In an election campaign that has been marred by violence and intimidation the Burundi government decided to add the cherry on top by disconnecting the internet for its citizens during the polls. This tact of internet disruption has become a notable trend in African nations that are considered dictatorships. Using the economist intelligence Unit’s democracy index, it is noteworthy that of the 22 African states that have disrupted internet connectivity in the last 5 years, 77% are listed as dictatorships, while 23% are considered partial democracies.
The internet and popular social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc are used as methods to disseminate information and plan and coordinate protests. Therefore, most dictators shut down the internet, in the most critical times, to ensure democracy dies in the darkness. It is noted that those dictatorships that do not implement internet shutdowns are mostly countries where the fear of the regime runs so deep that the idea of protesting is unfathomable. Countries that fall under this description include Rwanda, Eritrea, and Djibouti, where the fear of the regime runs deep or there are internet control measures render ordering overt internet disruptions unnecessary.
Autocratic nations in Africa with long-serving leaders have notably ordered more internet disruptions. In 2019 of the 14 African leaders who had been in power for 13 years or more, 79% ordered shutdowns. These shutdowns were ordered during election periods and public protests against government policies. These leaders included Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema (39 years); Cameroon’s Paul Biya (36 years); Congo Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso (34 years); Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (33 years); Sudan’s Omar El Bashir (30 years); Chad’s Edris Deby (29 years); Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (19 years); Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (19 years); DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila (17 years); Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe (15 years); and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza (13 years).
The governments that implement internet shutdowns have become more open about them. The governments openly cite the shutdown is meant to ensure national security in a bid to stop spreading disinformation and hate speech. Internet shutdowns, therefore, find themselves closely placed with crucial events like elections. It is alleged governments shut down the internet during these times to intimidate the opposition and their supporters without such events being shared with the world in real-time. During protests internet shutdowns ensure the inability to coordinate and properly plan, because of poor communication means.
Internet shutdowns do not only affect the democratic spaces in the countries they are implemented, they deal a heavy blow to the economy as well. A report cited that despite how short-lived the internet disruptions are, their effects last long after reconnection. In 2019 it was projected that if 5 of the countries with scheduled polls shut down their internet for at least 5 days each, limiting access to applications like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, the economic cost would be more than USD 65.6 million.
In a heavily criticized campaign that has been marred with violence and alleged intimidation, it is not unusual that Burundi has to shut down the internet during the election. The African autocratic governments are gaining more confidence and there may be a trend toward sustained and prolonged shutdowns that will be entrenched under the guise of national security. DR Congo shut down their internet for over 20 days after a contentious election. Zimbabwe shut down their internet for over 7 days whilst Chad shut down social media apps for a record 16 months starting in 2018. Internet shutdowns are expanding to different countries and are lasting longer. They have been adopted as a clear tool by despots to suppress the democratic process and clamp down protests.
African countries with the internet shutdowns also boast of the most expensive data prices on the continent. They take away already overpriced connection to citizens who need it to coordinate other aspects of their lives including businesses.
The implementation of the internet shutdown during the elections in Burundi is nothing new to the African state. The election has been criticized for violence, intimidation, and being held under the coronavirus pandemic. The government will not be phased by being criticized for shutting down the internet. This practice has become common and seemingly acceptable as deplorable as it is, in most despotic nations on the continent.
The internet shutdowns do not only rob citizens of their democratic rights and constitutional rights to protest, they are slowly entrenching a new way of authoritarian rule. Measures should be put in place to protect citizens to their access to the internet and avoid arbitrary disconnections by the government. Not only do these internet disruptions cause loss of democratic rights. In 2019 internet shutdowns were estimated to have cost the African continent over 2 Billion.