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A way with words

Five hundred people were massacred in fresh outbreaks of violence in three villages near Jos last Sunday. The murderers came in the middle of the night, killing mainly women and children. This is the second attack since January, when about 200 people were killed in what appears to be a well organized killing spree helped along by text messaging. (For an indepth analysis of the Jos violence see Nigerian Curiosity.) At least 145 messages in all were identified, including:

War, war, war. Stand up … and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.

Brother, please act in any way you can. Alert other brethren.

One message urged Christians to shun food sold by Muslim hawkers, alleging it could be poisoned, while another claimed political leaders were planning to cut water supplies in order to dehydrate and weaken members of one faith.

According to an iAfrica report, some Facebookers were also taking religious / tribal positions on the violence. Another example is a blog called Persecution Blog: A Blog about the persecution of Christians worldwide. The name itself is provocative – imagine if it was a blog against the persecution of Muslims – and the post predictable. However, given the warning at the end of the quote below, I would be more concerned if it was a Nigerian blog rather than an international one.

‘Dogo Nahawa is a Christian community,’ the Christian leaders said in a statement. ‘Eyewitnesses say the Hausa Fulani Muslim militants were chanting Allah Akbar, broke into houses, cutting human beings, including children and women, with their knives and cutlasses.’
Soon after the militants besieged Dogo Nahawa at 1.30am, the Christian leaders say they contacted the military, which is in charge of security in the state.
‘But we were shocked to find out that the soldiers did not react until about 3.30am, after the Muslim attackers had finished their job and left,’ they stated. ‘We are tired of these genocides on our Christian brothers and state here that we will not let this go unchallenged.’

My own reading of Facebook and Nigerian blogs does not support religious sectarianism. On the contrary, the anger at the attacks is directed at the Government – or rather lack of government – and the role of the security forces in enabling the violence rather than preventing it. Nonetheless, the question remains: how can Nigeria address the spreading of hate and violence via text messaging and social networks?

This is not the first time text messages have been used to fuel violence. In the post-election violence in Kenya text messages of hate were being circulated, as explained in this excerpt from SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa.

‘On 1 January 2008, Kenyans started to receive frightening text messages that urged readers to express their frustrations with the election outcome by attacking other ethnic groups. One such message reads: “Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyus have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.” In reaction, another reads “No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luos you know … we will give you numbers to text this information.”’

The initial reaction of the Kenyan Government was to shut down the texting service on the Safaricom network. However, the director of the network suggested that rather than closing down, they would send out messages of peace to all 9 million subscribers. In addition to this, 1,700 subscribers who ‘allegedly’ sent out messages of hate were identified and their names sent to the Kenyan Government. Though there is no law as such for the prosecution of these people, there is nothing to prevent a law criminalizing the use of texting and social networks for inciting hate and violence.

There is power in a handset and $5 of airtime to help spread chaos, but the above example in Kenya shows that there are ways to counter the negative use of text messaging by sending out positive messages. The Government needs to take responsibility for making this possible. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the imagination of Nigerian leaders will stretch this far. As I write, hundreds of armed police and soldiers are being deployed in the region. Sending security forces to protect civilians is laudable, but given the brutal record of Nigerian security forces they could well add to the violence rather than curtail it.

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