Widespread protests in Togo against President Faure Gnassingbe have led to a crackdown on internet access across the country. This makes to Togo the latest West African country to clamp down on internet access and social media in the last 18 months.
Internet a ‘no go’ in Togo
With Amnesty International estimating “at least” 100,000 protesters (and others speaking of over a million in the capital Lomé) in cities across Togo demanding the Gnassingbe step down, the country has come to a halt. Gnassingbe, having ruled since 2005 was re-elected twice in 2010 and 2015, although the opposition rejected the results in both instances. This comes after hundreds were killed in post-election violence in 2005 as Gnassingbe took over from his recently deceased father, who had previously ruled Togo for 38 years.
Anger with the Gnassingbe dynasty has prompted many calls of “50 years is too much” - referring to the cumulative reign of Gnassingbe and his father. There are signs the government is nervous, as it recently presented draft legislation on term limits, in an effort to appease protesters. Gnassingbe’s father made similar moves in the 1990s only to scrap term limits ten years later. Unsurprisingly, Faure’s gambit has failed to placate his critics, with Jean-Pierre Fabre, head of the chief opposition party National Alliance for Change (ANC) exclaiming to a crowd of thousands that “we will march again tomorrow. Faure should talk to us about the conditions of his departure. The (draft) law on mandates comes too late.”
In response, the Togolese government has undermined the nation’s internet services. While the main internet gateway remains open as of the time of writing, internet speeds have been significantly slowed, and social media access is limited. Mobile internet has been entirely shut off, although some wifi networks are still operating.
In attacking the internet Gnassingbe joins fellow autocrats around the world, and in West Africa in particular. Africa’s widespread adoption of cellular and mobile internet technology makes attacks of this kind especially attractive to embattled rulers. By doing so, Gnassingbe is taking lessons from Cameroon and Gabon, both of whom have repressed public discontent by suppressing the internet.
The rise of internet refugees
Earlier this year Cameroon blacked out internet access for its English speaking regions for months, causing widespread. Cameroon’s government instituted harsh reprisals and an internet blackout in English speaking regions after months of protests initially begun by lawyers demanding translations of legal texts and a halt to the appointment of francophone judges. Protests later widened, with schools shut down as teachers joined the struggle citing the preference for francophone instructors. Moreover, various businesses also showed their solidarity by shutting their doors on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Many banks closed and ATMs were not working, which together with the lack of internet access, plunged the regional economy into chaos. The shutdown heavily impacted both the formal and informal economies, supply chains and blocked remittances from expat Cameroonians. The internet blackout also meant that NGOs could not report to funding partners or coordinate their activities. Similarly, local businesses lost foreign contracts and received complaints about response times.
This was especially worrying as anglophone Cameroon, and tech-savy Buea (nicknamed Silicon Mountain) in particular are home to Cameroon’s growing tech scene. The internet blackout crippled a vibrant and growing sector at a time when Cameroon is having to deal with lower commodity prices and slowing economic growth (down to 4.2% from 4.8% in 2016).
In areas still with internet access and among sympathizers abroad, the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet was trending, with hundreds of youths chanting the slogan in the western city of Bamenda during a visit by Prime Minister Philemon Yang. Even Cameroon’s victory in the Africa Cup of Nations became a venue for dissent, with national team goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa declaring his solidarity with anglophone Cameroonians. Ondoa’s comments went viral and were just one part of wider efforts to use sport as a vehicle to protest in football-crazy Cameroon.
The internet blackout and accompanying violence created internet refugees, as anglophone Cameroonians undertook perilous journeys dodging checkpoints and roving police gangs into francophone regions in order to acquire internet access – “I am a refugee in my own country” noted one anonymous community manager.
Internet access is no longer considered a luxury, with many international organizations, and even some states, considering it a human right. Interestingly, it is Africa, not Europe or North America that boasts the highest percentage of respondents who consider internet access a human right. Moreover, UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression David Kaye has called Cameroon’s internet blackout “an appalling violation of [anglophone] rights to freedom of speech” and a breach of international law.
Whether the crisis in western Cameroon in 2017 will help bring about Biya’s downfall in 2018 remains to be seen, yet as veteran opposition figure John Fu Ndi notes: “if Biya goes there will be political turmoil. If he stays beyond 2018 there will be a crisis.” Either way Cameroon’s options going forward are all poor ones.
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Following contested elections on August 27th 2016, Gabon saw a crackdown as President Ali Bongo sought to solidify his victory. Opposition candidate Jean Ping contested the results of the election after he garnered 48.23% of the vote, compared to Bongo’s 49.8%. Officially, Ping lost the election by less than 6,000 votes, yet voting irregularities abounded. Chief among them was the fact that Bongo won 95% of the vote with 99.9% of the turnout in his home province of Haut-Ogooue. These ludicrous numbers were only further undermined by the fact that general election turnout in the other provinces was around 48%.
The most visible sign of Bongo’s crackdown was Gabon’s four day internet shutdown, which was followed by daily internet curfews from 6pm to 6am. The situation in Gabon is therefore unique, in that it represented the first time since the 2011 Arab Spring that a country has implemented scheduled, continuous internet curfews. The move garnered condemnation from the AU, EU, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon: indeed in 2011 the UN categorized blocking access to the internet a human rights violation.
Gabon’s infrastructure deficit has made it very easy for the government to throttle internet access, as many developing countries only have a single service provider. It is interesting that the government decided to hamper Gabon’s internet; as a third of Gabon’s population lives below the poverty line, and only 10.3% of the populace has internet access to begin with. It should; however, be noted that the number of internet users in Gabon is outpacing population growth, at 3.9% and 2.19% respectively, as of 2014.
This internet crackdown in turn can be seen as having been primarily focused on isolating those wealthier and better educated voters who may have supported Ping. Moreover, this curfew also acted to limit the amount of information leaving Gabon. This was vital if Bongo wished to control the narrative internationally, as well as obscure any other forms of government heavy-handedness in the wake of the election.
Media censorship is par for the course for African despots, with internet throttling the latest tool in the dictator’s toolbox. Attacking the internet is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, damaging some of the most promising economic sectors in the region in the process.
Portions of this article were originally published by Global Risk Insights
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.