It would not be the first such blackout, in Gambia or this year, to try and shape a vote
For all the problems that information overload has posed to an informed voting public in recent years, it’s worth remembering that even having that problem is, comparatively speaking, the sign of a healthy internet democracy.
The Gambia doesn’t have that. It is one of the least free internet societies in Africa. And now, reporters and activists observing the country’s presidential elections, taking place on December 1, have reported that a full-on blackout is in effect across the West African nation.
#Gambia Gov’t shuts down internet less than 24hrs before the polls. Phone calls to Banjul have also been blocked few hours ago.
— Fatu Camara (@Fatushow) November 30, 2016
Confirmed phone & internet blackout in #Gambia. Shutdown this evening & will remain until Saturday. “Free & fair elections” Jammeh style.
— Monica Mark (@nickswicks) November 30, 2016
It will remain in place through the weekend, and affects both international voice calls, SMS, and internet use, limiting people to satellite connections. Locals say calls are not going through, even on privately-owned networks like QCell and Africell, and that power outages are also occurring – whether these are related is unclear, but rumors abounded earlier this week that an electrical blackout would be staged ahead of the vote to scare people.
— MamaLinguere Sarr (@mamasarr) November 30, 2016
The Gambian government has since cited “security reasons” as to why web traffic has halted like this. Such tactics are not unique to the country’s authoritarian government, as Access Now chronicles a list of countries that have taken this step during or ahead of important votes. In Uganda, for example, a 4-day February blackout was timed for the national elections: 1.5 million people downloaded VPNs to circumvent the move, which was so extensive that it even kept people from paying bills on their mobile devices.
Like the Gambia, Uganda has a very high mobile penetration rate, so beyond long-running bans on proscribed content or certain platforms, the focus of the shutdown orders is on keeping people off of their mobile devices for the duration.
US officials and international NGOs had previously urged the Gambia not to shut down the web ahead of the vote, a call that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
#Gambia: US embassy says “likely” internet will be cut for presidential election tomorrow. In addition to blocking of whatsapp, Skype, Viber
— Jennifer O’Mahony (@jaomahony) November 30, 2016
— Jeffrey Smith (@Smith_JeffreyT) November 30, 2016
Limited digital footprint frustrates access
The blackout was easily put in place since the country’s ICT infrastructure is state-owned, even though there are some private operators. Since 2014, internet blackouts have become commonplace.
(Some of the extended down time, though, is the result of low quality connections, as Gambian netizens told All Africa in March, rather than any particular government action.)
Outside of these mandatory shutdowns and infrastructure problems, a combination of cost, censorship, and demographics means that only 14-16% of the population is wired in. The most popular news sources are mostly radio and TV, and internet use is further restrained by the fact that most households cannot afford fixed line or 3G wireless options for personal devices, so internet cafes predominate and are easily “leaned on” by the security services.
However, according to the US NGO Freedom House, online news portals, usually run outside of the country by émigrés, have become popular fare for users. Most of these are banned, of course, due to their opposition views, but can still be accessed with VPNs. But the suddenness of the shutdown may preclude Gambians from availing themselves of that option, leaving them with fewer options than Ugandans in February or, as was the case over the summer, Turkish citizens snapping up VPNs after a failed putsch against their government.
The Gambian government, led by Yahya Jammeh, is worried about rising popular resentment to his uninterrupted rule of 22 years. Although he has won reelection every time since the 1994 coup that put him into power, and held off serious opposition by offering some economic growth and a lot of brutal crackdowns, Gambian opposition parties are now firmly united in an “anyone but him” moment.
Indeed, the campaign against dissent ahead of the vote is a sign of how much it fears losing control over an already heavily-controlled online space. The most well-known case of this is that of a rapper, Killa Ace, who last year composed a popular anti-corruption song, Ku Boka C Geta G, that went viral across the country.
“Everyone has it in their phones, including those close to him [the president]– military, students, young people; I received a video of people playing the songs freely on their phones, and on the streets without using earpieces,” Killa Ace told reporters.
That, as much as the lyrics themselves, is why he and his family had to flee the country shortly thereafter.