Opinion: Text messaging as a weapon in Nigeria

NEW YORK — While organizations like PeaceNet Kenya have demonstrated the positive power of mobile technology for conflict resolution, the role text messaging played in instigating this year’s sectarian violence in northern Nigeria serves as a grim reminder of how technology can also be used in destructive ways.

Anticipating violence around the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections, PeaceNet, an umbrella group for Kenyan NGOs, in collaboration with Oxfam, established a system of collecting information via text messaging on potential conflict. This enabled human rights advocates working at a “nerve center” to alert local groups to intervene and avert violence.

No such mechanism to manage the flow of information existed in Nigeria when sectarian violence erupted in January, and has continued, in the "Middle Belt," where the country’s Christian-dominated south and Muslim-dominated north meet. This Muslim-Christian fault line corresponds to the division between herders and farmers and between Hausa-Fulani, historically the dominant ethnic group, and the Barom, a minority tribe that is, however, the majority in the Plateau province.

The rivalry between Muslim Hausa-Fulani herdsmen and Christian Barom farmers is often attributed to desertification that pushes cattle herders further south into agricultural areas. Text messages played a role in turning this rivalry into ethnic and religious massacres.

In January, armed men descended on Muslims living around Jos, the capital of Plateau state and they slaughtered women and children, tossed bodies in wells, throwing acid on people and castrating victims, leaving well over 500 people dead and countless homes burned to the ground.

In March, retaliatory attacks by Muslim Hausa-Fulani herdsman resulted in hundreds of similar horrific deaths of Christians. This ethnic violence has continued and kidnappings and killings are a nightly occurrence. The Christian governor and the top military commander, a Muslim, are pointing fingers at each other over the authorities’ inability to stop the bloodshed.

While religious and sectarian violence is not, unfortunately, uncommon in this part of Nigeria, this might be the first time in Nigeria’s history that text messages played a significant role both in escalating tension between the two groups as well as directly inciting violence. Indeed, the role of text messages around Jos recall the inflammatory Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Unlike in Rwanda, though radio ownership is ubiquitous in Nigeria, broadcasts appear to have played little or no role in inciting people to murder.

Instead, prior to the first major attacks in January, tensions between the two groups escalated as text messages circulated warning Christians not to eat food from Muslim vendors as it had been poisoned. And Muslims circulated messages saying that the state governor had shut off water to Muslim communities. One human rights organization collected over 150 messages that had circulated throughout the community inciting respective groups to violence such as "Slaughter them before they slaughter you. Kill them before they kill you," or "Throw them in the pit before they throw you. Encircle and suppress them before they encircle and suppress you."

As one widely cited observer quoted, “They reacted violently based on the kind of information they received from their text messages.” Again recalling the Rwandan genocide, the attacks appear well organized and likely cell phones were instrumental.

Text messages also were helpful. Following the attacks in March, survivors reported receiving warnings of imminent attacks on Christians and were able to evacuate the region in time. While the military reported receiving these text messages as well, it did not act until too late

The diametrically opposite use of SMS technology in conflicts in Kenya and Nigeria is demonstrative of the not-so-old adage, “it’s not the technology but how you use it.” In Kenya, PeaceNet recognized the potential for conflict and prepared an action plan using text message information to intervene and prevent violence.

In Nigeria, local actors — particularly the security services, NGOs and religious organizations — that may have been able to intervene prior to the outbreak of violence were either unwilling or unprepared to respond to this information. As a result, the information, in the form of inflammatory text messages, succeeded in stirring up confusion, fear and hatred, creating conditions for the outbreak of extreme violence.

However, Nigerians may be learning. A recent spate of text messages warning of impending attacks in Lagos and Ogun were intercepted by authorities. The rumors were investigated and quickly squelched. As these two cases show, novel technologies can be harnessed in positive ways, but doing so requires the foresight and will of local actors as well as proper mechanisms to channel new information.

Asch Harwood is a research associate in the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations. John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. His book, "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink," will be published by Rowman and Littlefield.