The increasing adoption of digital technology in Nigeria in the past decade has led to growth in internet connectivity and contributed significantly to the country’s economy.
However, it comes with a darker side: loss of millions of dollars in revenue due to government-directed internet shutdowns, a disturbing trend in Africa that threatens digital penetration and inclusive growth. Access to the internet is a basic human right, according to the United Nations.
Internet shutdowns happen when internet-based communications for a specific population or location are intentionally disrupted to make them inaccessible. The goal is to suppress dissent and control the flow of information in the affected area, be it national or regional.
In Africa, internet shutdowns are mostly political, as African governments hit the kill switch during elections, protests, or large-scale unrest. But these internet shutdowns have serious ramifications for the continent’s digital economy.
According to Top10VPN’s Cost of Internet Shutdowns 2022 Tracker, sub-Saharan Africa lost an estimated $244.2 million between January and August 2022, with Ethiopia accounting for over half with $130.2 million. This, of course, is no surprise considering that Ehiopia’s Tigray region has witnessed the world’s longest uninterrupted shutdown since November 2020.
“We need to eliminate the perceived need for internet shutdowns. Often governments use vague excuses like preventing the spread of misinformation as a precursor to hitting the kill switch. But they have to actually address the issue at hand — the misinformation, not the medium. Implementing blanket shutdowns or blocking access to digital platforms don’t tackle misinformation or other serious issues we see online — they cut people off from all information, which is dangerous for any society,” Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now, a global human rights organization, told Technext in an emailed response.
Nigeria is one of the biggest losers to internet shutdowns
According to data collected by Top10VPN, an independent website focusing on internet privacy, Nigeria ranks 8th among the countries that felt the most economic impact of internet shutdowns in 2022 (see the table below). Africa’s largest economy lost $82.7 million due to the infamous seven-month Twitter ban from June 2021 to January 2022.
In June 2021, the Nigerian government suspended the operations of Twitter just days after the microblogging platform deleted a controversial tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its policies. The president had tweeted that he threatened to punish regional secessionists “in the language they understand”, a reference to the unfortunate Biafran civil war.
Though the Nigerian government had claimed that the Twitter ban was a matter of national security and not related to the president’s tweet, the backlash was immediate as Nigerians quickly turned to VPNs to bypass the ban (including government institutions and officials, some of whom were appointed by President Buhari himself). Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Nigeria subsequently blocked access to users.
The government first announced plans to restore Twitter access in October 2021 based on laid-down conditions that the social media platform would be used for “business and positive engagement”. Other notable conditions include Twitter setting up a local office, paying taxes locally, and cooperating with the Nigerian government to regulate content and harmful tweets. However, the ban would not be lifted until January 2022, about 13 months before the presidential elections.
Internet connectivity is still poor in Nigeria
The problem with an internet shutdown in a country like Nigeria is that it complicates existing problems of poor internet connectivity, which is ironically expensive. In 2021, Nigeria was reported to have the least affordable internet in the world.
Per the Global Internet Value Index (IVi) released by Surfshark, an Amsterdam-based cybersecurity firm, Nigerians are overpaying for the internet they get compared to other countries worldwide. According to the index evaluating 117 countries, Nigeria ranks 109th globally with an index of 0.0017, 44 times lower than the global average. The country ranks 16th in regional position, with its index 56% lower than Africa’s average.
While the cost of internet in Nigeria is overpriced, internet penetration is at 38%, hoping to hit the projected 70% by 2025. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), there are 152.2 million service subscribers in Nigeria, while broadband penetration stands at 44.65% as of January.
Nigeria just can’t afford another internet shutdown
Like the rest of Africa, incidents of internet shutdowns in Nigeria don’t only violate human rights and widen the digital divide but also result in an avalanche of losses for businesses that rely on the internet. For context, the 222-day-long Twitter ban cost the Nigerian economy around N546.5 billion.
“Over the years, Nigeria is seeing a revamp in technology and innovation in diverse sectors — including the music and film industry, fashion and lifestyle, finance sector, gaming, and the vehicle industry. These sectors directly contribute to Nigeria’s economy, and any normalizing of internet shutdowns will be catastrophic for the country’s economic growth and development. People have lost jobs, educational and funding opportunities, access to essential services and in some cases lives have been lost to internet shutdowns as they further endanger people during key moments,” Access Now’s Anthonio said.
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