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Internet shutdowns as major constraints for digital political activism in the Horn of Africa

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Internet is increasingly being used by citizens around the globe as leverage for political expression and to hold governments accountable for their actions. But in authoritarian regimes especially on the African Continent, the use of Internet for citizens’ activism is often interrupted by these regimes, whenever they perceive that its use by any political actor might jeopardise their political offices. Summarily, digital political activism in this write up refers to a situation where digital tools such as internet, mobile phones, and social media are used to bring political change. It is aimed at serving five main functions which amongst other things include: shaping public opinion, planning an action, sharing a call to action, taking action digitally, and the transfer of resources. Through online political activism, large communities can be connected around the globe[i]. On the other end, the Horn of Africa (the Horn) in this context refers to the Eastern Region of Africa which is comprised of the following countries: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda[ii]. Some of these countries according to Njiraini Muchira (2016) are among the top violators of freedom of expression online[iii].

Online suppression in these countries have over the years been manifested through internet shutdowns, principally masterminded by governments, powerful states such as the United States (US) and terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab. Nonetheless, shutting down the internet no matter its justification, contravenes Article 20 of the Twentieth-Session of the United Nation (UN) Human Rights Council’s Agenda 3 on: The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet”[iv]. As such, in disregard of this resolution, a number of factors have over the years been held accountable for internet shutdowns experienced in the Horn. Internet shutdowns in these countries have not only manifested themselves in diverse ways but have equally stifled citizens’ basic human rights to freedom of expression online.

The justification and manifestation of internet shutdowns in the Horn of Africa

From the eight countries in the Horn identified above, internet disruptions have occurred in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. In justification for Internet shutdown, Kifle Eskedar has intimated that most governments wholly or partly disrupt the operation of internet services due to national security, public safety, economic reasons, and to maintain control [v]. In addition to these justifications, Philip, N. Howard, Sheetal, D. Agarwal, and Muzammi, M. Hussain have further contended that governments disrupt digital networks in order to protect political leaders and states institutions, prevent election crises, eliminate propaganda, and to mitigate dissidents [vi]. Relative to the foregoing, it should be underscored here that, internet shutdowns in the Horn can be explained from two main angles, that is, from the perspective of governments and from the standpoint of other political actors such as the United States government and extremist organisations such as the Al Shabaab.

Many governments in the Horn consider the internet especially during electoral periods as a threat to their continuous grip on state power and hence, are often willing to use whatever means at their disposal to prevent the dissemination of any information which might likely shape public opinion against their political power. In the wake of the 2016 Ugandan Presidential Election, the Ugandan government blocked the Internet on February 8th. This shutdown was intended to stifle the spread of online messages linked to the forceful arrest of the main opposition contestant, Dr. Kizza Besigye and alleged human rights abuses orchestrated by the police on members of the opposition few days to the election. Furthermore, the Internet shutdown was also aimed at paralysing Besigye’s online platform popularly known as “Power 10” (P10), which was constructed to monitor polling operations and to report any cases of electoral malpractices nationwide[vii].

Secondly, internet shutdowns in the Horn have also been aimed at repressing citizens’ organised mass protests against the government in situ. Examples abound. In October 2016 the Ethiopian government blocked the Internet as a pre-emptive measure to halt the viral spread of online messages, which were mobilising citizens to participate in protests against the government of Ethiopia. According to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, the internet in this scenario was used as a tool to spread messages of hate and bigotry without any inhibition”[viii].

Aside from the foregoing governments related motives, internet shutdowns in the Horn also have exogenous roots. For instance, in November 2001, the United States coerced Somalia’s telecommunication firm, Somalia Internet Company and a money transfer company, Al Barakaat, to close down their Internet services. The U.S. suspected these companies of terrorist links as plainly elaborated by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Network African Program in the following words: The two firms…both appear on a US list of organisations accused of funnelling money to the al-Qaeda network and featured in a UN Security Council resolution”[ix].

In another focus, threats from extremist groups have also led to Internet shutdown in the Horn. In February 2014, the largest telecommunication company in Somalia, Hormuud, was forced by the Al Shabaab, to shut down the provision of its internet services. From the standpoint of Al Shabaab, officials of this company were western spies and Christian crusaders[x]. In this light, Abdi Aynte, a Somali Analyst at the Heritage Institute of Policy Studies contended that Al Shabaab’s intimidatory move for Internet shutdown was as a consequence of the realism that, they were: “…afraid that this technology will be used to track some of their top fighters as the operations of drones permeate in the areas that al Shabaab controls in South and Central Somalia”[xi]. In order to justify their Internet shutdown, one of the officials of this telecommunication company in his position statement affirmed that they had no other option than to close down their internet operations as follows: “I don’t think we had another alternative … we are just business people and cannot confront an armed group’s orders”[xii].

From the foresaid, it is apparent that Internet shutdowns are the main obstacles to digital political activism in the Horn. Most political actors seldom reflect on the consequences of shutting down the Internet[xiii]. To this end, Internet shutdowns in the Horn have obstructed citizens from freely expressing their opinions online. This contravenes Article 20 of the UN Human Rights Resolution. For instance, in June 2016, the UN while underscoring that the right of expression through the internet should be respected by all countries observed as follows: “Deeply concerned by all human rights violations and abuses committed against persons for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet, and by the impunity for these violations and abuses…Deeply concerned also by measures aiming to or that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law”[xiv].

Besides denying citizens the right to freely express themselves online, the economic repercussions of Internet shutdowns have also been expensive in the Horn. According to a study carried out by the Brookings Institute and Global Network Initiative (GNI), Ethiopia lost about US $500,000 per day in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when the government shutdown the internet in 2016[xv], while the Ugandan economy also lost close to about US $26 million during its internet shutdown in 2016[xvi]. Apart from Internet shutdowns, other underlining factors hindering digital political activism in the Horn include: illiteracy in Internet usage, inadequate developed telecommunication infrastructures, and low online political culture.

Policy recommendations

In order to curtail the disruption of the Internet and to avert its consequences in the Horn, the following policy recommendations are necessary:

  1. There is need for governments in the Horn to develop the spirit of online tolerance which is one of the basic tenets of democracy. Online tolerance would mean willingness to accept online criticisms from opponents by translating them into good policy options.
  2. There is also need for sensitisation programs to be organised in order to enhance the capacities of both governmental officials and the citizens on the responsible use of the internet. These programs are crucial so as to better educate governmental officials on the repercussions of internet shutdowns on the one hand, and to sensitise internet users to avoid online hate speech and to use the internet responsibly.

 

Mengnjo Tardzenyuy Thomas is a Ph.D Candidate in Political Science at the University of Dschang, Cameroon. He is also a tutorial master in the Faculty of Law and Political Science in the mentioned University. He can be reached at mengnjotthomas@gmail.com.

 

Sources

[i] Rees, Anna (2015). Digital and online activism.https://en.reset.org/knowledge/digital-and-online-activism accessed on 05/04/2017

[ii] Encyclopaedia Britannica (2017).Horn of Africa Region, Eastern Africa.https://www.britannica.com/place/Horm-of-Africa accessed on 05/04/2017.

[iii] Muchira, Njiraini (2016). African govts adopt Internet shutdowns to quell crises in 2016 accessed from http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/2456-2456-ekxxsk/index.html on 05/04/2017

[iv] United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council Twentieth Session, 29th June 2012.

[v] Kifle, Eskedar (2016). Internet stoppage costs nation USD 9 million. www.Internet-stoppage-costs-nation-20USD-20million-Capital-Ethiopia-Newspaper accessed on 05/04/2017.

[vi] Philip, N. Howard, Dheetal, D. Agarwal, and Muzammi, M. Hussain (2011).The Dictators’ Digital Delemma: When do States disconnect their digital networks? In Issues in Technology Innovation, Number 13, October 2011.

[vii] Ojok, Donnas (2016). Social Media Lockdown and Elections in Uganda. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2016/03/02/social-media-lockdown-and-elections-in-uganda/ accessed on the 05/04/2017

[viii] Zondi, Nolwandle (2017). Hands On Social Media: Five times African governments shut down the internet.http://www.africanews.com/2016/12/04/ethiopia-partially-restores-mobile-internet-after-2-month-shutdown// accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[ix] BBC News (2001).US shuts down Somalia internet. www.BBCNews-AFRICA-shuts-down-Somalia-internet. Accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[x] Karimi, Faith (2014). Somalia warns telecom companies not to comply with Al-Shabaab Internet ban. http://edition.cnn.com/africa accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[xi] Writer, Staff (2014).Terrorists shut down internet access in Somalia. http://innovation-village.com/news/ accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[xii] Osman, Ahmed (2014). Somalia Powerless to Stop Al-Shabaab Mobile Internet Shutdown. http://www.ipsnews.net accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[xiii] Kifle Eskedar., Op. Cit

[xiv] UN Human Rights Council Thirty-second session, Agenda 3, 27th, June 2016.

[xv] Matinde,Vincent (2017). What is the impact of Africa’s (many) internet shutdowns?. http://www.idgconnect.com/ accessed on the 05/04/2017.

[xvi] Mohapi, Tefo (2016). The internet shutdown in Ethiopia costs $500,000 a day in lost GDP. Cipesa.org/2016/10/the-internet-shutdown-in-ethiopia-costs-the-country-approximately-500000-a-day-in-lost-gdp/ accessed on the 05/04/2017.

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