Are Africa’s Low Internet Penetration Rates As Bad As Internet Shutdowns?

By Babatunde Okunoye, Research Assistant, Paradigm Initiative

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The recent Internet shutdown in Cameroon once again highlighted a problem that has bedevilled Africa in recent months – Internet shutdowns. From January 7 to April 20 2017, Cameroonian authorities cut off Internet access from the North West and South West regions of the country to stifle dissent by citizens alleging marginalization of the English-speaking population of the country by the government of the Francophone nation.

Notwithstanding the Internet or Internet applications shutdowns, which occurred in at least 11 African nations in 2016, the Cameroonian Internet shutdown of 2017 shocked Africans because of its length and the human suffering it caused. Digital rights advocates evolved various advocacy strategies to confront the challenge. One such strategy was highlighting the economic cost and opportunity cost of the Internet shutdown, and creatively stressing the stories of human suffering occasioned by the shutdown. The message being passed across is that Africa, in the midst of its dire developmental challenges, simply cannot afford the economic losses foisted by Internet shutdowns.

Although civil society actors working in Africa can count the restoration of Internet access in Cameroon among their successes, a commentary from an ICT4D expert I read recently got me thinking about what Internet access or the lack of it really means for Africa. The commentary in question, citing world Internet penetration statistics, rightly announced that “Africa now has more Internet users than North America”. This statement, although accurate, can be misleading if interpreted out of context.

It is exciting news of course that Africa now has more Internet users than a continent that hosted the early nodes that laid the foundation for the Internet. A closer look at population and Internet penetration statistics however tells another story. With a population of about 1.2 billion people and Internet penetration of 27.7% compared to North America’s population of over 360 million and Internet penetration of 88.1%, a catchy headline announcing that “Africa has more Internet users than North America” actually hides severe developmental problems. The maths reveals that Africa only boasts of slightly more Internet users than North America despite having about 400% the population of North America. Put another way, North America has nearly as much Internet users as Africa despite having only 25% of Africa’s population.

These statistics are the offshoot of the situations in countries such as Togo, Tanzania, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Chad, Eritrea, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros Islands, Central African Republic and Burundi, where despite having millions of citizens, Internet penetration is less than 10%. This means that at over 90% (9 out 10) of citizens of these African countries do not have Internet access.

In our modern world where many services and opportunities are only accessible through the Internet – a realization that necessitated the United Nations Human Rights Council to declare Internet access as a human right – communities lacking Internet access are automatically disadvantaged. Therefore countries, as the research evidence shows, which through deliberate policy hinder the development of telecommunications markets, should just be held as liable as those who shut down the Internet. Perhaps the time has come to see the low Internet penetration rates in Africa for what they might be in reality – a weapon of suppression of whole populations. This is especially true in countries like Ethiopia, where the government has a monopoly of telecommunications services and poor human rights records.

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