Africa has been heavily affected by internet shutdowns, with global digital rights group Access Now reporting 13 shutdowns in 2017 and 21 in 2018. Africa is second only to Asia for internet switch-offs.
Most are politically motivated. Governments claim that false information on the internet fuels hatred and violence during crises such as fuel riots in Zimbabwe and a disputed general election in DRC.
Digital rights group Reporters Without Borders claims that internet cuts or restrictions on access to online social networks are now “widely used in Africa as censorship tools to gag dissent and prevent coverage of unrest within a sector of the population”.
Here are 10 internet shutdowns that hit Africa hard over the past year.
In June 2019, four people died in a failed coup attempt in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region and the country’s internet was partially shut down. Soon after news of the coup began to spread, internet connectivity and cellular data went down, News24 reported. Real-time network data showed that national connectivity dropped to 2 percent of normal levels on June 22 during the attempted coup, according to NetBlocks. After 100 hours without internet access, the network was gradually restored, although mobile data was only fully restored on July 2, CNN reported.
In January 2019, Zimbabwe ordered a “total internet shutdown” during protests over a dramatic fuel price increase in the southern African country. On the first day of protests following Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 120 percent fuel hike, live video footage, news updates and breaking news made their way to the world through Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. This prompted the government to shut down the internet for a whole day on two occasions during that week before it was restored, with many people in the country using virtual private networks to bypass the shutdown, according to Timeslive.
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Protests over inflation and corruption in June 2019 led to the Liberian government blocking certain social media and news sites to stop the movement’s online momentum. Connectivity was restored after 12 hours. Some websites and apps that were inaccessible to Liberians included WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Google’s Gmail service and The Associated Press’s website, according to internet monitoring platform NetBlocks.
When we think about internet shutdowns, we usually imagine a few hours or days without being able to go online. Chad’s social media has finally been restored after more than a year. In July 2019, President Idriss Deby lifted the ban on social media usage which has been imposed since an internet shutdown began in March 2018, according to GadgetsAfrica. The ban was imposed after recommended reforms that would enable Deby to stay in power until 2033. The government feared an online backlash.
On Jan. 7, 2019 Gabon experienced an internet shutdown following an attempted military coup. Connectivity was partially restored after the government communicated with citizens that it had stopped the uprising, but was only fully restored a few days later. The shutdown affected mobile operators Gabon Telecom and its mobile subsidiary Libertis, as well as Airtel, according to ITWebAfrica.
Internet shutdowns in Africa continue to be politically motivated, and the 2019 incident in Sudan was no different. Sudan blocked social media and other internet-based communication on June 10, 2019, amid calls for longtime President Omar al-Bashir, to step down, according to News24. Access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp was only possible through a virtual private network, as is often the case in these shutdowns. The internet was partially restored on June 24, but connectivity continues to be unstable a month after restoration.
The Democratic Republic of Congo experienced a disruption to internet connectivity following the Dec. 30 elections at the end of 2018. A full internet blackout was evident in major cities, including the capital Kinshasa, after results began coming out on Dec. 31. Mobile operator Vodacom and internet service provider Global said that they were ordered to cut internet access by the government, according to Quartz. The government said that the shutdown was aimed at preventing the circulation of fake election results online and stopping a popular uprising. It restored internet service 20 days after the disputed presidential election. The total impact of the shutdown on the Congolese economy was estimated at $61 million.
On March 31, 2018, as vote counting started following a runoff presidential election, the internet went down and remained inaccessible for several hours while counting took place before it was restored, ITWebAfrica reported. An election monitoring group, Sierra Leone Decides reported that internet service providers said the measure was to stop the Sierra Leone National Electoral Commission and affiliates from sharing results with party affiliates, according to AfricaNews.
In June 2019, the internet in Mauritania was shut down for two days, affecting most of the North African country, according to a NetBlocks report. The blackout was the result of contested presidential elections held in the country and is the latest example of African governments shutting down the internet as a way to control the flow of information.
At the beginning of 2018, the Cameroon government suspended the internet after English-speaking teachers, lawyers and students went on strike over alleged historical biases in favor of francophone Cameroonians. The suspension lasted from January to March, almost 100 days, before the internet was finally restored, according to ITNewsAfrica.
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