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Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
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Nigerians are worried about an internet shutdown as tensions rise in the run-up to elections

By Yomi Kazeem

You can tell fears of an internet shutdown are running high in a country when citizens are looking into methods of staying online in case of a blockage.

This past weekend, Quartz Africa‘s guide to staying online during internet or social media blockages was our most read story, driven entirely by traffic from Nigeria. Scores of people shared concerns on social media at the possibility Nigeria might follow other African countries that have taken to blocking social media or shut down the internet altogether under the guise of security concerns.

Nigeria Presidency/Handout via Reuters
Nigeria’s president Buhari swears in Tanko Mohammed as the acting Chief Justice in Abuja

While there is little evidence authorities are planning a shutdown, fears have been triggered by the potential of a constitutional crisis after Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari suddenly suspended the country’s chief justice over corruption allegations last Friday. The move, which has been variously described as unconstitutional and political, comes with Nigeria’s elections due in just under three weeks. The newly appointed acting chief justice Tanko Mohammed, will now likely have the final say if there are court challenges on the election result outcome next month.

The crisis will dominate the news agenda in coming days as Nigeria’s Senate has called an emergency session on Tuesday (Jan. 29) to deliberate the suspension while the country’s legal community has called it an “attempted coup” against the judiciary. The European Union has also expressed concern over the “process and timing” of the suspension while the United States notes the move “undermines the independence” of the judiciary.

If protests break out amid the crisis, many fear the government will resort to cutting off internet access or specifically blocking access to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. Those concerns are even more pertinent given president Buhari’s past as a military head of state in the early 1980s when his administration repressed the media. An internet shutdown ordered by Buhari will be ironic given how much his campaign for the presidency in 2015 relied on social media to both transform his image as a dictator and connect with Nigeria’s youth population.

If there was an internet shutdown in Nigeria it would be the latest in a long list of similar disruptions across Africa over the past five years, especially during elections or amid protests. Governments have typically defended the action as a means to avoid the spread of misinformation or, as in the recent case of Zimbabwe, to “restore calm.”

But with younger Africans increasingly more vocal and critical of leaders especially through social media, the shutdowns can also be viewed as modern day censorship. Digital rights activists have consistently argued that disruptions to internet access are repressive while studies also show the shutdowns take a heavy toll on African economies.

Regardless, this month alone, SudanZimbabwe, and DR Congo all blocked internet access amid elections and anti-government protests. The shutdowns are also getting longer: Chad Republic has now kept social media shut for over 300 days and counting.

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