Sub-Saharan Africa lost R30bn due to govt internet shutdowns, report says

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A man carries a banner during a demonstration at Ojota in Lagos over a Twitter blackout.
A man carries a banner during a demonstration at Ojota in Lagos over a Twitter blackout.
  • R30.88 billion has been lost by economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, as regimes block the internet.
  • Nigeria and Ethiopia lead, as governments take advantage of shutdowns to unleash human rights abuses.
  • In Southern Africa, Eswatini's anti-monarchy demonstrations last year cost the small kingdom R46.4 million.

Countries in Sub-Sahara Africa lost a combined R30.88 billion ($1.93 billion) from their economies because of widespread internet shutdowns by regimes, as demonstrations and crackdowns on opposition and civic society ensued last year.

This is contained in the Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns 2021 report, released on Monday.

According to the report, "75% of government (global) internet outages were associated with additional human rights abuses, an increase of almost 80% compared with 2020".

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The report also says that 69% of all internet disruptions were associated with restrictions on freedom of assembly, 29% with election interference, and 29% with infringements on freedom of the press.

The biggest violator of people's access to the internet in Africa last year was flagged as Nigeria, at a cost of R23.2 billion ($1.45 billion).

Nigeria is second to Myanmar, which had a cost of R44.8 billion ($2.8 billion).

In Nigeria's case, 144 million internet users were affected for 5 040 hours (210 days) in a population of more than 206 million people.

"The Nigerian government blocked access to Twitter in June. The initially indefinite ban followed Twitter’s removal of a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that was in breach of the social media platform’s rules."

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In October, the the Nigerian government announced Twitter access would be restored after 122 days, on condition that the platform was used for business and positive engagements.

However, these conditions had still not been met by the end of the year," the report said, adding that demand for Virtual Private Networks (VPN) services soared by 1 409% as citizens sought to bypass the social media restrictions.

Nigeria was closely followed by the hotbed of conflict in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, where the internet was shut down for 8 760 hours (a year) at a cost of R2.640 billion ($164.5 million) as part of the government's abuse of the "right to peaceful assembly".

The report notes that in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the shutdown was still in effect as a repressive measure.

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"The ongoing internet blackout in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been used as a weapon to control information since the onset of a vicious civil war that has ravaged the region for over a year."

'Internet blackout failed'

Despite the communications blackout, evidence of mass rape and the massacre of scores of civilians has been brought to light.

Reports of Ethiopian journalists being arrested on "alleged media-related offences have also emerged", the report says.

Sudan follows Ethiopia with 605 hours (25 days) shut down, as the government moved to curtail the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of the press between October and November last year.

The report says the blackout in Sudan failed to achieve its intended goals, adding:

The internet blackout failed to prevent the eventual emergence of video footage of security personnel detaining and using lethal force against pro-democracy protesters and journalists. The violence resulted in an estimate of 200 people being injured, many of which had gunshot wounds.

In Southern Africa, the single most notable shutdown was during Eswatini's June 2021 anti-monarchy protests, where an internet blackout of 216 hours cost the country an estimated R46.4 million ($2.9 million).

Other notable African countries that lost out on revenue due to internet blackouts are Burkina Faso R574 million ($35.9) and Uganda R1.74bn ($109 million).

The researchers said they were fiercely opposed to internet censorship and governments withholding access to the internet as a form of social control.

This damage was both direct, in terms of the economic and human cost, and indirect, in that it forced people to use unsafe VPNs to try to circumvent the restrictions imposed on them.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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