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Eastern Africa economies pay high price of politically instigated internet shutdowns

January 27, 2022

The eastern Africa region’s economy lost over $277 million to internet shutdowns imposed by governments in 2021, a report by ToP10VPN has shown.

The most affected country in the region was Ethiopia which lost $164.5 million, followed by Uganda who lost $109.7 million, Zambia, $1.8 million, while South Sudan lost below $1 million.

Ethiopia experienced 8,760 hours shutdowns, while Uganda 118 hours.

According to the report, Nigeria was the worst-hit African country, losing nearly $1.5 billion, coming second globally to politically troubled Myanmar, which lost about $2.8 billion.

Top10VPN’s report came as Nigeria lifted a ban on Twitter that had lasted for seven months, though many people in the country managed to circumvent the shutdown by using virtual private networks (VPNs).

More than half of the 21 countries that experienced major shutdowns were in sub-Saharan Africa, causing the region to lose $1.93b in 15,963 hours.

Military coups, information control, political repression, conflicts, protests, elections, and exams were the reason governments used to order the shutdown of the internet across the world.

The report further revealed that 75 percent of government internet outages were associated with additional human rights abuses, an increase of almost 80 percent compared with 2020.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly resulted in 69 percent of internet disruptions, while elections interference, infringements of freedom of press accounted for 29 percent each.

In Uganda, citing national security, the government on January 13 ordered total internet shut down and partially restored it days later, but social media remained blocked.

Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, were blocked two days earlier.

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Authorities in Uganda allowed the restoration on the internet on January 18; however, social media remained blocked until February 10.

Some Ugandans, however, managed to bypass the blockage using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as demand surged by 1,343 percent.

Digital rights campaigners said the internet blackout was a deliberate attempt by the government to keep citizens and the rest of the world in the dark during election periods.

After battling it out with his close competitor, famous singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine, their long-time leader Yoweri Museveni won the election.

For example, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the internet shutdown has been used as a weapon to control information since the onset of a civil war that has ravaged the area for over a year.

According to the report, the government blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram nationwide in May 2021.

The government had blocked access to the internet in the northern Tigray region since November 2020 when conflict erupted; this has helped limit coverage of the war in the country.

In November, the Ethiopian government restricted access to social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram after high school exams were leaked online. This also led to the surge of VPN usage by 5,109 percent.

In August 2021, Zambia shut down social media for 48 hours as the country headed to a general election. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp were all restricted.

The demand for VPN rose by 16,341 percent during the internet outage.

In August, South Sudan shut down the internet after anti-government activists called for protests against President Salva Kiir’s government.

This extreme internet censorship was accompanied by threats of a harsh crackdown on protestors.

In Nigeria, the government blocked access to Twitter in June, days after Twitter deleted a controversial tweet made by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari that was in breach of the social media platform’s rules.

In October, the Nigeria government announced Twitter access would be restored after 122 days because the platform was used for business and positive engagements. However, these conditions had not been met by the end of the year.

The Twitter ban was finally lifted after 222 days on January 12, 2022, with a total cost of $1.54 billion to the economy.

As citizens bypassed social media restrictions, demand for VPN services soared by 1,409 percent. The surging interest in VPN services forced the government to issue threats to those accessing Twitter through VPNs.

Twitter was finally restored in Nigeria on January 12, 2022, with the government saying the latter had agreed to meet all of its demands.

Twitter was the most affected in terms of the duration it was shut, accounting for 12,379 hours with Facebook shut for 7,709 hours, WhatsApp 2,446 hours, Instagram 2,324 hours while YouTube was closed for a total of 23 hours.

theeastafrican