Autocratic leaders in Africa are increasingly relying on internet blackouts to silence young people who use social media to mobilise against post-colonial political structures across the continent.
Imagine being charged for every tweet or having no access to the internet for months on end. These are just some of the challenges that millions of young Africans face regularly.
Authoritarian leaders from every part of the continent have realised it is not enough to blacken TV screens or hand in headlines to the press anymore. They also need to shut down social media - where young people engage with the world and express anti-establishment views.
Berhan Taye, leading the #KeepItOn campaign from Access Now, an advocacy group which defends the digital rights of users, believes internet shutdowns are an extension of traditional censorship.
“With a few exceptions, many countries that shut down the internet restrict the free press and violate human rights,” Taye told TRT World, "So the internet and social media shutdowns are an extension of these traditional means of censorship.”
Cameroon tops the list for internet disruptions in Facebook’s 2018 Transparency report and holds the record for Africa’s longest internet shutdown. Following protests in the Anglophone southwest and northwest regions against systematic social, political and economic discrimination, the Francophone-dominated government either completely shut down, or significantly slowed down, the internet to silence dissidents.
To maintain his 37-year-old regime Cameroonian president Paul Biya shut down the internet for more than 40 weeks, intermittently, between January 2017 and June 2018.
“This is the first crisis in Cameroon wherein the internet has played a major role. The youths who mostly use the internet have raised awareness… brought the attention of the international community to the situation in Cameroon,” barrister Agbor Nkongho, President of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), told TRT World.
Recently in Sudan, when the rise in bread and fuel prices triggered nationwide protests across the country, 75-year-old Omar Al Bashir blocked access to popular social media platforms used to organise anti-government protests to protect his 29-year rule.
In a country where the state tightly controls traditional media, the internet has become a key information battleground for the Sudanese youth. Of Sudan’s 40 million people, some 13 million frequently use the internet and more than 28 million own mobile phones.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, outgoing President Joseph Kabila—who delayed elections for two years to stay in power—has frequently used the shutdown of internet and SMS services as a tool to suppress anti-government protests.
Last May, Uganda implemented a tax on 58 different social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Skype. The tax is designed to charge Ugandans 200 shillings ($0.05) per day, a significant amount of money in a country where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line ($1.25 a day, or around 4,500 shillings).
The ban was the latest attempt by 74-year-old President Yoweri Museveni, who defended the tax saying “social media use is definitely a luxury item”.
But it backfired, and the backlash was fierce. Young Ugandans, who organised online under #NoSocialMediaTax and #ThisTaxMustGo hashtags, poured into the streets of the capital city Kampala to express their anger against the government. Following the public outcry, the government announced its decision to review the tax in July last year. People are currently still being charged the tax.
However, the social media tax controversy shed light on the deep clash of generations between the old authoritarian rulers and the younger generation.
Uganda is one of the youngest nations in the world, where 78 percent of its population is under 30. For most Ugandans, Museveni is the only president they’ve ever known. This vast group of young people, suffering from high unemployment and political exclusion, see a government that does not represent them nor understand the challenges they face.
As a result, instead of consuming traditional media, such as state-controlled TV or newspapers, they turn to the internet and social media to grow their businesses, get educated and informed about the latest trends, and express their frustration with the government.
The clash of generations in Uganda is a microcosm of what has been happening across the world’s youngest continent, where 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old.
Africa’s largest country, Nigeria, ruled by the 75-year-old Muhammadu Buhari, has a median age of just 18.4 years, while 84-year-old Paul Biya has been ruling Cameroon for 36 years, where the median age is 18.5 years old, meaning a gap of 65.5 years.
Tradition and technology is not a zero-sum game
Far from being understood and having their socio-economic struggles recognised by the state as a priority, young Africans raise their critical voices online and form anti-establishment political movements over the internet.
By demanding more comprehensive democratic reforms, inclusive economic models and quality education and infrastructure, they challenge old-fashioned, elite-controlled, post-colonial political systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Taye said: “In countries where censorship is extreme, the internet and social media have given many young people that are fighting injustice the ability to reach many people and rally folks for change.”
She continued: “Even though traditional media houses were heavily censored, many used social media to show the world the injustice perpetrated by federal and regional forces, and provide momentum when the movement was fading from the international press.”
The pop-star-turned-parliamentarian Bobi Wine raises his anti-establishment voice in the Ugandan parliament and his digital activism also has an enormous impact on young Ugandans.
Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan human rights activist, rising from the digital world, has been a critical voice against police brutality and post-election violence in Kenya. In Nigeria, the collective youth movement #NotTooYoungToRun aims to change the age-dominated political scene and push for an inclusive political structure for young people.
Taye said: “Young activists… are the vanguards that are using social media to challenge the structures that have instilled fear, injustice, and poverty in the African continent. And they are a threat to the all that want to continue to perpetuate fear and injustice.”
Many autocrats on the continent have witnessed what youth movements, which mobilise and organise on social media, are capable of. Their extensive use of the internet and frustration toward established political structures have brought considerable changes over the past years in West Africa.
When then-president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore - who had ruled the country since 1987 - decided to run for the 2015 general elections, despite the constitutional two-term limit, no one could have guessed that his decision would trigger a massive protest movement that eventually led to the "Burkinabe Spring".
Huge protests spread across the country and put an end to the 27 years of Compaore rule. Behind the nationwide protests that overthrew Compaore, lay a youth movement, Balai Citoyen (English: Citizens Broom), which was founded by a few musicians and grew through social media, driving thousands of young people to the streets.
When Gambia ’s then-president Yahya Jammeh did not recognise election results and refused to hand over power in 2016, a hashtag campaign #GambiaHasDecided spread and brought regional and international attention to the brutal 22-year regime in the Gambia.
“Social media has forever changed the dynamics of politics in Africa,” said Raffie Diab, one of the founding leaders of the #GambiaHasDecided movement.
Leaders like Museveni strictly control and censor the internet in a bid to stop any possible opposition through social media. However, autocrats across the continent have seen that the strategy can backfire - and as the internet continues to empower African youth, leaders will need to find new strategies to win them over, or risk losing their grip on power.