The Algorithms of Oppressions in Sub-Saharan Africa

By

Joshua Akintayo and Emeka Thaddues Njoku

The internet is a vital part of human innovation and freedom, as well as a tool of oppression, chaos, propaganda, and suffering. It can be either positive or negative disruptive force, depending mainly on where the control resides. Recognising the potentiality of this potent tool of protest, African governments and leaders have embarked on various means to limit access to the internet, particularly social media during significant events. Internet disruptions have become a common feature of the African continent in recent times ever since it was initially used in Zambia in 1996. Fast-forward to 2016, when there was an upsurge in the number of internet disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, in the last three years, Africa has had more digitally repressive states just as it has politically repressive states. For instance, in 2019 alone, there have been internet censorship in countries such as Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad and Zimbabwe

Internet censorship or situational disruptions during major political events has become prominent in Africa. Spreading widely from Central Africa region to sub-Saharan Africa. Internet access is shut down or heavily disrupted, with social media blocked. It is allegedly used by the various governments to prevent the dissemination of false rumours, and protect public order[1]. However, in reality, it is used to curb online expression of dissent, diminish the flow of information coming from a country, and repress citizens and civil society groups from organising protests via social media (Ruijrok, 2017)[2]. In short, internet censorship and situational disruption are forms of political repression. Freyburg and Garbe (2018) argue that the ownership patterns of the ISPs propel the temporary interruption of internet services. Hence, if the state/government owns a large proportion of ISPs in the state, it is susceptible to being disrupted during political events. Using the earlier argument by Freyburg and Garbe (2018)[3] about how the ownership pattern of ISPs affects internet shutdowns, one may postulate that countries with limited ISP landscape are more susceptible to cooperate with the states to shut down the internet. The ownership pattern plays a considerable role in these shutdowns. However, the cooperation of ISPs to shut down their services on request may depend on the company-specific characteristics, chiefly of which is ownership. Hence, state-owned/dominated ISPs are most likely going to succumb and easily shut down services when ordered by their principals. However, lessons from Congo and Uganda in 2016 suggests that there is little or no need for direct state control, via ownership if foreign companies own the majority of ISPs operating on state area from developing economies with ambitious expansion strategies; by private companies with investors from authoritarian administrations; or by private domestic companies with close ties to the ruling elites. While private ISPs will have varying motivations for cooperating with the government, others may face higher stakes for participating in shutdowns than others

How likely or otherwise is internet censorship or situational shutdown possible in Nigeria, countdown to the 2019 elections in the most populous black nation on earth? This short piece attempts to make a case for the potentiality for internet censorship in Nigeria just a few weeks before the major elections in the country. It is particularly pertinent going by various allegations by prominent individuals such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo and various civil society groups that the incumbent administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari is repressing every form of opposition or dissent since the beginning of his administration in 2015. This analysis will be done vis-à-vis visible evidence both in the physical and virtual space in Nigeria.

There is a medium possibility of further restrictions on internet freedom around Nigeria’s 2019 elections, continuing the government’s trend of repressing both offline and online activities. Although the ISP landscape in Nigeria is broad encompassing both mixtures of domestic and foreign ISPs, one may be inclined to argue that chances of internet shutdown or situational disruptions are very limited or near impossible. However, the nature of the ownership of these ISPs and the government’s alleged dictatorial tendencies gives one the cause to raise concern over the possibility of internet censorship during the forthcoming elections. It is notably more worrisome as there have been attempts at social media censorship by the government to establish laws that would regulate social media usage such as the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition, etc.) Bill, although the masses  resisted the bill and the Nigerian Senate withdrew the bill.  Although, the ISPs landscape in Nigeria includes Multinational companies domiciled in Western countries and domestic companies, the organisations have close ties to the ruling elites. Hence, the potentiality to be amenable to government control and be used as instruments of repression. Some other ways through which the government has shown signs of or tendencies towards internet censorship include:

Harassment: The critics of the government and online journalists face intimidation and harassment from pro-government social media users, including a so-called “Media Volunteers.” on twitter.  Such tactics also proliferated ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Legal framework: Numerous vague laws have been suggested by the government to be used to silence and survey critics. Prominent among these laws is the unsuccessful social media censorship bill that was sponsored by a member of the legislative arm of government sometime in 2015. The bill was aimed at gagging government critics. Worthy of note also is that the government monitors the social media accounts of specific individuals considered to be threats to the “public security”, thereby restricting their freedom to freely and independently express their opinions on socio-political issues.

Self-censorship: similarly, some online news outlets often avoid political, social, or critical topics for fear of government retribution. Thus, Self-censorship has become so prevalent that despite a range of restrictive criminal laws and freedom of information in the country, arrests for online comments are relatively frequent.

Online Media Partisanship: The online media environment is devoid of control and unrestricted. Although, there is an increased risk of more partisan content online, as some online and traditional media agencies, some of which show political bias, by coordinating informally to disseminate news that favour the government.

Harassment and Violence: There is an upsurge in online harassment targeting of journalists and activists just before the election, particularly harassment perpetrated by government officials and state security actors. Although, some cases of violence against online journalists have occurred in the past.


[1] https://internetwithoutborders.org/government-in-gabon-threatens-to-shutdown-the-internet/

[2] Ruijgrok, K. (2017). From the web to the streets: internet and protests under authoritarian regimes. Democratization24(3), 498-520

[3] Freyburg, T., and Garbe, L. 2018. Blocking the Bottleneck: Internet Shutdowns and Ownership at Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Journal of Communication 12(2018), 3896-3916.

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