In Africa, internet shutdowns take on unique implications as they are used by governments to control speech, repress opposition, cover up human rights abuse and tamper with democratic processes. In the first of a two-part series, this commentary examines the phenomenon of internet shutdowns and considers the impact of the growing motif of internet shutdowns in Africa.
Internet shutdowns are a deliberate disruption to the internet, often by state actors, to achieve any range of purposes to which free access to the internet is deemed detrimental. As the internet evolves, they have emerged mostly due to friction between governments and decentralised actors on the internet. They are quickly becoming commonplace across the world.
In Africa, internet shutdowns take on unique implications. Considering Africa’s continuing struggles with governance and her nascent democracies, internet shutdowns in Africa are used by governments to control speech, repress opposition, cover up human rights abuse and tamper with democratic processes.
This commentary examines the phenomenon of internet shutdowns, considers the impact of the growing motif of internet shutdowns in Africa and proposes an integrated approach, based on multistakeholder ideals, to combating the issue of Internet shutdowns.
What Are Internet Shutdowns
What constitutes an internet shutdown and how to identify one in practice can be deceptively complex and far more varied than prevailing definitions indicate. This is because internet shutdowns exist on a spectrum and are not a singular, homogenous activity. It is also because internet shutdown is often referred to by different terms by different parties.
Generally, internet shutdowns are defined as the intentional disruption of internet-based communications, making them inaccessible or unavailable for a specific population, location, or type of access. They include complete blackouts (where online connectivity is fully severed), mobile service disruptions, throttling, slowing down connections, and selectively blocking certain platforms. They also include partial internet blackouts or blackouts within specific geographical locations.
Snapshot of Internet Shutdowns in Africa
Africa has become something of a hotspot for internet shutdowns. The continent’s nascent democracies, governance struggles and unique socio-economic context mean that the frictions caused by the increasing influence of the internet, especially on political issues, are heightened within the continent. In 2021, Africa was recorded as the most censorship-intensive region in the world, with 12 countries shutting down the internet, as the continent recorded a whopping 35 percent of all internet shutdowns in the year.
Internet shutdowns in Africa are primarily informed by states’ desire to control communication during elections, suppress political disturbances (whether real or perceived) or repress specific kinds of detrimental content. One of the very first internet shutdowns in Africa happened in 2007 when Guinea’s former president Lansana Conté ordered a shutdown following protests calling for his resignation.
Since then, perhaps compelled by the rise of social media and increasing internet penetration, an estimated 26 out of Africa’s 54 states have overseen internet shutdowns. In 2016, the Ugandan government ordered an internet shutdown during a general election remembered for violent protests and arrests of opposition candidates.
In 2020, Tanzania shut down the internet during the elections in October. In the same year, Ethiopia imposed an internet shutdown due to tensions between Abiy's government and Tigray's regional party. Other countries like Burundi, Chad, Zimbabwe, Benin, the Republic of the Congo, Niger, Uganda, Zambia, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Eswatini, etc. have adopted varying degrees of internet restriction, within this period.
In 2021, Nigeria, Africa’s leading economy, recorded its first internet shutdown with the ban of Twitter which lasted over six months, following concerns around hate speech, misinformation and fake news, as well as civic disturbances stemming from regional agitation for self-governance and protests against police brutality.
Internet shutdowns in Africa are typically carried out by government orders to internet service providers (ISPs) requiring them to limit access by users whether to specific platforms (as was the case of the now notorious “Twitter Ban” in Nigeria) or the entire internet (as was the case in Uganda during the general elections in 2021).
They may also be implemented through fundamental infrastructure shutdowns (such as turning off of power grids and disablement of communications infrastructure), routing interferences, including Border Gateway Protocol route interferences and telephony routing interferences, domain name system (DNS) manipulation and deep packet inspection.
Why Internet Shutdowns?
The reasons given by various African states for internet shutdowns range from national security to public safety concerns. Often, the claim is that shutdowns are necessitated by a need to protect the public interest, prevent an undermining of constituted political structures or control hate speech, misinformation and illegal or harmful content.
Without more, these justifications are patently insufficient. While there is no denying that hate speech, disinformation, and similar negative externalities of internet activities present serious challenges for countries in Africa and around the world, internet shutdowns are condemnable for their human rights implications, authoritarian/undemocratic overtone, negative social impact, non-compliance with internet governance and digital policy standards, and ultimately, for their inefficacy in addressing any of the genuine problems.
There is evidence that the use of internet shutdowns to quell disturbances or national security issues only further accentuates them (as was the case in Egypt and Nigeria) as the propagation of illegal, harmful, or dangerous media hardly subside following shutdowns, with citizens often resorting to VPNs and other tools to evade internet blockages.
In any case, the supposed use of internet shutdowns to “preserve” democratic structures (assuming there is a genuine basis to consider that internet activities undermine democratic processes) is counterintuitive, as they are undemocratic by design and are restatements of the very issues they propose to resolve.
The truth is that these “justifications” often belie cogent ulterior motives. The real reasons for internet shutdowns often include the government's interest in (a) controlling the spread of information considered detrimental to their power, (b) effecting election malpractice and hiding voter fraud, (c) stifling dissent, (d) controlling media or (e) weakening minority groups.
Instructively, most internet shutdowns in Africa occur during or in anticipation of political events (such as elections) or political disturbances (such as protests or heavy criticism of the government) and are explored by governments to maintain control within the context of these events.
The costs of these decisions for Africa are extensive. Beyond the economic losses routinely incurred as a direct result of internet shutdowns, other repercussions include damage to commercial productivity, damage to the local digital economy, increased unemployment, loss of food security, disruption to social life and social structures and retardation of democratic participation and processes.
Regarding economic cost, African countries lost a combined $1.93 billion to internet shutdowns in 2021 alone, with Nigeria contributing the most to that total. The Cost of Internet Shutdown Report 2021 estimates the cost of the 2021 internet shutdown in Nigeria at US$1.5 billion (second only to Myanmar in the world).
Vincent Okonkwo | Lead Research Analyst, Tech and Innovation Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
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