ibnlive » World

Jan 11, 2008 at 01:04pm IST

When rioters came, mobile cos made a killing

Nairobi: Amid all the post-election pandemonium in Kenya, one of the rumours spreading most panic was that mobile phone text messages were about to be blocked.

"Txt me now cos U may b off soon!" was the kind of message friends used to alert each other as Kenya descended into days of chaos and bloodshed after President Mwai Kibaki's disputed re-election.

But the texts were not cut. Phone messages have become the preferred mode of communication for news-hungry Kenyans — rich and poor — throughout one of the worst bouts of turmoil in their nation since independence from Britain in 1963.

POSTER GIRL: An Orange Democratic Movement woman supporter shouts slogans against govt.

News of terrible killings in shanty-towns and rural areas has sometimes spread first via texts. "N-bour b headed. Under attack. Running with kids. U hav space plz?" read one from a slum resident after attackers killed the person living next door.

From inside their guarded homes, wealthy Kenyans have comforted each other, shared information on which shops remain open for essentials, and lamented together — all via text.

"When Nakumatt closes, it's time to get to Jomo Kenyatta and get hell out," read one from a middle-class Kenyan, referring to the main supermarket chain and Nairobi's international airport.

Political parties, too, have become adept at spreading their messages via the mobile small screen, though that also prompted a rash of false texts making Kenyans even more jittery.

Texts, or SMSs, saying Kibaki planned a snap swearing-in on December 30 turned out to be right. Those saying opposition leader Raila Odinga had been arrested were wrong.

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Peace Pleas

Some texts mocked or vilified both sides in crude terms. "The Government of Kenya advises that the sending of hate messages inciting violence is an action which could result in prosecution," came one message in the midst of it all.

Then, as opposition protests grew: "The Government of Kenya advises you not to take part in any unlawful assembly that may result in violence!"

Leading local mobile provider Safaricom — whose business has boomed in recent years as mobile ownership in Kenya soared — put out its own appeal via text. "In the interest of peace, we appeal to Kenyans to embrace each other in the spirit of patriotism, and exercise restraint to restore calm to our nation," it said.

Amid the surge of cellphone use, entrepreneurs hiked the price of the scratch-cards used to pay for calls and texts, by double in some of the worst-hit areas like the Rift Valley where about 200 people died.

More than a quarter of a million texts flooded into one organisation, "Concerned Citizens for Peace", which offered to collate the messages for Kibaki and Odinga. "How many people need to be raped, how many pple 2 be killed, how much property 2 be destroyed?" read one.

"Kenya took 44 yrs to build why should we ruin it in just a day?" came another. "Tell the leaders this: when the power of love exceeds love for power, peace prevails!" advised one texter.

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