The impact of Internet shutdowns in Africa

Author: Tomiwa Ilori
LLD Candidate, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

In the past, authoritarianism like any other form of illegitimacy has always been paranoid of disruptions. The internet, since its decentralisation in the last century, has blurred boundary lines, projected a classless society and looked to upset apple carts in political spaces. It is typical that this form of “magic” that could redefine state power rattled many governments. African governments soon began to show overt signs of paranoia and not too long, Africa became the first continent to experience an internet shutdown in Egypt on 28 January 2011. Since then, several governments in Africa have constantly violated digital rights with the justification of national security which supposes that both are mutually exclusive.

It was not necessarily ominous that Egypt experienced the first full-scale internet shutdown in 2011. What the experience defined for was how the Arab Spring – an experiment in political disruption, was enabled by the radical nature of digital technologies and the possibilities of its re-occurrence. In times of unrest, information is a critical currency. The level at which information was shared, movements were organized and push back was staged would cause any governments especially those used to having their way with the masses, acute paranoia. Egypt like other countries in Northern Africa felt the impact of the Arab Spring but not without the instrumentality of the internet and networked devices which many African governments have now come to fear.

Human rights as opportunity cost for national security

There were 46 internet shutdowns between 2016 and 2018 in Africa according to Access Now – an organisation fighting for digital rights. In January this year, there were five internet shutdowns in Africa. Chad and Cameroon were ongoing from 2018 and currently at almost 300 days of internet shutdown each while Zimbabwe, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) joined in 2019 as a result of either elections or protests. More than eighty percent of the internet shutdowns that have occurred in Africa have either been during massive public protests or general elections. The major justification given by the state for these shutdowns is that they are looking to protect national security at the expense of protection of digital rights.

While Chad gave reasons of protecting the sanctity of its general elections, Cameroon backed its shutdown orders with the need to quell dissent in Southern Cameroon where there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. These reasons could be also traced to why the Zimbabwe and Sudan cut the internet as citizens protested against their governments’ policies. The DRC had also shut the internet during and after the elections in December 2018.

An underlying link between these shutdowns is how African governments are looking to cover up several human rights violations that occur during these disruptions and how the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) aid them. Usually, an order is given to ISPs by the government and without any push-back from them, an internet blackout follows. A result of this is the vicious force that has been used by the state to curtail the digital rights of protesters contrary to international and domestic laws. It is suspected that a major reason for internet shutdowns during elections is to provide an avenue for the cover up of large-scale electoral malpractices that goes on in most African countries which are all made bare after a shutdown has ceased or evidence of these violations are smuggled out for the world to see.

Internet shutdowns as technology-enabled authoritarianism

Most of the arguments made by governments are not justified as international law highlights how internet shutdowns are often evidence of arbitrary use of state power. Some of these instruments in international law include the relevant provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation of Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression And Access to Information, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa and many others. These instruments require States to comply, for example in the instance of restricting right to freedom of expression, with the three-part test of ensuring that such limitation is provided by law, it must pursue a legitimate aim  and is necessary in a democratic society. Instances of internet shutdowns in Africa have shown that governments have refused to comply with this standard laid down in these instruments. The right to freedom of expression is not the only right violated, rights like access to information, freedom of association and assembly and right to privacy are violated together with other socioeconomic rights. If these rights are to be derogated from, the above principles must be followed, but this is usually ignored by governments that have shut down the internet.

In addition to these instruments, several reports and recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and that of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have condemned internet shutdowns regardless of the reasons given by the governments. While many of these concerns are primarily of civil and political rights, the socioeconomic dimensions of internet shutdowns are not amplified enough.                                               

Economic costs of internet shutdowns in Africa

The digital economy is a trade system that relies majorly on internet networks and many countries have in the recent past benefited immensely from its emergence. While Africa’s digital economy is still growing, it is projected to contribute some US$300 billion to GDP by 2025. Africa currently has a teeming youth population of 226 million which is the highest in the world which also make up 60% of the unemployment figure on the continent. What this means is that Africa need to utilize all legitimate avenues and resources at innovating and growing to properly maximize and cater for its growing youth population. An internet shutdown does not only reduce such avenues but shuts the youths away from opportunities.

For example,it is estimated that Africa lost US$ 237 million to internet shutdowns between 2015 and 2017. So far in 2019, there is a cumulative economic impact of internet shutdowns already put at US$ 267.2 million which is a conservative estimation of the loss according to Net Blocks – an Internet shutdown calculator which uses several indicators including a country’s GDP. A daily calculation for each day Sudan shuts down the internet is put at US$7.5 million.

Vigilance as price for freedom

Many internet freedom activists and experts have called for more scrutiny of government activities especially as soon as elections approach owing to the reasons that have been discussed above. The most recent need for such call has been the news circulating in Nigeria on a likely internet shutdown across the country in the coming general elections to be held on February 19 and March 2, 2019. Aside the importance of elections in a country like Nigeria due to its external clout and internal challenges, should an internet shutdown occur in Nigeria, it would cost an estimated US$ 134.2 million (N48.9 billion) loss daily according to Net Blocks.

Currently, there is no express law that allows the Nigerian government to shutdown the internet. While there could be landmines in laws like Sections 24 and 38 of the Cyber-crimes Act of 2015 and secondary laws like the “Guidelines for the Provision of Internet Serviceby the Nigerian Communication Commission, the Nigerian government will still have a problem justifying an internet shutdown during the coming elections.

Even though the Nigerian government has denied such move, the government of Cameroon made the same promise not to shut down the internet in September 2017 but went ahead to gut the internet.

African countries face many challenges as they look to develop their democratic institutions. In solving these challenges, countries in Africa need to harness the fast pace of technologies through rights-respecting policies. . African governments must look inwards on the promises of the internet and how it advances democracy and not yield to the paranoia of its disruption. There is also need for a multi-stakeholder front in combating internet shutdowns on the continent one in which ISPs and the civil society play a key role. For example, such multi-stakeholder effort is seen in the Digital Rights and Freedom bill already awaiting the President’s assent. The bill caters for the protection of digital rights of every Nigeria and can be replicated on a larger scale across the continent. For Africa to work it does not need to be cut off from the world, it needs to stay connected to it.

About the Author:

Tomiwa Ilori is a currently an LLD Candidate at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. His research focuses on the intersections of human rights, public policy and new technologies.

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