Kenya : SMS text messages the new guns of war?

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Some Kenyans are using SMS text messages to revive ethnic tensions in their country, preying on the political-ethnic tensions that have ravaged the country since the controversial results of the December 27 general elections. The government has warned the perpetrators of these hate messages of serious measures, but technical issues have rendered the warning redundant.

Mobile phones are indeed part of the arms of war in the Kenyan crises. The Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) denounced the hate text messages well ahead of the December 27 elections. The goal of the text messages was to fuel ethnic hate, just like certain songs and emails have recently done. “No one has complained about the reception of any hate messages, since the elections. We have not received any official complaint”, said KNCHR’s Victor Bwire, who also said that another report on the unrest will soon be published.

Three types of Hate text messages

Yet… the text messages continue to circulate. AFP got hold of a number of these messages from mobile phone users, some of which contained the following: “if your neighbour is kykuyu, throw him out of his house. No one will hold you responsible”. UN humanitarian information angency, IRIN news, reports another one: “The blood of innocent Kykuyus will cease to flow! We will massacre them right here in the capital. In the name of justice put down the names of all the Luos et (…) Kaleos (a slang word for Kalenjins) you know from work, your property, anywhere in Nairobi, not forgetting where and how their children go to school. We will give you a number on where to text these messages”.

According to Ben Rawlence, an American “Human Rights Watch” specialist, there are three types of text messages: “there are text messages that stimulate hate and others that send lists of names of persons involved in the crimes by virtue of an organisation or financial help” The latter category is a mixture of the two former categories and is characterised by both true and false information: there are lots of rumours pertaining to meeting places and rendezvous points.” He further precises that the text messages are easily transfered, however, “this does not mean that the senders necessarily believe in what they say”.

SMS, violence boosters

Ben Rawlence thinks that these type of text messages encourage feelings “of hate and suspicion”. He, however, doubts that it could push Kenyans into committing individual acts of violence targetting the “enemy” tribe. “it is difficult to tell if the text messages have an influence over behaviours, although the decision to attack is taken on a collective scale, like a village, for example”, the researcher continued.

A village manipulated by politicians ? Not impossible, according to Kenyans who received campaign oriented text messages before the elections. It is said that the, the unfortunate presidential candidate, Raila Odinga’s camp was particularly keen on ethnic oriented text messaging. A rumour that Ben Rawlence could neither confirm nor deny, stating that the political violence that has crippled the country are stimulated by partisans of both Odinga and Kibaki.

Evasive culprits

jpg_qqqqqqqqqqqq.jpgNairobi declared war on citizens who sent hate text messages. To send the message across, the authorities used the same channel as the hunted perpetrators. “the government of Kenya advises that the sending of hate messages inciting violence is an offence that could result in prosecution”, explains a text message sent to all Kenyans after the elections. An impossible craving that was met by the harsh reality.

“The fact that Kenyans change their numbers very often makes it very easy for the authors of these messages to stay anonymous”, explains Ben Rawlence. “People buy prepaid cards… we would have their names if they used postpaid cards, however, 80% of Kenans use prepaid cards. It is therefore tough for the police to get hold of the senders of these hate messages.” Considering that “the police here is quite weak: they did very little to investigate the violence. There were few arrests and prosecutions” addes Ben Rawlence.

There is another big problem that prevents a mix up of those that stimulate ethnic violence. “At this moment, no Kenyan operator has the means to sort the good elements from the bad ones. Unless the SMS text messaging service is ceased, there is no way these hate messages can be stopped” says Bernard Rubia, head of the communications department of Kenya Telkom. An option that would cost mobile telephone operators huge sums of money. In the final analysis, the government warning is shoved into oblivion, whilst the hate messages risk an awakening.

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