Internet shutdowns in Africa were more frequent and lasted longer in 2019

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Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar
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They might have had a lower news profile than in previous years but in 2019 internet shutdowns became an even more common tactic for African leaders trying to control or manage information in their countries.

In comparison to 2018, incidents of internet shutdown across the continent increased by 32% with more countries employing the tactic, according to new data by AccessNow, an internet access advocacy group shows.

Of the African countries that shut down internet access last year, at least seven have either never shut down the internet or did not do so in 2018 and 2017.

Globally, Access Now reports not just an increase in internet shutdowns, but also a “trend toward sustained and prolonged shutdowns” with 35 incidents of internet shutdowns lasting longer than seven days last year. Chad, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Eritrea, Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe are among the 19 countries that fully or partially shuttered internet access for more than seven days. Chad’s shutdown was, by far, the longest as social media apps were blocked for a record 16 months starting in 2018.

In most cases, under the guise of security, governments simply want to hamper opposition leaders from organizing protests or riling up citizens about their policy decisions. A fair number of internet shutdowns or social media blocks also happen around elections.

This year in the run-up to Feb. 22 presidential elections in Togo, there were reports of social media blocks of apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Togo has been going through political upheaval and protests in recent years as citizens protest against the 53-year rule of the Gnassingbe family. Fauré Gnassingbe, who became president after his father died in 2005, was reelected for a fourth-term despite concerns about the democratic process.

Togolese authorities have shut down the entire internet in 2017 and 2018.

While shutdowns in Asia increasingly appear targeted to a specific location or minority groups, incidents in Africa were mostly countrywide. Of the 24 shutdowns recorded on the continent, 21 of those incidents were nationwide or affecting multiple regions at once. In several cases, shutdowns were used by the government to shut down dissent and civil unrest. In Sudan, amid long-running protests which led to the ouster of long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir, internet and social media access was blocked for weeks.

Internet shutdowns compound a connectivity problem which already sees millions of Africans pay the highest prices globally, relative to average income, to stay connected. But it’s a problematic reality that may yet linger as Access Now notes shutdowns are “growing in number” as well as “expanding in scope” across Africa.

There’s growing evidence that these shutdowns also come at billion dollar costs too. Last year, internet and social media shutdowns were estimated to cost African economies over $2 billion in 2019.

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