“Mozambican, prepare yourself to enjoy the great day of the strike. Let’s protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices. Send to other Mozambicans.” Three days after this anonymous text message was relayed to thousands of Mozambicans they took — seemingly spontaneously — to the streets of Maputo and nearby Matola to protest against unpopular food price increases.
Deadly riots, large-scale vandalism and destruction followed, illustrating how modern technology is empowering the population in even the most underdeveloped countries.
Soon after this message went out an intransigent and confused Frelimo government had to back down ingloriously and reverse its “irreversible” decision to increase, among others, the bread price in a country where most of the people go to bed on an empty stomach.
The prevailing recollection of the riots and unrest that placed Mozambique under the international spotlight on 1 September 2010 was the role played by technology, particularly mobile phones.
With information on the unrest situation scant as it unfolded as a result of frantic attempts by the government to keep as much as possible under wraps and the independent Mozambican media handicapped by the unrest, real-time updates were communicated to the outside world via Twitter, Facebook and websites.
But what really caught the attention was the ingenious use of available technology by ordinary Mozambicans – in a country markedly lacking conventional communication infrastructure – to force their government to listen to their grievances.
It is estimated that about a quarter of Mozambique’s 20-million inhabitants own a mobile phone. Most of them received the text message that called them to action.
The use of mobile phones to communicate instructions and call supporters to action is not new. But what is significant of the Mozambican effort is the high level of success that was achieved.
Without an apparent central source orchestrating and directing the campaign, mobile-phone users were asked to forward the text message. The result showed how easy and effective it can be to motivate and harness people by using available technology.
Government taken by surprise
The success and simplicity of the tactic to use the most generally available communication instrument to mobilise the population into action caught the Mozambican government by surprise and stunned it into indecision. When the government eventually responded it carried the hallmark of panic.
With this success mobile phones might become the “weapon of choice” in future confrontations between state and citizen.
Less dangerous than an armed struggle but equally effective, the mobile phone showed that it can influence political decision-making when the message hits the right chord. It has become an instrument of empowerment.
Governments across the world will have taken notice of what happened in Mozambique, especially those governments who are facing disappointed and angry citizens.
Most governments have various counter-measures in place to keep control of modern technology. The Chinese government excels in the way it attempts to control and apply censorship over its citizens’ access.
The obvious choice for most governments is to promulgate legislation to try and establish control over communication channels and the flow of information. But there are always governments who hold the opinion that legislation is not enough and under all kinds of pretenses, such as security and national interest, introduce measures in attempts to tighten control.
Such conspicuous conduct is highly unlikely to succeed. It is mostly re-active, does not address the root causes of discontent and tries to shut the stable door after the horses have bolted.
In Mozambique there was little the government could have done to prevent the text messages from circulating. Firstly, they did not know what was coming and the anonymous sender(s) of the messages used ingenious methods to avoid identification.