Weak States, Strong Backbones: Telecommunications Policy and Internet Infrastructure Development in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia

Lewis Levenberg

Advisor: JP Singh, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Denise Albanese, Sharon Leon

Van Metre Hall (formerly Founders Hall), #324
May 02, 2018, 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM


Large-scale telecommunications network development remains unevenly distributed in West Africa, both between and within the region’s nation-states. Growth of backbone network infrastructure outpaces growth rates of access to those same networks for people in the region, in contrast to most demand-driven network development patterns. The internet is commonly described as a borderless, international, global phenomenon. Yet we find Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia, despite their apparent relative weakness in geopolitical context, appearing to pursue aggressive telecommunications policy with broader, regional effects. This anomaly raises an as-yet unanswered question: how and why would the telecommunications policy strategies of these ostensibly weak states lead to a backbone-first architecture for large-scale internet working throughout West Africa? This dissertation argues that backbone-first network development, as undertaken by these three states, works to preserve and strengthen extant conditions of state power. In other words, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria have pursued telecommunications policies that reinforce their existing political-economic institutions and structures, acting as gatekeeper states in pursuit of gate-keeping internet infrastructure. To explain how this happens, the study investigates the political-economic processes behind the policy and practice of telecommunications network development in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia. To describe how and when these backbone-first networking patterns arose in the region, the study measures networking growth patterns in these three case studies. To establish the roots of that network development in public policy from the three states, the study indexes large corpora of telecommunications policy documents from each case study, leading to subsequent close reading of selected policies for more in-depth interpretive analysis. By examining the historical, socio-political, and ideological rationales of nation-states' activities to impact international network architecture and telecommunications policy, we can see why these supposedly weak states in West Africa pursue backbone-first internet development, and theorize as to what their successes portend for future development in the region.