• Desmond Latham

Internet shutdowns in Africa could trim economic growth


There have been increasing numbers of African governments attempting to shut down the flow of information in recent months as protests are reported.

In many of these cases, the shutdowns include social media and mobile phone connectivity.

But an analysis of the cost to each country indulging in this form of censorship reveals that their own economies are likely to be negatively affected at the same time by their own actions.

The most recent example took place in Mauritania, where access to the internet was stopped by the government on June 25 in what has been called “a near total blackout” by Netblocks, an internet monitoring group.

The Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ has also stepped up pressure on Mauritanian government officials over the arrest of journalists.

“Mauritanian authorities should immediately release journalists Seydi Moussa Camara and Ahmedou Ould al-Wadea, restore internet access throughout the country, and allow journalists to report on the results of the country's presidential elections without fear of reprisal,” the CPJ said in a statement released in New York.

More than one hundred people were detained in the North African country following protests linked to disputed presidential elections on June 22. Netblocks said there was an extensive shutdown at the time, but since then intermittent internet connectivity has been allowed.

The cost of the shutdown per day is estimated to be in the region of $1.26 million according to the Netblocks Cost of Shutdown Tool.

In more advanced nations such as South Africa, a total shutdown of the internet would be catastrophic to the economy. An analysis using the Netblocks Cost of Shutdown tool shows that it would cost close to a billion rand a day if the government shuts access to the internet.

By the end of the first quarter of 2019, at least give governments in Africa had shut down access to the internet, including Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Gabon.

Source: Access Now

Mauritania, Ethiopia and the Sudan have followed suit since April 2019. In June Ethiopia said it had shut access in an attempt to reduce cheating in the country’s national exams. It was switched off again in late June after a coup attempt and later the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced it was in response to the shooting dead of the army chief Seare Mekonnen.

Government then decided to shut the internet as it pursued the coup’s leaders.

In the Sudan, the military regime shut down the internet on every mobile phone in the country after massacring more than 100 protesters on June 3. There are no signs that it plans to restore the links quickly. While this has stalled the protests, it has also had an effect on the country’s economy, with Netblocks predicting its costing over $45.7 million a day.

Since the beginning of 2018 the number of internet shutdowns has increased exponentially according to monitoring group Access Now. In their report entitled “The State of Internet Shutdowns Around the World” the group says Asia and Africa are two regions most heavily affected by national government action against users of the internet.

Source: Access Now (2019)

While there is no doubt that protestors are organising action through their social media and other digital platforms, there is the danger that these can move underground. In Hong Kong for example, the protests against an attempt to introduce an extradition bill are organised along ad hoc lines with the main Facebook Page administration shared amongst the more than 150 000 members.

With the internet, and what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution now part of the African Union’s growth strategy, African government’s may find that shutting down parts of this new economy may have secondary negative effects on their own growth. Banks, financial institutions and retailers are now reliant on the internet, and to some extent social media platforms, to market their products.

Small business in particular will find the outage hard to deal with. For example, in Sudan a burgeoning ride-sharing business has been dealt a severe blow by Khartoum decision to shut down access to the internet.

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