Photograph — AFP - Getty Images

The month of June didn’t start well for Senegal. On Thursday, the first day of the month, several social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube, started facing access restrictions in Senegal. And it wasn’t a glitch. The next day, Antoine Diome, the Interior Minister, acknowledged the blockages, citing “the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages on social networks.”

But there’s a backstory. On Thursday, violent protests erupted following a verdict that sentenced popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years in jail. The initial charges against him were that he allegedly raped a woman in a massage parlour in 2021 and issued death threats. But the court declared him innocent of those charges. However, his jail sentence came through accusations of “corrupting youths.”

Sonko denies all wrongdoing, and his supporters are convinced the prosecution is politically driven. The jail sentence could prevent him from running in the February presidential election. And so Sonko’s supporters, who are primarily young people, took to the streets in response. The protesters were also angered by President Macky Sall’s refusal to rule out running for a third term. Senegal has a two-term presidential limit.

By Sunday, Reuters reported that Senegal’s minister of communications, telecommunications, and digital economy issued a statement, expanding the outage to include mobile internet data in specific areas and at certain times.

“The Ministry of Communication, Telecommunications and the Digital Economy informs that due to the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages in a context of disturbance of public order in certain localities of the national territory, the Internet of mobile data is temporarily suspended during certain time slots. Telephone operators are required to comply with notified requisitions,” the government said in its statement.

NetBlocks, an internet observatory, analysed traffic data and confirmed the suspension of mobile internet access in Senegal.

The protests have led to continuous clashes between the people and the police, and up to 16 people have died. One instance is a Senegalese man who tweeted at Elon Musk, requesting that he provides citizens access to Starlink as an alternative. He was reportedly killed by security forces after that tweet.

To bypass the shutdown, many people in Senegal are now using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which allow the creation of secure and encrypted connections between devices and networks. Demand for VPNs in Senegal increased by over 8,000% on Thursday compared to the daily average of the previous 30 days, with a further rise of over 20,000% on Friday. Top10VPN admitted that it was the “largest increase in VPN demand” it had ever recorded. Hence, the hashtag, #FreeSenegal, has been trending on Twitter, as people have been using it to decry the situation.

Not the first time

Before 2021, Senegal hardly got in the news for political unrest. But after Ousmane Sonko’s arrest, protests broke out in March of the same year. On the third day of these protests, the government responded by blocking the internet and suspending two TV stations for 72 hours over their coverage of the protests. The country’s National Audiovisual Regulatory Council had previously warned broadcasters that airing this form of content could “threaten national stability or social cohesion.” It was in the same year Senegal started the #FreeSenegal movement on social media. But now it has respawned due to a fresh wave of protests.

What is Senegal losing?

As mentioned earlier, Senegal has lost at least 16 people to these protests. But that’s not all they’re losing: money is going down the drain. NetBlocks estimates that an internet shutdown costs Senegal $332,502 per hour.

Senegal is home to 10.2 million internet users, representing approximately 58% of the population. This was one of the reasons it was one of Africa’s top ten countries for VC funding in 2022. But now, its budding digital economy is under siege. Using VPNs is costly at a company-wide scale, and not everyone knows the ropes.

The use of internet shutdowns to stifle dissent is common in Africa and dates back to the 2011 Arab Spring when rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya sought to control the spread of information. Since then, Gabon, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others have done the same at times of instability.

In Africa, Ethiopia suffered the biggest loss ($179 million) from Internet shutdowns in 2022; Nigeria follows with $82.7 million. Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe also lost $17.8 million, $12.6 million, and $1.6 million, respectively. But now that there’s no proposed end in sight for Senegal’s internet shutdown, there’s no telling whether it would join this league.

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