iAfrikan Weekly Digest Edition 138 -"Running An Election? Step 1: Switch Off The Internet"

Edition 138
Monday, 5 December 2016

From the Editor-at-Large


!kao Afrika!

The Gambia is a small country, by any measure. It is the smallest country in mainland Africa, and it has a population of 1.85 million, about the same as the City of Harare. It is a tiny strip of land on the Gambia River, almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, with 80 kilometers of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, or about one-sixteenth the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The country has had two presidents since its independence, meaning that the elections held late last week drew some interest from observers. Something else that did gain international interest was the fact that the internet was switched off for the duration of the election period, meaning that The Gambia joined a small but growing club of states which have blocked internet access for one reason or another, which includes Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
Internet access was lost in the morning of 1 December - election day, and services such as international text messages, international calls, and VoIP access were unavailable during the voting period.

The internet is an increasingly important tool during elections. Services such as Ushahidi allow people to report irregularities, and social media plays a key role in keeping voters informed even as they stand in line waiting for their turn to cast their ballot. The trend of cutting off access points to a larger strategy - keep people in the dark, contain the reach of any stories that could potentially cause chaos, and make sure that any potential 'trouble' is kept at bay.

These shutdowns do cost money, and as we have previously discussed, the cost implication is not one that a government can simply shrug off - Ethiopia reportedly lost half a million US dollars a day in its latest internet shutdown following civil unrest.

There was a glimmer of hope as Gambia did eventually come back online. Following the confirmation of results, incumbent president Yahya Jammeh conceded to his main opponent, Adama Barro.

The trend of cutting off internet access has so far been carried out in countries with a strongman as head of state, but it seems the people in countries ranked higher up in terms of democracy and governance are worried, and rightly so. The people of Ghana go to the polls later this week, and Kenya's next general election is in August next year, and discussions around these two elections in particular are revolving around the likelihood that internet access will be restricted or cut off completely.

It is a cause of concern whenever any government considers the nuclear option - cutting off internet access in the name of 'security'. It is a direct violation of the freedom of speech. It's also messy - the likelihood of backlash is significant, and it is unlikely that such a violation will be quickly forgotten.

Talk to us. Has your government ever cut off internet access for whatever reason? Is the need to maintain order bigger than the right to internet access? Email us at [email protected]

Eric Mugendi

Editor-at-Large

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