On Saturday the 16th of February 2019, two days after lovers have loved, cakers have baked, chocolaters have cashed out and florists have flourished, Nigerians are going to the polls to elect the two top people who are going to lead this nation for the next four years. And if there has ever been a time when we need to make the right decision; it’s now. This is evidenced in the amount of tension surrounding this particular election – there’s also a lot of controversy and drama.
I literally wake up everyday to some interesting politically inspired news and while I try not to allow any of them affect my mental health, one that has definitely utterly completely caught my attention is the rumors of an internet shutdown in this period.
So in case you don’t know, in my real life 9-5 salaried existence, I work on issues of internet and technology policy (I know right? So interesting!). And whilst I manage projects in Anglophone West Africa (Ghana, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone), I am definitely interested in the entirety of Africa.
This year alone (and please note that this article is being written on the 2nd day of February), there have been at least five internet shutdowns in Africa.
Quoting the African Commission on Human and People’s Right:
In Chad, users started experiencing a shutdown of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp on 28 March 2018. Over 300 days later, the government of Chad has still not restored access to the platforms.
In Sudan, the Government shut down social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on 21 December 2018, amid protests over economic hardships in the country which in due course escalated into demands for the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir. Key telecom companies including MTN Sudan, Zain Sudan, Kanartel and Sudatel were blocked from providing internet services.
In the DRC, the Government blocked the internet and social media on 31 December 2018, following the conduct of polls on 30 December. These services were not restored fully until 20 January 2019 when the Constitutional Court confirmed the win of Felix Tshisekedi as president elect.
In Gabon, the government ordered internet shut down on 07 January 2019, following a military coup attempt. Connectivity was restored on 08 January 2019.
In Zimbabwe, on 15 January 2019, following a directive by the State Security Minister, internet service providers shut down the internet. While the ban was lifted on Wednesday 16 January 2019, leaving only a ban on social media platforms, another full internet shutdown was ordered on Thursday 17 January 2019, effectively leaving a majority of Zimbabweans without access to the internet.
So when, one day I began to see rumors of an intention of the government to shutdown the internet during the election, I did not calm down. I worried because I do not think of it as an action beyond our government. Remember my article on African Governments copying each other?
And you know, even if no other African country had set a precedent, I would still have taken the rumors seriously because of the dictatorial-authoritarian vibes we’ve been getting from the federal government recently.
Today, the 2nd of February, we however woke up to news by the Office of the National Security Adviser clearly stating that “…the internet and associated communication infrastructure are major components of the Critical National Information Infrastructure, which ONSA is mandated to ensure its security.” and that “…shutting down the internet is akin to shutting down national development and security”
Yo! When I read that last line, I was almost shouting ‘Hallelujah!’. Like, that is a preaching! Don’t you know! Say it for the people at the back! Hmmm! Glory hallelujah! Flesh and blood revealeth not these things unto ye!
SHUTTING DOWN THE INTERNET IS AKIN TO SHUTTING DOWN NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND SECURITY!
No truer words, people. And apart from that, shutting down the internet and other means of communication is a gross infringement of the people’s right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to learn, freedom to create knowledge and indirectly every other human right you can think of. Because the internet has somewhat become the lifeblood of the society.
But our government has assured us that they wouldn’t do that to us. The Office of the National Security Adviser has announced that it is “committed to protecting the rights of the public to access Information and Communication Technology facilities” (and I love that they recognize it as right; an entitlement; a liberty of the people).
However, while this cute and bold and all that, I don’t want to fluff my pillows and lounge because ONSA boo said we can. I’d like prepare for a alternative eventuality and I’d also like to share my prep kit with you:
- Circumvention, Circumvention, Circumvention: Basically, in the event of a shutdown, you would want to be able to bypass this censorship or blockage by using some tools known as circumvention tools. Here is a list of circumvention tools you may use. Psiphon, for instance, which provides you with uncensored access to Internet content. It will automatically learn about new access points to maximize your chances of bypassing censorship. And you can get it on your iOS, Android stores and as a software on your computer. No better time to download it than now. Also, check out Lantern which is also super cool and largely free.
- Stay private: Here, the Tor browser comes to mind. It’s a browser that helps you remain anonymous while surfing the internet – in fact, you can (and should) use it even without an internet shutdown especially if your work is security-sensitive. Tor, instead of making a direct connection, will connect you through a series of virtual tunnels so that your privacy is hidden. It also serves as a circumvention tool because it allows you reach otherwise blocked destinations or content. So download it as well. You may also use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which help you securely and anonymously connect to the internet.
- Stay Safe: Things can get really weird during an internet shutdown ordered by the government. Because an Order to shut down the internet is in itself a military-esque action by the government, it’s reasonable to expect some surveillance and consequences for those who still go ahead to use the internet or those who are caught. Hence, employ basic digital security tips and be careful of site you use with your circumvention tools. Understand also that digital security also involves physical measures. And in case, you’re like, “I’m super clueless. Help me!” Well, I’m your plug to this very simple, very comprehensive website/booklet/guide/resource published by our very own CcHub. It’s interesting to read and very relatable. Please check it out.
Also, check out this free helpline for digital security assistance.
I wish us all a safe month! A safer election! And an even safer country!