The authorities in the Central African Republic have decided to suspend SMS services in the country, requiring all four mobile services providers to deactivate that functionality for their users, for an indefinite period of time. The government made this decision after a local organization, Collectif Centrafrique Debout, called for a general strike to protest against intercommunal violence in the country via SMS over the weekend.
There has been no SMS services in the country since Monday.
Against a generalized backdrop of insecurity, sectarian killings and protracted, indiscriminate violence against civilians, the decision to cut off SMS services, allegedly for security reasons, is troubling. Firstly, SMS messaging is widespread and popular in the Central African Republic, and is used more broadly and frequently than phone calls. Group messaging, such as the message relayed by Collectif Centrafrique Debout, allows for grassroots communications in a country where there are few opportunities to reach a wide number of people. In terms of security, communicating by SMS can be used to alert friends, families and extended networks about a situation of insecurity, and keeps people connected in difficult times. There may be reasons to be concerned about the potential mobilization of nefarious groups through SMS, however, the lack of SMS technology has not been shown to prevent killings or violence. Violent groups will continue to act violent, whether or not text messaging is available.
Secondly, the unilateral, executive decision to cut off this critical service – which a majority of the population relies on to communicate – raises concerns about the government’s decision making process. Today, the decision is to ban text messaging – what will be tomorrow’s executive order? According to Joseph Bindoumi, president of the Central African Human Rights League (ligue centrafricaine des droits de l’Homme), the decision to ban SMS is illegal. Indeed, the decision was made seemingly overnight, with no consultation, leaving Central Africans unable to use their mobile devices in the way they choose.
Banning SMS to help alleviate the security situation in the Central African Republic will not resolve the deep crisis that has gripped the country for over a year. Furthermore, the ban reveals just how abruptly the interim government can make rash decisions, which does not necessarily help improve trust between citizens and authorities. Finally, in a context where most bureaucracies and state infrastructure is in a state of disrepair, the decision to ban one of the few functional services provided by private vendors will not benefit the country. Given that the ban is indefinite, let’s hope this means it will be called off sooner rather than later.