Blogs, SMS and the Kenyan Election

My latest I&D post, cross-posted on the Berkman homepage and I&D blog:

Two weeks ago, Kenya was a haven of democracy and prosperity in Africa, with a competitive national election process and an attractive annual economic growth rate of 6-7%. Last week, a presidential election pitted incumbent president and Kikuyu tribesman Mwai Kabaki against leading opponent and Luo tribesman Raila Odinga. After what was initially described as a very close vote, Kabaki swiftly announced himself the winner and swore himself in for another term.

This week, the election results are being described domestically and internationally as fraudulent, and violence has erupted between rioting mobs and police in Nairobi, and between ethnic groups throughout the country. Mobs in the town of Eldoret burned at least two dozen inside of a church (see Red Cross helicopter video of Rift Valley humanitarian situation on You Tube) and dozens more have died in the streets of Nairobi’s Kibera slum. The port of Mombasa has ground to a halt, already causing petrol shortages as far is Kampala, Uganda. Today, despite cancellation of a major anti-government rally, protesters turned to the streets and were met by police using tear gas and water cannons.

Blogs and mobile phones have played critical roles since violence erupted.

Besides South Africa, Kenya has long had the most vibrant blogging community in sub-saharan Africa. Since Sunday, when the government instituted a media blackout, blogs have become critical to spreading the latest news. On Tuesday, the blackout was lifted, but in this rapidly changing situation, bloggers have been far swifter and more detailed in their reporting about the latest clashes. Berkman and Harvard Law School alumni Ory Okollo (Kenyan Pundit), as well as Berkman friend Juliana Rotich (Afromusing ) have been critical in relaying information from the volatile Eldoret/Burnt Forest. Also, Nick Wadhams has presciently put the current violence in perspective of previous Kenyan elections.

Ndesanjo Macha has been posting excellent Kenya updates on Global Voices and White African has a list of bloggers covering the conflict.

While only about 3.2% Kenyans have Internet access, mobile phones are far more ubiquitous. The African digerati in Kenya are leaders in experimenting with how to use mobile phones for sharing information. White African recognizes that “the problem with mobile phones is that they’re so dispersed - there’s no central core for users to all tune in to. Of course, that’s the strength in mobiles too. The trick is to leverage the strength without destroying the medium.”

Soon after violence erupted, Mashada, a prominent online forum launched an SMS hotline to help share information. Further, several prominent Kenyan blogs are accepting comments via SMS. Perhaps most prominently, BBC Africa’s Have Your Say received over 3800 and published over 1300 comments after requesting updates from Kenyans. Readers can vote up messages they deem most relevant. While these innovative SMS tools are allowing more people to contribute opinions and information, none of them can directly reach the majority of Kenyans, who need Internet access to see the posted messages. While Twitter is perhaps the most promising tool in this regard because of its ability to delivery messages to mobile phones, there are no reports of it being used widely this week in Kenya.

Kenyan Pundit writes that the ability to send mass SMS has been disabled. Also, Afromusing received this text message while in Eldoret: “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.” This is a reminder of both the power and the danger of SMS, particularly in east Africa. In Uganda last year, a protest against developing Mabira Forest was organized via mass SMS in Kampala and quickly turned violent and resulted in at least one death.

Quentin Peel reminders us that “this is not a story of one tribe seeking revenge on another, as it was in the massacre of minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus in Rwanda. Kenya is a much more economically and ethnically complicated country.” Odinga’s cancellation of today’s major rally is an encouraging sign of level-headedness and concern for stemming the violence. As a beacon of stability since the 1960’s, its incredibly important for us to watch the humanitarian and political developments in Kenya over the next few days.

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