Are internet shutdowns the new normal?

Author:Woodhams, Sam

The proliferation of internet shutdowns during periods of heightened tensions in several countries has raised fears about the freedom of expression in Africa. But the reality is more nuanced and is related largely to the nature of authoritarianism rather than geography.

Millions of African citizens have had their freedom of expression curtailed during critical periods of political unrest in the past few months, as the number of internet shutdowns continues to rise.

The Associated Press wrote: "2019 is already a busy year for internet shutdowns in Africa, with governments ordering cut-offs as soon as a crisis appears."

While it is undeniable that internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly common, recent commentary has failed to take into account the longer history of authoritarian regimes across the globe restricting digital access. In doing so, there is a danger of portraying the contemporary issue as a uniquely African one and disregarding the progress being made in areas across the continent.

However, the recent elections in Senegal and Nigeria demonstrate that internet shutdowns are not a uniform approach by African governments during periods of heightened political sensitivity.

In the context of growing fears about the normalisation of digital restrictions in Africa, it is therefore worth investigating the activity of these two states to show that, while internet shutdowns may be on the rise in certain African countries, this does not adequately reflect the entire picture.

In the run-up to the election in Nigeria, there were substantial fears about the prospect of an internet shutdown. Fuelled by President Buhari's unilateral dismissal of Justice Walter Onnoghen, the accusations of Governor Nyesom Wike and a last-minute electoral delay, the government appeared to be adopting an increasingly authoritarian character.

With rising anxiety, citizens went online to find ways of remaining connected in case of a shutdown. Quartz Africa's 'Guide to staying online' became one of the most-read articles the week before the election.

Fears were exacerbated by widespread reporting on the issue, with the Nigerian newspaper Leadership opining that Nigeria could become "the latest in a long list of similar disruptions across Africa". Through aligning Nigeria so closely with other African nations, however, the autonomy of individual nations was obscured.

Additionally, there was an important aspect of the narrative that was regularly neglected in the...

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