Africa’s information technology revolution: implications for crime, policing and citizen security
Violent crime represents the most immediate threat to the personal security of most Africans. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 36 percent of all homicides globally occur in Africa. With 17 deaths per 100,000, the homicide rate in Africa is double the global average. Rates of robberies and rape in Africa also exceed global norms. The problem is worse in urban areas, with many of Africa’s urban-dwellers “often” worrying about crime.
The risk of violent crime has implications for Africa’s development, governance, and stability. Crime ranks as one of the major inhibitors to investment on the continent according to private business owners. Parents choose not to send children to school rather than put them at risk in high- crime areas. Countries with higher rates of violent crime tend to make less progress in reducing poverty and expanding development.
Closely linked to the threat of violent crime is the weakness of many of Africa’s police forces. They are often underfunded, understaffed, and undertrained. Surveys show that a majority of Africans see police only infrequently, and therefore do not view the police as a source of protection. In addition to being ineffective in combatting crime, inadequate police training contributes to unprofessional behavior. In some cases, police are active participants in criminal activity. In others, corruption permeates the force. In still others, police use extrajudicial violence to intimidate and coerce suspected criminals, potential witnesses, and even victims. This generates high levels of distrust of the police in many African countries.
The acuteness of the crime challenge has grown with rapid urbanization and the expansion of slums lacking basic services, including police presence. In many urban centers, this vacuum has been filled by gangs and organized criminal organizations that profit from extortion, kidnappings, and violence against the local population. At times these gangs are protected by corrupt police or politicians. As these criminal groups expand into trafficking of illicit goods—drugs, cigarettes, medicines, and arms—they tend to link up with transnational criminal networks, posing an even more formidable security problem.
Consistently high levels of violence have far-reaching implications for how youth learn to resolve conflict—perpetuating tolerance for higher levels of violence in a society. This, in turn, fosters the acceptability of political violence and threatens the viability of democratic governance, which relies on dialogue, free speech, tolerance of opposing perspectives, and protection for minorities.
The rapid expansion and accessibility of mobile communications technology in Africa is creating new opportunities for combatting crime and strengthening police accountability. Twitter, SMS, and event-mapping technologies are being used to connect communities with police and security forces as never before. This is precedent setting for many citizens, especially those in rural areas who have grown accustomed to fending for themselves. Now at least they are more able to alert one another to potential threats, mobilize the community in self-defense, and inform security sector authorities in the interest of gaining protection. In urban areas, citizens who would not normally have many interactions with the police now have a number they can call in times of trouble.
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are also connecting societies horizontally in real time. This is forging cross-regional ties and linkages that may not have previously existed and historically have emerged only with the development of a national transportation infrastructure. In the process, both economic and social integration are facilitated. This enhanced cohesiveness can contribute directly to greater stability.
ICTs, often tapping into their crowdsourcing capabilities, also offer opportunities to improve police responsiveness and accountability. Crime maps provide the basis for allocating resources to match prevailing threats. They also establish a benchmark from which to assess the effectiveness of police responses. Bribe-reporting websites create a record and pattern of illegal police behavior that raise the profile of what are often treated as isolated events into a broader, measurable phenomenon requiring a policy response.
While opening opportunities to enhance security and accountability, ICTs are not a panacea for resolving crime and corruption. Information is solely a tool and not the driver of reform. ICTs can be used for nefarious purposes—both by criminal organizations as well as unaccountable police forces. Rather, ICT-generated change requires an organized body of committed individuals who can use the increased accessibility of information to educate the public, engender popular participation, and press authorities for reform. It is this sustained engagement of on-the-ground actors, typically in the form of civil society organizations, that transforms information accessibility into concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary citizens.
By lowering information barriers, ICTs are bringing discussion and analysis of crime in Africa out of the shadows, enhancing the potential for oversight of the security forces, and elevating citizen security. ICTs, therefore, are contributing to improved security through both internal channels via the strengthening of the state’s crime data gathering capacity as well as external mechanisms to monitor, critique, and hold the security sector accountable.
Courtesy: Africa Center for Strategic Studies.