By ‘Gbenga Sesan
This year, 23 African countries will hold elections – ranging from local to parliamentary and presidential. Considering that election seasons are known to come with many digital rights violations, including internet shutdowns, digital platform clampdowns, privacy breaches and other digital restrictions, it is essential to pay attention, anticipate likely infringements and work to ensure the respect of citizen rights in the digital sphere, alongside others.
Over the last two years, the internet has been shut down by the governments of the Republic of the Congo, Niger, Uganda and Zambia during election periods. Of the five African countries that shut down the internet in 2022, one of them (Somalia) held elections the same year, while three (Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zimbabwe) have elections planned for 2023. Burkina Faso’s shutdown may not be directly linked to elections, but it is connected to the country’s January 2022 coup d’état.
In 2023, presidential elections will hold in Gabon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. All of them, except Madagascar, have shut down the internet or restricted the use of digital platforms. Apart from Libya, all the other countries that have elections in 2023 and have disrupted access to the internet or digital platforms before did so within the last three years. Will they do so again, under the guise of preventing the spread of misinformation, countering dangerous speech, possible violence or any other excuse used in the past, as they approach elections in 2023?
Gabon has had the same president since October 2009. After Omar Bongo – who had been the country’s president for 42 years – died in June 2009, his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, Minister of Defense at the time, won the elections conducted four months later. The January 2019 internet shutdown in Gabon happened during a military coup attempt, and the government refused to respond to civil society enquiry on the reason for the shutdown.
Liberia cut off access to its most popular social media platform during protests in June 2019. Libya’s disputed elections have been postponed three times in the past four years. Still, the country is no stranger to digital rights violations during public interest events, beginning with its February 2011 shutdown of internet and international phone services in response to protests.
In June 2021, Nigeria announced a nationwide shutdown of access to a social media platform considered one of the country’s last-standing civic spaces. Even though an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice ruling declared the government’s decision to suspend Twitter “unlawful and inconsistent with the country’s international obligations” and “ ordered Nigeria to ensure the unlawful suspension would not reoccur and to take necessary steps to amend its laws to be in conformity with the rights and freedoms enshrined in the ACHPR and ICCPR”, the government has refused to confirm that such violations will not reoccur.
In August 2022, Paradigm Initiative (PIN), a Pan African organization that advocates for digital rights and inclusion, and other digital rights stakeholders condemned an internet shutdown that followed during citizen protests in Sierra Leone. Even for a country where only 6.5% of the population has access to the Internet, South Sudan shut down the internet ahead of planned protests in August 2021. Even though a Sudan court ordered the end of the internet shutdown that followed protests against a military coup in October 2021, it did not stop the country from repeating the violation again in June 2022, ahead of planned protests. Speaking on the June 2022 shutdown, the Sudanese Engineers Syndicate said, “…cutting off internet and communication services in Sudan has become a pattern and led to many violations.
In January 2019, Zimbabwe shut down the internet in response to citizens’ protests. At the end of the three-day closure ordered by the government, it asked telecommunications companies to implement shutdowns a second time in the same week. A judge ruled that the shutdown was illegal but that did not stop another shutdown at the end of July 2020.
For countries that have developed the habit of disrupting digital access during significant democratic events, it appears that judicial pronouncements, civil society condemnation or citizen dissent are never enough to prevent future violations. However, it is important to prepare for the likelihood of such violations of digital rights and challenge them to prevent impunity.
As all twenty-three African countries go to the polls, the task of protecting citizen rights – including preventing, condemning and/or seeking redress – does not rest on civil society organisations and activists alone. We must all work to ensure that a continent that lost $261 million to internet shutdowns in 2022 and desperately needs to maximise digital opportunities for its citizens stays off the path of digital clampdowns that do not serve anyone’s interest.
We must support the work of digital rights actors who continue to document evidence of digital rights infractions, provide information on how to stay safe and help citizens seek redress when violations happen. Through the annual Londa report, PIN has documented digital rights violations and significant policy updates across African countries since 2016. Each year since 2019, Londa, which included 22 independent country reports in 2021, forms the basis of short films produced by PIN to condense the message into less than thirty minutes of infotainment.
The short film based on the 2021 report, Finding Diana , is available on PIN’s YouTube page, as well as the 2020 film, Focus, and 2019 film, Training Day. Building on information from the reports and short films that expose violations and deliberate bad practices, PIN developed a digital rights toolkit, Ayeta, to educate digital rights actors and other citizens on how to protect themselves in digital spaces. If violations happen despite citizen action to protect themselves, the Ripoti platform provides an opportunity to report incidents and seek legal redress.
During elections, PIN provides country-specific information on how to stay online if digital clampdowns happen. The first edition of the Digital Rights and Elections in Africa Meetings (DREAM) was held in Abuja on February 7, 2023, ahead of Nigeria’s February 25 and March 11 general elections. Similar editions are planned to hold ahead of elections in other countries. We know that election seasons are fraught with violations and so we must prepare for digital disruptions.
However, as it happened in 2020 in Ghana and 2022 in Kenya, it is possible that no digital disruptions will be reported in most countries. Civil society organisations working in both countries will tell you that it requires a lot of work to avoid disruptions. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, in this case, because there are many competing interests during elections, and even in countries with no record of digital rights violations, some of those interests are served by clampdowns on the opposition and dissenting voices.
The best time to prepare for likely violations is before they happen, and it is your duty and mine to make that preparation happen across the African countries that will hold elections in 2023.
The writer is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative and a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Leadership Panel.