While Niger has just restored the internet after ten days of large-scale cuts, we realize how the internet scares African leaders, who do not hesitate to limit access to social networks when it suits them.
June 2020. The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took an unprecedented decision condemning the Togolese state. The institution criticized the country for having knowingly cut the internet twice in September 2017. A boon for the Gnassingbé regime, which had thus been able to reduce the impact of the demonstrations which demanded the departure of the president and protested against the proposed constitutional revision .
A year and a half earlier, Faure Gnassingbé had however ruled out wanting to cut the connection to the Togolese. Even if he acknowledged leading a "fragile" state, the president considered that the closure of social networks was "ineffective". “Because we are still a company with an oral tradition. So, you can shut down the internet, rumors can circulate and go very quickly, ”he continued. The head of state had finally reversed his decision.
Cutting the internet, "a weapon for weak regimes?" "
Seven civil society organizations and a cyber-activist then brought the case to ECOWAS, which rendered a decision that could set a precedent. The Economic Community had indicated that this cut of the Internet constituted a “violation of freedom of expression” and had asked Togo to “take all the necessary measures for the non-repetition of such a situation”. Ironically, Togo had restricted access to social networks during the presidential election of ... February 2020.
Is internet censorship "a weapon for weak regimes?" », As requested by Deutsche Welle ? Faure Gnassingbé is not the only one to have devoted himself to this practice. In 2015, the Kabila regime cut the internet to avoid large-scale protests in the DRC. A few months later, neighboring Congo-Brazzaville followed suit. In 2016, in the midst of the presidential election, Chad also censored the internet. Niger, meanwhile, has just re-established its connection after ten days of disruption. Important cuts were observed there after the announcement of the victory of Mohamed Bazoum in the presidential election.
"Isolate the population and reduce their freedom of expression"
In Senegal, after violent demonstrations to protest against the arrest of the opponent Ousmane Sonko, several services and social networks were inaccessible. The NGO NetBlocks indicated, on March 5, that the Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Telegram servers were "disrupted, limiting the sharing of photos and videos". One way for the power to avoid the propagation of photos and videos of demonstrations? "We recall that cutting the Internet is illegal and can therefore be considered a violation of human rights", retorts in any case Issa Touré, member of the Internet Society (ISOC) Senegal and researcher in political science.
The researcher, in a forum, believes that "cutting or disrupting access contributes to isolate its population and reduce its freedom of expression". Issa Touré is also surprised that Senegal is being tempted by actions worthy of neighboring autocracies. "It is indeed deplorable that Senegal, an emblematic figure in the fight for the establishment of internet infrastructures, is following in the footsteps of oppressive regimes which cut off access to the web during demonstrations", writes the political science researcher who believes that cutting the internet is "an increasingly popular tactic between repressive and authoritarian regimes and certain democracies".
The prerogative of autocrats and presidents for life?
To explain the closure of social networks, or even the shutdowns of the Internet, governments highlight the risks of the spread of fake news, disturbances to public order and the lack of control over the networks. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) research center recalls that between 2014 and 2019, “no less than 22 African governments ordered Internet network cuts”. Among them, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon or even Sudan and Zimbabwe. The CIPESA report specifies that “these Internet cuts are exclusively operated by the most despotic states in Africa”.
Indeed, if we make a correlation between Internet shutdowns and the Economist's democracy index, we realize that three-quarters of the shutdowns are the prerogative of the most authoritarian regimes. The remaining quarter of States cutting off the Internet correspond to “hybrid” regimes. But this is not the only lesson from the CIPESA report. He has indeed also found a link between the longevity of presidents and the propensity of the latter to cut the internet. "As of January 2019, 79% of the 14 African leaders who had been in power for 13 years or more had ordered cuts, mainly during election periods and public protests against government policies," the research center concludes.