Cellphones' role in activism in Africa is threatened

Some countries have taken steps to block cellphone use during unrest, eliminating a key tool for African activists and organizers.

Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters
Police stand guard as Mozambicans douse burning barricades in the capital, Maputo, on Sept. 2.

When rioters took to the streets of Mozambique's capital, Maputo, in Sep­tem­ber, the government swiftly called out the police. When investigators discovered that protesters mobilized via text messaging, the government called on private cellphone firms to turn off text messaging.

For local activists – some of whom use texting, or SMS, to organize peace efforts – the government crackdown seemed draconian. And the move may serve as a warning shot far beyond Mozambique in a continent of 1 billion people where there's a mobile phone for every adult.

In Kenya, during December 2007 elections, Ory Okolloh saw the power that mobile phones hold for organizing Kenyans – for hate and violence or for peace and positive action. Together with other tech entrepreneurs she helped found Ushahidi.com, a site that allows users to map areas of conflict by submitting information via their mobile phones.

As violence broke out between supporters of rival parties after a flawed election, Ushahidi created a map to help aid organizations determine the locations of violent attacks, where people were being displaced from homes, and where food supplies were running low. If Kenya had turned off texting, the capacity of aid groups would have been severely curtailed.

"For me, it's a very worrying sign," says Ms. Okolloh, cofounder and executive director of Ushahidi, who is based in Johannesburg but was reached on a recent trip home to Nairobi, Kenya. "It's as bad as turning off TV or turning off radio, but it's even worse if you look at how many people have TVs and how many people have cellphones."

Cellphones in Africa have become a crucial tool for communication and organization, Okolloh says. During times of conflict or disaster, mobile phones are a key tool for survival, helping families stay in touch, and getting help to people who need it.

"First, the biggest challenge is that you are already operating in an information vacuum, and when you take away cellphone text messages, you would definitely increase things to a panic level," says Okolloh. "The government wants to ban cellphone messaging because of hate messages, but how many people are using SMS to organize peace efforts?"

Mozambique is not the first country to shut down or block information services in the interest of security. China and about 24 other countries block access to Google search, and Dubai and other countries have cut off Internet access on BlackBerry phones under the argument that radical groups could use such technology.

Ultimately, African activists need to be ready to organize with or without technology, Okolloh adds. "Cellphones are just one mobilization tool, but if the government turns off SMS, what's next?" After all, she laughs, "We are raising a generation of children who may not know how to mobilize without Facebook."

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