The ubiquitous mobile phone in the hands of millions of Africans working as the primary tool for communication is fast becoming the core technology for supporting social change and the empowerment of citizens. Mobile phones are being used in innovative ways. In agriculture and fishing they are used to provide farmers and fishermen with up-to-date weather reports, prices for their products and transport costs. They are being used to send money, provide rural communities with up-to-date changes in government policy and legislation, enable women to report incidents of domestic violence, to report human rights abuses, send questions to radio phone-in programmes and citizen journalism, to name just a few. In 2007 mobile phones were also used as a monitoring tool during and after three country elections: Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.
Rebekah Heacock’s report, ‘Mobile Activism in African Elections: A Comparative Study’, is part of DigiActive’s Research Series. It describes and evaluates the use of mobile phone SMS (short message service) technology during these three elections. In Nigeria SMS were used in the April 2007 elections which marked the first transfer of democratic power since independence in 1960. In Sierra Leone they were used by trained observers to report ‘critical issues’ around the first post-civil war elections. Finally, in Kenya SMS was used to report and document the post-election violence which broke out in within hours of the election results being broadcast.
The report concludes that although mobile phone monitoring is ‘far too informal to replace international monitoring missions’, it does have a role in providing timely and local election results which could go a long way to easing the tensions often surrounding countries’ elections. In the case of Kenya, SMS technology worked alongside radio and internet technology to provide up-to-date information on the violence taking place.
Although the report is rather short, it does provide a detailed overview and useful starting point for further research into the use of mobile phones for election monitoring and as a tool to aid citizen empowerment in governance. It is largely descriptive and as such there is considerable room for a more analytical, in-depth study examining the monitoring process and both the actual and potential impact on election monitoring and documentation.
* Sokari Ekine blogs at www.blacklooks.org.
* Rebekah Heacock’s ‘Mobile Activism in African Elections: A Comparative Study’ is available at DigiActive’s Research Series.
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