In recent times, the African Governments have resulted to incessant internet shut down as a measure of control or punishment for social upheaval and unprecedented restiveness
For 230 days, between January 2017 and March 2018, the Cameroonian government shut down the internet in its anglophone regions’ without prior notice.
Nina Forgwe, who lives in Bamenda, Northwest of Cameroon, missed the deadline to submit her doctoral application in March — her case speaks for millions of others who are victims of the unprecedented action in her town and other English-speaking parts of the country.
Even the burgeoning tech ecosystem, Silicon Mountain (home to tech startups and a growing community of developers, designers, business professionals as well as universities) wasn’t left out. Entrepreneurs were forced to make highly discomforting long-distance journeys to other parts of Cameroon whenever they needed to access the internet.
But what could cause a web blackout to linger for almost a year?
The reason isn’t far fetched, It was more like retaliation from the Cameroonian government after Anglophone teachers, lawyers and students went on strike over alleged historical biases in favour of Francophones.
There were severe repercussions.
“All personal services that required the Internet were put on hold. Many Internet-based businesses ground to a halt, especially tech start-ups. A lot of our activism is through online portals,” said Ms. Forgwe.
According to Access Now, a New York–based international human rights organisation, the shutdown may have resulted in a total financial loss of $5 million. This includes tax revenue, profits of Internet-related businesses, general operating expenses, bank transaction fees, and money transfer services, among others.
Although the Government’s explanation of what triggered the shutdown was the propagation of false information capable of inciting hate and violence in the crisis-hit regions, on social media, it doesn’t seem enough to abate the irreparable losses of those whose lives depend on the internet or the fortunes lost due to internet inactivity.
It may be easier to consider Cameroon’s Internet disruption as a mishap to never be emulated by any other African country, but recurrence across the continent totally negates that thought.
In May 2017 the Egyptian government blocked 62 websites, including those of Qatar-based Al Jazeera television and prominent independent news site Mada Masr, accusing them of inciting terrorism and spreading false news, — although, the concerned organisations denied the claims.
Only a few months after Cameroon’s Internet saga, a nationwide internet blackout was imposed in Ethiopia in May 2017 over concerns about cheating at exams.
Ethiopian Government explained that “the shutdown is aimed at preventing exam leaks”
Last Tuesday, January 15, was Zimbabwean Government’s turn to shut down the nation’s internet. The action, this time was due to a fuel hike protest that led to the loss of some lives. It was not until late Monday, January 21, that it was restored.
If this situation had occurred once, it could easily be waved off, but incessant scenarios only suggest an inimical a fact that has been recently validated by a Ugandan Information and Technology Research and Analysis Institute, The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), which states that “Internet shutdown is becoming a preferred tool of social control and censorship by some African governments”
Been a long time coming
Africa accounted for 11 of the 56 global Internet shutdowns recorded in 2016, according to Deji Olukotun, Access Now’s Senior Global Advocacy Manager.
While African governments may want to argue that Internet shutdown is needed to quell public protests, violence and misinformation fueled by social media or mobile phone messaging applications — citing the role of the Internet in the Arab Spring years ago, when protests toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia — the possibility that same government may fear the use of the Internet by grassroots groups to unite and push rights advocacy shouldn’t be discarded.
The other side of the coin may be finding a sense in legislative concerns — the use of social media could be more threatening to the established order than preventing examination malpractices or curtailing cyber fraud, child pornography, hate speech or terrorism – but the havoc internet shutdown wrecks on national balance far outweighs any downsides of internet activity on its citizenry.
Also, the classic action adopting internet inhibition as a control measure could be traceable to an increasing number of Africans communicating and doing businesses via the Internet.
Obviously, the Government is aware of this fact and probably sees the action as a way of showing its supremacy over internet business tycoons.
Given the fact that running a successful business in many African countries is as daunting as attempting to smoothen yam with a needle, not tampering with the internet could be a sort of encouragement to businesses striving to start in the austere economic environment.
The fact remains that there’s been a shift in how the government is called upon to support businesses — rather than the usual, infrastructure, friendly policies, etc, the fear of African citizenry has transitioned from not having supportive governance to being made“webbicapped” by its own government.
In Nigeria, for example, tensions are already mounting on the possibility of this classic action pending its three-week close general elections. Perhaps, there could be to circumvent internet shutdown, peradventure it occurs.
Nonetheless, all of these pictures an unfortunate circumstance. In 2019 where nations across the world are tending towards fast-paced technological advancements, economic growth and engineering development, the horrified state of subjecting many Africans to uncertainty about their online fate prove one thing; Africa still has a really long way to go.