry, could be cited as an example of numerous unknown unknowns. Even though I am no specialist on Guinean politics, I get the feeling that, ever since the horrific events of September 28th last year (see the Human Rights Watch report here), the international opinion has been constantly surprised by the different news coming out from this country, not all of them bad. These include, in chronological order (and also from worse to better), the shooting of Dadis Camara in December and his swift exit from the country, the decision of the military to name not only a civilian leader, but an opposition leader, Jean-Marie Doré to lead the transition, and the recent unveiling of an interim government, made up of over 30 members both military and civilian, together with the compromise that elections will be held within six months. The unexpected nature of all these events – unknown unknowns – is mostly explained by the scarce information coming out the country – a good example of information however, is the journalist portal Konakry Express – as well as the rather obscure character of the Guinean regime.

Thus, the degree of “unknownledge”, this is uncertainty, of any situation in (African) politics, is given by the information available. If we want to be able to understand these different situations then we must encourage the production of more and more reliable information, not only from traditional sources, but also from new media and citizen journalism. Initiatives that, although growing within African countries, are doing it unevenly and often facing serious difficulties, something that results in varying levels of information and certainty.
Known knowns, known unknowns and unkwnown unknowns in African politics

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