Cellcos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have reportedly been told to block SMS messages until further notice, in an effort to curb election-related violence. According to News24, which cites French news agency AFP, the nation’s wireless providers were told by the Kabila government on 2 December to cease transmitting text messages as election rumours stirred violence. The election, only the second in the country’s history, has seen numerous delays thanks to the nation’s poor infrastructure and the scale of the poll. Tension between government forces and supporters of incumbent Joseph Kabila and those backing challenger Etienne Tshisekedi has already spilled into violence, with 18 people killed and 100 wounded according to Human Rights Watch. Fearing greater coordination among protestors, it is believed that government security forces have also ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which were seen as pivotal organisational tools during the uprisings in the Egypt, Libya and Tunisia earlier this year.
Whilst many commentators fear that the country will once again slip into civil war, the prosecutor of International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo called for calm with a warning of the potential consequences of instigating revolt: ‘I urge leaders, commanders, and politicians on all sides to calm your supporters. Electoral violence is no longer a ticket to power, I assure you. It is a ticket to The Hague.’ Ocampo’s comments refer to the fate of rebel leader turned politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose failed coup d’etat resulted in the deaths of 200 people in 2006. Bemba fled the country, but was caught in 2008 and is currently on trial at the ICC for war crimes.
Since the end of the last civil war in 2003, DRC has experienced a period of comparative stability and recovery. Its wireless market has exploded from less than 500,000 in June 2003, to 14.157 million by September 2011, according to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database. The sector is also on the verge of two major business transactions: France Telecom (FT) has negotiated agreements to purchase 100% of Congo Chine Telecom (CCT) from Chinese vendor ZTE and the DRC government, and South-Africa based Vodacom Congo is seeking to dispose of its assets in the region. Fellow South African firm MTN Group has expressed an interest in taking over Vodacom’s operations in DRC, as has Angola’s Unitel. Needless to say, should the troubled central African nation slip once more into anarchy, the deals organised by FT and proposed by Vodacom will be halted, and the nation will be deprived of the influx of foreign capital it needs to drive its recovery and economic development.