A draft survey of Information Policy in Africa


Marius Francisco, Coordinator


Most of the early information processing machines used in French-speaking countries were passed down from the colonial masters. These machines included card punches, checking machines, sorting machines, filing machines, all generally known then as calculators. The only computer centres were located in Dakar for French West Africa and in Brazzaville for French Equatorial Africa.

The Dakar Centre was established on 1 August 1948, the Brazzaville Centre in 1952 and the Grande Ile Centre in Madagascar in 1953. The Cte d'Ivoire Centre, by 1952, was equipped with similar machines.

The National Institute for Foreign Trade and Economic Studies (France) was established for data processing. The early BULL GAMMA 30 and IBM 1401 computers were manufactured within the first decade of independence for African budget management. At the same period, a French service company, SINORG established in francophone countries budget management applications. Old machines were subsequently replaced as new computer centres were being set up although the majority of the workers were expatriates assisted by other workers from the manufacturing companies such as IBM and BULL.

The development of the computer industry started gaining strategic prominence in France as from the 70s. African policy makers started showing interest especially when France established its computer plan intended to make France a self- sufficient in the industry.

Although African policy makers were not very familiar with computers at that period, they were becoming increasingly aware that computers could be a precious instrument for public finance management and could even boost government's power.

The first information personnel in the public sector made a significant impact by spreading information technology throughout Europe in general and in France in particular.

During the Summit of the African and Madagascan Joint Organization (OCAM) held in 1970, in Fort-Lamy, now known as N'djamena, the Heads of State decided to establish the African Information Institute with headquarters in Libraville, thereby bringing information technology to the highest government level.



Although the relevance of computer science was acknowledged, policy makers were not adequately sensitized. They therefore need to do a lot more by way of sensitization and promotion of national information policy.

1.1. The African Information Environment from 1960-1970

Defining an information policy consists in knowing the environment, standard and structural constraints, costs and implementable objectives.

1.1.1 Computer Specifications in the 60's and 70's

From 1960-1980, the smallest computers were the MINI types. Their installation required dehumidified, air- conditioned glass houses with false ceilings and floors and hidden cable connections. Disks had to be dust-free; the electrical equipment included converters, powerful ondulators and battery-operated energy sources.

About 2% of government budget revenues were allocated for the purchase of these equipment.

1.1.2 Personnel

There are three categories of personnel in the computer center:

- Information experts in charge of analysis, programming and tests; they are generally expatriates from service companies

- National technicians who are keyboarding personnel

- Local support and administrative staff.

Experts generally earn 60 times as much as the salary of a civil servant.

1.1.3 Maintenance of Equipment

There are several types of equipment maintenance contracts:

- Hardware and software rental and maintenance

- Keyboarding equipment maintenance

- Air conditioners maintenance

The first two categories take up the bulk (80%) of budget allocations for maintenance.

1.1.4 Supply of Consummables

In addition to spare parts which form part of the maintenance contracts, the following items have to be imported:

- Punch cards and diskettes

- Hard disks

- Printing ribbons

- Continuous stationery

1.1.5 Workshop

For the benefit of the users, it is necessary to set up a workshop equipped with:

- A decarboniser

- A contact breaker

- A massicot

- Heavy duty staplers

1.1.6 Constraints in the use of computers

From the foregoing, computer installation, maintenance, staff emoluments, consummables are difficult and expensive items for which resources are often not available in the developing countries.

Allocating funds for these items is, therefore, a gamble especially that the results quite often fall short of expectation.

The under-utilization of the processing facilitates within the few existing centres has resulted in budget restrictions and reduced efficiency. Users had initially greeted the computers and the expatriates manning them with skepticism. Only political will, if it existed, would help remove such handicaps.

1.2 The political will

Those who went through that period still wonder today how information technology managed to survive the harsh environment where African policy makers had other priorities to address. It was only those who preserved and introduced the computers to the public at large who eventually made the case for computer utilization.

The key role which the only existing computer in the world played in the United States during the Second World War, the establishment of an international computer centre in Rome for the European countries underscored the relevance of a balanced sharing of information. A jointly-owned computer centre was required since the European countries by themselves could not afford such huge facilities.

Ever since, governments in the developed countries have initiated assertive policies which have gradually shaped a vast body of information science. This reality dawned on the French as America clamped an embargo on the delivery of CDC 6 600 to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in a bid to stop France's atomic research programme considered by General de Gaulle as a boost to the French autonomy and industry.

Meanwhile, their was an increasingly in Africa that if the under-developed countries of today are those that missed the industrial revolution, those of tomorrow will be those that miss the information revolution.

It was not easy to initiate an information policy in every African country but some government quarters were receptive to information technology. The offices of the President and Prime Minister, the Ministries of Finance and Planning allocated funds for the building of computer centres. National information policies were formulated and backed up with both legal and structural resources.

1.3 National Information policy instruments

As information technology gained strategic prominence over the years, assertive development policy became necessary.

1.3.1 Reference Points

We may recall briefly the ambitions and the development policies of the pioneering countries before we go into the machinery put in place in Africa for the promotion of information technology. United States

The United States was the first manufacturer of computers; it has ever since been aware if their importance and has significantly patronized national manufacturers competing for an edge in the computer industry. IBM has taken the lead but it also competes with HONEYWELL, CONTROL DATA, GENERAL ELECTRIC, BURROUHGS UNIVAC, NCR, etc. Great Britain

Great Britain effectively joined the race in 1965. Labour Prime Minister Wilson told his Technology Minister "Your most important task is to save the British industry from the computers". The Minister, in turn, asked the House of Commons on 1 March, 1965 to promote "a rapid increase in the use of computers and related technology in a bid to boost trade and industry"

France, Germany, Japan henceforth decided to promote computer utilization and build local capacity for computer manufacturing. With the support of the British government, the ICC group was established and soon became the fourth world largest computer manufacturer. Japan

Japan, more than any other country, did not want to do away with its protectionist policy. Japan had to acquire the emerging technology through a clever license policy that did not mortgage its autonomy. The power Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) of the new technology and provided large financial resources coupled with the contribution of:

- Japan Electronic Industry Development Association (JEIDA)

- Japan Computer Utilization Development in Industry (JACUDI)

- Japan Information Processing Development Centre (JIPDEC)

- Japan Electronic Computer Company (JECC)

This policy culminated in an ambitious 5th generation computer programme which catapulted Japan to the top of information technology list. Germany

Although Germany failed to bail out its first computer company (ZUSE) from BROWN BOVERI, an Swiss group that bought the company in 1964, Germany eventually joined the race with SIEMENS, which by 1967 had bought back 70% of SUZE's shares from the Swiss group. Another big company competing for the computer market was AEG-TELEFUNKEN, NIXDORF is the third major company contributing the German self-sufficiency in computer manufacturing. France

We all remember the circumstances under which France built its nuclear power with the disapproval of the American government. The first French computers, GAMM 3, was built by the BULL group under the supervision of the American General Electric on 16 April 1964. The American government, however, refused the delivery of a control data computer 6 600 to the French Atomic Energy Commission. It was clear from this American attitude that a modern nation needed to be in control of its own decisions. Indeed, the American government justified its decision by saying "A regular feature of our general policy over the years is to refuse export license for equipment likely to be used in building independent military atomic forces in countries which had not acceded to the Moscow Treaty on partial stop to military tests"

General de Gaulle could not stomach this insult without reacting. From 1996, the Planning Commissioner, Mr. Ortoli, was asked by the French government to submit a report on the objectives of a computer programme and resources required to implement it. Following this report, Mr. Ortoli was asked to:

- Propose a general information policy and make government offices and parsatatals implement it.

- Design and implement a general data processing development plan for France.

These directives resulted in:

a) The setting up of a French Computer plan through an act of 19 July, 1966.

b) The establishment of an information technology department through a decree of 8 October, 1966.

c) A greater government control of the equipment policy of the civil service and that of the French parastatals, the establishment of ministerial committees on information technology through a circular of 7 December, 1967.

The mandate of the committees covered:

- The establishment of medium-term equipment plans

- The right selection of equipment in keeping with the industrial policy requirements of the computer plan.

These committees were answerable to an Inter-Ministerial Information Technology Commission, which in turn, was presided over by a State Minister of Information Technology.

1.3.2 The Objectives of National Information Policies In Africa

Ever since the era of General de Gaulle, the French computer plan, the Inter-ministerial commission and committees, the computer technology department, and subsequently Francois Mitterrand, the impact of the Paris World Computer Center has been felt in Africa although the objectives and aspirations were not the same. After all, these were developing countries. The English-speaking countries drew on the British experience with which they were more familiar. Generally, no country could escape from the powerful and justifiable change like Information Technology as an invaluable instrument for management, development which held the key to the future.

Information Technology was thus seen as a strategic area which required a very assertive development policy.

Pressures came from above as many public services and companies, wary of what they at times considered to be a technological folly if not a spending spree, dragged their feet. In order to deal with these impediments, it was necessary to step up advocacy efforts and use development teaching methods, practical, legal and structural instruments.

In Francophone Africa, typical examples of such policy ranged from the monopolistic policies in Congo to the stringent policy in Madagascar and Cameroon to the more or less open policies in Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal.

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Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
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