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Fill the Gap II, and an update on the Kenyan situation

Firoze Manji from Fahamu and Pambazuka News gave the Fill the Gap conference a thorough overview of the current crisis in Kenya. He was last in his home country four weeks ago, shortly before the controversial elections and the violence that resulted from the electoral dispute.

The current situation, which Firoze describes as “very, very dangerous” is the result of “an effective coup in Kenya”. He reminds us of the events that have led up to the violence:

– Election commission officials declared that the vote had been rigged
– Within 45 minutes of the announcement that results were fraudulent, the Kibaki government inaugurated itself in the presence of the military
– The private inauguration was followed by a blanket ban on live media
– Simultaneously, security forces were deployed on the streets.

Manji notes that “Everyone is asking for peace. But peace can only be obtained through truth and justice.” Demands being put forward by groups challenging Kibaki’s actions include:

– an immediate independent inquiry into election results
– an invalidation of the results, which includes a recognition that no one is currently in a position to claim the presidency
– a stop to unconstitutional actions, including an announcement of a cabinet, or the calling of the 10th parliament.

In the efforts to bring parties to the table to negotiate, mediated by the AU, Kofi Annan or others, these demands should be preconditions. Instead, the documents that are trying to bring Kibaki and Odinga together implicitly recognize Kibaki as the president, addressing him with the titles you’d apply to a sitting president, not a challenger in a disputed election. Mediators have proposed a committee that doesn’t have the power neccesary to settle the dispute. And Kibaki’s position that a coalition should share power is absurd, given that Odinga’s party has 100 seats to Kibaki’s 40 or so. Manji points out that Kibaki’s party lost 22 cabinet ministers in the election, incluing Nobel Prize winner Wangari Mathai – losses like that display the widespread anger about the dysfunction of his leadership.

Too much of the discussion of electoral violence, Manji tells us, focuses on tribal violence. He offers an analysis suggesting that there are three major forms of violence:

– Spontaneous reaction violence when Kibaki seized power and when the cabinet was announced. “When people face injustice, their unfortunate reaction is to seek revenge.” This revenge can – and has – manifested as members of one ethnic group attacking others, but has also had economic dimensions.

– Milita violence, which Manji argues is more serious that the spontaneous violence. These militias are politically motivated an are engaging in killing, burning, raping and female genital mutilation. We’re not seeing this occur along the coast, but in the Rift Valley, these militias have a history going back to the 1990s, when Moi attempted ethnic cleansing in the Rift. There should have been a parliamentary inquiry in the last parliament, but Kibaki refused to investigate the situation. The church burning in Eldoret is a political, militia action, not tribal violence.

– State violence. Manji asserts that there have been at least 500 extrajudicial killings by state actors, beginning before the elections and continuing through the post-election violence. This aspect of the conflict, he feels, is being completely undercovered.

Given the seriousness of the situation in Kenya that Manji discussed, it seemed almost trivial to return to the topic at hand in the meeting – the question of whether mobile phones can contribute to economic development, or whether the focus of the development community on mobile technologies is simply a matter of hype. Manji and I have been set up to debate the issue, with me positioned as a cyberoptimist and Manji as a skeptic. This isn’t entirely true, of course – Fahamu has done groundbreaking work in using mobile phones for activist purposes, and I’ve written my share of pieces criticizing cyberoptimism.

(Fahamu tried an interesting experiment some years ago, seeking support for a declaration on African women’s rights. They ran an online petition campaign, allowing people to sign the petition via SMS. The campaign got a great deal of media attention, in part because Graca Michel (Nelson Mandela’s current wife) spoke about the campaign at a public meeting and signed the petition from her mobile while on stage. But the campaign, Manji tells us, actually garnered only a few hundred text messages. It was far more effective as a PR stunt than as a technique for political inclusion. And the success of the campaign came from traditional organizing, not the special magic of the mobile phone.)

“Why aren’t we having a conference on pencils?” Manji asked. “Pencils have contributed more to social transformation than mobile phones.” This flusters the moderators a bit, but his point is clear – it’s not about the tools, but about their social purpose. “It’s how people use the tools around them, whether they’re bricks, pencils or mobile phones.” Phones are interesting, I assert, because they’re increasingly pervasive, and because they’re enabling behaviors that aren’t possible with pencils: realtime communication over long distances.

While Manji acknowledges the power of the mobile and its possible importance, he’s insistent that we understand the “political economy” behind the device as well. The cost per minute in developing nations is much higher than we pay for monthly subscription services in the North. “Technology exacerbates and amplifies social differentiation,” he argues. Economic differences and tensions already present in societies are brought into sharper relief with the introduction of new technologies. Suddenly a person wealthy enough to own a phone has powers and capabilities his poorer neighbor lacks.

Manji and I had the greatest difficulty seeing eye to eye when his argument expanded into a general critique of development. Despite a focus on economic development for the past four decades, “there’s been a growth in the size of unemployment, a decline in real living standards, an increase in child mortality and in maternal mortality. We’re worse off than we were at independence.” It’s unclear to me that a focus on developing businesses in developing nations should be blamed for these abysmal results – widespread political corruption, theft of tax revenues and development dollars, and the effects of HIV/AIDS clearly have to take some of the blame as well.

But I take Manji’s point that new technologies can be used for destructive as well as productive purposes. He notes that all Kenyans received a text message from President Kibaki shortly after he’d inaugurated himself, appealing for calm. “How did Kibaki get my phone number? This is a major breach of privacy.”

Ultimately, he and I agree that it’s worth reviewing situations where mobile phones have enhanced existing political movements – activists using mobile phones to organize public actions, to monitor elections, to report gender violence. And we agree that the phone itself isn’t magic, but needs to enhance an existing social movement. As for whether strengthening market-based institutions leads to economic development or towards the ongoing capitalist, colonialist enslavement of Africa… well, that discussion may have to wait for another day.

One of the more interesting ideas that came up in the question and answer session was that of a socially-responsible, NGO-run phone company in a developing nation. Such a firm would compete against for-profit firms, and would have twin goals of bringing prices down for consumers and reinvesting profits in providing affordable coverage to rural areas. My guess is that such a company could have a profound effect on market prices, if – and only if – it could rely on the international NGO/foundation community for startup funding, and if local governments permitted it to function on a level playing field. Still, an intriguing idea.

Thanks to Fill the Gap and the sponsors, which included Hivos, IICD, OneWorld.nl and De Balie – I had a great time and really enjoyed the discussion… even the part where Firoze called me “a romantic”.

10 thoughts on “Fill the Gap II, and an update on the Kenyan situation”

  1. I enjoyed this posta great deal, but was puzzled by the concluding thought. Someone is suggesting an NGO-run phone company as a solution, but I’m not sure that I understand the root of the problem. Maybe there is a literature on this that you can point us to?

    The exceedingly high mobile phone rates in Africa are a real puzzle to me, especially because there appears to be (in some places, at least) a healthy degree of competition among providers for customers. I would prefer to hear a convincing explanation for the high rates before proposing so specific and expensive a fix. If there is some market failure of some kind, we are then in a better position to ask whether it is a failure that could be solved by a non-profit agency.

    It’s conceivable that there is some form of collusion, explicit or not, maintaining high prices. If so, however, we should see evidence of this in mobile phone company profits and share prices. That is, profit margins and share returns should exceed that of companies in other industries with similar risk profiles and capital intensities.

    Another possibility is that governments are taxing the heck out of mobile phone customers. This might be a very effective and profitable tax system. It is also progrsessive, to the extent that rich consumers are more likely to use phone minutes.

    Another possibility is that developing an extensive urban and rural network of mobile phone services in a short period of time is an expensive proposition, and high rates are required to recoup the large capital investment (especially because of the exceedlingly high costs of capital across Africa).

    What’s important to note is that each explanation implies a very different set of market or non-market solutions. Even if a non-profit company were the solution to one of these problems, it’s still not clear that it is the most efficent or effective. I’d really like to hear more on this.

  2. Correct spelling? You’re a demanding man, Firoze. Next you’ll be wanting fairness and accuracy.

    (My apologies. Perhaps that’s what I get for writing when I’m half asleep and on an airplane…) I actually got it right in the previous post… :-)

  3. I am glad to see that such discussions are taking place but the lack of action by Kenya’s middle class has disappointed me. I think the only people who can really change the situation are…

    1. Kenya’s middle class
    2. President Bush
    3. Kibaki

    Kenya’s people must rise up. But it seems unlikely they will as their economic condition remains unaffected.

  4. There was an interesting article awhile back in Foreign Policy about the low barriers to violence in Africa, from an economic standpoint. It is probably easier to find weapons in Africa than in any other place in the world with the possible exception of Iraq. It is also easy to find people to join your “rebel” organization or criminal enterprise. It seems that so many uprisings in Africa degenerate quickly into organized criminality or ethnic bloodletting, which is really very sad. Could that be because of the low barriers to entry into the military field?

    To Chris and Firoze, is it also possible that prices are high because of the higher start-up costs of building up a a cell-phone network? I mean, cellular phones have only been in wide use since the end of the 1990s, right? Tower construction, tower security, etc. These things cost a lot of money…

  5. ‘But I take Manji’s point that new technologies can be used for destructive as well as productive purposes. He notes that all Kenyans received a text message from President Kibaki shortly after he’d inaugurated himself, appealing for calm. “How did Kibaki get my phone number? This is a major breach of privacy.”’

    Unless the message was personalised, it could easily have been sent without breaching anyone’s privacy. All Kibaki’s people needed to do was to arrange for each mobile phone company to send the message to all their customers.

  6. The messages I referred to were sent were during the run up to the elections. The question arises was this request made by the then president on behalf of his own party? In that case that amounts to abuse of state office. Did the phone companies agree to this without insisting that the same privileges be accorded to all legitimate political parties? In which case, this could be said to amount to colluding with this abuse and possible bias in the elections.

    If we are referring to messages sent after having seized power in a coup d’etat, and therefore establishing himself illegally as president, then the phone companies are, arguably, complicit in enabling Kibaki to exercise his assumed power.

  7. I’m intrigued by the NGO-run phone company idea. I have also wondered about an open-source or open-access satellite(s) for transmission of text messages (and other data) and how realistic or fantastic such a thing might be. I imagine that either is a pipe dream, because there are too many interests at stake. But I think these are questions that are going to be asked more and more frequently as communication technologies proliferate and their connection with social justice, human rights, and local economic development becomes more explicit. What does it mean that a private phone network, like Hezbollah’s in Lebanon, is a major delineator of what it means to be a state within a state? What happens when “low-power” and decentralized networks (radio, Internet, mobile phones) begin to challenge on a much larger scale those run with the blessing of a government given in the form of licenses the rest of us can’t afford or legislation we don’t agree with?

  8. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Kenya: Citizen Media in a time of crisis

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