5 African countries pledged to uphold free internet in 2021 but broke that promise

Omoleye Omoruyi
Internet restrictions

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), in a tweet Thursday, June 1, said that 150 million Nigerians have access to the internet, while over 80 million have access to high-speed internet.

But there are questions bordering how seamless that access has been in recent years.

Surfshark, a cybersecurity company, conducted a study to understand the stances of UN countries in the 2021 UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.

By comparing countries’ stances with data from Surfshark’s Internet Shutdown Tracker, Surfshark has identified that five African countries that claimed to support the resolution “broke their word” by imposing internet restrictions.

The Internet as a human right

In a document titled “Ending Internet Shutdown: a path forward,” dated July 15, 2021, the United Nations (UN) says, “the right to access and use the internet and other digital technologies for the purposes of peaceful assembly is protected under article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The resolution – led by a core group of Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia and the United States, and co-sponsored by 70 countries from all regions – was adopted by a vote with strong support at the Council on July 13, 2021. This was the fifth in a series of resolutions with the same title, the first of which was adopted in 2012.

Key points:

The resolution consolidates and reinforces commitments to enhancing internet accessibility and affordability.

The resolution condemns internet shutdowns and online censorship and calls governments to cease such measures. In this light, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was mandated to prepare a report on internet shutdowns, analysing their causes, legal implications, and impacts on various human rights.

The resolution also stressed “the need to ensure that measures offline or online for the protection of national security, public order and public health are in full compliance with international law obligations and that the principles of lawfulness, legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality are respected, and stressing also the need to protect human rights, including the freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association and privacy, and personal data in the response to health and other emergencies.

The repressive 5

“In today’s world, internet shutdowns have become a major concern. Authoritarian governments frequently employ them as a means to manipulate the public and stifle free speech.

“The UN resolution on human rights on the internet aims to make countries openly condemn these shutdowns and other ways of restricting online speech. However, it’s concerning that even though five African countries publicly supported the resolution, they still imposed internet restrictions.

“It’s important to promote an open and accessible internet and pressure countries to uphold their commitments regarding human rights online”, Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske, Surfshark spokeswoman, says.

Sudan holds the second-highest number of restrictions that took place after the country supported the 2021 resolution. The first disruption occurred just three months after the resolution, coinciding with Sudan’s military coup outbreak.

Network data from NetBlocks confirmed a significant disruption to internet service in Sudan from the morning of October 25, 2021, affecting cellular and some fixed-line connectivity on multiple providers. The incident continued until 18 November 18, 2021, when a significant service restoration was observed on multiple providers in Sudan after 24 days offline. Social media restrictions remained in place until Wednesday, November 24, 2021.

Since then, Sudan has faced several wide-scale internet disruptions, with the most recent one recorded in April 2023 amidst an ongoing armed conflict between rival factions of military forces.

Internet restrictions in Africa - NetBlocks

Burkina Faso has recorded four restrictions since the resolution’s adoption in 2021. The country’s 2022 restriction on Facebook is still in place today.

The country’s shutdown of internet access via mobile phone networks began just four months after the resolution. The government said in a statement the shutdown is in the interest of national defense and public security and will last until the night of November 23, 2021.

The shutdown came in the wake of protests that blocked a French military supply convoy that was attempting to travel from Ivory Coast to Niger. Protesters said they want to end French military intervention in the regional war against Islamist militants.

On January 23, 2022, Burkina Faso authorities shut down the internet for the third time within months, targeting mobile internet in the country.

The shutdown was implemented amid reports that mutinying soldiers allegedly detained the country’s president.

It was not until January 25, 2022, that the country experienced full restoration of internet access and the unblocking of Facebook by authorities in Burkina Faso. 

Mauritania and Somalia both had one internet restriction since supporting the resolution. Mauritania restricted mobile internet amid a prison riot, and Somalia had an internet blackout after the parliament voted to remove the prime minister.

NetBlocks confirmed a nation-scale disruption to mobile internet traffic in Mauritania on March 6, 2023. This happened after authorities launched a search for four high-risk prisoners held under terror and treason charges who staged a prison riot and escape in Nouakchott. Service was restored on March 12, 2023, after the prisoners were reported apprehended or killed.

According to Surfshark, Nigeria had one ongoing restriction at the time of the resolution’s adoption but has had no new restrictions since then. Nigeria had banned Twitter a month before the adoption, and the restriction lasted until January 2022.

Internet restrictions

In fact, a new report on Internet Freedom Around the World (IFAW) released in March 2023 ranked Nigeria among the countries with the fewest internet restrictions in the world.

Nigeria ranked 10 out of 20 countries covered by the report, had a censorship score of three over 11, an internet freedom score of 57 and an internet restriction score of 5.4 over 10.

However, Nigeria was among the lowest countries with the number of people online, with 49,968 people per 100,000 online users. Nigeria ranked 18 out of 20 countries ahead of India and Bangladesh, with 46,430 and 30,715 people per 100,000 online users, respectively.

The report noted that “internet freedom is fast becoming an increasingly important issue, as governments worldwide seek to limit their citizen’s digital rights, restrict access to or censor information, or even prevent reliable internet access altogether.

“Internet freedom is also on the decline globally, with some activists taking advantage of residential proxies and VPNs to speak out against corrupt regimes and create a fairer society.”

It gets worse when you realise that 51 out of 196 analysed countries and territories have shut down the internet at least once since 2015, affecting slightly less than 40% of the global population.

Of the 193 UN Member States, 14 countries fell short of their promises. Despite supporting the July 2021 UN Human Rights Council resolution, Surfshark’s Internet Shutdown Tracker shows that these countries either had ongoing internet restrictions or disrupted internet access since then.

African-countries-stopping-the-internet

These countries are India, Sudan, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Burkina Faso, Pakistan, Russia, Brazil, Armenia, Indonesia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, and Ukraine.

Why is this important?

78 countries (or 40%) supported the resolution by either voting in favour of it or sponsoring it.

Over half of the countries (111) took a passive position. They could not express their stance through voting because they were not elected to the council. However, they had the opportunity to sponsor the resolution but chose not to.

On the other hand, four countries that were part of the council decided to abstain from voting. These countries were Cameroon, China, Eritrea, and Venezuela. Their decision not to vote on the resolution raises questions about their position on promoting human rights online.

According to a new report, a record number of countries switched off access to internet services in response to political upheaval in 2022, causing “incalculable and persistent damage to people’s lives”.

Governments wield internet shutdowns as weapons of control and shields of impunity,” said Felicia Anthonio from Access Now.

“In 2022, under authoritarian regimes and in democracies, powermongers accelerated their use of these callous tactics, disrupting the internet to fuel their agendas of oppression – manipulating narratives, silencing voices, and ensuring cover for their own acts of violence and abuse.”

The research by internet rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documents 187 shutdowns in 2022. These were introduced by governments in 35 countries – the highest number in a single year since the groups began documenting internet blackouts in 2016.

Most of the shutdowns were triggered by protests, conflict and allegations of human rights violations, with a smaller number coinciding with school exams and elections.

In Africa, leaders have increasingly shown a willingness to shut down the internet during momentous political events. In the past two years, governments in the Republic of the Congo, Niger, Uganda, and Zambia have cut off internet access during elections.

The risk of Internet shutdowns is acute in 2023, with presidential elections scheduled to take place in Gabon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Governments in all of these countries except Madagascar have a history of shutting down the internet or restricting the use of digital platforms.

We will follow up with updates, with fingers crossed that ‘acute’ turns to ‘mild’, then ‘non-existent.’


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