African Rebels Take Their Battles Online
Internet Extends Political Debate

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.

Rebels aren't the only ones taking advantage of cyberspace. In Ethiopia, which the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks as one of the worst places in the world for press freedom, citizen journalists have started dozens of sites from crowded urban Internet cafes, where hip-hop music booms from speakers and young people congregate.

Some cafes are housed in mosquito-ridden, tin-roofed shacks, where the dial-up speed is agonizingly slow but the determination to connect is strong.

During several outbursts of political violence, especially in the capital, Addis Ababa, after the disputed May election, no news organization was able to report on events as fast as online instant messages and posted diaries.

On Nazret.com, a call went out for bloggers "to blog on events unfolding in Ethiopia." The blog site, "Live from Addis Ababa Ethiopia," had some of the most vivid reporting of the November unrest, in which an estimated 40 people were killed when police fired live bullets into protests.

"I was shopping with a friend when all of a sudden I heard people screaming and running around me. There were bullets flying past us," wrote a young woman who called herself Mimi.

During protests on June 9, there were minute-by-minute eyewitness reports from the blog on Meskel Square.com. One blogger wrote:

"Just for the record, I saw 11 bodies at the Black Lion and Zawditu hospitals, all with gun shot wounds, some to the head. As you know, the official count at the moment is 22 dead."

During that time, nearly every independent Ethiopian journalist was hauled off to jail.

"On the Internet, they certainly are far away enough or invisible enough to not feel the burn. The Net has played a huge role," said Tamrat G. Giorgis during a recent interview in Addis Ababa. Fortune, the independent newspaper he publishes, is the only one in Ethiopia that has not been shut down.

On the whole, Africa is still dominated by radio, and rural families are likely to gather round a rusty transistor or a fuzzy TV screen at the local pub for the evening news.

But as Africa becomes more urbanized, members of the continent's young generation are increasingly going online. These days, the continent has blogs on everything from Egyptian lesbians to planned political protests in Zimbabwe.

Countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Egypt have a few hundred bloggers each, according to Ethan Zuckerman, a blogging expert at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

"How important is blogging for the continent? In the long term, it's critical," Zuckerman wrote in an e-mail. "Not only do blogs provide an alternative space for free speech in countries where the press may not be independent, free or strong, they also enable people in Africa to challenge media representations in the U.S. and Europe."

He said African bloggers wrote passionately about their frustration during the Live8 concert for Africa last year, saying it was insulting and failed to address the most important issues on the continent.

"They found themselves in debates with North Americans about whether aid for Africa was an appropriate priority, versus anti-corruption efforts, free trade or economic development," Zuckerman said. "These conversations between continents happen very rarely. Blogs are hugely important in letting them happen."

With the rise of blogging and rebel Web sites, there is fresh concern about African governments eventually shutting down Internet cafes and arresting cybercritics.

So far, however, only Tunisia and Egypt have censored access to the Internet and are tracking bloggers in a widespread way, according to researchers. Already, there is advice on the Internet to warn bloggers how to protect themselves.

"Bloggers need to be anonymous when they are putting out information that risks their safety. The cyber police are watching and have become expert at tracking down 'troublemakers,' " wrote Julien Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk at U.S.-based Reporters Without Borders.

"Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure," he wrote. "Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest."

Lately, governments in Africa have begun paying more attention.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently said in an interview in the capital that some of the country's newspapers and blogs were "yellow journalism of the worst kind. In some cases we have evidence that they were trying to overthrow the government."

As for the rebels in Darfur, the group remains fractured and the leaders are still not talking face to face. But they reportedly are still e-mailing each other.

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