In this day and age, access to the internet is widely considered a human right. For many, it is the main way they conduct business, communicate and experience the world they live in. However, this right has been infringed upon in Africa multiple times in the last year and this consequential trend shows no signs of slowing down.
Robert Besseling, an analyst at risk-assessment firm EXX Africa, told Voice of America that there have been shutdowns in five African countries in the first three weeks of 2019 alone. In 2018, there was a total of 21 across the continent.
In Cameroon last year, the government suspended services after Anglophone teachers, lawyers and students went on strike over alleged historical biases in favour of Francophones. The suspension lasted from January to March, almost one hundred days, making it the longest period of Internet disruption by an African government.
We saw the Zimbabwean government restrict online – and social media services specifically – to curb the organisation of violent protests triggered by skyrocketing fuel prices. ISPs Econet and TelOne blocked access to the internet entirely in accordance with a government mandate and even VPNs couldn’t be used as a workaround. Econet could only message its customers, saying that it was “beyond our reasonable control.”
Internet was cut in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a tumultuous presidential election to avoid an “uprising” as tensions rose while the results were pending. Opposition parties accused authorities of trying to curb activism against suspect numbers. Citizens figured out ways to tap into services across the Congo River in the Republic of Congo, but service was finally restored 20 days after the election.
Again to counter a protest, Sudan blocked social media amid growing calls for its longtime president, Omar al-Bashir, to step down. It wasn’t as severe as the internet blackout imposed in 2013, but the restricted access severely impacted the exchange of information. Access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp was only possible via a virtual private network (VPN).
During an attempted coup, Gabon shut off its services, effectively denying citizens reliable information on the insurrection.
The main reasoning behind these shutdowns is that they will help stop the incitement of hate and violence, but many have argued that it only hinders the exchange of information, creating an even better environment for human rights abuses and injustice to thrive.
Not only that, but these shutdowns aren’t cheap. “The Economic Impact of Disruptions to Internet Connectivity“, a report compiled by Deloitte and funded by GNI member Facebook, measures the cost of these shutdowns.
The report estimates that a country with average connectivity could lose at least 1.9% of its daily GDP for each day all Internet services are shut down. For a country with average to medium level connectivity, the loss is estimated at 1% of daily GDP, and for an average to low connectivity country, the loss is estimated at 0.4% of daily GDP.
Based on that, the ongoing Internet shutdown in Ethiopia, a low-connectivity country with a population of 94 million and a per capita GDP of USD 505, is costing its economy just under half-a-million USD a day in lost GDP.
Despite these consequences, shutdowns keep gaining traction as a way to quell organised violence. Is it the new norm in Africa? And if so, what impact will it have on the countries affected in the long term?