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As more Africans reach for web, more leaders reach for ‘off’ switch

Why We Wrote This

Restrictive governments in Africa are limiting web access more often precisely because internet use is booming. But that means blackouts bring more unintended consequences, too.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Customers line up to withdraw cash outside a bank in Harare, Zimbabwe, Jan. 19. The country is experiencing a severe cash crisis, with an internet shutdown intended to disrupt protests also affecting money transfers.

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One month into 2019, and three governments in Africa have already shut off the internet. It's an increasingly popular tool for leaders cracking down amid contentious elections or protests. Last week Zimbabwe, where security forces have been accused of torture and at least a dozen people have been killed in demonstrations, became the latest to experience blocked-off websites and apps. A decade ago, only 4 percent of sub-Saharan Africans were connected to the web. Today, one-quarter of them are, the fastest growth in the world. “The rising number of users is posing an ever bigger threat to governments,” says Juliet Nanfuka, a researcher in Uganda. In many countries in Africa, the rise of mobile phones and internet usage has facilitated the rapid spread of mobile money. In Zimbabwe, for example, more than 95 percent of financial transactions are now electronic – meaning the internet restrictions’ effect is felt quickly by those who oppose and those who support the administration alike. “You value your rights more once you see that they can be taken away from you,” says Ms. Nanfuka. “So the silver lining here is we’re seeing more people become involved and appreciating their right to free expression and communication.”

Collecting the money should have been easy. Alice Ndlovu had done it a million times before. But when she got to the front of the queue at the bank in her hometown of Rusape in eastern Zimbabwe last Friday, the teller shook her head.

Sorry, she said. No service today.

Ms. Ndlovu, a teacher who asked that a pseudonym be used for fear of government reprisal, desperately needed that cash, which her son sent her from Britain to cover the cost of her diabetes medications. So she reluctantly handed over a few crumpled bills and boarded a bus for the nearest town with a bank, more than an hour away.

There, she walked from bank to bank, but every time the answer was the same. Sorry. You can’t pick up your money today.

Finally, a sympathetic teller saw the panic on her face and offered an explanation. Amid widespread protests across the country over a massive hike in the price of fuel, the government had decided to completely shut off the internet. That meant money transfers were down, too.

The intent of the shutdown, analysts say, had been to disrupt the protests and prevent information about them from getting to the world beyond Zimbabwe’s borders. But in a country in the midst of a severe cash crisis, where more than 95 percent of financial transactions are electronic, turning off the internet had another knock-on effect: It cut many Zimbabweans off from their only source of money.

“I started panicking and felt helpless at the same time,” Ndlovu says. No one could tell her when the internet would be back or how long she might have to live without the medications prescribed to keep her alive.

Internet shutdowns are a blunt instrument of repression, but as access to the web mushrooms across Africa, they’re also becoming a more popular one. In the first month of 2019, governments have also shut off the internet in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Sudan. In Chad, meanwhile, social media has been blocked for nearly a year and counting. And those shutdowns are part of a broader trend. In 2018, the internet advocacy group Access Now recorded 21 full or partial internet shutdowns in Africa, up from 13 the year before, according to the Associated Press.

The shutdowns are, in part, a reaction to the web’s growing reach in a continent that, even until a decade ago, was largely offline. Today, the internet is an increasingly essential part of the economies of many African countries, from mobile payments for daily groceries to e-commerce. But with that growth, it is also becoming a tool for social change, prompting governments to take increasingly bold moves to muzzle it – with sometimes unforeseen consequences.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Protesters demonstrate over a hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe on Jan. 14, 2019. Zimbabwe ordered a 'total internet shutdown' amid the protests and a deadly crackdown. Several African governments have already imposed internet restrictions in 2019.

“The rising number of users is posing an ever bigger threat to governments,” says Juliet Nanfuka, a researcher at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, an internet think tank and advocacy organization based in Kampala, Uganda. "Some governments are making good strides in their efforts aimed at getting more users online. However, alongside this is an increasingly vocal citizenry who demand rights, transparency, and accountability. In response, we see the very same states interfering with access.”

Transformative growth

Indeed, internet access is growing more quickly in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. In 2018, a quarter of Africans accessed the internet. That’s far lower than the global estimate of 51.2 percent, but a staggering rise from a decade ago, when only 4 percent of Africans were online.

That revolution has been facilitated by the rise of another technology, cheap smartphones, which have allowed Africans to leapfrog the lack of landlines and other connectivity issues that previously put the internet out of reach of most people. The percentage of Africans with smartphones has doubled since 2014, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. And another 300 million Africans are expected to come online in the next seven years, most of them via their phones, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), an industry advocacy and research group.

And that access comes with massive economic benefits. In 2017, mobile technologies were responsible for 7.1 percent of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, for a total dollar value of around $110 billion, according to GSMA calculations. In many countries, including Zimbabwe, the rise in mobile phone and internet usage has facilitated the rapid spread of mobile money, sidestepping the logistical hurdles of accessing brick-and-mortar banks to bring millions of Africans into the formal financial system for the first time.

But for governments, the rising number of internet users also means that information travels with alarming rapidity, often undermining their control. As rumors about the results of Congo’s hotly contested presidential election began to circulate in early January, for instance, the government there cut off internet and text messaging services, arguing that the spread of “false numbers” could cause a “popular uprising.”

Globally, elections are among the most common triggers for internet restrictions, according to a recent report on global internet freedom by the American think tank Freedom House.

Disrupting protests is another common target. Social media went black in Sudan in late December as an unprecedented protest movement began to rattle the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir. It was the presumed reason that the internet in Gabon went down during an attempted coup in early January and for 136 days straight in 2017 and 2018 in Anglophone Cameroon, where a powerful separatist movement is active.

Often, internet blackouts during protests are veiled in the language of public safety and the protection of law and order.

"The internet was a tool that was used to coordinate the violence," explained Zimbabwean government spokesman George Charamba Saturday, defending his government’s decision to shut off the internet during a week of protests. At least a dozen people have been killed and hundreds arbitrarily arrested in the ongoing protests. The country’s Human Rights Commission has accused security forces of “systematic torture” against protesters.

"Naturally, when you are reacting to a conspiracy of that nature, you ensure that society is protected,” Mr. Charamba said. “There is no way that you expect us to sacrifice a national good for the sake of the internet."

In many ways, Ms. Nanfuka says, that’s just an old argument dressed up in a new technology.

“In the past, these same governments might have threatened newspapers or shut down radio stations to keep information from getting out,” she says. “This is the modern way of doing the same thing.”

‘You value your rights more’

But shutting off the internet can have unintended consequences, as Ndlovu’s experience trying to get her medication in Zimbabwe shows. Web shutdowns affect a regime’s sympathizers as well as its detractors, says Piers Pigou, a senior consultant for southern Africa with the International Crisis Group and an expert in Zimbabwean politics. Those who went hungry when they couldn’t access their mobile money last week, in other words, weren’t only demonstrators.

“The possible ramifications from constituencies who didn’t even participate in protests to begin with is something the government will have to take into consideration” going forward, he says.

And with so much economic activity happening on the internet, shutdowns can also leach money from economies that desperately need it. An internet blackout, for instance, costs Zimbabwe about $5.7 million a day, according to the advocacy group NetBlocks, which uses a calculation of the scope of a country’s digital economy to arrive at its figure.

On Monday, Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the shutdown of the internet had been illegal because it had not been directly ordered by the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and ordered access to be restored. That mirrors a wider continental trend of challenging shutdowns through African court systems, with nonprofits filing lawsuits in Cameroon and Uganda.

But courts often move slowly, and the internet can be restricted suddenly and by only a few key individuals, making courts an imperfect tool for stopping shutdowns.

Still, Nanfuka says, resistance to internet blackouts on the continent is growing, too.  

“You value your rights more once you see that they can be taken away from you,” she says. “So the silver lining here is we’re seeing more people become involved and appreciating their right to free expression and communication.”

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