Safaricom, in partnership with national integration-focused nonprofit Sisi Ni Amani-Kenya (SNA-K), has launched an SMS-based platform expected to circulate information essential for maintaining peace during Kenya’s political campaign period.
The operator said the service will be accessible through the USSD shortcode *762# and SMS 8762, and that it has underwritten the cost of its connectivity. The company through its director of corporate affairs Nzioka Waita said it will be offering 50 million SMSs and USSD sessions at no cost.
Waita explained the company went for the venture following the post election violence that rocked the country after the disputed presidential results in 2007, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands nationwide.
He said Safaricom had not been prepared for such a scenario then, and could not move airtime given logistical challenges that resulted in loss of revenue.
The company, which reportedly handles some 80 percent of mobile phone usage in Kenya, said 300 million SMS were sent in the six-to-eight-week period the violence lasted.
Waita said he, along with other Safaricom officials, had received pressure from several government officials and politicians to suspend mobile services on account that phones were being used to coordinate and plan attacks.
Social scientists have warned that other media channels, aside from SMS text messages, likely to cause conflicts include social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs.
According to SNA-K’s chief executive Rachel Brown, a mobile phone “is the single most piece of equipment that can take communications to the grass roots”, hence a possible tool for election-related violence.
To ensure the initiative is successful, Safaricom and SNA-K have also partnered with various governmental departments and agencies including the Kenya Police Service, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the National Steering Committee on Peace Building and Conflict.
the IEBC said it knew how useful SMS could be after a court injunction stopped the holding of by-elections in Ikolomani a day before they were to take place. According to Joel Mabonga, who is in charge of voter education and partnership at the IEBC, the commission used SMS to communicate the court’s ruling to voters on the ground.
Counties identified as potential conflict areas, Ahmed Bico, chairman of the National Steering Committee, says, include Nakuru, Garissa, Kisumu, Samburu, Tana River, Wajir, Mandera, Isiolo, Turkana and West Pokot.
Kenya’s general elections are slated for March 4.