Mobile Phones Play Role in Zimbabwe Ken Banks,
IDG News Service
Mon Apr 14, 3:20 PM ET
It’s well-known that mobile phones are revolutionizing communications
across the globe, particularly in developing countries where landline
infrastructure is lacking in many rural and urban areas. They are the
only means of communication for hundreds of millions of people, and
have opened up economic opportunities for their owners, who can use
them to find out about job openings, advertise services, or operate
complementary businesses such as charging phone batteries.
But mobile phones aren’t everyone’s friend. To dictators and leaders
of oppressive regimes, mobiles are often seen as more of a nuisance,
as disruptive and something to be wary of, to fear and control. These
ubiquitous little devices have already been responsible for the
downfall of a number of leaders, most noticeably Philippine President
Joseph Estrada, who was forced from office in early 2001 following
text-message-fueled mass demonstrations in Manila.
Where democracy is under pressure around the world, the mobile
is increasingly seen as a tool that may help stop the rot. My
interest in the subject centers on the use of a text-messaging hub I
developed back in 2005, which has since been used by a number of
human rights organizations, particularly Nigeria last year to monitor
the presidential elections, in Pakistan during the recent state of
emergency and now in Zimbabwe during the election crisis.
Media interest in the subject is also on the rise, with a recent
article in The Economist examining the use of mobile technology in
political activism. Its description of the battle between activists
and governments as a game of “cat and mouse” could not be more
accurate, and continues to draw parallels today with events in
Zimbabwe and Tibet.
When oppressive regimes put a stranglehold on the local media, and
actively engage in campaigns of misinformation, activists turn to
whatever tools they can to redress the balance. Increasingly, these
tools are mobile technologies: Camera phones that capture images of
beatings and civil-rights abuses, and text messages coordinating and
informing citizens, are just two examples of an increasing use of the
technology as activists try to keep up with, and stay one step ahead
of, their opponents.
Mobile technology is today playing a growing role in Zimbabwe, a
country with a largely state-owned media and a president unwilling to
relinquish power. The future of the country continues to rest on a
knife edge, as it seems to have done for the past two weeks (or the
past few years, depending on your perspective). Like many people with
an interest in the country, and like many others with friends or
relatives living and working there, I’ve been closely following
events on TV and online. International news sites such as the BBC
have been as good as ever, but I’ve also been spending increasing
amounts of time on local sites, which, I feel, often give a ‘truer’,
more personal sense of what’s going on. One of the best sites for
this has been Kubatana.net.
Back in the summer of 2006 I was fortunate to spend three weeks in
Zimbabwe working with Kubatana. A local NGO (nongovernmental
organization) seeking to promote human rights and good governance, it
was the very first user of my FrontlineSMS software when it launched
back in 2005, starting a trend that has seen the software used for
similar activities in a number of other countries around the world.
Kubatana has said that FrontlineSMS finally opened up the
possibilities for text messaging in its workplace.
In addition to an election line that gives the latest news to
citizens via SMS (short message service), Kubatana has been running
a “What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?” initiative.
Zimbabweans have been incredibly responsive, with many people
that the question gave them hope in uncertain times. According to
“It’s also been a real learning experience for us, reminding us that
ordinary Zimbabweans have a wealth of good ideas to contribute, and
our political and civic leadership must work on building a more
A combination of SMS and e-mail was used in the initiative, with text
messages such as “Kubatana! No senate results as at 5.20 pm. What
changes do YOU want in a free Zim? Lets inspire each other. Want to
know what others say? SMS us your email addr” sent out to mobile
subscriber lists. FrontlineSMS was used to blast the messages out,
and then used to collect responses that were then distributed via an
electronic newsletter and on the Kubatana Community Blog.
According to Kubatana, “Without FrontlineSMS we would not have been
able to process the volume of responses we have received, and we
would not have been able to establish a two-way SMS communications
service in the way that we have.”
In the event of a presidential run-off, Kubatana plans to produce a
broadsheet with feedback received from Zimbabweans in order to
them what each other wanted, and to inspire them to go out and vote
(again). After the election, it hopes to produce a booklet with a
page on some of these ideas and include an editor’s comment, a
cartoon or even a set of postcards carrying the most unique, original
and practical ideas.
Unlike the Nigerian elections, where FrontlineSMS was used as a
monitoring tool, in Zimbabwe it has been effectively used to mobilize
and inform civil society during and after the election process. In
both cases, the real success story has been the NGOs themselves—
NMEM in Nigeria and Kubatana in Zimbabwe— that have demonstrated
power of mobile technology in civil society initiatives and what can
be done when the right tools make it into the hands that need them