There is a new, unfortunate and undemocratic trend that can now be associated with elections and the internet in Africa. Almost in keeping with their new found ‘third termism’, some African governments have taken to switching off their citizens’ access to the internet or social media during general elections or referendums. The most recent examples of these countries have been Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville. This was despite the global outcry against such brazenly undemocratic action.
Others have toyed with the idea of how to manage the impact that access to social media has during an electoral period and in part ensured that while not denying national access, the internet will not have any direct impact on how an electoral process is perceived.
The reasons for these drastic measures and rather blatant violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are generally to do with a respective incumbent government’s fear of popular protests at unfair electoral processes and results. This is true for Uganda and Congo Brazzaville which have not demonstrated any remorse about such undemocratic policies.
The practice is however not yet a prevalent one on the continent where and when it comes to access to the internet during elections. But signs of intentions by some serving African governments to control the internet and social media access vis-a-vis political content are all too clear. Especially around elections and their results.
The recent examples of how to shut down a country’s access to the internet during election time are therefore being keenly followed by other governments on the continent. Especially if they know that their chances of winning a pending election are slim.
There are however key lessons that emerge from these undemocratic tendencies and intentions as demonstrated by the Ugandan and Congo-Brazzaville governments. The first is that some African governments, for all their claims to be democratic, do not consider access to the internet as a democratic right. Instead, they conveniently view it as a privilege. Where they feel it threatens their tenure, they will limit or prevent access under the guise of ‘national security’.
This also points to a second lesson that emerges which is the profit motive of private internet service providers. In many cases it is not an actual government shut down but a private mobile telecommunications company that is ordered to technically prevent the provision of a service during a specific electoral period or risk facing sanction and closure. Where the private operator does a cost benefit analysis, they will not stand up for freedom of expression but for profit. Even if it means a couple of days or weeks of no income from pre-paid usage of their services.
This ‘profit collusion’ between telecommunications companies and governments therefore becomes a serious challenge to the democratic meaning of the internet and its popular social media offshoots. It essentially means that neither government nor the private players are keen on establishing a truly democratic culture around access to the internet as a right that cannot be denied at the sign of a social media motivated political protest or a political threat to a profit.
As a result, the onus to make access to the internet democratically meaningful to political and economic processes essentially resides with the citizen user bringing government and private players to democratic account. Where our citizen internet users make access to the internet integral to their democratic political and economic consciousness, insist on democratic rules around its regulation and understand the fact that it is not going to go away as a technological tool of human advancement, then it will begin to have organic societal meaning. This, despite the nationalisms or other ‘isms’ that will be thrown at it by reactionary governments and solely profit driven private corporations.
In short, the people must take back the internet. Not always by way of technological know-how, but by insisting on its newfound and popular democratic importance to their right to freedom of expression and access to information.
Where they do not, the motivation of governments and telecommunications companies will continue to be to utilize the internet for political control, political correctness and profit. And by doing so they will establish Africa’s own version of a telecommunications industrial complex that will have an undemocratic and difficult to dislodge aura of invincibility.
It is therefore incumbent upon pro-democracy internet activists to also take-away key lessons from the undemocratic debacle that was the internet shutdown in Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville. And anticipate that this will be tried in other African countries during elections. Where one of them includes the possibility of re-rerouting tweets and whatsapp messages via another country, it still does not take away the necessity of making access to the internet a right. At all times.