Dispatch

What's the Frequency, Nkurunziza?

In central Africa, where on-air demagogues caused chaos in the 1990s, a Burundian radio broadcaster is playing with fire.

Radio is king in Africa -- anyone who has spent much time on the continent knows that. Virtually no African government lacks a friendly frequency. A coup isn't really a coup here until the general commandeers a local radio station. In Rwanda's 1994 genocide, the only weapon as infamous as the machetes that the country's ethnic Hutus wielded against their Tutsi neighbors was the Hutu-allied Radio Mille Collines, whose broadcasts incited them to do it. The experience has taught the region that a radio station that traffics in rumors, subtle threats, and political accusations can be dangerous in and of itself -- and a sign of darker things to come.

So in Burundi, where an electoral crisis threatens to undo a decade of steady, if slow, democratic progress, all eyes -- and ears -- are on the media. Tiny Burundi is Rwanda's southern twin, a nation of Hutu and Tutsi with a parallel history of bitter violence between them. The country has made major strides since the days of its own genocide, eclipsed by Rwanda's better-known massacres, in the early 1990s. A decade-long peace process ended last year, when a holdout rebel group finally signed a peace accord. Diplomats and donors privately think of Burundi as a rare central African success story, and, unlike Rwanda, a genuinely democratic one.

Or they did, until this election season. In May, the ruling party of President Pierre Nkurunziza, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD by its French initials), handily won the local election, and Nkurunziza is expected to win the presidential election on Monday. Opposition parties say the May vote was stolen, and have spent the last two weeks hurling allegations at the ruling party, poll organizers, and the independent electoral commission -- not necessarily without cause. They're boycotting the June 28 vote and urging Burundians to skip the one-man race.

The political crisis has rippled through Burundi's media as well. Burundi has four television stations and several newspapers, but most influential are the country's 18 radio stations, whose product Burundians consume insatiably. It is common to see people walk down busy city streets with a small radio held to their ear; every latest news item flies by word of mouth around communities in something approximating a nationwide game of telephone, driving Burundians back to their radios in the evening to find out whether what they heard was truth or rumor. Distinguishing the two, they say, requires a lot of time.

In a laudable (and rare) effort at impartiality, 15 radio stations pooled their journalists and airtime to provide unbiased nationwide coverage of the election in four languages, an effort dubbed Synergy. It was an attempt to avoid the problems of the 2005 election, when the media were more fragmented and vulnerable to political donors with deep pockets than they are five years later. "Media, when they are single, are fragile," says Adrien Sindayigaya, Burundi director of Search for Common Ground, a conflict-prevention organization which helped launch the initiative. "When you are trying to out some political actors, it's easy for them to say, 'Oh, you must just be against us.' But when there is a huge number of journalists who say, 'We know this,' or 'We witnessed this,' it's difficult to compel such a group" to toe a given line.

But amid the tensions of the election, the Synergy experiment is starting to crumble. For one thing, it's hard to give equal airtime to political contenders when there's only one official candidate on the ballot. And one station has emerged as a potential spoiler -- Rema FM, a privately owned radio station with close ties to the ruling party -- playing what some journalists here describe as dangerous political games with its programming. And it's starting to scare people.

"They're just like Radio Mille Collines," says Amadou Ousmane, spokesman for the United Nations mission in Burundi, making an oft-heard comparison. The European Union elections-monitoring mission, which also keeps tabs on media coverage of campaigns, calls the tone of Rema broadcasts "increasingly aggressive."

Media-monitoring outlets say Rema has taken to broadcasting the names of prominent opposition politicians and their supporters -- a subtle invitation for harassment, and an uncomfortable echo of what happened in the weeks before the Rwandan genocide, when local Hutu radio hosts read names of Tutsis targeted for killing.

Other Rema messages are less subtle. Two weeks ago, the radio station compared the political parties that pulled out of the presidential poll to the death squad that 15 years ago assassinated Melchior Ndadaye, the county's first Hutu president and first democratically elected leader since independence. "For Burundians, talking about Ndadaye's killers is still dangerous," explains Justine Nkurunziza, vice president of the Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society, a network of local NGOs (and no relation to the sitting president). "Many Burundians are Hutu, and Ndadaye is a hero. Whoever fights him is [seen as] the enemy of democracy."

Rema is also taking up politics directly, airing rumors and offering theories about who's behind the grenade attacks and other violence that has become common in the capital city of Bujumbura since the presidential campaign started. The station's broadcasters accused well-known opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije of handing out money and gasoline to supporters and encouraging them to burn down CNDD-FDD headquarters. The next day, almost 20 party offices were torched throughout the country, according to the European Union's elections-monitoring mission in Burundi; some Burundians, suspicious of Rema's ties to power, say they think the ruling party sabotaged itself in order to frame the opposition.

Rema also fans the flames with its citizen-cop style, says Innocent Nsabimana, director of media monitoring for the Central African Media Organization's Bujumbura office. "[After] the grenades one Saturday, Rema said, 'This is an act of the FNL,'" he says, referring to the rebel-group-turned-opposition party, whose leader was once thought to be President Nkurunziza's only serious challenger. "They confirm and say, 'We are sure, we have made an investigation.' This is not the job of a journalist."

Nsabimana rattles off several other troubling innuendos and subtle threats the station has broadcast. "And these things, they become reality after a few days," he says. Seven professional journalism associations sent a letter to the country's media council two weeks ago asking it to take measures against Rema. The letter has not been acknowledged, and several of the signatories and the European Union say they don't expect a reply. Meanwhile, Rema's owners are planning to expand their franchise with a television station.

It's hard to say what impact all this will have on Monday's election, and its aftermath -- whether Rema's activities are an ominous echo of the region's grim recent past, or an anachronism in a Burundi where proliferating information sources have produced a degree of skepticism among the media-consuming public, and the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s have largely been replaced by more conventional power struggles. Although Rema is generally considered the bad apple of the bunch, Burundians say they hear an editorial bias in the commentary and talk shows of almost every station, and correct for this bias by trolling the airwaves.

"Some radio [stations] we trust, but we listen to all of them," says Josiane Nsengiyumya, a dry-goods seller in the capital city. "We're always changing, because we don't know who's giving the truth," she says. "And some of them give bad news, destructive news. We don't need that. We need news that helps unity."

Which stations run the "bad news"?

She drops her voice.

"It's better not to say," she says.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

An African iPhone? There’s No App for That.

Why Steve Jobs should let Africans buy his new toy.

When I touched down in Lagos, Nigeria, this week, the first thing I did was buy a cell phone. The city's Saka Tinubu district hosts dozens of mobile vendors arrayed in small shops, piled high with all the major brands: Nokia, Motorola, Samsung. Among them is Belle-Vista Phone Warehouse, which styles itself as a "Blackberry Outlet." Young professionals stopped by after working hours to scoop up the Storm, the Curve, and other popular smartphones nestled in the display cases. Apple's iPhone -- ubiquitous in American cities, and about to become more so with the release of the product's much-anticipated version 4 today -- was nowhere to be seen.

The best-kept secret about Africa in the last decade is the continent's rapid and creative adoption of modern technology. African countries have for the most part leapfrogged the technologies of the late 20th century to adopt those of the early 21st en masse. There are now 10 times as many cell phones as land lines in sub-Saharan Africa, and since 2004, the region's year-over-year growth has been the highest in the world. When Nokia's billionth handset was sold in 2000, it was in Nigeria.

Africa is a multimillion-dollar mobile market, and plenty of the major technology companies, Western and otherwise, are there already. Multinational telecoms like MTN, Safaricom, and Zain are competing to cover a continent of 500 million mobile consumers, improving connectivity and dropping prices. Low-tech Chinese imports and no-contract, prepaid plans have made the technology easily accessible; Belle-Vista alone sells 500 phones a month. Nokia, which established its first African research center in Nairobi in 2008, has just unveiled a telephone that will allow consumers used to toggling between two or three devices to use multiple SIM cards in the same phone. BlackBerry has likewise responded to explosive demand by opening an office in Nigeria this year. Google, whose Android operating system is the strongest competitor to the iPhone, has had a presence on the continent since 2007 and now operates in 45 African countries, hiring and training African developers to convert its well-known suite of Web applications (Maps, News, Finance) for local use -- often over mobile devices.

These companies and their technologies are opening a line into the flattening world we've heard so much about, creating markets, enabling information access, and building relationships in ways that have changed poor countries from the bottom up. But it's hardly philanthropic work -- market leader Nokia's regional revenues were 1 billion euros in 2009, and Research In Motion, named Fortune's fastest-growing global firm in 2010, sold 1 million BlackBerries last year in South Africa alone.

So where is Apple?

The earlier-generation iPhones are, ostensibly, available on the continent -- Vodacom, a subsidiary of British Vodafone, signed a 10-country distribution deal with Apple in 2008 that included South Africa and Egypt, and the phones do work on local networks. Vodacom has also announced that it will distribute and service the iPhone4 in Africa in the near future. But for the vast majority of Africans, Apple effectively doesn't exist. The iTunes store's music offerings have never been available on the continent; African IP addresses are blocked. The iPhone goes for $1,000 at local retailers -- 10 times the current U.S. price for the same model, a big-enough markup that most iPhones on the continent are purchased  abroad instead -- and because of limited bandwidth and apps availability, owning one is "like having a Maserati in traffic," according to Tayo Oviosu, CEO of Pagatech, a mobile banking firm in Nigeria.

This is a shame, considering what even inexpensive, basic cell phones have done for Africa. In poor countries, cell-phone penetration has been linked to positive economic and developmental outcomes. A 2006 study of emerging markets suggests that a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration correlates with a 0.6 percentage point increase in economic growth rates. In Africa, the trend is lifting all boats: A fisherwoman without refrigeration in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can keep her catch on the line in the water, waiting for customers to call; selling access to a mobile phone in poor or rural areas of Uganda has become a viable business model. Professionals stuck in Johannesburg traffic make deals on their BlackBerries; demand for skilled labor in the information and communication technology sector has created 400,000 jobs in Nigeria since 2000.

 

The advent of mobile money -- the transfer of funds by cell phones, rather than banks or ATMs -- in poor countries has further expanded the reach and value of cell phones. Fifteen-thousand new mobile-banking customers sign up daily in Tanzania, 12,000 in Kenya, and 18,000 in Uganda. Paperless payment creates meaningful efficiencies: Bill-paying has ceased to be a day lost in line at the bank. Rather than sending an envelope full of cash with a bus driver to another town, an individual can text remittances to a distant relative or friend.

Africa has also led the way in putting mobile phones to NGO-like use. Using SMS platforms, organizations can send patients reminders to take medication, offer technical assistance to farmers, and provide mothers simple prenatal checklists. Ushahidi, a Kenya-based start-up, deployed its SMS-based crisis-mapping software in Haiti after January's earthquake, for which it was later honored by the Clinton Global Initiative. These mobile-centric models don't just do good -- they add real value to the sizable investment made by lower-income individuals in poor countries.

What could the iPhone contribute to this ongoing renaissance? The iPhone4 may serve these developmental functions better than anything else on the market, if its features are as described. The new FaceTime feature, for instance, which allows videoconferencing directly from a mobile device, could do much to support the distance education projects being pioneered at the University of South Africa and Makerere University in Uganda. In addition to GPS and access to the mobile Web, geotargeted applications could help traders find market prices, businesses find customers, and make news delivery and political organizing easier. All-in-one video shooting and editing software makes the iPhone4 a powerful media tool that competing smartphones like the BlackBerry or Nokia Nseries just can't duplicate. Even the longer battery life will add value in places where electricity is unreliable.

Most importantly, the iPhone's application development ecosystem would engage the talented, tech-savvy demographic on the planet's youngest continent. According to a paper from the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester, software production is an industry "essential for the growth of the economies of developing countries"; the $1.43 billion iPhone application market, with its low barriers to entry and friendliness to entrepreneurs, is ideal for Africa's burgeoning class of small-scale software programmers. In Kenya -- a country where software tinkering is popular enough to warrant a prime-time cable TV show -- some eager programmers created applications for the first iPhone well before it was even available in the country. "We're going to see people developing applications that solve specific challenges in the African context," says Oviosu. "If the iPhone comes here and catches on, of course we'll build [one]."

It isn't just Africans who are losing out from Apple's disinterest in the continent. As mobile data usage comes to replace traditional computing in Africa, the new unit of engagement for business, government relations, and humanitarian work may be the smartphone -- and it stands to reason that the company with the best local presence will reap the benefits of rising incomes and demand on a continent of nearly 1 billion. If it is Apple, it will reinforce the company's slogan: This changes everything. Again.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images