Blogs, SMS and the Kenyan Election

 Two weeks ago, Kenya was a haven of democracy and prosperity in Africa, with a competitive national election process and an attractive annual economic growth rate of 6-7%. Last week, a presidential election pitted incumbent president and Kikuyu tribesman Mwai Kabaki against leading opponent and Luo tribesman Raila Odinga. After what was initially described as a very close vote, Kabaki swiftly announced himself the winner and swore himself in for another term.

This week, the election results are being described domestically and internationally as fraudulent, and violence has erupted between rioting mobs and police in Nairobi, and between ethnic groups throughout the country. Mobs in the town of Eldoret burned at least two dozen inside of a church (see Red Cross helicopter video of Rift Valley humanitarian situation on You Tube) and dozens more have died in the streets of Nairobi’s Kibera slum. The port of Mombasa has ground to a halt, already causing petrol shortages as far is Kampala, Uganda. Today, despite cancellation of a major anti-government rally, protesters turned to the streets and were met by police using tear gas and water cannons.

Blogs and mobile phones have played critical roles since violence erupted.

Besides South Africa, Kenya has long had the most vibrant blogging community in sub-saharan Africa. Since Sunday, when the government instituted a media blackout, blogs have become critical to spreading the latest news. On Tuesday, the blackout was lifted, but in this rapidly changing situation, bloggers have been far swifter and more detailed in their reporting about the latest clashes. Berkman and Harvard Law School alumni Ory Okollo (Kenyan Pundit), as well as Berkman friend Juliana Rotich (Afromusing ) have been critical in relaying information from the volatile Eldoret/Burnt Forest. Also, Nick Wadhams has presciently put the current violence in perspective of previous Kenyan elections.

Ndesanjo Macha has been posting excellent Kenya updates on Global Voices and White African has a list of bloggers covering the conflict.

While only about 3.2% Kenyans have Internet access, mobile phones are far more ubiquitous. The African digerati in Kenya are leaders in experimenting with how to use mobile phones for sharing information. White African recognizes that “the problem with mobile phones is that they’re so dispersed – there’s no central core for users to all tune in to. Of course, that’s the strength in mobiles too. The trick is to leverage the strength without destroying the medium.”

Soon after violence erupted, Mashada, a prominent online forum launched an SMS hotline to help share information. Further, several prominent Kenyan blogs are accepting comments via SMS. Perhaps most prominently, BBC Africa’s Have Your Say received over 3800 and published over 1300 comments after requesting updates from Kenyans. Readers can vote up messages they deem most relevant. While these innovative SMS tools are allowing more people to contribute opinions and information, none of them can directly reach the majority of Kenyans, who need Internet access to see the posted messages. While Twitter is perhaps the most promising tool in this regard because of its ability to delivery messages to mobile phones, there are no reports of it being used widely this week in Kenya.

Kenyan Pundit writes that the ability to send mass SMS has been disabled. Also, Afromusing received this text message while in Eldoret: “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.” This is a reminder of both the power and the danger of SMS, particularly in east Africa. In Uganda last year, a protest against developing Mabira Forest was organized via mass SMS in Kampala and quickly turned violent and resulted in at least one death.

Quentin Peel reminders us that “this is not a story of one tribe seeking revenge on another, as it was in the massacre of minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus in Rwanda. Kenya is a much more economically and ethnically complicated country.” Odinga’s cancellation of today’s major rally is an encouraging sign of level-headedness and concern for stemming the violence. As a beacon of stability since the 1960’s, its incredibly important for us to watch the humanitarian and political developments in Kenya over the next few days.

Cross posted to In An African Minute.

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19 Responses to “Blogs, SMS and the Kenyan Election”

  1. AfricaNews Says:

    Interesting posting on the role of internet en mobile phones to cover the current events in Kenya.

    On we have published some movies that were made by mobile phone reporters in Nairobi today.

  2. It's Not About Us, it's About Them | White African Says:

    […] out two good posts on Kenya from a technology angle by Joshua Goldstein at Harvard’s I&D blog and Mark at […]

  3. Nii Simmonds Says:

    I’m in total disbelief in what is happening in Kenya. I’m from Ghana and would never in my wild dreams expect the Kenyan people to rally like this. I guess both parties and politicians were surprised by this uproar.

    If anything is to come of this election it is; no African leader can sit back and take the democratic process for granted. People believe in the democratic process and many want change in the countries.

    Nubian Cheetah
    Nii Simmonds

  4. Me2mobile Says:

    Combining the informative nature of blogs and the instant/interactive nature of SMS is a growing area. At me2mobile we are seeing lots of interest in our blog to sms functionality. This provides a simple way to send out SMS alerts from blogs and allows community builders to interact instantly with their audience.

  5. Ken Says:

    As Kenya keeps flirting with all out chaos, its economy and the regional economy (Kenya has been an important transport hub for the region) continue to suffer.

    The finance minister has estimated the cost to the country thus far to be in the excess of $ 1b. Other losses, like the many lives lost and the amount of goodwill trashed cannot be measured. When did the rain start beating Kenyans so hard?

  6. Amir Ibrahim Says:

    Do check us out too.

  7. POTASH Says:

    A site that hasn’t quite picked up but has the best analysis of the situation plus opinion pieces from a collective of Kenyan writers.

    check out:

  8. Leo Africanus Says:

    This may be true in the west still. In fact the bulk of this information are for westerners. internet penetration is still very low and limited to an elite inside Africa btw before we get all excited.

  9. African TV on the web « leo africanus Says:

    […] is made more recently of the presence of African bloggers on the web and their impact on information flows in the West. However, the same can not be said for that old […]

  10. Leo Africanus Says:

    As a friend reminded me:
    “… I have a feeling most Kenyan bloggers are based in diaspora (US) and there seem to be 21 cellphones for every 100 people in Kenya (Zim: 6, SA: 83) (check: . Not that many indeed..”

  11. » Blog Archive » Tactic: SMS/Map Mashup Protects Human Rights in Kenya Says:

    […] to track is a result of the Kenyan presidential election, which occurred on December 27. On the I&D Blog, Josh Goldstein reports that, “a presidential election pitted incumbent president and Kikuyu […]

  12. mobi yard Says:

    wow, that was great post.. thanx for sharing the same…
    Mobile Social networking

  13. Blogging during the time of xenophobia « Itchybyte’s Weblog Says:

    […] A similar project was done during the recent Kenyan elections, where observers noted that blogging played a role in getting news out swiftly. […]

  14. Antonia Says:

    This was a perfect way to spread the news about what was happening during the post election violence. But we all know what happened during the campaign period. A lot of propaganda was used.
    We know the international media exaggerated a lot. Thank God it all ended.

    A Very Powerful Search Engine.

  15. Juanita Says:

    In the 2007 Kenyan election, SMS messages were used widely to distribute information to Kenyans from outside the country, and to spread news and information among Kenyans. Before election day, SMS messages were circulated because other modes of communication were monitored by government. In the days after the election, the Kenyan government banned all live radio and television broadcasts and warned Kenyans about circulating news via SMS. “The ministry of Internal Security urges you to desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest or anxiety.



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  16. malcolm Says:

    Blogging is an expeditious tool in terms of communication as a lot of people with common thoughts can converse over a wide range of issues regardless of their geographical distances.


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  17. fancy Says:

    The election was strongly marked by tribalism, with Kibaki a member of the traditionally dominant Kikuyu ethnic group getting much support amongst people of Central Kenya i.e. Kikuyu and neighboring groups like Embu and Meru. Odinga, as a member of the Luo ethnic group, succeeded in creating a wider base by building a coalition with regional leaders from the Luhya in Western Kenya, Kalenjin from the Rift Valley and Muslim leaders from the Coast Province.
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  18. sbs başvuruları Says:

    Kenya will more devolope. I am trusting Kenya peoples. I love you all. I am yours turkish brothers.

  19. mbaguzi wa rangi Says:


    The socalled western democracy flop big time in the eye of any truth sayer,its just but a cage,this is slaverly in its entire appearance , painful, citizen terror by gorverments ,social toture,indirect child abuses when you deny a kid chance to enjoy their childhood peacefully by terrorising their parents,hypocritical to the ars;IMPUNITY OF ALL ARTS SUPERSEDE DEMOCRACY,the western citizens can terrolize the foreighners with no politician blinking.