The phenomenon of internet shutdown in certain countries around the world has become a major concern. In the wake of increased internet censorship, certain African regimes when faced with political unrest, protests, or the possibility of students cheating during exams, have resorted to shutting down internet access as a preemptive measure.
After Cameroon government authorities shut down internet connection in two of its Anglo-Saxon regions for some 93 days (time enough to destabilize the economic sector of any nation) Ethiopia and other African countries like Congo, Chad, Uganda, South Africa, The Gambia, Egypt, seem to have done just what Cameroon did a few months back.
In Ethiopia’s case, however, the government at first, out rightly refused to provide reasons why it shut down mobile internet services in some parts of the country though certain areas (AU and UN offices) appeared to have internet access, allowing some Ethiopians to tweet and post about the blackout.
After a series of follow-ups on the story, the Ethiopian government finally opened up, resting the motive behind the shutdown on the need to prevent the repeat of examination leaks that occurred last year.
Prior to a staged protest that resulted in violence, a series of arrests and subsequently shutting down of the internet, denizens of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon complained of economic marginalization by their French-speaking brothers as well as the imposition of the French legal and educational systems on them.
Contrary to the Ethiopian scenario, the Cameroon government affirmed its decision to cut off the two regions from the rest of the world owing to the fact that residents of these regions were supposedly circulating false information online about the government and encouraging other citizens to rebel against the state.
Many African governments have tried this method but failed. African protesters rely on traditional methods of communication to propagate their rebellious activities.
Does the shutting down of the internet actually put a halt to exam cheats or suppress anti-government protests? What these countries will really achieve in the end this June are a series of penalties that will be meted out on them by the internet registry body, AFRINIC (African Network Information Center).
AFRINIC which is in charge of managing and allocating IP address blocks across Africa will table the penalties proposal during its next meeting in Kenya this June. The decision will give AFRINIC the power to refuse to issue IP addresses to governments that order an internet shutdown for an entire year which in principle, will deny such governments the ability to create new government websites.
According to this report published by the Brookings Institute, there were over 81 cases of internet shutdown in 2016, including India, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq. The report highlights that internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year.
“Most of the documented shutdowns we were able to identify were in the developing world. If there were a temporary shutdown of the internet in a developed economy, the economic damage would be enormous,” the report reveals.
Shutting down the internet in any country has never been the best solution for clamping down a protest and neither has it ever quenched the fire spat out by the flaming protesters. Rather, such actions only help in destabilizing the economic sector of a country and bringing it to its knees.
A close look at the Cameroon economy after the country went offline shows that cyber operators went out of business, depriving the state of one of its revenue sources, tech startups and accelerators, especially in the ‘Silicon Mountain’ where projects came to a halt, ATMs went out of function and banks and money transfer agencies either went for an indefinite break or switched to the traditional and less efficient methods of carrying out their operations.
In February 2017, Africanews.com reported the alarming loss businesses in Cameroon had incurred with the internet shutdown only in the third week. You should be punching your calculator now to have a rough estimate of the financial loss suffered in 93 days.
In Africa one wonders if governments are using real or perceived threats to stability, political power, or local economic interests to justify internet disruptions. It is also certain that in most cases political authorities have pulled the plug to prevent citizens from expressing their minds by questioning government’s actions or revealing secrets.
The UN has made it clear that the right to internet access is a basic human right. With this understanding, one would expect governments of UN member countries to play by the rules.