Kenya: From Conservative Oligarchy to Liberal Dictatorship

An Erosion of Rights  from Free speech to SIM cards.

The government wants to get into your bedsheets with you. They want to see what you wear when you go to bed, who or what you get into bed with, and why. They want to listen in as you whisper those sweet nothings to whomever or whatever it is that keeps you company. They want to be so far into your business, they will be able to hear you think. Better believe it.While Kenya is gripped with referendum fever over the proposed constitution, the government has declared that compulsory registration of mobile phone Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards has begun, and will continue for another month or so. The ostensible reason is that this will help government fight crimes such as mobile phone theft, kidnappings, and the like. This is nonsense.

A traceable SIM card in a stolen phone can simply be thrown away. Similarly, it is ludicrous for the government to think kidnappings will cease merely because text messages can be traced to a given cellphone number. What’s to stop the kidnappers using one of the many free web-based services to send the text message? They could even use the kidnapped person’s own cellphone to send text messages or make calls – what’s to stop them?No, this is not about crime and security. This is about government wanting to listen in, to spy on us, to take us back to the bad old days under the malevolent regime of President Moi, when you could not say anything without a furtive look over your shoulder. It is a massive step back in civil liberties.

Unfortunately, our representatives in Parliament seem to be too busy holding night-and-day referendum meetings to take note of what is happening. It also flies in the face of economic sense. The mobile phone sector in Kenya – and most of Africa – is booming essentially because there is little or no bureaucracy involved in purchasing a mobile phone SIM card.Replacing a lost one is easy, but most people do not bother to go through the hassle of lining up at their service provider’s to wait for this: they simply purchase a new line and advise their contacts to change to the new number. This is what has kept the dynamic mobile phone sector so vibrant and profitable.

The introduction of mobile phone registration will very quickly curtail growth in the sector, as many people will be reluctant to provide their details to the government, knowing that this government has, in the past, actively sought to block citizens from even sending each text messages – as happened during the disputed general elections of 2007.It is virtually guaranteed that a significant proportion of subscribers will let their SIM cards lapse. Corruption will enter the mobile phone sector, as proxy registrations gain ground: indeed, unscrupulous agents with fake identity cards will pop up to help customers register SIM cards falsely. The directive will hit service providers’ bottom lines quite significantly: the massive sales they have witnessed through decentralised, roadside shops will simply stop.

That is not to say there is no place for some form of registration – there is, as the popular M-Pesa money transfer service has shown. However, such registration should be service-related and voluntary, rather than a Big-Brother-style gun-on-your-temple quid pro quo for accessing telephony and similar communication service.Considering that criminal messages can also be passed using email, shall we see the government seek to have people register their computers and email addresses with the CCK? After all, one might want to trace the source of an email if such a facility is used in committing crime. Perhaps we should also have identifiable cyber-café accounts, too.

This SIM card registration directive is wrong and should be re-thought. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the countries that have implemented such schemes – like Iran, Ethiopia and the like – are among the most oppressive in the world. In the hands of Kenyan security and intelligence forces, SIM card registration will simply become yet another tool of repression and denial of civil rights.

By P. Wanyonyi – published NMDN