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Violence and Death in Africa, 160 Characters at a Time

"War, war, war. Stand up ... and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you." —SMS message sent in Jos, Nigeria, during Jan. 2010 riots that left 326 dead.

Optimistically called "Nigeria's tourist haven" in publicity materials, the Nigerian Plateau state straddles the fault line between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. It's divided between 40-odd ethnic groups who've feuded for the past decade. Riots have regularly broken out over access to government, desertification, and economic dominance. Hundreds have died. And often, as was the case in deadly 2008 and 2010 riots, SMS text messages helped make it all possible.

While mobile tech has empowered a lot of social innovation in Africa, ideas for squelching SMS-fueled riots are slow-coming. Meanwhile, the simplest form of mobile communication is igniting flare-ups in some of the continent's most combustible conflicts. In early September, riots erupted in the Mozambique capital of Maputo over rising food prices. A subsequent investigation discovered that the Mozambique riots were coordinated via a widespread SMS message campaign that ended with 10 deaths, 27 seriously injured, and scores of stores and banks looted.

During the riots of January 17-21, 2010, Nigerian NGO the Civil Rights Congress collected at least 145 text messages urging Christians and Muslims to violence that were forwarded around Jos and Plateau. According to civil rights activist Shehu Sani, the texts were responsible for "spreading rumours and inflaming tensions." In reality, they were far worse.

Messages called for explicit violence or claimed Muslims were planning to attack churches and that Muslim vendors were poisoning food sold to Christians. Meanwhile, the Muslim community forwarded emails claiming the government was planning anti-Muslim attacks and that action needed to be taken to protect water supplies in Muslim communities. Most of the rioting consisted of terrible violence on the sides of both communities; in all, over 500 died in less than a week of rioting, with many more castrated, tossed alive in wells, victimized in acid attacks or simply mutilated or burned out of their homes.

This trend is particularly poisonous in Africa, whose sub-Saharan region lacks the infrastructure for affordable broadband access, despite efforts by both entrepreneurs and outside aid agencies. Internet penetration rates in most countries are relatively modest; for instance, only 16% of Nigerians have access to the internet. However, mobile phone networks require a smaller initial investment and can easily be accessed by those of all economic classes—something that has led to exponential mobile phone growth on the continent. SMS text messaging has, in a case of convergent evolution, somewhat replicated the Web in function in Africa. Text messages are used for news, dating, election monitoring, and law enforcement.

But it is the role of SMS text messages in Nigeria's religious riots and Mozambique's bread riots that most accurately replicated the Internet's more repugnant aspects. Mobile phone owners became aware of spurious, poorly sourced news, incoherent and, in Nigeria, unfounded accusations against the Muslim/Christian other, and of graphic calls to bloodshed—all within the 160-character text limit of SMS messages.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell and Asch Harwood of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote an op-ed for the GlobalPost Web site about how to lessen the possibility of SMS messaging being used as a weapon of ethnic or religious violence. Their solution is simple: Take solutions from elsewhere in Africa. Specifically, they praise the example of PeaceNet Kenya, a NGO that worked with Oxfam in 2007 to create a SMS monitoring system that would collect information via text messaging on the likelihood of violence following the 2007 Presidential elections. Residents would be notified via persistent alerts of an easy-to-remember number to forward SMS hate messages to; the hope is that cooler heads in conflict zones will alert the NGO, who in turn will alert a central government with the ability to quickly clamp down on any violence. 

Harwood said in an email interview that this method would take specific advantage of the nature of SMS messaging: "The key for people interested in preventing this violence is to recognize that SMS can be used this way and to prepare strategies in advance. [...] Tension in the region has a long history. And while we've seen how text messages can be used to promote violence, alternatively there may be opportunities to use them to promote unity and understanding between groups." 

The solution put forth by Campbell and Harwood, of course, assumes that robust social networks on the side of peace and calm will be able to defuse massive local fault lines centered around religion, ethnicity, class and access to resources. Technocrats have a hard enough time in plugged-in regions such as the United States, South Korea and the European Union; Nigeria and Africa as a whole offer formidable logistical obstacles to even the best-planned anti-violence campaigns.

But Mozambique used a different model to solve their difficulties: The government simply strongarmed mobile phone providers into shutting down SMS messaging during the riots entirely. However, this also had the side effect of crippling communication and the local economy in places where rioting was not occurring—in other words, Mozambique's cure likely caused as much damage as the riots.

Campbell and Harwood themselves seem hopeful that their model could work in Nigeria, where Jos is likely to experience another round of religious riots. Campbell's upcoming book implies either Muslim-Christian conflict or a military coup following the January 2011 elections. However, via email, Harwood noted the most important thing: "Text messaging is merely a tool" in Nigeria's inter-ethnic violence. But it is an important tool, which makes the PeaceNet initiative so noteworthy: In Africa, mobile phone messages can be used for peace as well as war.

[Image via Flickr user MikeBlyth, thumbnail, right, Flickr user medicusmundi]