Speakers unpack the politics of internet shutdowns in Africa

April 13, 2022
Speaking at a virtual panel hosted by Northwestern Qatar’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South (#IAS_NUQ), scholars examined the history of internet shutdowns in Africa, reflecting on the relationship between digital technologies and politics across the continent.
The panel — Contesting the Blackout: Internet Shutdowns in Africa — was chaired by Seyram Avle, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Panelists included Clovis Bergère, assistant director for research at #IAS_NUQ; Admire Mare, associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and Florence Madenga, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication drawing from their research on internet shutdowns in Guinea, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon. Katrien Pype, associate professor at KU Leuven University’s Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, served as a discussant.
Bergère discussed the history of internet shutdowns in Guinea as part of a set of tools used by governments to assert their power. Despite it having the lowest rates of internet penetration and connectivity in the world, Bergère highlighted how, from very early on, “the Guinean government has seen controlling access to the internet as essential to asserting its authority,” leading to the first-ever government-ordered internet shutdown in Africa in 2007.
Bergère went on to discuss the political implications of the internet shutdown accompanying the 2019 constitutional referendum in Guinea, noting it paved the way for the Guinean president to remain in power. “The internet shutdowns during the election were so expected that the question for several people I spoke to at the time was not whether the shutdown might be ordered as part of the electoral process but rather if it was even possible for the Guinean government to organize elections without it going to internet shutdowns,” said Bergère.

Reflecting on major internet shutdowns in Zimbabwe in the past decade, Mare claimed that the government used them to undermine the increasing number of activist voices going online to protest against government policies. According to Mare, such state-ordered internet shutdowns and other forms of regulations, including slowdowns, digital taxation, and online surveillance, have become a form of “digital authoritarianism.” For Mare, digital authoritarianism relies extensively on regulatory, political, economic, and technological power in order to implement state-ordered internet shutdowns. 

Drawing on research with digital rights activists in Cameroon where one of the longest internet shutdowns on the continent occurred, Madenga examined how advocates for digital rights draw on the notion of the internet as a human right in their campaigns   For Madenga, mapping universalist human rights discourses onto digital rights campaigns may be strategic and necessary for digital rights coalitions, international organizations, and even media policy scholars to mobilize, but it also raises dilemmas around what is left out, such as pointed and specific conversations about coloniality and its afterlives.

In her response, Pype highlighted the connections between the papers and the ways in which they shed light on internet shutdown as a productive category to think with. She drew attention to the multiplicities of texts and discourses currently emerging around shutdowns, including hashtags such as #BringBackOurInternet, and noted the need for more research to historicize and localize shutdowns.

The panel was hosted by Northwestern Qatar’s #IAS_NUQ, which produces and promotes evidence-based storytelling focused on the histories, cultures, societies, and media of the Global South.