SMSes used to prevent poll violence in Kenya
Leo Mutuku knew that something was wrong when the highway from the airport into Nairobi, the busiest road in East Africa, was deserted.
It was two days after Kenya had voted in its last election five years ago and “all hell was about to break loose”, she remembers.
Kenya returns to the polls on March 4 with the havoc that followed the disputed results last time fresh in everyone’s minds. Some 1 300 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes as communities fought pitched battles from the Rift Valley to the capital’s crowded slums.
What appeared to many outsiders to be spontaneous violence was actually being orchestrated. Anonymous SMSes started appearing within days of voting, telling people that William Ruto, the leading political figure from the Kalenjin ethnic group, had been killed. It was not true but the rumour spread. Homes and churches were burned as rival gangs of youths from different tribes mounted deadly tit-for-tat raids.
This time around Mutuku has joined a small army of volunteers working on a project called Uchaguzi – Swahili for elections – that seeks to turn anyone with a cellphone into a citizen reporter and give them a chance to report what is happening in their area.
Uchaguzi aims to take tens of thousands of SMS reports and turn them into live maps, bulletins and, in some cases, report incidents to the police. For people like 24-year-old Mutuku, Uchaguzi offers a chance to turn the technology tables on those who incited unrest last time: “Technology was used to co-ordinate ... violence and this time it can be used to counter it,” she says.
Stop the lying
Another group calling itself Umati, Swahili for crowd, has its volunteers scanning Kenya’s lively social media for any signs of hate speech, while members of the public can flag incitement by sending a free SMS. But the Umati crew don’t just log dangerous messages – they answer back with a campaign called Nipe Ukweli (Gimme Truth). In response to a rumour that some Kenyans were burning churches, a young activist tweeted a photograph of an undamaged church with the words “stop the lying”.
Hopes that the country might move beyond tribal politics in this election cycle have evaporated. Two nakedly tribal alliances have congealed around presidential hopefuls drawn from the same pool of politicians who oversaw the chaos in 2008.
The Cord alliance is backing Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the veteran Luo politician from western Kenya. Most observers agree that the 67-year-old narrowly won the last election but had to settle for the junior role in a power-sharing government.
The flag bearer for the Jubilee alliance is Uhuru Kenyatta, the scion of Kenya’s founding family, who hails from the Kikuyus, the group that has dominated business and politics since independence.
Kenyatta, with his Kalenjin running mate William Ruto, is facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. He was due to stand trial in April, but that seems set for postponement as a run-off – should neither man take 50% of vote – is scheduled for early in the same month.
A victory for Kenyatta, who has sunk some of his vast fortune into the campaign, could lead to sanctions echoing those against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan – the only other sitting head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Fresh instability would hobble the rest of East Africa, particularly landlocked Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which were badly hit five years ago and still depend on Kenya’s port of Mombasa.
One of the few positive legacies of the 2008 crisis was the innovative crisis-mapping platform Ushahidi, which uses simple SMSes.
Since being pioneered in Kenya’s darkest days, it has been used in more than 50 countries for everything from mapping temporary offices for New Yorkers in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to helping to improve public transport in Beijing. In Kenya, it has helped to incubate groups like Umati and Uchaguzi, which now face a huge challenge.
“We don’t know yet whether these efforts will be successful at preventing violence,” says Professor Susan Benesch, an expert on hate speech who is working with Umati. “In truth we may never know, as it is always difficult to discover why something did not happen.”