Why is Africa obsessed with shutting down the internet?

The recent decision by the Ethiopian government to shut down the internet had me scratching my head for several reasons.

To provide brief context, the reason the Ethiopian government decided to block the internet was due to preventing the leak of exam papers and answers. This was particularly aimed at the students in grade 10, (1, 2 million students) and grade 12 students (about 290 000 students).

One of the reasons this confuses me is due to the fact that Ethiopia has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, at 11.1%, and a Facebook penetration of 4.3%. Using deduction and logical conclusions, it can be estimated as to how many of those users were in grade 10 and grade 12 in Ethiopia.


Ethiopia has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world


The government’s response to a potential leak was to shut the internet down. While it may have addressed a problem within the context, the knock on effects are extreme. Businesses, the livelihood of citizens and communication to the rest of the world is what the internet provides. When this is removed, it has an adverse effect on the perception of the internet and lack of growth.

An internet “on and off button” seems to be a relevant metaphor for several African countries. With relative ease, particularly over the past two years (2016 – 2017), governments have shut the internet down for several reasons across the African continent.

Take a look below at some of the more recent shut downs of social media sites and internet across the African continent and their reasons.

Overview of African internet shutdown 2016 – 2017

Country: Ethiopia

What was turned off: The Internet

Why: Due to a leak of exam papers on social media

When: May 2017


Country: Cameroon

What was turned off: The Internet

Why: The internet shutdown affected only English-speaking areas in Cameroon over alleged favoring of Francophones

When: February 2017


Country: DRC

What was turned off: The Internet and Social Media sites

Why: Political reasons – the end of President Joseph Kaliba’s final term

When: December 2016


Country: Gambia

What was turned off: The Internet

Why: Shutdown due to heightened tensions around the presidential elections. (After a potential fall of the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh)

When: November 2016


Country: Gabon

What was turned off: The Internet

Why: Due to the close election of two candidates, the internet was shut down unrest online

When: August 2016


Country: Uganda

What was turned off: WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook

Why: Due to the reelection of President Yoweri Museveni, trying to curb protests being organized through social media platforms

When: May 2016


Country: Chad

What was turned off: The Internet, SMS, and journalists

Why: Due to the re-election of President Idriss Déby Itno for the fifth time

When: April 2016


Country: Morocco

What was turned off: Skype, Viber and WhatsApp

Why: VoIP were not meeting Moroccan legislation, and telecommunication companies were running at a loss

When: March 2016


Analyzing the reasons, it is quite clear that political reasons can be cited as the overarching trend as to why the internet and social media sites have been shut down.



Is this a uniquely African problem?

In 2015, internet shutdowns affected global economies negatively by $2.4bn. It should be noted that other countries in other continents have gone through a similar situation, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India. However, there is good reason to believe that there is a higher frequency of such incidents on the African continent.

Portland Communications, which runs the howafricatweets.com websites found that African tweets are more political than other continents. As a result, African leaders feel more obliged to take action when it comes to internet access.

What can be done about it?

By no stretch of the imagination can the practice of shutting down the internet be seen as a normal practice. It’s abnormal and significantly stifles a country’s economy.


Cities like Kenya are steadfast in local tech innovation efforts: iHub Nairobi is a working space for technology entrepreneurs with partners like IBM, Google and Facebook


There exists creative alternatives during times of shutdown, which have emerged for social media users, community managers, and businesses to use:

1) An internet camp – During the shutdown in Cameroon, startups rented out a room in a village, found a generator for electricity and encouraged techies to bring their internet modems. This enabled nearby users to connect to the internet and continue with their days as usual.

2) Dial-up – In Syria, internet activists created a series of alternative dial-up details for citizens to use, as the government clamped down internet use.

3) Packet Radio – This uses radio links to connect users to the internet. It is portable and acts as a transmission of data between different sources to enable access to Wi-Fi.

Again, finding alternatives to make use of the internet cannot be seen as the norm. However, the creativity has to be commended. The greater issue is that a political reason, or the leak of an exam cannot be used as viable excuse to shut the internet down. Africa is far more creative and valuable than that.


Portland Communications

How Africa Tweets

iHub Nairobi