Senegalese government started blocking various digital platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube in select areas on June 1. Days later, it extended the interruptions to the entire mobile network and to several television stations.
Social networks were closed for two days. This was followed by a four day mobile internet shutdown.
Given that almost all Senegalese internet users access it via their mobile phones, these moves have resulted in an almost total blockage of digital communications and information. Internet penetration in Senegal has exploded in recent years. A decade ago, only 13% of the population was online. By 2021, the majority (58%) were. Social media powers many small businesses.
The moves come after serious political turmoil. At least 16 people were killed and hundreds arrested during protests in Dakar, Ziguinchor and other areas following the conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
Supporters of the Sonkos Patriots of Senegal party have criticized the prosecutor’s allegations as politically motivated. Sonko was acquitted of the rape charge and convicted of unethical behavior.
In justifying the internet blockades, Interior Minister Antoine Flix Abdoulaye Diome cited threats of fake news.
It is not the first time that the Senegalese government has cut off access to the Internet. He did so in 2021, when protests erupted following Sonko’s arrest. In that case the closures lasted only a few hours.
Internet outages in Africa are increasingly common. Outages were documented in 11 African countries in 2022 and six between January and May 2023. Recent cases include Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Every country with an internet blockade since January 2022 has had a worse record than Senegal in protecting civil liberties, as assessed by Freedom House. Senegal has been seen as a relative bright spot of democratic development on the continent.
However, recent years have brought warning signs. Opposition leaders were prevented from contesting the election by court cases that may have been politically motivated. Opposition-leaning voters said they were disenfranchised.
The recent violence and the government’s shutdown of the internet are sure to raise fears of a democratic backslide.
Limiting the Internet will certainly come with costs.
First, international and national civic liberties groups condemned the closures. Sngal amnesty he called them contrary to international law and said they cannot be justified by security imperatives.
Secondly, there will be financial costs for the country as well as for individuals. A total shutdown could cost the Senegalese economy nearly $8 million a day. Furthermore, disrupting digital communications during times of crisis has costs for the population. Individuals must be able to contact and locate family and friends, determine safety zones, and make arrangements for transportation, food, water, and medical care.
The damage to livelihoods is significant.
Third, the closures could draw public ire.
President Macky Salls’ government may conclude that any popular backlash will be concentrated among segments of the population already supportive of the opposition, namely underemployed urban youth.
By cracking down, his hope was to limit the protests, without eroding his grassroots support.
Senegalese opinion on this issue, at least in principle, is rather divided. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by Afrobarometer, a non-partisan pan-African public opinion research organization, in December 2020-January 2021, only 54% of Senegalese respondents agreed with the statement that
Unlimited access to the internet and social media helps people to be more informed and active citizens and should be protected.
But 42% agree with an alternative option, which:
Information shared on the internet and social media is dividing Senegalese, so access should be regulated by the government.
While this question is not specifically about closures, it does provide insight into the general inclinations of the Senegalese public regarding government involvement in this area.
According to Afrobarometer, those who report using digital media at least once a week are more supportive of unlimited access than those who don’t, 59% to 47%. City dwellers are more supportive than rural dwellers (58% to 50%) and men are slightly more supportive than women (55% to 52%).
We also see support for unrestricted internet increase with education, 49% with no formal education have taken it, while 58% with secondary or higher education have done so. And 18- to 35-year-olds are more supportive of unrestricted internet than those over the age of 46 (54% to 48%).
Those who report having protested in the past are more in favor of unrestricted internet than those who have not (61% to 52%). Finally, among those who said they would vote for Sonko in the next election, an overwhelming 70% are in favor of unrestricted Internet. An absolute majority (53%) of Salls supporters did so.
The figures suggest that those advocating for unrestricted access come from the same demographics who are most likely to take to the streets young, urban males who are digitally literate and frustrated with their inability to convert their education into paid employment.
Read more: Limiting digital media is a gamble for African leaders
A risky move
Independent observers such as Freedom House have characterized Senegal as one of Africa’s most electorally stable democracies and highlighted its relatively independent media and freedom of expression.
The Parti Socialiste, which had ruled since independence in 1960, was ousted through peaceful elections in 2000. Another incumbent similarly lost in 2012.
But Senegal’s tough reputation as a democratic beacon is starting to erode. The backdrop to the events of the past two weeks is that President Sall is considering running for a third term next year, which many say would be unconstitutional.
Sall is therefore definitely seeing his support among young urban Senegalese. His predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, came to power in 2000 on a surge of support from this cohort, but lost to Sall 12 years later as that support eroded.
Sall, whose support for Dakar plummeted from 74% in 2012 to 49% in 2019, fears the same fate. Sonko, with his base in disaffected urban youth, seemed to be just the kind of candidate who could smother Sall.
The challenge for Salls’ government, however, is that any short-term gains from curtailing protests could be offset by further hardened and expanded opposition among urban youth.
Damage to the economy could soften support more broadly. Any further erosion of support among key demographics could prove detrimental to him and his allies.
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