On Mobiles and the Kenyan Election

Africa is often left out of the Internet and democracy discourse. I believe there are several reasons for this. First, some find it difficult to identify a robust civil society, where citizens challenge authorities on the basis of issues, not just power. Second, discussions on the African blogosphere are often more related (and rightly so) to using technology creatively to alleviate poverty instead of take part in the political process.

I believe that Kenya provides the best challenge to this stereotype. Long home to the most robust blogosphere in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa, Kenya has utilized the Internet and mobile technology to keep their leaders accountable in creative ways. The most prominent project is mzalendo: Eye on Parliament, a volunteer effort created by young people who were ‘frustrated by the fact that it has been difficult to hold MP’s accountable for their performance largely because information about their work has been inaccessible.’ Further, Kenyan blogosphere meetups were the inspiration for similar efforts in Uganda and elsewhere.

Kenya will be a fascinating place to watch in the next few months as the nation prepares for late December elections. How will technology be mobilized for civic ends? One new initiative is called Voices of Africa (VOA), an effort by the Dutch-run Africa Interactive Media Foundation, which aims to bring powerful mobile technology to journalists. VOA’s pilot program is currently active in 4 African countries. Specifically in Kenya, journalists are receiving mobile phones with high-speed General Packet Radio System (GPRS) connections that allow them to upload large amounts of data, including video and audio. As Kenya VOA coordinator Evans Wafula says, “Technology has to be incorporated in journalism. The telephone is used to document, it’s a complete office. It takes human rights to the next level; perpetrators can be held accountable.”

In a nation where nearly half the population believes that election fraud regularly takes place, and where Daniel Arap Moi’s legacy of corruption still lingers, it will be fascinating to explore whether Internet and mobile phones can help keep leaders accountable.

Cross-posted at In An African Minute

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