Senegal’s government began blocking several digital platforms – including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube – in certain areas on 1 June. Days later, it extended the disruptions to all mobile internet and several television stations.
The social networks were shut down for two days. This was followed by a four-day mobile internet shutdown.
Given that nearly all Senegalese internet users access it through their mobile phones, these moves constituted a near total block on digital communications and information. Internet penetration in Senegal has exploded in recent years. A decade ago, only 13% of the population was online. By 2021, a majority (58%) were. Social media powers many small businesses.
The moves come after serious political unrest. At least 16 people have been killed and hundreds arrested in protests in Dakar, Ziguinchor and other areas following the conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
This is not the first time the Senegalese government has disrupted access to the internet. It did so in 2021, when protests erupted following Sonko’s arrest. In that case, the shutdowns lasted only a few hours.
Internet shutdowns in Africa are increasingly common. Disruptions were documented in 11 African countries in 2022, and six between January and May 2023. Recent cases include Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Every country with an internet shutdown since January 2022 has had a worse record than Senegal on protecting civil liberties, as assessed by Freedom House. Senegal has been seen as a relative bright spot of democratic development on the continent.
However, recent years have brought warning signs. Opposition leaders have been barred from contesting elections by court cases which may have been politically motivated. Opposition-leaning voters have claimed they have been disenfranchised.
Recent violence and the government’s shutdown of the internet are certain to heighten fears of democratic backsliding.
As one who has done research on how media and access to political information in sub-Saharan Africa affect relationships between groups, I can say that restricting the internet is sure to carry costs.
Firstly, international and domestic groups focused on civic freedoms have condemned the shutdowns. Amnesty Sénégal has called them “contrary to international law” and said they “cannot be justified by imperatives of security”.
Secondly, there will be financial costs – for the country as well as for individuals. A total shutdown could cost the Senegalese economy almost US$8 million per day. In addition, disrupting digital communications during times of crisis has costs for the population. Individuals need to be able to contact and locate family and friends, determine zones of safety, and make arrangements for transport, food, water and medical care.
The damage to livelihoods is significant.
Thirdly, the shutdowns could arouse public ire.
President Macky Sall’s government might be concluding that any popular backlash will be concentrated among segments of the population already favourable to the opposition, namely urban, underemployed youth.
By clamping down, his hope was to limit protests, while not eroding his base support.
Senegalese opinion on this question, at least in principle, is rather closely divided. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan, pan-African public opinion research organisation, in December 2020-January 2021, only 54% of Senegalese respondents agreed with the statement that
Unrestricted access to the internet and social media helps people to be more informed and active citizens, and should be protected.
But 42% agreed with an alternative option, that:
Information shared on the internet and social media is dividing Senegalese, so access should be regulated by the government.
While this question is not about shutdowns specifically, it provides insight into the Senegalese public’s general inclinations about government involvement in this area.
According to Afrobarometer, those who report using digital media on at least a weekly basis are more supportive of unrestricted access than those who do not, 59% to 47%. Urban-dwellers are more supportive than rural-dwellers (58% to 50%), and men are slightly more supportive than women (55% to 52%).
We also see that support for unrestricted internet increases with education – 49% with no formal schooling supported it, while 58% with secondary education or higher did. And youth aged 18-35 are more supportive of unrestricted internet than those over 46 are (54% to 48%).
Those who report having protested in the past are more supportive of unrestricted internet than those who have not (61% to 52%). Finally, of those who said they would vote for Sonko in the next election, an overwhelming 70% favoured unrestricted internet. A bare majority (53%) of Sall’s supporters did.
The figures suggest that those who support unrestricted access are from the same demographics most likely to be taking to the streets – young, urban males who are digitally literate, and frustrated by their inability to convert their educational attainment to gainful employment.
A risky gambit
Independent observers like Freedom House have characterised Senegal as “one of Africa’s most stable electoral democracies” and highlighted its “relatively independent media and free expression”.
But Senegal’s hard-fought reputation as a democratic beacon is beginning to erode. The background to the events of the past two weeks is that President Sall is considering seeking a third term next year, which many say would be unconstitutional.
Sall is therefore surely watching his support among young, urban Senegalese. His predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, came to power in 2000 on a wave of support from this cohort, but lost to Sall 12 years later as that support eroded.
Sall, whose support in Dakar plummeted from 74% in 2012 to 49% in 2019, fears the same fate. Sonko, with his base in the disaffected urban youth, appeared to be just the type of candidate who could stifle Sall.
The challenge for Sall’s government, though, is that any short-term benefits that come from limiting protests could be outweighed by a further hardened and expanded opposition among urban youth.
Harms to the economy could soften support more broadly. Any further erosion of support among crucial demographics could prove ruinous for him and his allies.
This article has been updated to reflect that interior minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome cited threats of “dissemination of hateful and subversive messages” in justifying the internet blockages and not “fake news”.