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Across Africa, internet blackouts loom over elections

Across the continent, governments are shutting down internet access and social media networks in response to elections and political unrest. As voters in Chad and Benin head to the polls, digital rights campaigners fear the two countries’ online networks could be next

On a recent morning just after dawn, Abdeldjalil Bachar Bong, a digital rights advocate based in Chad, finished an early morning Islamic prayer and reflexively opened up his phone to check for updates. But he couldn’t get online — his phone wouldn’t connect to the internet and WhatsApp wasn’t showing any new messages. Perturbed, Bachar Bong asked his neighbor if he could get on the web, but he, too, said that he could not. The internet had gone dark.

The root of the digital disruption was a deadly raid at the home of a candidate running against President Idriss Déby Itno, who has been in power since 1990. After the attack in February, in which the candidate’s mother and several relatives reportedly died, the country’s internet and messaging services abruptly cut out

Bachar Bong said the shutdown lasted three days. During that time, he was unable to get online for work or communicate with family. In desperation, some people traveled to the border of Chad and Cameroon to try to gain access to Cameroon’s digital infrastructure, Bachar Bong said. He likened the sensation of living in digital darkness to losing one’s eyesight. “You can see nothing because you have no communication,” he said. “It was very difficult. We cannot live without internet as we cannot live without water today.”

In a few days, however, Bachar Bong worries Chadians could find themselves in online darkness once again. He and other digital rights campaigners are nervously eyeing upcoming presidential elections in Chad and Benin on April 11. The two countries both have histories of internet disruptions, in a region where blackouts are becoming a common tool for governments to suppress dissent and the free flow of information during elections, protests and periods of political unrest. 

Experts state that the stoppages have wide-ranging political, economic and social implications. “An internet shutdown results in a complete disruption of people’s lives,” said Felicia Anthonio, a Ghana-based campaigner for the digital rights group Access Now. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and, as much as possible, we are trying to avoid physical spaces in order to stay safe. And just imagine without the internet, how is that going to be possible?” 

Benin and Chad are among a growing list of African countries that have cut off digital access during elections and periods of political instability in recent years. In 2021 alone, elections prompted government-imposed internet shutdowns in Uganda and the Republic of the Congo. The previous year, authorities blocked internet and social media access during polls in Tanzania, Togo, Guinea and Burundi. 

Last month, Coda Story reported on concerns about digital blackouts ahead of a presidential election in the Republic of the Congo, where President Sassou-Nguesso has been in power for decades. 

In an open letter on April 7, dozens of African and international human rights groups called on the presidents of Benin and Chad to keep digital networks working during the upcoming elections. “Both nations have a history of disrupting internet access during important national events,” they wrote. “Internet shutdowns cut off access to vital, timely, and life-saving information, as well as to emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear and confusion.”

Benin began to use digital blackouts during parliamentary elections in 2019. In Chad — where corruption is endemic, and political opponents face persecution and harassment — online disruptions first occurred in 2016, while presidential elections were being held. Two years later, amid anti-government protests, authorities cut off access to Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook for 16 months, citing security concerns.

Internet and messaging service shutdowns can have consequences ranging from psychological to material. A March 2021 report by Tomiwa Ilori, a researcher at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, for the Global Network Initiative, an international NGO focused on internet freedom and privacy, analyzed network disruptions across 11 African countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), over the past decade. 

The report stated that most of the blackouts were government-ordered and affected peoples’ ability to take part in and monitor elections, organize political events and access public health information, including resources about Covid-19. They also adversely affected the incomes of individuals whose jobs rely on the internet and made it harder to receive remittances from family members living abroad.

“The general feeling that I get from speaking with respondents is that there is a feeling of despair and that feeling of despair usually lasts as long as internet shutdowns last,” Ilori told me “Despair as a result of panic, despair as a result of loss of income, despair as a result of loss of human dignity.”

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