No calls, please: Big Brother in Kenya ties up the lines


Trying to call someone in Kenya? There’s a fine chance the person you’re trying to reach won’t pick up. No, not because that someone is busy, but because the government has switched his phone off. How many people have been affected? Local sources tell us it could be as many as one million! Talk about Big Brother…but don’t try talking about it via phone.

“This is a big inconvenience,” says 20-year-old Teresiah Njeri, a student at the University of Nairobi. “Your employer may call you and find that your phone has been switched off.”

She is referring to the recent move by the Kenya government to deactivate a number of mobile phones. The great switch-off is part of a massive campaign aiming to ban counterfeits from the market. Estimates indicate that over one million handsets have been affected in the first few days of October alone.

 “However," notes Njeri, "the move is good in a way because it curbs people from using it to commit crimes.”

She has clearly gotten the message conveyed by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), which indicated crime prevention as being one of their incentives. National security services had been concerned about mobile devices using duplicated international mobile equipment (IMEI) codes, the unique identity for each handset. This has made it difficult to track criminals who are suspected of using fake handsets to plan crimes.

Apart from targeting fake phones, the switch-off process also targeted unregistered cell phone SIM cards.

To inform Kenyans about what would happen, a large campaign was carried out in the local press in the weeks leading up to the switch-off date. The CCK also set up a special number through which users could verify if their mobile phone handsets were genuine. But preparation hasn’t made the situation any less frustrating for everyday citizens.

“Government should have taken responsibility and liability for this situation. They should have ensured that these fake phones did not get to market,” said Thomas Kahigwa, a 24-year-old political science graduate. “I think the government should help those people whose phones were switched off to get standard quality phones. The government should take care of 70 percent of the cost while the consumers should take care of 30 percent of the cost.”

But it's not just customers who are implicated.

“There are some dealers who are encouraging us to sell those fake phones, but we do not like those fake phones,” says Jeff, who operates a mobile phone shop along Nairobi's Moi Avenue. “For me, I have the original distributors.”

Cell phone communication is deemed essential by many Kenyans. Statistics indicate that mobile phone penetration in the East African nation was over 60 percent before the great switch-off.

And just on Friday, Reuters reported that Kenya approved new taxes on, for one thing, its popular mobile phone-based money transfer services. The government says the 10 percent excise duty will help replenish a funding gap that might otherwise scare off foreign investors. Let's hope the potential capitalists who want to discuss business won't be scheduling any conference calls.