In 2019, deliberate internet censorship cost African economies a collective USD 2.16 Bn. The shutdowns, mostly orchestrated by governments, have been on for many years.
Though such restrictions have been going on for many years, last year was the worst year in terms of amount of money foregone. So, for 2020, what should African businesses and individuals expect?
A Disturbing Trend
Internet shutdowns are becoming a trend in Africa. Period. The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2019 report finds that most internet shutdowns occur in response to protests or civil unrest surrounding elections.
Usually, these web and social media blackouts occur when governments want to restrict the spread of information and maintain their power grip. This does not not only toy with citizens’ freedom of expression, but also with their right to information.
The first major internet shutdown in Africa for last year is proof that the report’s findings are correct. In Zimbabwe, the administration of Emmerson Mnangagwa executed a web blackout to quell protests arising from the ridiculous hike in fuel prices. It marked the first time for such to happen in the Southern African nation, which made Zimbabweans clamor for the return of their former leader Robert Mugabe.
A similar event occurred in Sudan, where the government shutdown the internet for weeks. The intention was to smother the protests against the generals who seized power after Omar al-Bashir was ousted by military forces in April.
These series of disturbing events occurred after Sudan-wide demonstrations against his rule. After shutting down the internet to curb malpractice during national exams in June 2019, Ethiopia went on to sustain the blackout due to failed military coup attempts.
The examples are endless, but the trend is certain. What’s more, the report by Top10VPN says that there is little to suggest that internet shutdowns will stop in 2020. This comes in spite of their negative impact on the global economy, human rights and the democratic processes.
Internet Censorship In 2020
Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN, told WeeTracker that internet shutdowns have become a popular strategy across Africa during times of political unrest. This seems to be undeterred by condemnation by the United Nations and human rights organizations around the world.
“Given that the rate of internet shutdowns has been increasing over the last three years, we have every reason to expect that there will be more in Africa this year, particularly in regions like Ethiopia and Sudan where elections are on the horizon,” he said.
Simon’s predictions are not implausible, because truly, there are a couple of elections to be held in Africa this year. Also, some of these polls are being held in countries where internet censorship has occurred in the past. These include Chad, Mauritius, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Egypt and Liberia.
Peaceful and fair elections are encouraged across the continent, but there’s a likeliness that internet censorship will occur in these countries. Togo is likely to join the crop, as it prepares to hold the first African presidential election of the year on February 22nd. Factors that will make for an internet censorship in the West African country are numerous.
The current president, Faure Gnassingbé, has been in power since 2005, after the death of his father. His regime is to be extended as he’s to be the only candidate on the ballot. Faure’s father seized control of the small country in 1967. Protests upon protests have registered displeasure over the seemingly dynastic rule of the Gnassingbés.
The internet may ultimately not shutdown in Togo, but the other promising crop of countries on the continent make us beg to differ. The nations aforementioned are known for civil unrest, long-ruling presidents and military shakedowns. Take Sudan for instance, where their last internet censorship led – and resulted in – to military open-fire on the nation’s citizens.
On The Business End
African businesses are actually better off expecting internet censorship this year and put things in place to enable them cope. Businesses that only exist online or on social media won’t be able to operate at all during a shutdown.
According to Simon, those that have physical locations or provide services should be aware of alternative ways to communicate with suppliers, employees and existing or future customers.
On the signs of an internet shutdown, Simon said that any election or authority-related protest or form of unrest can be seen as a precursor to an internet shutdown. “The reality is that unless a business operates completely offline, an internet shutdown will undoubtedly have some negative impact on their ability to successfully function,” he says.
“All businesses can really do is ensure that they have a means of staying connected and, where possible, find alternative methods of carrying out activities that would usually be done online”.
A 2017 report by CIPESA on internet censorship revealed that the impact of being dumped offline is not a binary issue. The survey titled Calculating The Economic Impact Of Internet Disruptions In Sub-Saharan Africa, said that even after internet access is restored, the impact of a cut-off continues to resonate.
“Economic losses caused by an internet disruption persist far beyond the days on which the shutdown occurs, because network disruptions unsettle supply chains and have systemic effects that harm efficiency throughout the economy,” the report noted.
“Internet disruptions, however short-lived, undermine economic growth, disrupt the delivery of critical services, erode business confidence, and raise a country’s risk profile.”
There’s not exactly many options available when a business is disrupted by internet censorship. Simon explains: “For many people, it’s just the old-fashioned way: telephone or fax! If an affected business is close to a region where internet remains available, then it’s a case of travelling there to conduct the most urgent matters via laptop and mobile internet before returning home. Of course, that’s not an option for many. This is why internet shutdowns are so damaging”.
Featured Image: New York Times