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Protest in Mozambique: the power of SMS 3

Weeklong bread riots in Mozambique, earlier this month would have passed by unnoticed were it not for the text messages that started it.

It seems residents of the capital, Maputo, who took to the streets were prompted by SMS (short message service) messages that told them to “enjoy the great day of the strike” and to “protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices.” At first, the government’s seemingly intractable position was that the price hikes were “irreversible.”  Days later, under pressure from rapidly SMS-organized protests, the government retreated and the old bread prices returned. And as a sign of its impact, the government, allegedly ordered cell phone service providers to briefly suspend text messaging for its users.

Journalists that covered the protests—as well as comment postings on social media—marveled at the power of SMS in a small African country where twice as many Mozambicans have cell phones as they have access to electricity. Opinion speculated about expanded opportunities for political engagement in developing countries.

Reports are that Maputo’s streets are finally returning to some semblance of calm, after days of clashes between police and protesters that left 13 dead and led to dozens of arrests. The world’s media has moved onto another story.

But if most observers remember anything at all about the crisis that gripped Mozambique for the first days of September, they will remember the text messages.

We have heard this all before. In 2001, street protests organized by SMS contributed to ousting corrupt Philippines president, Joseph Estrada. In 2009 came Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution.” Then Iranian protestors famously used mobile technologies to organize massive responses to the election.

So is e-democracy coming to Africa?

The 2010 Millennium Development Goals report shows that while landline penetration in sub-Saharan Africa remains at a paltry 1%, mobile subscriptions are at 30% and growing.

In Mozambique, when price increases in staples and electricity sparked popular anger, cell phones became an organizing tool.  The virtual reality of the viral text messages was made almost immediately visible by masses of human bodies taking to the streets.

But just as with Iran and Moldova before it, the text messages and Facebook updates did not create discontent where before there was none.  They only channeled it.  An SMS can be written and sent in a matter of seconds, but to rapidly ignite a protest, it needs the fuel of simmering political unrest and organized opposition.  All this hype about SMS text messages means we do not get any clear idea of the people and groups who wrote and forwarded the text messages, although it is their very dissent that drove the protests and eventually the government’s concession.

And once the text messages stop flying, the underlying political issues remain.  Often, these issues cannot be reflected in an abbreviated SMS or a photograph of street unrest.  Mozambique finally emerged from years of civil war in 1992 and its relative stability and prosperity have drawn the accolades of donors worldwide.  Yet, that stability and prosperity (for a few and politically well-connected) masks widespread social and economic disparities that threaten what passes for peaceful rule.

Moreover, not all use of mobile technology is positive or even benign.  Violence sparked by the December 2007 election in Kenya was at times instigated by SMS.  Yet, the Kenya example shows us the many possibilities of organizing through mobile technology.  In the midst of this crisis, Kenyan citizen journalists collected SMS reports of violent incidents to map on a website platform called Ushahidi, creating a tool for crisis reporting that has been used in places as far afield as India, Palestine, Haiti and the US.

Text messages are a tool of technology, and just that: a tool.  Put in people’s hands, they will amplify and accelerate political or other messages, often with tremendous impact.  But focus on the tool alone, and you miss the full picture.

by Sean Jacobs and Diana Duarte for Afronline

* Sean Jacobs teaches international affairs at The New School in New York City and blogs at Africa is a Country. Diana Duarte, a graduate student in international affairs at The New School, is media coordinator for the human rights organization MADRE.

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