African governments that switched off internet during polls
As election malpractice gains notoriety, particularly in African nations, a troubling trend has emerged: certain African governments are increasingly imposing restrictions on internet and social media access during election periods.
This contentious practice has ignited a heated debate between digital rights activists and the governments themselves, with each side presenting its own rationale. While activists decry these actions as censorship that infringes upon citizens’ fundamental rights, governments assert that such measures are essential to ensuring national security and the integrity of the electoral process.
Several African countries have made headlines for implementing internet and social media restrictions during elections. These measures have included throttling internet speeds, blocking access to specific websites and social media platforms, and even complete internet shutdowns.
Below are some of the nations:
General Brice Nguema, recently led a coup that toppled Gabon’s 56-year-old ruling dynasty.
The coup happened after the coup leader’s cousin President Ali Bongo was declared winner of contested presidential elections.
Prior to the coup, Ali Bongo has been Head of State of the country after replacing his father who died in 2009.
While there were many constitutional, legal, and electoral changes before and after the elections that severely undermined the integrity of the vote, the internet in the country was cut and a curfew was put in place after the vote.
To justify the internet cut, the Gabonese government claimed that they were preventing online disinformation. However, Generla Nguema has vowed to return power to civilians after free transparent elections.
In 2021, days prior to the national election in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s administration implemented a block on access to social media platforms and messaging applications.
This move came swiftly on the heels of Facebook’s action to close what it termed ‘fake’ accounts that it alleged were affiliated with the government.
Facebook asserted that these accounts were employed to artificially boost the popularity of certain posts.
The lead-up to the election was marked by a palpable atmosphere of tension and instances of violence. President Museveni, in his bid for a sixth term in office, faced a formidable challenge from opposition figure Bobi Wine.
On the eve of the election in 2020, a number of popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook were currently not accessible in all parts of the country.
Many citizens also said that they are unable to use the popular cross-platform messaging service, WhatsApp.
Data gathered by the NetBlocks Internet Observatory confirmed that Twitter, WhatsApp, backend servers for Instagram, and some Google services including Gmail and Translate were generally or partially unavailable via Tanzania’s leading network operators.
This raised concerns over election transparency even as the late President John Pombe Magufuli sought a second term in office.
During the Zambian presidential elections, which took place in August 2021, the government hit the kill switch.
Internet connection was deliberately shut down as the governing Patriotic Front (PF), led by former President Edgar Lungu hotly contested against the main opposition leader (now the President) Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) for the presidential seat.
Social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and messaging apps Messenger and WhatsApp had been restricted on multiple internet providers with all except WhatsApp being restored the following day.
Republic of Congo
On the day of the presidential elections, Sunday 21st March 2021, the internet was shut down. AFP reported that access to the internet and social media was cut hours before polls were opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT).
President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who had been in power for a total of some 36 years, prevailed to take a fourth term as predicted at the polls, which were panned for their lack of transparency. He has served as the president of the country since 1997.