Over a dozen African countries have restricted internet during elections to avoid criticism and the spread of malicious information.
The governments, however, have realized it comes at a huge cost.
According to a research done by the Brookings Institution think-tank, internet outages also can inflict serious damage on the economies of African countries.
Case in point, Uganda, which shut down access to Facebook and Twitter in February during a tight election that was marred with news that the government was cooking votes.
The country ended up losing $2 million dollars in just that period. Five days of internet restriction.
The shutdowns also have “potential devastating consequences” for education and health, says the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organization founded by a mobile phone magnate that monitors trends in African governance.
Democracy is also threatened.
“The worrying trend of disrupting access to social media around polling time puts the possibility of a free and fair electoral process into serious jeopardy,” said Maria Burnett, associate director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Internet shutdowns have been reported in Gabon, Republic of Congo and Gambia in the past year alone.
Cameroon, which has both English and French speakers, was under scrutiny after locals accused the government of marginalizing their language in favour of French.
What followed next was an internet shutdown that lasted several weeks and in the process, the restrictions costed local businesses more than $1.39 million according to Access Now, an Internet advocacy group.
“Internet shutdowns — with governments ordering the suspension or throttling of entire networks, often during elections or public protests — must never be allowed to become the new normal,” Access Now said in an open letter to internet companies in Cameroon.
Ethiopia ended up losing over $8 million after 30 days of internet restriction between July 2015 and July 2016 according to figures by the Brookings Institution.
The government has a monopoly over Telcom services and has been regulating the internet imposing bans on social media and at other times, creating a complete internet blackout. This came after a state of emergency imposed in October last year after some deadly anti-government protests.
“What we are experiencing here in Ethiopia is a situation in which the flow of information on social media dismantled the traditional propaganda machine of the government and people begin creating their own media platforms. This is what the government dislikes,” said Seyoum Teshome, a lecturer at Ethiopia’s Ambo University who was jailed for 82 days last year on charges of inciting violence related to his Facebook posts.
“The government doesn’t want the spread of information that’s out of its control, and this bears all the hallmarks of dictatorship,” Seyoum said.