Autocratic leaders in Africa are increasingly relying on internet shutdowns to mitigate young people’s use of social media to mobilize against post-colonial political structures across the continent.
The internet continues to grow and “gain considerable power and agency around the world,” noted The Conversation, a research-based online publication. The internet is perceived to be a threat by governments that have increasingly moved to regulate it.
“The statistics are staggering. In India alone, there were 154 internet shutdowns between January 2016 and May 2018. This is the most of any country in the world.
“But similar shutdowns are becoming common on the African continent. Already in 2019 there have been shutdowns in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Last year there were 21 such shutdowns on the continent. This was the case in Togo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Ethiopia, among others,” according to The Conversation article, “Shutting down the internet doesn’t work—but governments keep doing it.” It appeared on theconversation.com.
Of similar importance is how social media disinformation and blackouts are used to target elections.
A case in point was the 2021 Ugandan presidential election. According to medium.com, “A network of PR firms, news organizations and inauthentic social media accounts … engaged in a coordinated campaign to promote Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ahead of the country’s January 14, 2021 presidential election, the DFRLab (Digital Forensic Research Lab) has learned.”
According to the article, an investigation into the network, which began as part of its ongoing analysis of pre-election activity, uncovered a collection of Twitter accounts and Facebook pages engaging in suspicious online behavior. Accounts posted verbatim messages supporting the Ugandan government and criticizing the opposition, said the article. It added that some of these accounts included users who appeared to be journalists.
Facebook removed the content January 8 and Twitter on January 10, 2021, the article added.
According to a statement, Facebook’s internal investigation attributed the network to a group within Uganda’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology.
“Uganda’s electoral commission said … longtime Pres. Museveni won a sixth five-year term, while top opposition challenger Bobi Wine whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu alleges rigging and officials struggle to explain how low polling results were compiled amid an internet blackout,” reported CNBC.
And despite the loss, the Ugandan presidential challenger, who is a popular singer and actor turned lawmaker, has emerged from the disputed elections as the country’s most powerful opposition leader. His party won the most seats of any opposition group in the national assembly.
According to the AP, it’s a major achievement for a party that was barely six months old and almost didn’t initially make it on the ballot when accused by government officials of being an illegal entity. While longtime President Museveni has been declared the winner, the rise of the 38-year-old Wine’s party marks a generational shift.
“In Nigeria the anti-police brutality activists used online platforms to raise awareness of and call for the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of extortion, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. Their (youth organized) multi-faceted social media campaign, #EndSARS, resulted in widespread protest that captured the global imagination and elicited a violent response from the Nigerian government … (including) opening fire on a peaceful protest camp in the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, killing 12 unarmed protesters,” reported Al Jazeera.
Nigerian state governors and public officials responded by demanding social media be regulated. This included the Northern Governors’ Forum issuing a communique calling for the strict supervision and censorship of social media to thwart “subversive actions” and “avoid the spread of fake news.”
In addition, reported the news service Reuters, the Nigerian central bank froze the accounts of 20 persons linked with the anti-police brutality protest after receiving a court order.
According to Human Rights Watch: “Days after nationwide protests … people interviewed said the Central Bank of Nigeria instructed private banks to freeze several organizations’ and individuals’ accounts to stop the flow of funds supporting the protests.”
“Authoritarian leaders from every part of the continent have realized it is not enough to blacken TV screens or hand in headlines to the press anymore. They also need to shut down social media—where young people engage with the world and express anti-establishment views,” reported TRT World. Beham Taye, principal lead of the #KeepItOn campaign from Access Now, an advocacy group which defends the digital rights of users, believes internet shutdowns are an extension of traditional censorship.
“With a few exceptions, many countries that shut down the internet restrict the free press and violate human rights,” Taye told TRT World.
The Central African country Cameroon tops the list for internet disruptions in Facebook’s 2018 Transparency Report and holds the record for Africa’s longest internet shutdown. Following protests in the Anglophone southwest and northwest regions against systematic social, political and economic discrimination, the Francophone-dominated government either completely shut down, or significantly slowed down the internet to silence dissidents.
To maintain his 37-year-old regime, Cameroonian president Paul Biya shut down the internet for more than 40 weeks, intermittently, between January 2017 and June 2018.
“This is the first crisis in Cameroon wherein the internet has played a major role. The youths who mostly use the internet have raised awareness … brought the attention of the international community to the situation in Cameroon,” lawyer Agbor Nkongho, president of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, told TRT World.
Far from all of the above being the exception, these dastardly attempts at controlling social media usage and clamping down on progressive public discourse and universal rights of peaceful assembly have become increasingly ubiquitous and fairly normalized throughout Africa.
But just because of government clamp down it doesn’t deter the increasing usage of social media by Africa’s growing young population. Just as citizens began broadcasting the abuses of government with video and photographic evidence during the Arab Spring, Africa’s younger generation took advantage of tech-based strategies to drive accountability and transparency, reported UN.org.
Young people’s political activism also more than likely safeguarded the integrity of the 2016 election in The Gambia. “They began using the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided when former president Yahya Jammeh refused to vacate his office and hand over power after suffering electoral defeat. In addition to spreading the word over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the anti-Jammeh campaign also encouraged citizens to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan,” noted un.org
Other examples include Livity Africa, a South Africa–based nonprofit organization whose aim is to amplify authentic youth voices and concerns, in part through its nationwide media channel “Live Magazine” SA. Launched in 2011, the channel highlights issues that are overlooked by mainstream media, and encourages government accountability via its weekly “Live from Parliament” segment.
Similarly, the Nigeria-based SMS and web platform “Shine Your Eye” facilitates public engagement with parliamentarians and other elected officials by providing access to their track records.
By sending a free SMS message to the platform’s dedicated number or visiting its website, anyone can get detailed information on the record of a public official.
Professor Alcinda Honwana, inter-regional advisor on social development policy at the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, cites the immediacy of social media as a key factor in mobilizing large numbers of people and catalyzing change.
Prof. Honwana does not see social media as just a trend. “If we are talking about young people, I think everything that will happen from now on is going to be through social media. That’s where they live,” she said.
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