Giovanna Giuriolo, Advisor - Peace and Conflict Mandate
Picture Credit: Global Risk Insights
Limiting Internet and social media use has become one of the most used practices by authoritarian governments to silence their citizens. This phenomenon has been around for years, in many parts of the world, however it is a recent phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to the recent spike in cellphone use across the continent. This trend not only has repercussions on the right to freedom of expression, but it also impacts the course of democracy.
Internet shutdown is becoming a more and more common tactic used by authoritarian regimes to keep their people from protesting and showing dissent. In 2020 alone, 29 countries around the world imposed an Internet shutdown; 10 of them were Sub-Saharan African countries. With the rise of social media use across the continent in recent years, authoritarian governments had to come up with new techniques to silence the opposition and limit dissent. But what is an Internet shutdown? “An Internet shutdown is when a government intentionally restricts public internet access for a period of time in order to limit free speech and access to information”. As social media use is a crucial part of Internet use, for the purpose of this article social media shutdown and Internet shutdown will be considered as one and interchangeable.
Internet shutdowns occur mainly in authoritarian countries, and governments have a wide range of justifications for taking these measures, such as for public safety, to stop the spread of misinformation, and to maintain national security. In reality, the true reasons are to prevent people from organizing protests, escalation of violence, referendums and elections, or to restrict information, especially if it is not in line with official reports. In some cases, the government not only implements shutdowns, but it also monitors Internet and social media usage, by imposing taxes on users for every MB spent online. These taxes are usually justified as a good way for the government to have revenue that can be spent on public projects. In 2018, Tanzania’s president John Magufuli forced content creators to pay “2 million Tanzanian shillings (about $930) in licensing fees—beyond the reach of most in a country where the per capita GDP is approximately 2.7 million shillings ($1,178)”. The same yea, the Museveni government in Uganda, also imposed “200 Ugandan Shillings (US $ 0.05) per day to access Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp”.
According to statistics, in 2020, Facebook was the most used social media platform in Africa, followed by YouTube, with Twitter fourth in line. In recent years, thanks to the rise of the use of mobile phones across Sub-Saharan Africa, social media and platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram have been one of the main ways of communication between people, and in many cases a tool to organize protests, bring awareness to human rights violations, and express opinions on political leaders. Some examples that occurred in 2020 are the #EndSars movement to stop police brutality in Nigeria, which caught international attention, and the #WeAreRemovingADictator Twitter hashtag created by Bobi Wine during his presidential campaign in Uganda. The Sub-Saharan African countries that experienced an Internet shutdown in 2020 are Ethiopia, Burundi, Chad, Mali, Guinea, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe, the majority of them because of tensions during the election period.
Picture Credit: Nextweb
Cutting off the Internet may seem a good idea for authoritarian regimes, but there are indications that it can either have no affects on protests or it can even backfire. Limiting Internet and social media use can escalate protests and violence, the opposite result that authoritarian governments want to achieve. During the presidential campaign in Uganda between 2020 and 2021, protests sparked in November 2020 after the arrest of the opposition candidate and singer Bobi Wine. The government responded with arrests and violent repression, and in early 2021, two days before the elections scheduled for 14th January, the government shutdown Internet. This however did not stop protests, in fact, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) monitoring, demonstrations continued the following week. Uganda is not the only country that experienced this. According to a recent study, during the protests in Sudan against the Al-Bashir regime between 2018 and 2019, after the government shut down Internet, protests increased all over the country, including in the capital Khartoum which until that point did not experience a high number of demonstrations against the regime. Research has shown that Internet shutdowns have serious repercussions not only on the political stability of a country, but on the economy as well. If before the takeover of mobile phones, Internet cafes owners were the main victims of Internet shutdowns, which caused them to have no business, in recent years the focus has been more on the country’s economy as a whole. In 2016, a three-day Internet shutdown in Niger cost the country $1.2 million.
Another aspect of politics and democracy that is affected by shutting down the Internet is the election process. This past January, elections in Uganda were disrupted, and information about polling affluence was obscured. Reports say that thanks to the shutdown “incidents of ballot stuffing, pre-marked ballots, forgeries, bribery, and inflated voter rolls” occurred. This clearly undermines the transparency of elections, and enables the incumbent administration to rig elections to stay in power. A lack of transparency from the government during an election can cause protests that can escalate into violence, and maintain the status quo without listening the will of the people.
An important aspect to bear is mind is that Internet shutdown is possible only if the Internet provider is owned by the government – like in the case of Eritrea and Ethiopia, or if the government has a particularly good relationship with the private –i.e. foreign in Sub-Saharan African countries – provider. The latter aspect is something that has to be taken into consideration, if the international community - especially regional and international bodies – wants to prevent authoritarian regimes from using Internet and social media to retain power.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Will Internet shutdowns continue to be implemented to help silence dissent, or the civil society will find a way around them? Some countries in Africa are already using, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to be able to communicate even with social media and Internet restrictions, and some are already developing softwares that are able to work offline. The battle between the people and authoritarian regimes will continue. On one side, people are resilient, and they will always find a way to organize and fight for democracy. On the other, government will always try their best to find new ways to remain in power.
Giovanna is an Italian political scientist based in London, UK. She holds a BA in International Studies, and a BA in History from Loyola University Chicago, and an MSc in African Politics from SOAS University of London. Her academic and work experience has focused on the historical and political development of Africa, and the relations between Africa and Europe.