Ventures Africa

Introduction

By Oreoluwa Runsewe

In March this year, Ventures Africa launched its new business series, Ventures Africa BizHive with an inaugural edition titled The Future of Nigeria’s Tech through the eyes of 10 Leading women. 

This month, we are exploring internet shutdowns across Africa as we introduce “ Speak! by Ventures Africa.”  VA Speak offers a unique angle around the key issues in policy, business, innovation, and life through the lens of our team.

Why internet shutdowns, you ask? Well, internet shutdowns are human rights violations. Despite a United Nations Human Rights Council declaration which states that the rights that people have offline must also be protected online, many African governments appear to be doing the exact opposite.

Over the years it has not only become a trend, but also a new form of repression used by African governments. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, there were 46 shutdowns in Africa, at an average of about 15 per year. This year is on track to beat that number as there have been internet shutdowns in more than 10 African countries, with new entrants such as Liberia and the democracy-mindful Benin Republic. However, shutting down the internet isn’t the only problem; what goes on in the ‘dark’ is a much bigger cause for concern.

In this issue, we look at why this increasing trend is dangerous for Africa’s democratic future, what internet shutdowns cost the continent, alongside those who are most affected. 

The fight against internet shutdowns is a fight for Africa’s democratic and business future in the digital age. Join us as we delve into why internet shutdowns shouldn’t exist in 2019 or beyond.

SPEAK! - The Cover

I.

Main Story

In 2010, a symbolic protest by Tunisian street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire, made him the symbol and catalyst for widespread protests and calls for democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa. That singular act figuratively lit a fire throughout the region, culminating in what is now known as the “Arab Spring.” 

However, if Bouazizi was the fire, the internet and social media served as a torch. In the Egyptian protests of 2010 that eventually led to the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a year later, tweets about democratic change in Egypt and Mubarak’s resignation rose rapidly from 2,300 per day to 23000 per day. This was the first sign that the internet and social media could be a trigger for demanding political change, even in Africa. As a blowback against this, Mubarak shut down 88 percent of the internet for many days in 2011 to prevent protests against his government. The shutdown was described as “unprecedented” in Africa, and analysts put Egypt on par with North Korea for countries who shut down the internet frequently.

Though the protests did little in bringing political change to the Middle East and North Africa (only three leaders stepped down from government during the Arab Spring), it was a major paradigm shift for what it meant to organize and protest in the region.

The deposition of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt culminated in Tahrir Square massacre of 2013.
The deposition of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt culminated in Tahrir Square massacre of 2013.

The Arab spring most definitely made other African governments take note. And by taking notes, we mean they took the necessary measures needed to prevent any other type of ‘spring.’ So far, their most preferred tool, like Mubarak, has been internet shutdowns.

For sub-Saharan Africa, it was just a matter of time before internet shutdowns became a staple of politics. In 2012, former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe described the internet as “a tool for British imperialism,” while Paul Biya in Cameroon called it “a new form of terrorism.”  But while both statements sound like the ramblings of two long-time leaders, it also proved one thing; for the first time in their authoritarian tenures, these two (and some of their other counterparts) couldn’t control the flow of information (that was now on the internet), which had been major hallmarks of their rule. The only way to restore the monopoly of information was to sabotage it by shutting it down.

Since the above comments were made, internet shutdowns have fast been on the rise on the continent; in 2015 alone, there were 6 documented shutdowns across Africa. By 2016, that number had risen to 11 of 56 internet shutdowns globally. By 2017, that number became 13. 2018 recorded 21 shutdowns across the continent, with Cameroon shutting down the internet for more than 200 days between January 2017 and March 2018. Presently, more than half of the countries on the continent have experienced internet disruptions in the last five years, with rumblings of shutdowns in the remaining countries.

For many of these governments, internet shutdowns almost seem like a test of the limits of international outrage and whether more shutdowns can be implemented. So far in 2019, there have been internet disruptions in Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Benin, Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe. 

Though internet shutdowns have only lasted a couple of days in some other countries, they still represent a threat to democracy and freedom of expression. Soccer legend George Weah was elected Liberia’s president in 2018 with the hope that he would continue the much-needed stability that began with former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, his government shut down its social media platforms for one day in June 2019 after news emerged that Liberians were mobilizing to protest the brazen corruption in the country’s Central Bank. This has immediately become a blot on his record, and beckons the question: why are internet shutdowns gradually becoming the first resort for African governments?

Why have there been shutdowns?

African governments give different reasons for why the internet is shut down. According to the #KeepItOn campaign, a brainchild of AccessNow that is dedicated to upholding the rights that access to the internet enables, between 2016 and 2018, the reasons many governments have given for the internet shutdowns range from public safety and national security to ending rumours and the dissemination of illegal content.

The #KeepItOn campaign is coordinating the pushback against internet shutdowns around the world
The #KeepItOn campaign is coordinating the pushback against internet shutdowns around the world

However, the campaign discovered that whenever the governments give these reasons, something else is taking place behind the scenes.

Berhan Taye, who heads the #KeepItOn campaign, told Ventures Africa why it is important for people to know the real reason for internet shutdowns in Africa, and why the #KeepItOn campaign is documenting it.

Governments justify shutting down the internet by saying it’s national security or militant activity or some sort of terrorism or violence. That has been the line for many years but what we’ve seen is that when they say it’s national security, it’s actually protesting underground,” she said.

“So that disparity is really important to document. And the reason why we’re documenting that is to show that these numerous violations are happening because there is a protest on the streets and it’s not because of national security issues. Mapping the reality on the ground paints a clearer and important picture of what shutdowns are and how they are implemented.”

In recent times, however, African governments have not needed any motivation to shut down the internet. Internet shutdowns have provided the obscurity that enables them to violate human rights and repress freedom of expression. For Berhan, who has observed the trend for many years, internet shutdowns happen when governments need to weaponize the internet to commit a nefarious act.

“…there are many horrible things that happen on the ground when the internet goes off…We’ve seen in DRC, we’ve seen in Sudan. For example, about 60 people were shot in Khartoum when the internet went off. In DRC, we know that when the internet went off there was massive election rigging and fraud. In Ethiopia, we know that when the internet went off, people were killed. In Zimbabwe, the same thing, over 200 people had been killed over the protest, but the internet was off so we know many civil society actors, journalists, activists weren’t able to document or share the documents of this human rights violations,” she said, “So for us, there is a direct correlation between shutting down the internet and human rights violations that are happening on the ground.”

Berhan Taye is the #KeepItOn Campaign Lead at Access Now
Berhan Taye is the #KeepItOn Campaign Lead at Access Now

As at the time this interview was conducted with Berhan, the people of Sudan had ousted their 30-year leader Omar Al-Bashir with the help of the country’s military. After he stepped down, there was a tussle with the Sudanese Transitional Military Council (TNC) tasked with deciding how to hand over power to civilians, an endeavour that didn’t go well. Under the cover of a two-week internet shutdown, military and paramilitary forces of the TNC killed more than 100 protesters, injured 70 more and basically tried to quell protests that didn’t abate after Al-Bashir was ousted.

What is the internet good for?

The internet, in Africa, exemplifies unregulated, unfiltered information; and that is a threat to many African governments built on the back of post-colonial rule and countries with histories of military rule. 

Democracy is a few decades old on the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Most African democracies are fragile with weak democratic institutions, owing mostly to years of military ruler-ship and African “big men.” A notable feature of Africa’s authoritarian years is the control of information; every media was controlled by the military government. Radio, Television, newspapers were either government-owned or government-censored. 

Charles Onyango Obbo, a columnist for the Daily Nation, one of Kenya’s biggest newspapers, wrote in 2010:  “It has mostly been hell on earth for the African media for most of these 50 years. In fact, the freest period for the African media generally has been the 15-year period between 1990 and 2005.”

The emergence of democracy in Africa in the last decade of the last century coincided with the proliferation of independent and private-owned media houses. It also coincided with the advent of the internet. Social media is one of the biggest news platforms on the continent, along with Television and Radio stations. One of the advantages of the internet has been its ability to spread information quickly, and faster than Television and Radio, a feature many African governments weren’t prepared for. Terms such as “viral” and “trending” have given content on the internet staying power. 

Hence, while the internet has given ordinary people greater access to information, African governments have had less of a monopoly on it. Though internet penetration on the continent is nowhere near the world average (Africa’s 35.9 percent compared to the world average of 56.1 percent), many times information breaks out first on the internet than any other medium.

Unlike in countries like China, Russia or North Korea, where the information people interact with is solely a prerogative of what the government wants them to interact with, African governments don’t have the monopoly to information again. And now, they shut the internet down intermittently to give them that control.

Counting the costs to democracy

The immediate cost of internet shutdowns has been its effects on business and the country’s ICT sector. Internet shutdowns don’t only affect journalists, activists and civil society; it also affects other sectors of the country. Health services slow down when there’s no access to the internet, financial services grind to a halt, tourists can’t book hotels or flights to the country and start-ups and businesses that rely on the internet lose clients. 

According to a 2017 report by The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), an information technology research and analysis centre in Uganda, 10 African countries lost $237 million to internet shutdowns in a span of 236 days. Cameroon, the African country that has shut down the internet for the highest period in the past 5 years, loses around $1.6 million anytime there’s a total internet shutdown and around $417 thousand dollars in partial internet shutdowns. 

In a total internet shutdown, everyone loses access to the internet; activists, lawyers, doctors, tourists. This puts a strain on any country’s GDP since work and production will be halted. However, in a partial internet shutdown, governments block access to websites, or blogs or applications, especially social media, thereby limiting the cost of internet shutdown and also preventing the mobilization of protesters. Though the latter has been used recently in many African countries since internet shutdowns have far-reaching effects on the economy, the former still holds great appeal to many African governments, especially authoritarian ones. 

While some governments on the continent have shut down the internet, others have simply placed a high price on information. Uganda and Tanzania are examples of African governments who introduced a raft of bills that have made it difficult for journalists and bloggers to do their jobs. The ‘Social media” taxes, as they are now known, include the purchase of a $930 license to blog, an increase in the price of data, government’s right to withdraw license if blog content was deemed to “threaten national security”, among other strict regulations. While these regulations on the surface look ordinary, in truth, they represent the increasing censorship of freedom of expression on the continent and a gradual shift from democracy.

Another report by CIPESA early this year successfully linked authoritarian governments to internet shutdowns. The less democratic a country is, the higher the propensity for an internet shutdown, the report said. 77 percent of the 22 African governments that have shutdown the internet in the last 5 years are categorized as “Authoritarian regimes” while 23 percent are called “Hybrid regimes,” i.e. have some elements of democratic institutions and a strong authoritarian presence. 

Since the report was released in February 2019, there have been shutdowns in some of Africa’s most democratic countries, which has seemingly shifted them to “Hybrid regimes.” Liberia and Benin Republic are examples. 

Parliamentary elections were set to hold in Benin earlier this year when the government initiated a 24-hour shutdown of electricity and internet. Netblocks, an organization which observes internet shutdowns, reported that some of the country’s biggest telecom operators had shut down the internet service. 

The result of this decision was that journalists and election monitors were unable to report on elections, which were already tense since there were no opposition candidates contesting. What usually happens in elections held under the darkness created by internet shutdowns are massive election rigging and fraud. This was the case in Benin for the first time in a while. Low voter turnout, the banning of protests, internet shutdown, and arbitrary arrests of journalists during the election in Benin points to a deterioration of democracy in the country. Benin Republic’s example is peculiar, according to Berhan Taye. 

“Places like Benin democratized clearly very early than many countries in the African continent. For instance, it had a multi-party system in the 90s before many African countries did, but this year, unfortunately, we saw Benin shut down the internet for elections,” she said.

Another country, Ethiopia, once a hotbed for using internet shutdowns as cover for massive human rights violations, seemingly bucked the trend last year when it appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Ahmed has tried to loosen some of the oppressive laws that used to discriminate against the country’s minority groups in the country.

Internet shutdowns have not ended under Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia
Internet shutdowns have not ended under Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia

However, an internet shutdown in June 2019 that lasted for almost two weeks, the most extensive under his administration so far, has brought up questions of whether analysts should have exercised caution in praising him.

Ensuring digital rights for everyone on the continent

The immediate question you might want to ask is, where is the African Union in all this? And the immediate answer is, nowhere. Ethiopia, whose capital Addis Ababa is home to the African Union headquarters, regularly shuts down its internet. The internet was shut down at the AU headquarters itself for six months at a point in time. It is ironic that the African Union, which is sometimes responsible for advising companies on the political risk involved in investing in African countries, is headquartered in a country where internet shutdown is a regular occurrence. Dictators heading the AU are also the African leaders shutting down the internet.

While Africans are still unsure of the AU’s role in ending shutdowns, there have been organisations and NGOs fighting this menace. As more legislations are made in many African countries to limit the flow of information on the internet, and internet shutdowns become regular occurrences, the issue immediately ceases from being only an infringement of digital rights, but on everyday life. 

Internet shutdowns are not just any issue of digital rights, if you’re a health service provider, if you provide health care services to remote communities using some form of telecommunication services, that means your own services also disrupted.” Berhan said, “If you are a teacher who sends note to students using whatsapp, and your internet connection is disconnected, that means you are not able to provide them with the support that you have to give your student.” 

The #KeepItOn campaign already has more than 120 organisations and advocacy groups tracking internet shutdowns around the world, and putting pressure on governments and policymakers to protect the rights of their citizens on the internet and put an end to the disorder created by internet shutdowns. 

However, in many African countries where leaders see internet shutdowns as necessary to hold on to power, advocacy wouldn’t be enough. Some of the key indices for democracy in authoritarian countries further fell between 2015 and 2017, according to the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, an index that “analyzes and evaluates the quality of democracy, a market economy and political management in 129 developing and transition countries.” This means that in a short while, Africa would have very autocratic countries existing side by side with stagnant democratic countries. And because some of these democratic countries are not actively building more democratic institutions, there could be a regress in democracy on the whole continent.

Question is, will having or recognizing digital rights slow the march towards authoritarianism? Analysts and experts say it is easier to enforce when countries already have the legal framework for digital rights. When these laws protect human rights online and offline without being specifically termed ‘Digital rights”, it is easier for citizens to seek redress in their country without having to approach the African Union or the UNHCR. However, many countries, like Nigeria, have rejected putting such laws in the constitution, hence making it harder to pre-empt an internet shutdown.

Protests in Sudan successfully ended Omar Al-Bashir’s 30 year reign as President
Protests in Sudan successfully ended Omar Al-Bashir’s 30-year reign as President

There is no single solution to ending internet shutdowns, but more scenarios like Sudan’s will continue to come up on the continent. Protests in Sudan still continue despite the toppling of ex-president Omar Al-Bashir, meaning that there is a limit to how much people can take before there is a revolution. Continuous internet shutdowns mean there are still a lot of human rights violations and abuse offline, which would eventually culminate in blowback from citizens. Question is, will Africans be ready to fight for their freedom? Time will tell.

Stand alone. Photo Credit: Omotola Omolayo
Stand alone. Photo Credit: Omotola Omolayo

II.

Infographics

Internet Shutdowns in Africa: Quick Facts

Below is a breakdown of various factors associated with internet shutdowns in Africa. In the first infographic, we explain what happens when the internet is shut down in 2019, while the other infographics provide more insight on the evolution of these shutdowns in addition to the duration and economic cost of disconnection from the internet.

Third Infograph

III.

Infographic B

The duration of internet shutdowns in Africa

IV.

Infographic C

This is how much internet shutdowns are costing Africa

V.

Infographic D

VA Speak Infographic

SPEAK! - The Cover6

VI.

Interview

China’s Firewall and Africa’s Internet Shutdowns: An exclusive interview with writer, James Griffiths

By all means, China’s feats as a technologically advanced country with the second-largest economy in the world by nominal GDP is worthy of emulation, and a template for many developing and emerging economies around the world. However, its brand of internet censorship has attracted the attention of despotic and semi-democratic governments around the world, especially Africa.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China is the 8th most censored country in the world, much of it enabled by its infamous Firewall, China’s tool for regulating the internet. In this special issue, we chat with James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China. His book gives readers an insight into how China’s Firewall has become the “most sophisticated system of online censorship in the world.”

In this interview, we discuss how China’s brand of internet censorship is influencing internet shutdowns in Africa, and what this influence will mean for the future of democratic institutions on the continent.

VA :Internet Shutdowns in African countries have increased in frequency in the past 5 years. What geopolitical issue(s) do you think has contributed to this trend?

James Griffiths (JG): In part, the increase in internet shutdowns is driven by a greater awareness of this as a tactic and its potential effectiveness. As governments across the continent see each other using internet shutdowns and partial blackouts to reduce fallout from civil unrest or other anti-government activity, they are incentivized to use the tactic themselves. At the same time, China has undoubtedly had an influence, both in pioneering the use of internet shutdowns for censorship and social control and in providing tools and support to African countries that wish to censor and control their own domestic internets.

VA: Why do you think African countries are following in China’s wake on how to initiate internet shutdowns?

JG: The internet is a great tool for organizing and spreading solidarity with other groups. China’s Great Firewall, the huge censorship and surveillance network built up over decades, has proven itself very effective at stymying this. But building something of this scale is expensive and time-consuming. By comparison, internet shutdowns are an easy and cheap option for controlling what people do and say online during sensitive periods.

VA: What do you think is the next stage for internet censorship in Africa after observing internet censorship in China for many years?

JG: We’ve already seen several African countries – I deal with Uganda in my book – importing Chinese style censorship and surveillance technology and passing new laws to crack down on what people can do and say online. If internet shutdowns are the blunt instrument for internet control, I think the next stage will be governments across the continent developing more sophisticated methods – both technological and legal – for controlling online speech and cracking down on activity they disapprove of online.

CNN Digital Expansion 2017. James Griffiths
CNN Digital Expansion 2017. James Griffiths

VA: Considering that China isn’t a democracy, do you think internet censorship in Africa means there’s an erosion of democratic gains made in the last few decades?

JG: Controlling what people can do online can have a major effect on their ability to organize effectively and build solidarity with other groups. China has proven capable of shutting down any potential opposition movements time and again while they are in their infancy. While we won’t necessarily see an immediate rollback of rights and freedoms in countries on the path towards democratization, autocratic governments in Africa will undoubtedly wish to copy China’s techniques for staying in power and securing themselves against any internal challenge.

VA: Is this the creation of a geopolitical trend that will see African countries look to China for policy direction while abandoning traditionally democratic countries like the USA and the UK?

JG: China has always been an attractive model for developing countries, particularly undemocratic ones. Beijing has proven that you do not have to liberalize politically to be successful economically, and it is willing to support countries regardless of their political makeup. As China’s influence in Africa continues to grow, the risk is that the admittedly pretty weak pressure that there is on countries to democratize and liberalize from the international community becomes even less effective.

VA: What is the role of the UN and other nation blocs like the African Union in ensuring African countries respect the digital rights of their citizens?

JG: The United Nations plays a key role in internet governance and in advocating for greater internet freedoms. In recent years China and other autocratic countries have attempted to influence new regulations and rules for the internet in their own interest, and this trend will likely continue. While it would be good to see the UN and the African Union pushing to hold member states to higher standards on internet freedom and online rights, they do not seem to be headed in this direction.

VA: What is going to be the long term impact of internet censorship in Africa if they continue at this rate?

JG: The biggest risk is that political transitions and liberalization that would otherwise take place do not, because autocratic governments, in establishing Chinese style internet censorship and widespread surveillance, manage to clamp down on civil society to the extent that they cannot be challenged. The spread of democracy across the continent could slow and we may even see some rollback of rights and freedoms if more countries follow this hyper-controlled, hyper-surveilled model.

VA: China underwent a technological revolution driven largely by its political institutions though under much censorship. Is it possible for African countries to still revolutionize technologically, despite the increase in censorship?

JG: China has proven that you do not need to liberalise politically to succeed economically, and there’s no reason to suspect this model can’t be copied elsewhere. When it comes to the internet and technological development, China’s model may not be as exportable, because most markets simply are not large enough to support domestic alternatives to popular western companies they may wish to censor.

Better together. Photo Credit: The African Exponent.
Better together. Photo Credit: The African Exponent.

VII.

Video

Can the internet please be left on?

Africans are losing much more than you think as a result of the spate of internet shutdowns across the continent. In the last 5 years alone, a total of 21 countries have been disconnected from the internet. Here’s why this needs to stop.

More Stories On Internet Shutdowns

VIII.

More Stories

Al-Bashir blocks internet access in Sudan as he subscribes to the trend of repression

With protests in Sudan already in its third week, the government of President Omar Al-Bashir is taking steps to prevent more mobilization against his regime. There have been demonstrations against his government almost every day in the past two weeks, and in a bid to end this, the country’s head of National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah announced a block on social media sites in the country. “There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end, it was decided to block them,” said Abdallah.

The protests, which started as demonstrations against the increase in the price of bread from about one Sudanese pound to three, have quickly become a call for Sudan’s President Al-Bashir to step down. Al Bashir has been president of Sudan since 1993 after he seized leadership of the country through a coup while still a Brigadier in the army. Since then, he has been elected as president of Sudan three times amidst allegations of corruption and human rights abuse. In 2009, he became the first sitting president to be charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Since protests erupted at the northeastern city of Atbara on December 19, about 40 people have been killed, and more than 800 arrested by security forces. However, the Sudanese Interior Minister, Ahmed Bilal Othman claims only 19 people have been killed, including two security operatives. Sudanese forces have been reported to fire tear gas at protesters, while witnesses say live ammunition was also used. Subsequent protests, mainly spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and headed towards the country’s parliament and state house have been stopped by the country’s security forces, while opposition groups have found a common goal to unite against Al Bashir who has been president for 25 years.

In a country where most of the institutions are under government control, including traditional media, it was only a matter of time before the government stamped its authority on the internet as well.  Of its 40 million people, 13 million are connected to the internet in Sudan. Access to social media was blocked by the country’s communication ministry, especially access to Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp. The purpose for this was to prevent online mobilization of protesters and to prevent news from the country to filter into the outside world. This is a tactic from the playbook of the modern authoritarian, where information is currency.

However, many Sudanese have been able to bypass the internet shutdown through the use of the Virtual Private Network (VPN), according to reports from Africa news. Though some Sudanese are unaware of its existence, many protest leaders have been able to use VPNs to mobilize for protests using hashtags such as #SudanRevolts, and #Sudan’s_cities_revolt in Arabic.

“Social media has a really big impact, and it helps with forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user.

Though Sudan has a long history of protests, with the most recent occurring in 2013, the government has not shut down internet, especially social media, before.

“While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite its exponential growth… in recent years,” an analyst said. With this Sudan joins the ranks of Togo, Egypt, Gabon, Chad, Morocco,  Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Algeria who have shut down the internet as some form of repression.

IX.

More Stories

Togo subscribes to the latest trend of repression as its people protest to remove its dictator

For Togo, removing a 5o-year-old legacy was always going to be hard work. Thousands of people in the small West-African country marched through the streets of its major cities last week as they demanded President Faure Gnassingbe step down. Businesses came to a standstill, people took to the streets clamouring for an end to the “Gnassingbe dynasty.” The Togolese Government responded by shutting down internet access throughout the week, costing its economy almost $300,000 per day.

Removing the dictator and his family

The demonstrations have been called “unprecedented”: it’s the first major move to oust Faure Gnassingbe and his family. Faure became president in 2005 after the death of his father Eyadema who had been president for 38 years. Faure was installed as President of Togo with the support of the Togolese Army and to the dismay of the people.

After some pressure, he stepped down to grant himself some legitimacy by contesting in the presidential elections in April 2005. He eventually won the election albeit with some controversy. He won a third term in office in April 2015 with 60 percent of the total votes, defeating main challenger Jean Pierre-Fabre. The election was described as fraudulent by EU observers and the Carter Centre. Protests against the election led to the killings of about 1,000 people by Togo’s security forces.

It’s 2017 and Togo’s people haven’t given up. The next election is in 2020, and while Gnassingbe hasn’t indicated if he would run again, there are suspicions that he would not step down. Presidential term limits in Togo is nonexistent, removed by Faure’s father in 2002. If Faure refuses to step down in 2020, he would join the likes of Joseph Kabila and Pierre Nkurunziza who did the same after their presidency expired.

Though the origin of these protests look questionable, since they were organised by a coalition of opposition parties who have vested interests, the turnout was probably proof that it is a genuine popular uprising. Pictures of protesters across cities in Togo, and also in neighbouring countries Ghana and Gabon were shared on the Twitter and Facebook. This in a way helped to mobilize and co-ordinate protesters. “We’ve shown the world that we’re peaceful people,” a post on Twitter read, “All we want is change.”

However, the internet shut-down by the Togolese Government during the protests last week exemplified the latest ways of authoritarian repression in Africa.

Internet shutdown as a tool of repression

The right to internet access as recognized by the UN, under its human rights laws, is a right being denied many Africans in recent times. Since early 2016, there have been almost 20 internet shutdowns across Africa, all at the behest of the respective federal governments. For Togo, earlier protests in August resulted in the death of two people and 13 more were injured.

The failure of Togo’s authoritarian government to get people to stay at home after that, as evidenced by these recent protests, has prompted the internet shutdown. Togo’s government shut down the internet to make it impossible for people to organize. But organize they did, questioning the relative overestimation of internet protest mobilization, as opposed to traditional means of mobilization.

In other African dictatorships, internet has been shut down for different reasons ranging from preventing the co-ordination of opposition members during elections as was done by ex-Gambian dictator Jammeh, to preventing protests from people segregated in their own countires (the Anglophone Cameroonian revolt earlier this year and the Oromo people protests in Ethiopia last year.) Other African countries that have shut down their internet in recent times include Gabon, Chad, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria.

The internet embodies one of those factors that can’t be controlled in dictatorships. And what one can’t understand, one disparages. Cameroon’s long serving dictator Paul Biya called it “a new form of terrrorism.” Mugabe called the internet a “tool of British imperialism.”

However, the economic loss incured by the shutdowns in Africa (the Oromo protests drained millions from the Ethiopian economy) indicate that the internet is a major part of the economy on the continent. It is also a life-changing device that has been weaponised by governments. Greater than these however is the fact that the internet is a medium of expression. Hence, any threat to freedom of speech and expression, through internet shutdowns, is an infringement on human rights.

The UN has called for the president to “respond to protesters’ expectations” by placing a cap on constitutional terms, limiting it to two. ECOWAS, regional bloc of West Africa and which Faure Gnassingbe chairs, has yet to release any statement regarding the protests.

X.

More Stories

Ethiopia ends online blackout; a boon for small business owners.

Ethiopia ended a three month internet blackout on Monday as its new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed settles into his role. Ever since 2015, when protests and demonstrations erupted in the Oromiya and Amhara regions to call for more political representation in government, land rights and a breakup of the ruling coalition, there have been fears that Ethiopia was on the brink of a breakup.

However, along with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, who hails from the Oromo region, putting an end to the internet blackout is pointing to a gradual thaw for government-sponsored repression.

Ethiopia’s economic rise in the past few years has often beenderailed by the festering political crises. The East-African country was the third-fastest growing economy in the world between 2000 and 2016, and it is currently the fastest growing economy in the world in 2018. The economy is booming.

The protests in 2015 revealed the deep seated anger many minority groups in Ethiopia felt towards the ruling coalition of Ethiopia. In return, government repression of citizens living in the affected regions followed these protests since 2015, resulting in the loss of many lives (more than 600 people) and properties. It also led to the government intermittently shutting down internet access, a new pastime of many authoritarian African governments.

Internet shutdowns are usually established by African governments to stop the online proliferation of news they don’t like, and also prevent the mobilization of people for rallies on such platforms as Whatsapp, Facebook, and Twitter. Ethiopia loses millions of dollars whenever it shuts down the internet, but that is negligible to the effect it has on small business owners like Internet cafe owners, who are usually helpless as they watch their businesses crumble months on end, sometimes up to 6 months, due to government repression.

In a country where mobile subscription is still quite expensive, internet cafes are the other ways through which information can be disseminated on a wide-scale. And the latest online blackout end is good news for businessmen like Hassan Bulcha, who owns an internet cafe in the Oroma region. “We are very happy that it is back to normal,” he said, after being interviewed by the New York Times.

Ethiopia hopes to bring an end to the political crisis in the country, and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed looks in order. The 42 year old Oromo indigene and former Ethiopian army officer who embodies different motivations, has begun travelling around Ethiopia to placate the people affected by government oppression in the past few years.

Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, and the fastest growing economy in the world, deserves the accolade of “Giant of Africa”. Though the country is still under a state of emergency, announced after its previous prime minister stepped down, the resumption of normal internet services and the appointment of a minority member as prime minister indicates that Ethiopians can begin to hope again.

 

Ventures Africa