Barely a week or month goes by these days without hearing of an internet shutdown taking place in an African state.
From DR Congo to Chad, Benin, Algeria, and Liberia, governments have limited access ahead of elections, political referenda, or anti-government protests. In Sudan, connectivity has been regularly cut off as protestors first demanded the resignation of former president Omar al-Bashir and then called for an end to military rule. Ethiopia remained offline most of June, as authorities blocked the internet in measures aimed at curbing national exam cheats and then, amid reports of a thwarted coup in the northern Amhara region.
This week, Mauritania disrupted connectivity following contested elections. The June 22 polls were historic in nature, with the expectation that it would mark the first ever peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. But after the ruling party’s candidate, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani was declared the winner by 52%, opposition candidates said the vote was marred by irregularities.
Immediately afterward, officials suspended both mobile data and fixed-line connections. All of Mauritania’s consumer internet providers, Mauritel, Chinguitel, and Mattel were impacted, internet monitoring organization NetBlocks reported.
Reaching for the kill-switch is indicative of the exasperating measures governments are taking these days to keep their populace offline. But it’s also suggestive of the futility and heavy-handedness of some of these moves, especially in countries where very few people are already connected. While official explanations of shutdowns are rare, some governments have attributed them to combating fake news, hate speech, or limiting violence.
In Mauritania, for instance, a paltry 21% of its 4 million people are online, according to data from the World Bank. The same is just as dire in Ethiopia: with 108 million people, just over 18% of the population were online as of 2017. In May, Somalia, a country where 2% of the people have net, announced it would turn off social media to deter exam cheats. Chad, which has just over 6% internet penetration, has restricted social media networks for 15 months now.
Campaigners say the shutdown in Mauritania is only exacerbating the situation and preventing journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition groups from freely accessing and exchanging information. Mauritanian television also broadcast foreigners from neighboring countries confessing to ferment trouble following the polls—a “toxic and highly problematic” issue, activists say, in a country still battling racial discrimination and the vestiges of slavery.
“The authorities must exercise restraint in dealing with the protesters, including ensuring their safety and opening up the internet space so that people can freely express themselves and share information,” said Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher, François Patuel.