The last six to eight months have seen several countries in Africa impose restrictions on social media and the internet, usually in an effort to curtail protests and criticism. The most recent of these is Sudan, where the last few weeks have seen regular demonstrations against long-serving president Omar al-Bashir.
With politicians in the East African nation seemingly fearful that the internet is being used to mobilise protests, a decision to block social media sites was confirmed by the Sudanese government on December 21, with a not very illuminating statement saying:
“There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”
Al-Bashir has been President of Sudan since 1989, during which time the nation has split following South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Recently, an economic crisis, coupled with a heavily state-regulated media, had led many Sudanese to voice their discontent on the internet.
One of Africa’s highest-profile social media barriers of 2018 was in Uganda, where a tax on what the government called ‘OTT service’ websites (including many social media sites) was introduced in July. The controversial charge was expected by many to be phased out by the end of the month, but it still remains in place.
By September, Zambia and Benin had also introduced taxes on social media use, while on the other side of the world, Papua New Guinea took the decision to shut down access to social media for a month. Unlike the African countries, which made little secret of the fact that they didn’t like what was being said about their leaders on social media, the official Papuan reason for the move was to assess what affect it had on the population’s wellbeing.
What does this achieve?
From a Western perspective, these restrictions seem counterproductive. When a large part of what people are protesting about is dictatorship and suppressed media, to respond to these complaints by blocking social media seems an illogical move that only serves to prove the demonstrators’ point.
Aside from the violent protests it spawned, another obstacle faced by Uganda was the fact that many citizens were using virtual private network (VPN) software to get around the tax anyway. AfricaNews.com reports that the same is true in Sudan, where more than half of the population has a mobile phone and around a third use the internet, with activists using VPNs to continue to make social media their platform for dissent.
It appears that the internet has grown too quickly to make any of these blocks worthwhile, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping African governments doing what they can to stifle social media.