The Internet & Africa
Why are African Governments shutting down the internet?
As Uganda approaches its presidential election we look at the continuing trend of regimes in Africa restricting social media and internet access.
New year, same old tricks. As election season approaches in Uganda, the government has taken the unnecessary step to block social media access during the election process. Uganda is not the first nation to take this approach, with Tanzania in 2020 opting to take the route of restricting social media access for the whole nation and Zimbabwe before them shutting down the entire internet for the whole country during civil unrest. In 2018, I wrote about a campaign by a musician, Robert Kyagulanyi otherwise known as Bobi Wine who was protesting against strict policies on social media which involved paying a tax for posting and being registered. In 2021, he is now the leading candidate going against the incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda. A story we are seeing across Africa with younger politicians now challenging the old guard, and the limiting of social media being used as a tool to curb limit the power of the youth.
What’s going in Uganda 🇺🇬 ?
Incumbent President Museveni recently accused tech giants Facebook and Twitter of limiting his election accounts and banning them, and in retaliation, days before the 14th of January 2021 elections, it was announced by the ruling party that access to social media platforms would be blocked during the election period. Internet service providers were forced to block access to all social media sites, a move that is now so common across the region.
By the 13th of January, the word coming out of Uganda was that the Government was planning a full internet shutdown and it’s currently unclear as to when they will be bringing it back.
Why is this problematic?
#UgandaIsBleeding, the hashtag has been powerful and has exposed the ruling parties atrocities and highlighted the treatment of citizens by the police and military in Uganda. Shutting down the internet means curbing the spread of information across Uganda if violence or unrest happens. It’s now not uncommon to see videos of unauthorized people removing votes in suspicious circumstances. Similar footage on social media was seen during elections in Tanzania (Zanzibar), Cameroon and Guinea. Mobile footage is powerful, and even with expensive data tariffs in Africa, it travels far! We saw this with the Sudanese revolution in 2019.
Power to the people: The digital African revolution
“The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power” ― Wael Ghonim
Who is carrying out the internet shutdown?
This is not a solution and should not be a solution. Unfortunately for mobile carriers in the region, going against the government is never a good option for business. Many have tried legal challenges to curb this movement, but it’s never proven fruitful. It is rare to see a ruling party going to these lengths lose an election, so many businesses know that the impact on going against the order, even in the courts won’t be a good outcome for them.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where access to the entire internet was shut down for 20 days after a widely discredited presidential election in December 2018, the global telecoms groups Vodafone of the UK and France’s Orange said they had no choice but to comply. Orange, the second-biggest mobile network provider in Congo, said instructions to restrict internet and messaging services came from the “empowered authorities” and that under the terms of its licence it is required to respond.
What does the future look like for digital freedom in Africa?
The cutoffs — along with the abuse of power by police and latest social media regulations — coalesce to extinguish access to the internet and constitute a threat to fostering an open internet, democracy and freedom of speech. In a continent with divergent political realities and internet penetration levels, many points to the irrefutable role of digital media in helping spread information, organise political campaigns and also connect with the connected youth.
As we can see from the data by Access Now and the KeepItOn Coalition this trend is unfortunately on the rise. Whilst the African Union and regional Unions such as ECOWAS and SADC have expressed disappointment at the stance by their nations, more needs to be done to ensure countries are not carrying forward this newfound oppression. Campaigns like #KeepItOn or Article19 publicly shame governments and raise awareness for the consequences of internet shutdowns and their violations of the freedom to expression.
How can citizens affected circumvent these blocks?
VPNs are a popular method to circumvent around certain internet shutdowns. For instance, in previous elections in Uganda, the top downloaded apps in the region were all VPNs. A great resource to compare different VPN providers is That One Privacy Site. If a complete internet shutdown happens, it becomes much harder as this means they have blocked all internet access. A rare move, but one that was seen used by governments in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Ethiopia recently.
The platform IODA provides fine-grained information about internet shutdowns including information about different providers involved as well as timing. More data is needed to understand the economic impact of the shutdowns but services such as IODA now offer their API so researchers can utilize the data being collected and be made aware of any irregularities.
IODA is a CAIDA project to develop an operational prototype system that monitors the Internet, in near-realtime, to identify macroscopic Internet outages affecting the edge of the network, i.e., significantly impacting an AS or a large fraction of a country.
“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.” — Thomas Jefferson
Elections are a hotly contested topic right now, with a focus on how social media is impacting the people and how politicians are using it. In America, we have seen the power of social media to incite riots by Donald Trump. But research across Africa has shown that shutting down social media has the opposite effect to what we saw in America. Whilst governments in Africa are pushing the narrative that it is for national security and to protect citizens from protesting, by blocking the internet, it actually forces citizens to come outside as they now no longer have the means to communicate. Jan Rydzak, Moses Karanja and Nicholas Opiyo’s work on internet shutdowns across several African countries also support that street protests increase in immediate response to shutdowns.