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Democracy in the Digital Age: How Do Internet Shutdowns Impact Fairness During African Elections?

Democracy in the Digital Age: How Do Internet Shutdowns Impact Fairness During African Elections?

Internet Restriction - Afrocritik

In several African nations, it has become common for leaders to limit internet access or completely cut it off during the elections. Not only does this act violate the human right to expression, but it also prevents internet users from gaining useful information about the election.

By Michael Akuchie

In the weeks leading up to Zimbabwe’s general election last year, several human rights groups asked the government to not implement an internet shutdown. Not only would a deliberate internet downtime reduce citizens’ confidence in the electoral process, but it could also prompt public unrest because citizens would feel silenced. Despite the human rights groups’ efforts, citizens reported slow internet speeds following the commencement of voting. 

In several African nations, it has become common for leaders to limit internet access or completely cut it off during elections. Not only does this act violate the human right to expression, but it also prevents internet users from gaining useful information about the election.

In a report provided by Surfshark, a VPN provider, 90 countries will conduct elections in 2024 unless there is a schedule change. More importantly, the report also predicts that internet restrictions will occur in some of those countries. According to Surfshark, sub-Saharan Africa – the region that Nigeria belongs to – has the most cases (29) of internet restrictions and limitations. Following closely in second place is Southeast Asia with 28 cases. Western Asia and Eastern Europe are next on the list with 2 cases respectively. 

Mali and Malawi are some of the countries expected to hold elections this year. Unfortunately, they all have a history of internet restrictions during elections. Netblocks, an internet watchdog organisation, reported network disruptions during Mali’s 2021 elections. The outages continued even when the results were announced, following growing public concern about election malpractice. Similarly,  Malawi’s 2019 election was marred by internet disruptions during the vote counting and result announcement stages. Not only did this prevent citizens from staying up to date with the elections and airing their opinions, but it also kept election observers from monitoring the election, seeing as they needed internet connectivity to do so. Given these countries’ history, the chances of citizens experiencing another internet downtime are sky-high. 

Internet Restriction - Afrocritik

In the past, newspapers, radio, and television were the primary sources of election updates. Fortunately, technological advances like the internet and social media have made it easier for citizens to know which candidate is leading and by how many votes. The internet has become crucial to politicians and voters alike. In today’s world, politicians publish campaign speeches on social media platforms alongside traditional media. For voters, social media has become a great and necessary means of keeping up with the happenings in an election. Even electoral commissions have begun transmitting election updates using the internet. For instance, in Nigeria’s last general election which was held in 2023, the country’s electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), shared election results on social media platforms, thereby reaching millions of users.

It is important to note that internet restrictions usually occur a few days before the election and end a few days after the results have been announced.  Restrictions can occur for many reasons. It could be the government’s way of quelling protests or keeping certain parties from interfering or manipulating election results. Before Chad’s election in 2021, the government restricted the internet across the country after news about its troops clashing with guards of opposition candidate, Yaya Dillo aired. According to the report, the gunfight caused the deaths of multiple family members of Dillo. The troops had been sent to arrest Dillo after he refused to honour two court summons. Upon meeting armed resistance by Dillo’s men, a gun battle started. Fearing public outcry on social media because of the tragic incident, the government turned off the internet. Regardless of the motive, internet restrictions reduce the public’s ability to react to ongoing happenings. According to Surfshark, “Such restrictions undermine the integrity and fairness of elections, allowing the government to have greater control over the public narrative.” 

It is also worth mentioning that African leaders have also used internet shutdowns to quell anti-government protests. In 2022, the Sierra Leonean government enforced a nationwide internet shutdown in response to a protest by citizens against the harsh economic realities. Resorting to block internet access not only lowers citizens’ respect for elected officials but it does not bode well for a country practising democratic rule of governance.  This also brings to mind Nigeria’s temporary ban on Twitter (now X), following the platform’s deletion of then-President Muhammadu Buhari’s controversial tweets regarding the unrest in the eastern region and the temporary suspension of his account. While the government admitted that Buhari’s account suspension was a reason for its decision to ban Twitter in the country, it also said that the platform had become a hotbed for misinformation. 

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An election serves the public. It is an opportunity for citizens to choose the candidates they want to represent their interests. The United Nations recognises elections as a byproduct of the right to vote and be voted for along with other human rights. Information sharing is a significant part of the electoral process. Citizens who double as voters deserve real-time updates on elections as this plays a major role in how they perceive the process. When election updates are not shared promptly or are not shared at all, such action gives the people a valid reason to doubt the organisers’ ability to conduct honest elections. It also gives the citizens ample room to reject the outcome. What’s more, it creates the perfect atmosphere for violent protests which could result in the loss of lives and properties. 

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Here is an instance: when the Mozambican National Electoral Commission failed to adhere to global standards by providing details of the 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections transparently, that error led to two things. Firstly, the opposition, Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), tagged the results as fraudulent and refused to accept them. Secondly, the controversial results sparked a series of violent protests that claimed lives

The economic impact of a government-sanctioned internet shutdown, too, cannot be overemphasised. Aside from serving as a means of information, social media has also helped many new and existing businesses to reach more customers. In 2022 when the Nigerian government halted the ban on Twitter (X) after 222 days, it was discovered that the economy had suffered a loss worth N546.5 billion. This negatively impacted many businesses with a strong presence on the platform. Similarly, in 2016, Saudi Arabia had to deal with a GDP loss of $465 million following an internet shutdown that lasted 45 days.  

The UN recommends that governments allow citizens to access the internet and other digital technologies freely. It also suggests that internet shutdowns should not be imposed by governments for any reason. Although fostering electoral participation through the internet is a laudable act, it is also true that the internet can also spread misinformation through means such as generative AI technology, which could cause global governments to want to restrict access. However, the UN proposes that governments should invest more in fact-checking tools and public awareness campaigns. A fact-checking tool helps to tell if a news report, image, or video is real or not. It is a handy tool for all situations, particularly elections which are prone to misinformation. Unfortunately, suggesting actions and abiding by them are two different things. Whether the countries billed to hold elections this year will follow the UN’s recommendations or choose to deprive citizens of Internet access remains to be seen. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

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