Date first published: 20/06/2017

Key sectors: IT; media; online retail

Key risks: reputational; democratic backsliding; business interruption; detention; censorship

Silicon Savannah

For sub-Saharan Africa’s youthful population, armed with smartphones and taking advantage of rapid infrastructure developments, the internet has become a key communications tool, source of news media and means of engaging in politics: indeed, Africans are four times more likely to tweet about politics than their peers in the US or UK. Increased internet access is also facilitating innovation: Kenya’s billion-dollar Silicon Savannah, located just outside the capital Nairobi, has been earmarked as the continent’s own Silicon Valley. Multinational technology companies are increasingly establishing a footprint in the region: Google has offices in Dakar, Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. However, the potential for the online space to facilitate dissent and serve as a mobilising tool for citizen journalists and anti-government movements has increasingly emboldened governments to impose restrictive and repressive measures that impede the democratic gains the internet could bring.

Governments have frequently restricted internet and social media access around elections, ostensibly to prevent “hate speech” and violent elements stoking unrest. Ghana, The Gambia, Uganda and Gabon all shuttered the internet during election periods last year in what was likely an attempt to circumvent democratic processes and norms and to prevent scrutiny of possibly rigged elections. In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia, governments justified blackouts on the basis that they would prevent violent protests from escalating. However, it was more likely an attempt by autocratic politicians to silence pro-democracy movements– and in this way control the flow of information to the wider world. To this end, governments also use social media themselves to promote hate speech against opposition parties or maligned ethnic groups, as seen regularly in South Sudanese social media.

Journalists among those most affected

The work of journalists is particularly affected by blackouts and ever-more restrictive cyber laws. In Tanzania, the Cyber Crimes Act enacted in 2015 was intended to prevent bank fraud and hacking but has been used as a tool for censorship and has facilitated the prosecution of journalists and citizens alike. Netizen Isaac Habakuk Emily is one of many Tanzanians who has appeared in court over a Facebook post calling President John Magufuli an imbecile. Restrictive internet laws have been applied in Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria among others as governments mirror the authoritarian successes of their neighbours. In this environment, a culture of self-censorship prevails as fear of potentially violent recrimination becomes widespread. For journalists covering conflict or unrest, the sudden loss of access to the internet and the outside world can make them more vulnerable to being targeted by security force personnel who often act with impunity.

Economic cost

Nevertheless, restricting the internet comes at a financial cost for governments. According to the Brookings Institute, in 2015 internet shutdowns cost the economies of Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia US$74.5m and US$8.5m respectively, while the continent-wide cost was estimated at US$2.4bln. In Ethiopia, a nine-day shutdown this month affected online retail, banking transactions and flight bookings among other online industries. The restrictions also stifle innovation – local ride-hailing apps such as ZayRide, ETTA and Rise were forced to set up costly call centres as a result of restrictions imposed under the state of emergency.

A paradox therefor ensues: while many African governments are jostling to establish themselves in an increasingly digitised landscape, they nevertheless impose restrictions that undermine innovation, development and democracy.