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‘A day without internet is a day in the dark’: The Gambia's growing digital divide

Citizens in Banjul, the Gambia's capital, stroll down the street, July 5, 2013. Photo via Maarten van der Bent, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0.

This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that is urging governments to address digital rights challenges at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  

The coronavirus pandemic ushered in new levels of reliance on the internet to conduct everyday business.

In the Gambia, however, frequent internet outages and overall instability have made everyday life an increasingly frustrating challenge, impeding both national development and individual growth.

“Brief, nationwide connectivity disruptions were recorded in November 2019 and January 2020,” according to a 2020 Freedom House report.

In February, at least two additional internet blackouts occurred, one lasting six hours and another lasting 12 hours. Gambian President Adam Barrow was notably absent from an online Economic Community of West African States meeting due to an internet outage. 

Ebrima Sillah, Minister of Information and Communication, insisted that the 2019 outage was not deliberate, confirming that the cable link connecting the African coast to Europe (ACE) was cut at sea level.

And the most recent shutdown had to do with a “power outage in the Senegal base Sonatel station that hosts the connectivity between the Gambia and Senegal, via the ACE cable,” according to The Chronicle.

But “the overlap of the disruptions with anti-government protests prompted suspicion of government involvement,” according to the 2020 Freedom House report.

Gambians have taken to social media — especially Facebook and Twitter — to express their frustration.

Demba Kandeh wrote that an “internet connection [is] no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.”

Poor or non-existent internet connectivity can also be very challenging for businesses.

Global Voices spoke to Lamin Njie, editor-in-chief of FatuNetwork, an online news broadcasting company, about how internet outages and overall instability have affected their work:

As the biggest news media outlet in the country, the 12-hour outage for instance, not only caused us newsroom distress, it also cost us revenue we generated via our website through ads. Gambians who live abroad rely on The Fatu Network and other online outlets for news and information on Gambia. A day without the internet means wading in the dark for most of these people.

Like in many other countries, a lot of learning in the Gambia is now conducted online due to the pandemic.

Muhammed L. Darboe tweeted how, as a student, the outages are a major distraction:

Mamud Joof, a student at the University of the Gambia, told Global Voices that a lack of internet services affects him greatly:

“I cannot have access to my student portal to do my assignments or check new course updates.  … It further limits my research, which affects my output and understanding of the courses I do. As a student, internet outage in this pandemic basically halts all my activities.

The government launched the country’s first internet exchange point (IXP) in July 2014, to boost speed and security of internet services across the country, though the IXP runs slowly,” according to the 2020 Freedom House report.

A widening digital divide

Gambians face immense challenges with internet access due to expensive data. Today, data can go for up to 10,000 dalasis or $200 United States dollars per month to enjoy a high-speed internet connection, depending on the provider.

In fact, “high cost remains a primary hindrance to internet access in the Gambia, where 48.6 percent of individuals live in poverty,” according to 2015 World Bank data provided by Freedom House.

There's a wide range of internet service providers in the country, but state-owned Gamtel has a monopoly on the internet gateway, limiting the market's potential for competitive rates.

Journalist Momodou Gajaga told Global Voices that he spends about 15 percent of his salary — about $50 United States dollars per month — on internet fees and services:

As someone who lives from paycheck to  paycheck, spending this sum on the internet is a huge burden considering my commitments to provide other basic needs.

And Samba Jallow, a final year physics major at the University of the Gambia, told Global Voices:

“The digital divide in the country is seriously affecting us, as it’s near impossible for many students at the University of the Gambia to keep up with the high data cost maintenance needed to actively attend lectures online. One gigabyte of internet data costs $5 [United States] dollars whilst the average Gambia earns less than a dollar a day.

Most service providers in the Gambia have not prioritized investments in network coverage in rural areas, according to the 2020 Freedom House report.

Hatab Hydara, a manager of a community library in rural Gambia, told Global Voices:

Our children couldn’t get to school or access learning materials online due to the lack of and poor digital infrastructure in the country. Our children in the rural areas had to stay home for months missing out whilst only few private schools in the urban areas were able to afford the high cost of internet and materials for their children to continue having lessons online.

Gambian rapper ST-Brikama Boyo calls attention to the unfair digital divide in the Gambia with his hit song “My People,”  in collaboration with Grammy winner Baaba Maal. In the song, he sings, “[Internet] connection slow but internet is very expensive for my people.’’ The song garnered more than 100,000 views in 48 hours.

The government has identified “closing the digital divide” as part of its National Broadband Network project, yet progress since 2019 has been limited.

Urgent need for digital rights reform

In November 2019, when the Gambia drafted a new constitution that later dead-ended in parliament, internet connectivity was not mentioned, even though many countries now consider it a necessity alongside water and electricity.

Give1Project Gambia, a nongovernmental organization, has been raising awareness about digital rights in the Gambia for the past several years.

During the constitutional review process, Give1Project was the only organization to submit a position paper on digital rights. The paper included a demand to provide equal access to technology and communications to all citizens, including marginalized groups, by removing barriers to access and improving affordability, as well as expanding infrastructure and preventing internet disruptions.

Alieu Sowe, Give1Project’s country director, told Global Voices that digital rights are not protected in the Gambia:

 The Gambia still has a lot of ambiguous laws in the 1997 constitution which the authorities can use to infringe on the rights of Gambians, [and] due to these draconian laws, digital rights of Gambians are not protected.

He further called on the government to limit economic barriers to ensure access and introduce rights policies and laws to support these efforts.

Under former dictator Yahya Jammeh — accused of human rights abuses including rape and torture — many organizations and activist groups relied on the internet to communicate and connect with citizens. This led to an increase in the number of online media outlets leveraging technology to advocate for change.

When President Adama Barrow was elected in 2016, he applauded online media for supporting his agenda that led to his eventual victory.

Yet, to this day, the Gambia has not yet sufficiently solved its infrastructure challenges to solve these issues — stalling potential development and growth.

Ahead of an election year in the Gambia, internet instability also poses serious risks because it may disrupt online political campaign activities.

The internet is essential to the Gambia’s development. Digital rights activists must fight for the right to free and fair access to internet services.

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