African Rebels Take Their Battles Online

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 14, 2006

NAIROBI -- The leaders of the main rebel movement in Sudan's Darfur region were once brothers in arms. But last year, the two powerful men had a falling out, and each proclaimed he was the rightful president of the Sudanese Liberation Army. Things got ugly.

But not a single shot was fired. Instead, the feuding insurgents battled as bloggers over the Internet.

"I got his e-mails and read those bitter diaries," said Mohamed al-Nur, a founder of the rebel group, at a conference held here late last year by the United States to try to bring the two sides together.

"That's the only place we hear from you -- on that Internet!" hooted Saif Haroun, a spokesman for Minni Arko Minnawi, the newly proclaimed leader. "You run your rebellion from a computer?"

Africa is the world's least developed continent, and most rural inhabitants live without electricity or running water. But in some of its poorest and most remote corners, the Internet has become a powerful weapon for rebel and opposition leaders.

In countries where newspapers and radio stations are routinely shut down and dissidents are often jailed, the Internet is also giving ordinary Africans new freedom to debate political and social issues. "The Internet is a war weapon," Aboude Coulibaly, director of the New Forces rebel group in Ivory Coast, wrote in a recent e-mail. In 2002, the group used its Web site and TV station to launch a mutiny that toppled the government. "In these matters of revolution, we have to be wired to win," he wrote.

Taking over state radio and television stations is often the first act of a coup d'etat. But having access to a Web site, e-mail and a Thuraya brand satellite phone has become increasingly important to African rebels to communicate and garner support from abroad.

Some rebel leaders now think of themselves as "cyberdissidents," said al-Nur. Improved and accessible technology has allowed them to send and receive e-mail, create Web sites, and even keep online diaries or blogs, with satellite phones or dishes providing links to anyone who can charge batteries and buy Internet time on scratch cards.

State censorship is not a problem, since African rebels operate in desolate pockets beyond governments' control. While they may have to charge their personal satellite units on a car battery, they are not at the mercy of state-run telephone systems that could shut down Internet cafes and bring about the arrest of bloggers, researchers said.

African rebels often live desperate lives in squalid shacks or forest redoubts, from which they may emerge to snatch food, vehicles, weapons and women. Now, they are also starting to purloin phones and satellite dishes.

"My lovely sat phone was the first thing the rebels stole. I was really upset because I was totally cut off from e-mailing and the world at large," Leon Nkunda, the postmaster in Bunia, a town in the lawless northeastern corner of Congo, said by telephone.

The region is home to several rebel groups. The elusive Mai Mai insurgents believe water protects them from bullets and use rusty AK-47 assault rifles to control pockets of mineral-rich land. But they also have a Web site, Congo-mai-mai.net, to promote their mission and make their demands.


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