John Hoffmire: Kenya, violence and mobile technology

Published: Monday, Sept. 30 2013 6:35 a.m. MDT

A man wearing yellow shoes checks his phone in Kibera, Africa's largest slum, in Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Election officials across Kenya transported their local election results to be tallied in the capital Wednesday after the preliminary electronic vote counting system broke down, while the coalition of a top presidential candidate levied charges of meddling against Britain's high commissioner.

Jerome Delay, Associated Press

Editor's note: Tom Steele did the vast majority of work on this article.

While there has been much written about the terrible events that took place at the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, there has been less said about the progress made in Kenya to overcome home-grown political violence. On Dec. 27, 2007, Kenya’s incumbent President Mwai Kibaki claimed victory in an election amid cries of scandal and electoral manipulation. Shortly thereafter, Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in as president under the cover of nightfall.

On New Year’s Day, violence broke out across several cities and lasted for two months. Between 800 and 1,500 people were killed, including supporters of Kibaki and those of his opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement. Soon after, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile phone company, received a barrage of complaints that it was being used as a tool to promote violence and disorder.

Safaricom’s director of corporate affairs, Nzioka Waita, reported the grief he felt as people told him, “Your network is being used to facilitate chaos. Your network is being used for political misinformation.”

Since the beginning of broad use of cellular technology throughout African countries, some political groups have manipulated tools such as SMS messaging to bring violence to certain communities. Text messages have been used to spread false information about political candidates and to organize violent protests and attacks.

Mzalendo Kibunjia, Kenya’s chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, has spoken about the rapid technological spread of hate speech, saying, “We must … be alive to the fact that technology can work against us when misused.”

According to recent research done by Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach and published in the American Political Science Review, several other countries have experienced uses of mobile devices to spread and organize political violence on a large scale, including Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In 2010, civic-coordination enthusiast Rachel Brown approached Waita and Safaricom with an idea for using innovative approaches to moblie phone technology in order to increase civic engagement and prevent violence in Kenyan communities. Waita and the rest of the Safaricom management team quickly endorsed the idea.

Safaricom soon partnered with Brown’s company, Sisi ni Amani Kenya (SNA-K), and donated 50 million free texts to the cause. SNA-K and Safaricom have thus become involved in an innovative approach to use cellphones as a tool for good. With a powerful ally in Safaricom, SNA-K now works with the Kenyan police and the National Steering Committee on Peacebuilding and Conflict Management to monitor conflict throughout Kenya.

They identify areas that are vulnerable to violence, and as Kenyans head to the polls or gather for political engagement, SNA-K uses mobile messages to provide peaceful alternatives when untrue or violent texts are sent out to large groups of people. SNA-K provides the public with facts about political candidates as part of their effort to counter hate speech sent by certain political groups.

In Kenya, political elections have often been decided along tribal lines. Tribes often see elections as opportunities to put their own leaders in positions of power. The violence of the 2007 election showed the devastating effects of these types of political power struggles.

Since then, the people of Kenya have worked to establish new laws and principles in their country. But tribal power struggles have revealed barriers that Kenya must overcome. SNA-K believes that these barriers include a lack of accountability of political leaders as well as a lack of civic engagement on the part of voters. In hopes of strengthening the democratic process, SNA-K sends out SMS messages to large groups to organize political debates, civic education meetings and other gatherings for peaceful civic engagement.

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