Two fears arise every time citizens of an African country take to the streets en masse to criticize some aspect of their government’s performance: that the government will shut down the internet, or that access to social media sites will be restricted.
The recent history of citizen demonstrations from the Arab Spring in 2011 to events in Ethiopia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe validate these fears.
When governments order shutdowns, there’s little wiggle room for dissent even for the most progressive or good-intentioned telecommunications operator.
For example, when Zimbabwe ordered a shutdown in January 2019, Strive Masiyiwa couldn’t tap into his global fame and liberal democratic appeal to resist. His Econet, the country’s largest telecoms company, had to block access to internet services, else management would face three years imprisonment.
Life in a country without the internet feels like being cut off from the world. In 2020, being without the internet is equivalent to living under a rock.
Without a workaround, the only way to access your email could be to phone a friend abroad and give them your login details. The rapid exchange of information through WhatsApp and Twitter that now seem normal suddenly become novel things to long for.
If you’re in Lagos Nigeria, no Uber or Bolt means those infamous yellow taxi cabs are all you’ve got for private trips. Costs of work-from-home company calls will rise dramatically to the point of prohibition.
It’s a grim reality. Here’s how it would play out and what to anticipate.
‘NCC says pull the plug’
A request from the Office of the National Security Adviser raising national security concerns is sufficient for an internet shutdown order to become reality in Nigeria.
The NSA, at this time Babagana Monguno – a retired major general, would send a directive to the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigeria Communications Commission. The request will be for the NCC to direct its licensees to pull the plug.
“That’s the most likely route,” says Adeboye Adegoke, programme manager at Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights advocacy group.
“It is not impossible but we hope it doesn’t get to this. The government’s response to the [#EndSARS] protest has been double faced.”
An internet shutdown in Nigeria would require tier 1 internet service providers (MTN, Glo, Airtel, MainOne) to shut down their connections by disconnecting their servers from authorised data exchange points within the country. The Nigerian internet as we know it is an interconnection between these ISPs.
The alternative to a shutdown – blocking access to social media sites – would mean these ISPs will be mandated to not forward traffic from websites like Twitter and Facebook. The ISPs will block each of these site’s IP addresses from all its users, or delete the sites from their DNS servers; you’ll be told the site doesn’t exist when you try to connect.
Paradigm Initiative published a guide for Malawians ahead of their May 2019 elections about staying online in the event of government-sanctioned internet shutdowns. Adegoke says they are working on specific steps for Nigerians.
The guide focuses on what to expect when specific websites are blocked, and in times of total shutdowns.
To access blocked sites, two options are available: installing the TOR browser or using a trusted Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Put simply, a VPN helps a user create a private network from a public connection. Your IP address will be anonymous (a VPN creates one that shields yours) and your online activity is virtually untraceable. Essentially, it’s a tunnel for your phone or PC to stay in touch when highways are under patrol.
Paradigm Initiative’s guide lists Psiphon, Lantern and Tunnelbear as free VPNs that can be trusted to work on Windows, Android and Mac/iOS devices. I’ll include Proton because it has been recommended to me by a cybersecurity professional in a bank, but it’s free version doesn’t grant access to blocked content.
These can preserve your connection to social media sites when they are blocked.
When the internet is completely shut down, there’s really no way to dwell on a website on the internet.
Twitter used to have a feature for tweeting by SMS – this was how the service was originally designed. But it was disabled in September 2019 due to security issues after CEO Jack Dorsey got hacked. They confirmed in April this year that Twitter via SMS has been turned off in all but a few countries; Nigeria isn’t included.
But people can connect to each other by using some offline messaging apps. For now, Bridgefy is the most notable. It requires a Bluetooth connection to broadcast messages to people around you, and as such must be used cautiously.
‘Protection from falsehood’
Every internet shutdown has a common theme: the government wants to dictate what information should be exchanged by people in a country, whether between themselves or with those outside.
The government in question may not be a dictatorship but it sure wants to dictate.
Nigeria hasn’t had an internet shutdown. There are good reasons to believe it won’t happen, the strongest being that the country’s banking system is more cashless than ever before.
Over ₦15 billion (~ $33 million) was transacted through Nigeria’s Instant Payment terminal in September 2020 alone. Mobile money operations in 2019 were valued at ₦5.1 trillion (~ $12.7 billion), according to the Nigeria Inter-bank Settlement Scheme’s data.
In-bank transactions are falling as the use of digital bank apps and USSD services rise.
But this digital banking adoption has been driven largely by the youth – the same demographic that prioritizes the internet (and social media) as the platform of choice for media consumption. A history of Nigeria’s treatment of the media is a clear signal as to why no one should be confident of the internet’s inviolability.
To give one example: armed soldiers raid newspaper depots on the weekend of 7th June 2014 based on “orders from above” as the BBC reported.
The newspapers were accused of “publishing and selling falsehood” and helping the distribution of explosives that would “wreak havoc.”
Six years later, these terms feel eerily familiar to internet users. The 2019 National Assembly social media bill was tagged “protection from falsehood.” This week, Flutterwave reportedly answered a brief summon by the Central Bank of Nigeria over concerns that it’s web-based payments platform was being used to aid #EndSARS protests.
Nigeria may not go ahead with an outright internet ban but it doesn’t hurt to stay vigilant. In case you need a reminder, here’s what that 2019 social media bill aimed to achieve: