The ubiquity of the internet is unquestionable in the 21st century. Thanks to phenomenal growth in communication technology and online platforms, internet access has risen quickly to become an important item for humans.
On the African continent however, internet shutdown is increasingly becoming a political tool. Over the last eight years, governments from seven African countries have intentionally disrupted internet usage in their territories. Countries like Chad and Cameroon blocked internet access in their domains for months in 2018.
— BRIAN PELLOT (@brianpellot) February 3, 2019
Internet shutdowns in Africa
How did the internet devolve from being a utilitarian tool to becoming a political tool? And why do governments shutdown the internet in Africa.
By definition, an internet shutdown or disruption occurs when someone, usually the government, disrupts the internet or applications.
Internet shutdown is not a recent trend in Africa though. The first notable incident of internet disruption in Africa occurred in Zambia in 1996. At the time, the government succeeded in removing a banned edition of The Post from the newspaper’s website by threatening to prosecute the country’s main Internet Service Provider (ISP), Zamnet.
After this incident, it took more than 10 years before the next case of internet disruption was reported in Africa. This is understandable considering the internet was still very new to Africa.
So, @MrAyeDee is calling for the government to shut down internet access during elections. I've said it before and will say it again: "This time will pass, and #WeWillRemember those that attempted to steer us into darkness. Shame on you. pic.twitter.com/GJahVdocqz
— Nigerians, when? (@Naija_VoxDei) February 3, 2019
However since 2007, Africa has witnessed a rising wave of internet disruptions.
Why do African governments disrupt the internet?
Recently, a number of African governments have shutdown internet access during times of upheavals. When there’s a protest or large scale unrest in certain countries, the government quickly takes down the internet.
They justify the act by claiming they are trying to halt the spread of misinformation which could lead to more crises.
Although it sounds sensible, it’s usually not the full story.
Disrupting the internet is almost always done to block the spread of information the government considers unfavourable until the situation is brought under control. This explains why internet shutdowns occur when there are protests or other activities that embarrass governments. For example, Cameroon in 2017 blocked the internet for 3 months following anti-government protests.
Internet shutdown will chase away even the foolhardy Kizakastan investors pic.twitter.com/hF19anxPjz
— masirande (@masirande) January 31, 2019
Zimbabwe recently followed a similar path. In January 2019, the government briefly ordered internet service providers to block internet access following a protest in the country. Although they later restored the internet, the implementation of the order was far too simplistic.
Disrupting internet during elections
Away from protests, a few African governments consider internet disruption during elections. Congo for example blocked the internet during its recent election. This made it hard for people to follow issues during the election.
— AllOverNaija (@allovernaija) February 4, 2019
Following the playbook of these countries, more and more African countries could be considering internet shutdown. The Nigerian government for instance was rumoured to have it as a plan ahead of its elections this month.
Get the best of Africa’s daily tech to your inbox – first thing every morning.
Join the community now!