Image Credits: The Africa Report (theafricareport.com)
(e-WayTech & Info. Sys | Kampala) – Communication technology is a double-edged sword. It can empower people to access and share information globally, or be used as an instrument of political and economic control. While hopes were raised by the Arab Spring a decade ago, the years since have seen multiple internet blackouts in many African countries.
In the past ten years, the practice of jamming cyber communication has become a new tool by certain nations and governments.
Perhaps the most famous example of all is Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011. For five days, the Egyptian government shut down all internet communication, to disrupt the 2011 protests.
Eventually, this cost the Egyptian economy $90m, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Had the blackout gone for a whole year, it would have put a dent in Egypt’s GDP of around 3-4%.
“Most of the blackouts were across the entire [country] so it affected every person, business, and organisation. They were not targeted on particular institutions but affected everyone in that place,” says Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute.
Mohamed Basiouny, an owner of a cyber cafe confirms what West says, adding that the shutdown did trickle down to impact everyone: “Cyber cafes [were] playing a central role at the time so, it was not just kids fooling around on the internet. ” Like many others, Basiouny’s business relied on internet communications. “No internet, no money – it’s as simple as that,” he adds.
Almost a decade later and the modus operandi continues to be peddled as a quick fix for freedom of speech and expression.
Most recently, Uganda experienced social media restrictions before a complete internet shutdown that lasted from 13-18 January 2021, according to the NetBlocks Internet Observatory. And even then, some social media and testing platforms were blocked for a few more days.
The blackout happened during the presidential elections as voters rushed to the polls and throughout the vote counting process. The results predictably came out in favour of incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, which was contested by the opposition, namely Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the former musician-cum-presidential candidate known as Bobi Wine.
The lack of media coverage curtailed knowledge of opposition arrests.
Quelling communication is one thing, but in an increasingly internet-dependent society, it was only a matter of time before the digital economy was harmed. According to the NetBlocks tool, developed in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the six-day internet outage cost the East African country over USh39bn (nearly $11m).