China’s influence on Africa has never been more apparent than the recent internet shutdowns in Africa. The Gabon Appeals Court recently this week threw out an appeal challenging the government’s ban on several social media platform since March 2018.
Gabon is not in a league of its own when it comes to using internet shutdowns. Earlier this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo shutdown internet service in the country following the December 30 election of last year, Sudan also temporarily shut down its internet in the wake of anti-government protests. The list also includes countries such as Zimbabwe, Cameroon, South Sudan and Gabon which have used the same tactics to clampdown on protests.
By cutting off social media, activists say officials are depriving more than 400,000 Chadian internet users of expressing their views online. These platforms have provided citizens platforms to share their views and have been crucial in mass organising efforts for protests and opposition campaigns.
The tactics being used by the African governments can be seen as policy leaning more towards Beijing not only in economic terms but also in political terms. Internet censorship in China is one of the worst in the world with government surveillance very sharp on almost every site.
Despite China liberalising its economy more, the internet is not part of these greater freedoms. This is something that African dictators are more likely to follow as witnessed in countries such as Rwanda where economy liberties are increasing yet there are vicious attacks on opposition leaders.
There are over 60 internet restrictions inn China and these have been nicknamed “The Great Firewall of China.” The authorities have shutdown networks such as Google and Facebook in the past. Recently Google became the subject off employee action as employees walked out of offices due to its plans to launch as censored version in China.
It is not surprising that such policy is alluring to African leaders who often live with insecurity of the influence of the opposition. They live in the constant worry of the growing influence of the opposition and a growing youth which is restless as development continues to lag in most parts. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter offer these youths a platform to be able to freely discuss, debate and organise among themselves. It is the organising element that worries leaders the most. To what extent are they willing to go to clamp this threat?
They are likely to follow in the footsteps of the master of autocracy. What is worrying is the possibility of China transferring its surveillance and control technology to Africa. It threatens the progress that has been attained in gaining some democratic freedoms in Africa.
Free speech remains an important cornerstone of any functional progressive society for innovation and development to take off. Will there be progress if new ideas are shut out? In a world where communication is key in being able to facilitate information flow and idea transfer, the clampdown on key communication tools will affect Africa's informal sector which uses these tools for its business and communication.
In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates noted that a cellphone becomes a powerful tool in the hands of the poor who have found it the cheapest tool to sell their goods and reach more customers. Therefore, it is this section of the society which is large in countries such as Zimbabwe that loses the most from such shutdowns. The big corporates will find a way to pull through, however, youths and women in the informal sector will find themselves dis-empowered.
African leaders should not view opposing views as a threat to their hold on power but rather as deep well of ideas to be tapped into. The continent already has the youngest population on the planet, hence a crackdown on this will lessen the impact of the democratic dividend that continent has.