CCRA, Ghana — The information revolution has come to Africa, and last December it had a direct impact on bringing about the first-ever peaceful transition from one elected civilian government to another in Ghana. This was a hugely important political event for West Africa, but it got lost in America's post- election ruckus. Ghana's turnabout would not have happened, though, without the information revolution here. Thank the Lord for the information revolution. You gotta love technology. Oh, I'm not talking about the Internet. I'm talking about FM radio.
That's right, a simple transistor radio and a couple of batteries did the trick. In 1995 Ghana's previous government, led by Jerry Rawlings, gave up its monopoly on the airwaves and permitted the establishment of private FM radio stations. Since then, more than 40 have cropped up around Ghana, broadcasting in both English and native Ghanaian languages. They play local music, read their own news and, most important, offer hours and hours of live talk radio, where Ghanaians can tell the government and each other whatever's on their minds.
For Ghana's poor, illiterate masses, being able to call the radio, or be interviewed in the market by a radio reporter with a tape recorder, has given them a chance to participate in politics as never before. It was this national conversation, conducted over FM radio, that was critical in enabling J. A. Kufuor, a free- market democrat, to defeat Mr. Rawlings's tired, floundering party, which had run Ghana into the ground during 20 years in office.
"Everyone knew that [Mr. Rawlings's] wife, if she didn't like a program on our [state-owned] station, could just order it off the air," Said Yawowusu Addo, the director of the state-run radio GBC. "No one could do that with the private stations. When people saw something, they just called in with the news. These FM radios helped us liberate ourselves. The public found their voice. The politicians could all hear ordinary people talking about the problems — corruption, unemployment. People were fed up and they told each other, and they told Rawlings."
Ghana is divided into 10 provinces. Eight of them have flourishing private FM stations, two don't. Mr. Kufuor won the eight provinces where there were FM stations, and Mr. Rawlings's party won the two that had no private stations. Not an accident.
Indeed, the FM stations were critical in making sure that Ghana's election was not stolen by the Rawlings team. Ghanaians going to the polls would call their local FM station if they saw any shenanigans, and it would be broadcast in seconds. The radios were monitored by the election board and it would quickly respond.
"On the day of the elections there was a polling station in Accra where soldiers started destroying voting boxes," recalled Joseph Ebo Quarshie, president of the Ghana Bar Association. "Immediately, someone called an FM station and it was reported on the air. I was at my bank at the time. A guy walks up to me, a pharmacist I know, and says, `Have you heard what's going on at this polling station in Accra? What is the Bar Association doing about it?' So I got in my car and turned on SKY FM. Minutes later I got a call from JOY FM. I told them to call me back in a few minutes. Meanwhile, I got a copy of the Constitution. JOY FM called me back and I read over the radio the article in the Constitution which says that citizens had the right to resist interference in a polling station. JOY FM kept playing my interview over and over. A couple hours later the soldiers were chased off by voters."
Now that the elections are over, the FM radios, which are all run by young Ghanaians who were either educated or had worked in the West, are playing an important role in forcing transparency on the new government. "The minute people were able to talk freely — and anonymously — on the radio, and ask what officials were up to, was the beginning of accountability for government in Ghana," said Nana Akufo-Addo, the new minister of justice.
Fact: The four most democratic countries in West Africa today — Benin, Ghana, Mali and Senegal — all have private, flourishing FM talk radio stations. Sure, all of Africa will get the Internet one day, but for now, the real information revolution here will be based on cheap FM transmitters and even cheaper radios. So let's stop sending Africa lectures on democracy. Let's instead make all aid, all I.M.F.-World Bank loans, all debt relief conditional on African governments' permitting free FM radio stations. Africans will do the rest.