Internet shutdowns have become a motif in Africa. African leaders restrict internet access for the flimsiest motives. It could be to prevent exam malpractice, disperse protests, or mitigate against misinformation.
Last year, access to the internet and social media were momentarily restricted in eight African countries. Namely: Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Tanzania, Togo, and Zimbabwe. As of August 2020, 53 internet shutdowns were recorded. In 2019, Access Now—a non-profit that defends digital rights—reported 25 cases of partial or total internet shutdowns in 14 African countries. That’s 25% more shutdowns and 40% more countries than the preceding year. In 2017, only 12 cases were recorded.
To be clear, internet shutdowns are not exclusive to African countries. In fact, they happen more frequently in Asian countries. Since 2015, India has been responsible for the majority of internet shutdowns reported. Of the 213 total cases of internet shutdown recorded from 33 countries in 2019, India accounted for 121 shutdowns.
The other worst perpetrators of internet shutdowns in 2019 are Venezuela (12), Yemen (11), Iraq (8), Algeria (6), and Ethiopia (4).
To define the term: Internet shutdown is the intentional disruption of internet-based communications, thereby making them inaccessible or unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access. It’s often done to exert control over the flow of information. There are levels of internet shutdown: one that affects only a city; the one that affects more than one city in the same state; and one that has a nationwide impact.
Sometimes, however, the internet is not completely shut down. Rather, it is throttled as in the case of Nigeria after the Lekki Massacre on October 20. And usually, the suspension of social media platforms is first announced. Then, sometimes only 24 hours later, followed by an internet shutdown. This is what the Ugandan Communications Commission (UCC) did.
On January 12, 2021, MTN Uganda said it’d be complying with the directive from UCC to “immediately suspend access and use, direct or otherwise, of all social media platforms and online messaging applications…until further notice”.
Some hours later, UCC issued another directive to internet service providers (ISPs) to turn off internet gateways, thereby ultimately shutting down the internet in Uganda. All these happened barely two days to the presidential election of the East African country. (The incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office since 1986, won the election).
“In exercise of its functions under sections 5(1) and 56 of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013”, the statement reads. UCC “directs you to implement a temporary suspension of the operation of all your Internet Gateways and associated access points. This suspension should take effect at 7pm [sic] this day of 13th January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed”.
African leaders only want the internet and social media that serve them
Due to the multiple cases of internet shutdowns, it’s easy to assume African leaders are Luddites. But that is only true to the extent that they measly invest in the digital economy and reluctantly embrace e-governance.
African leaders deftly use the internet and social media to win elections, consolidate their incumbency, and gaslight citizens. Since Web 2.0 started in 2004, the same year Facebook was founded, social media and the internet have become part of electioneering globally. The 2008 United States presidential election, which Barack Obama won, took what online campaign means beyond having a mere website to include a robust social media campaign
Between 2011 and 2019, StateCraft Inc. helped three presidential candidates (one incumbent and two challengers) win elections across Africa. StateCraft is a governance consulting firm with expertise in elections, citizen management, policy development and implementation. It is a subsidiary of RED co-founded by Adebola Williams and Chude Jideonwo in 2005.
In 2011, StateCraft worked on the campaign that got Goodluck Jonathan elected in Nigeria. Four years later, the governance consulting firm would help his opponent, President Muhammadu Buhari, outwit him. In 2017 and 2019, their success in Nigeria would be replicated in Ghana and Senegal, respectively. StateCraft worked on the campaign that got President Nana Akufo-Addo elected and President Macky Sall re-elected.
During an interview, Williams said StateCraft helped “humanize” Buhari’s message of change to connect with the youth. Through photo shoots and a social media campaign, the team “softened” his image or “refreshed the firm leader image” when needed. Willems and Jideonwo published a book in 2018, How to Win Elections in Africa: Parallels With Donald Trump. And they submitted that the strategy for winning elections in Africa is to: brush up the presidential candidate’s image and boost his popularity among the youth.
Thus, underneath the reasons given by any African governments for shutting down the internet are ulterior malicious motives. And these motives vary from silencing dissidents, frustrating opposition political parties or to cover up egregious acts—that could amount to war crimes.
Speaking on the initial social media shutdown in Uganda, the deputy regional director of Amnesty International for East Africa, Sarah Jackson, said: “The move is clearly intended to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and bloggers, who are monitoring the elections”.
It is worthy of note that governments are getting bolder. Governments acknowledged only 81 of the 196 internet shutdowns in 2018. And acknowledged 116 of the 213 internet shutdowns recorded in 2019, according to Access Now.
There is no evidence that internet shutdowns work. Not even during the revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (also known as Arab Spring) did restrictions on internet access silence dissidents or stop people from protesting. Most times, rather than quashing violence or silencing dissidents, internet shutdowns fuel it. Thus, internet shutdown is merely a tool in the hands of an authoritarian government.
Some Statistics on Internet shutdowns
2007: The first known internet shutdown in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) happened. It was ordered by Guinea’s former president Lansana Conté following protests calling for his resignation.
26: Out of 54 African countries have recorded at least one level of internet shutdown since 2007.
15: The number of times governments across the world shut down the internet in 2015
76: The number of times governments across the world shut down the internet in 2016
106: The number of internet shutdowns recorded in 2017 worldwide.
196: The number of internet shutdowns recorded in 25 countries in 2018.
213: The number of internet shutdowns recorded in 33 countries in 2019.
240: The number of days the internet was shut down in Cameroon between January 2017 and March 2018.
$2.4 billion: The amount 81 short-term shutdowns in 19 countries between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, cost.
$4 billion: The cost of internet shutdown cost world economy in 2020, down by 50% from 2019.
$237.4 million: The cost of internet shutdowns in the SSA in 2020.
⅓ of all national elections in the SSA were accompanied by internet shutdown between 2014 and 2016.
What’s the way forward?
According to Access Now, internet shutdowns are more likely to happen when: laws are outdated or overboard, laws are not transparent, and international standards do not disallow them. There are at least 27 countries, as of 2016, where the laws allow the government to shut down or take over telecom networks.
And it is easier for some governments to restrict internet access than others. Countries where the government controls the internet infrastructure, like Ethiopia and Eritrea, internet shutdowns are easy to implement. But in other countries where the ISPs and telecommunication landscape are diverse, like Nigeria and South Africa, implementing shutdown is a bit complex. However, they still have internet shutdowns because the companies often obey the directive of the governments to shut down the internet. An example is Uganda, where the UCC gave directives to block Facebook and Twitter in 2011, and shut down the internet for elections and inauguration in February and May 2016, as well as in 2018.
However, there have been exceptions. Last year, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the Togolese government illegally shut down the country’s internet in September 2017. In its ruling, the Court of Justice asked the Togolese government to pay the plaintiff $3,400 as compensation. Similarly, the courts in Zimbabwe ruled in favour of reinstating internet access in 2019.
“Development and human rights protections are strengthened in tandem when networks remain open, secure, and stable” Peter Micek, Global Policy and Legal Counsel at Access Now, said. “All stakeholders, from telcos to activists to judges, must band together to demand an end to shutdowns”.
In 2016, the United Nations Human Right Council agreed to a resolution that condemns internet shutdowns. The resolution was a renewal of those made in 2012 and 2014, which declared that human rights apply online just as they do offline. Everyone must rally behind this resolution. More telcos and ISPs should take a stand against the government. And there should be more organisations, like Access Now and Top10VPN, creating awareness and fighting against internet shutdowns.