In 2022, five African countries were plunged into spells of cyber disruptions that affected the lives and livelihoods of at least 30 million of the continent’s people.
Three out of the five countries which experienced the disruptions are in West Africa. Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone together accounted for five (5) new disruptions while a previous year’s ban on Twitter by Nigeria dragged into the subsequent year.
Between the two countries with fresh incidents, Burkina Faso accounted for the higher number of disruptions – three; made up of two nationwide internet blackouts and one social media shutdown.
Sierra Leone accounted for the remaining two which were both in the form of nationwide internet blackouts.
In both cases, the disruptions were at the express behest of their governments which had resorted to this all too familiar authoritarian tool in response to civil unrests.
For Nigeria, the disruption was in the form of the country’s suspension of microblogging site, Twitter, in 2021, dragging into early 2022.
Numerically, the five new internet disruptions in 2022 were neither an improvement nor a retrogression of the previous year’s incidence, as 2021 also recorded five incidents. However, the 2022 disruptions happened in three countries while the 2021 incidents occurred in four countries.
The four countries that recorded the disruptions in 2021 were Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria with the disruption in Nigeria lasting briefly into 2022. This makes Burkina Faso the West African country with the most recurrent internet disruptions between 2021 and 2022, having experienced a higher number of disruptions in 2022 as well.
The 2022 incidents also accentuate the fact that State censure of the internet in response to unrest remains a stubborn challenge within the West African conjuncture.
The three internet disruptions that happened in Burkina Faso occurred on January 10, January 20, and January 23, 2022.
On January 10, mobile internet was shut down at approximately 15:30 local time without any explanation from the government or internet service providers operating in the country. Access would be restored the following day. However, Facebook remained blocked. The government later confirmed the disruption and explained it was carried out for “national security reasons”.
Then, on January 20, 2022, the government explained it had restricted Facebook access for the same security reasons.
Those security reasons were in the nature of protests in the country where citizens had been demonstrating against the government of President Roch Marc Christian Kabore.
Following the coup, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) expressed serious concern about attendant human rights violations and urged the new military junta to uphold human rights.
The coup and the attendant violations were especially worrying because they had happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the case of Sierra Leone, the two internet shutdowns happened in the same month – August 2022. They followed bloody government crackdown on protests against harsh economic conditions in the country. At least 21 people were killed while the government also imposed a curfew.
On Wednesday, August 10, 2022, street protests that had been called for by the opposition turned bloody when protesters clashed with security agents. The protesters had been demonstrating against what they said was unbearable economic hardships, high inflation, endemic corruption and abuse of power.
Two days earlier on August 8, 2022, citizens had responded to a call to remain indoors as part of the expression of discontent. They had deserted the streets and markets, shops and schools, leaving the national capital, Freetown looking like a ghost town. The citizens would then pour onto the streets to protest on the 10th of August and demand the resignation of President Julius Maada Bio.
In response to the protest, the government had sent in soldiers and the Police with the resultant clash leading to the killing of at least 21 people. As confirmed by internet governance watchdog, NetBlocks, the government would disrupt the internet by reducing national connectivity to about 5% of the normal level from noon. This lasted for two hours. Along with this, the government also imposed a curfew to prevent the protests from traveling into the night.
Later, the government shut down the internet overnight.
In the case of Nigeria, the internet disruption in 2022 was not a new episode but in the form of the country’s 2021 ban on the microblogging site, Twitter, dragging into 2022.
On June 4, 2021, the government indefinitely suspended Twitter after the site deleted a tweet by President Muhamadu Buhari in which he had made threatening insinuations to “misbehaving” people. Referencing the country’s bloody civil war, (the Biafra war) he had insinuated that the targets of his threat would be subjected to the bloody horrors of the war.
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 1970). Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” Buhari’s tweet had read.
Following public outcry, Twitter deleted the tweet, explaining, “This tweet violated the Twitter rules.” The government had then in response announced that it had suspended Twitter indefinitely.
President Buhari’s government suspended Twitter in Nigeria
The ban had inconvenienced many journalists who depend on Twitter for information and news updates for their work. However, on January 12, 2022, seven months into the suspension, the government liftedthe ban after Twitter had agreed to a number of preconditions, including opening a country office in Nigeria.
Cost of shutdowns
According to a cost of internet shutdowns 2022 tracker by Welsh VPN company, sub-Saharan Africa lost some $244.2 million between January and August from internet disruptions in 2022 alone.
In the case of the West African countries – Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Nigeria – the disruptions cost the subregion over US$ 95 million.
Out of this, Nigeria accounted for over US$ 82 million, Burkina Faso, over US$12 million and Sierra Leone accounted for over US$300,000 (See table below).
|Type of disruption
|1 Jan 2022
|12 Jan 2022
|Social media shutdown
|10 Jan 2022
|11 Jan 2022
|11 Jan 2022
|23 Jan 2022
|Social media shutdown
|23 Jan 2022
|24 Jan 2022
|10 August 2022
|10 August 2022
|11 August 2022
|11 August 2022
Table: culled from Technext | Data: Top10VPN
Internet like power grid
On May 13, 2022, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights released a report titled: Internet shutdowns: trends, causes, legal implications and impacts on a range of human rights. Parts of the report said Internet shutdowns “most immediately affect freedom of expression and access to information – one of the foundations of free and democratic societies and an indispensable condition for the full development of the person.”
“When States impose Internet shutdowns or disrupt access to communications platforms, the legal foundation for their actions is often unstated. When laws are invoked, the applicable legislation can be vague or overly broad,” the report added.
The observation in the report by the UN High Commission on Human Rights resonates with the position of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) that governments’ tamper with the internet amounts to violations of citizens rights. It continues to be the MFWA’s position that in the current information age, the internet is the very pulse of modern life. It is also the lifeblood of very important life activities including education, business, socialization, and entertainment.
Indeed, in the modern age, the internet is no less critical than any country’s national electricity grid. Shutting the information super highway down is often tantamount to doing something more hurtful than just inconveniencing citizens – it amounts to destroying livelihoods and even endangering lives.
In light of this, the MFWA’s numerous calls on governments to refrain from shutting down the internet at whim remain relevant.