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The GSM boycott: civil society, big business and the state in Nigeria

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On September 19 2003, following weeks of concerted mobilisation, mobile phone subscribers in Nigeria took the unprecedented step of switching off their handsets en masse. The consumers took this symbolic step in protest against perceived exploitation by the existing GSM phone companies. Among other things, they were angered by allegedly exorbitant tariffs, poor reception, frequent and unfavourable changes in contract terms, and arbitrary reduction of credits. That action has continued to reverberate across the wider social pool in the country. At issue is a series of critical questions, which the protest helps bring into focus- how useful, or reliable is technology as an instrument of social activism? How is (mobile) technology shaping the democratic momentum in Nigeria, and indeed the rest of the African continent? And significantly, how useful is technology as a mechanism for the socio-economic empowerment of ordinary citizens? Using the boycott and the attendant fallouts as backdrop, this study provides a number of tentative answers. It argues that the boycott ought to be appraised, first, in the context of existing mistrust between customers and transnational big business in Nigeria; and second, against the background of difficult state-society intercourse which has mostly been characterised by the latter's suspicion of the state's connivance with the corporate establishment. Furthermore, the study argues that because it gives civil society a combined cause and instrument of protest, mobile phones in the Nigerian context presage the emergence of a new social space of politics and agitation.

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