Writing toward freedom: Politics and digital rights in Africa

Nelson Mandela Statue, in front of South African Embassy, Washington, DC USA, November 30, 2013. Flickr image by Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Across Africa, governments and nongovernmental political actors repeatedly deploy tactics to interfere with users’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information online, particularly during events of major political significance. 

An increasing number of African governments disrupt access to the internet, mobile networks and social media platforms as a strategic tactic to quell dissent and maintain power  — particularly during protests, elections and times of political upheaval. Governments and other political actors also deploy tactics that aim to disinform the public during such major events. 

Online mis/disinformation and the impact of internet shutdowns on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression in Africa

On July 9, 2019 The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) announced that the African Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) grant was awarded to 10 initiatives, including Global Voices, to advance digital rights in Africa. 

This project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). Global Voices is part of the inaugural cohort of grantees for the African Digital Rights Fund. 

From mid-October to late November, Global Voices’ sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa team, as part of its Advox program, will feature a series of 14 analytical stories that examine interferences with digital rights during  key political events — like elections and protests — through tactics that include:

  • Online mis/disinformation
  • Internet shutdowns and disruptions  
  • Restrictions on access to information during elections and protests. 

These 14 stories cover seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.


Protesters demanding the removal of Mugabe from power on November 18, 2017. Photo by Flickr user Zimbabwean-eyes (Public domain).

The events following the late Robert Mugabe’s ousting on November 17, 2017, showed how social media has taken root as an alternative medium of information in Zimbabwe. The military coup that pushed out Mugabe was preceded by protests that relied heavily on social media for mobilization.

This was not lost on the new government led by Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, who took advantage of the power of social media during the 2018 elections to “batter the opponent”, as reported here

As a former state security minister, Mnangagwa also appreciated the importance and value of disinformation in Zimbabwe’s political terrain. In a calculated move to consolidate newfound political power and ensure an electoral victory during the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next year, Mnangagwa instructed his ruling ZANU PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) party youth league to “enter the social media and online firmament and batter the opponent,” back in March 2018. 

However, this only exacerbated mis- and disinformation in Zimbabwe, due to extreme polarization in the media, impending government censorship of social media, the ineffectual communication channels of the administration and low digital literacy.

In addition, Zimbabwe has an online army, commonly known as Varakashi, which defends President Emmerson Mnangagwa on any issue. Varakashi (Shona word for “destroyers”) troll social media platforms — especially Twitter — and criticize anyone who dares to challenge the president's policies or leadership.

These state-sponsored online trolls have one major function, to label anyone who criticizes the government as “an agent of foreign powers — and therefore unpatriotic.” We further assert that these “state-endorsed online retributive campaigns” have targeted civil society leaders, opposition activists, independent media and even foreign embassies.


All is not well within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), comprised of four ethnic-based parties: Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). 

Members of EPRDF have resorted to Facebook to spite each other. Endalk, Global Voices Ethiopian contributor writes

A deep split that exists within Ethiopia's ruling coalition — the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (the EPRDF) —was made evident over the last few weeks when a Facebook row broke out between the two major political party members who disagreed on the historical accounts of Ethiopia as a modern state. The row revealed how party members within the EPRDF use social media — through posts and memes — to manipulate public opinion and spread misinformation and incendiary content.

For 25 years, TPLF has dominated Ethiopia’s party coalition until 2018, when they were ousted by a team effort of ADP and ODP. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is of the ODP. However, the political rivalry has intensified among members and the once-silent internal war has shifted to Facebook.   

The row on Facebook between some members of EPRDF has bolstered their popularity and the social media war has seen an upsurge of “political polarization freighted with misinformation.”

On November 10, 2019, an obscure fight broke between Oromo and Amhara students at Woldia University. Social media propelled rumours of impending attacks from one group to another. This subsequently morphed into a national panic in other universities.

Endalk, Global Voices Ethiopian contributor asserts that the panic in the universities “underscored the deep ethnic tensions” in the country “where ethnic tensions are usually simplified as a conflict between Amhara versus Oromo”. But it is also “a symptom of a complex and deadly power struggle inside the EPRDF.”  The ruling party, the EPRDF, a coalition of four ethnic parties has been “entangled in a deadly and incessant power struggle, mostly along ethnic lines among its four members.” And social media is a ground for this ethnic battle.


A young voter casting his vote in Tunisia's presidential runoff held on October 13. Photo by Tunisia's electoral authority [Public domain].

On October 13, Tunisians elected retired constitutional law lecturer and independent candidate Kais Saied, as their president. A week earlier they elected a new parliament. This is Tunisia's fourth election season since the 2011 uprising that toppled the 23-year-rule of autocratic president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Yosr Jouini asserts that this election season was marred with mis- and disinformation which “spread widely across social media platforms,” but particularly on Facebook: 

Observers of the political scene in Tunisia have noted the rise of political party- and candidate-affiliated Facebook groups and pages with substantial numbers of followers. Pages without declared ties or affiliations were also actively involved in spreading political disinformation and sponsored content praising certain parties.

Disinformation spread during the elections included the withdrawal from the race by certain presidential contenders or the false celebrity endorsements of political candidates.

The credibility of the elections was also targeted in disinformation campaigns, promoting the country's electoral authority to repeatedly warn of rumors ”aimed at disrupting the electoral process.”

This atmosphere of disinformation greatly affected the authenticity of information spread on social media— Facebook in particular— during the elections, fuelling the spread of rumors. 

Civil society groups, tech platforms, national institutions, and media professionals all adopted measures to counter the spread of mis- and disinformation during the electoral period. However, in light of the lack of transparency on the part of tech platforms, and the legal void surrounding the regulation of political ads on social media, these measures proved insufficient.

For example, Facebook's Ad Library  ”failed to provide any measures of transparency, and has only been functioning on a few pages.” Dima Samaro, MENA policy associate at Access Now told Jouini.


On October 15, Mozambicans went to the polls to elect a president, parliament and provincial governors. Partial results indicate that President Filip Nyusi, who ruled Mozambique since 1992, will be reelected in the sixth general election held since the multi-party constitution was approved 27 years ago. 

Dércio Tsandzana, Global Voices Lusophone editor, reports that this election was fraught with intimidation of journalists and human rights advocates through threats disseminated via SMS:

One day before the elections, community radio association FORCOM said on Twitter that one of its journalists, Naldo Chivite, received a threatening SMS. ‘’Chivite, you must have attention about what you will say on Tuesday [election day]. You have talked too much about the Nampula [a province in northeastern Mozambique] elections and we've accepted it. Be careful,’’ the message read, according to FORCOM. … Global Voices spoke with Chivite, who said he suspected the threat was sent by members of a political party, without specifying which one. He added that he received similar threats during the 2014 elections.

Chivite’s was not an isolated case, other journalists and activists like Tomé Balança and Fátima Mimbire, were also threatened and/or intimidated. 

Regardless of the medium — online, SMS or phone calls — these threats are a violation of the right of Mozambicans to information and freedom of expression. In addition, it ramps up the climate of fear because journalists and activists can no longer provide the public with credible information without fear of physical harm.  

Additionally, there are also concerns that Russia might have interfered with the electoral process. Two weeks after the elections, on October 30, Facebook announced the suspension of accounts originated in Russia targeting multiple African countries, including Mozambique. The company said the accounts engaged in “inauthentic behavior” and were connected with Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the pages Facebook listed as being “inauthentic” was that of the Association for Free Research and Cooperation (AFRIC), which  sent a 60-person electoral observation mission to Mozambique. AFRIC previously observed elections in other African countries including Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and the Republic of South Africa.

Nigeria Elections 2019. Image taken on February 23, 2019 the by Commonwealth Secretariat (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On February 23, 2019, Nigerians elected incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari with 15 million votes. Buhari – who triumphed over his closest rival, Atiku Abubakar – was sworn in for a second term of four years on May 29, 2019. However, the election campaign witnessed widespread dissemination of ethnic hate speech at the service of disinformation and propaganda online, particularly on Twitter.

An ethnographic participant observation conducted between October 28, 2018, and May 29, 2019 by Nwachukwu Egbunike, Global Voices Community Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa revealed that ethnic hate was employed on Twitter as a tool for disinformation and propaganda by both sides of the political divide during the 2019 presidential elections:

In terms of ethnically-charged disinformation, some [All Progressive Congress] APC supporters accused Obi [the running mate of the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate Abubakar] of being a bigot for purportedly deporting northerners while he was governor of Anambra State, in southeast Nigeria. Tweets went viral that claimed that Yoruba people were burning shops of Igbo traders in Lagos. Both stories were false.

Both major political parties engaged an army of online warriors to either “neutralize adverse” social media reports or fend off attacks during the campaign periods. The resultant impact was that Twitter became a battle ground of ethnocentric disinformation and political propaganda before, during and the immediate aftermath of the 2019 elections in Nigeria.


Protesters at the June 2018 Women's March in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Katumba Badru, used with permission.

Ugandans will go the polls to elect a president in 2021. The internet is a battleground, with the government of President Yoweri Museveni gagging political dissent.

During the last elections in 2016 the government shut down social media platforms. Sandra Aceng, Ugandan Global Voices Contributor writes that:

As the 2021 election approaches, Uganda authorities are very likely to continue to crack down on political dissent, including through social media shutdowns. In fact, since the 2016 elections, there has been no change in the legal framework that allows the government to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and access to information online.

Opposition to Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, is rising. As the 2021 election approaches, Uganda authorities are very likely to continue to crack down on political dissent, including through social media shutdowns.

Uganda has also been imposing taxes on users to access social media and mobile money services since July 2018. The finance ministry said the aim of the tax was to raise revenue, but President Yoweri Museveni also called for the tax to regulate “gossip.’ Activists, however, slammed it as an attempt to restrict free speech and crack down on dissent.

With one-third of Ugandans living below the poverty line, surviving on $1.90 USD per day, the new tax .05 cents drove thousands offline and off social media to meet other basic needs. 

Some Ugandans are still able to access OTT services including social media platforms and messaging apps, without paying the tax, through the use of VPNs. Others are still willing to pay the price to get online, even if it hurts their wallets. However, Uganda is facing a social media dilemma, writes Aceng:

…based on mass protests decrying the social media tax over the last year, and the government’s record of shutting down dissent and opposition, Uganda faces a social media dilemma. 

As the opposition heats up and more people find their way around the obstacles posed by the tax, social media will play a critical role in Uganda’s fight for free expression.


Anti-government protesters in the capital Algiers on July 6, 2019. Photo taken by Farah Souames and used with permission.

Since February 22, Algerian has witnessed street protests by citizens calling out corruption, unemployment and the country’s political elite.

Global Voices Algerian contributor Farah Souames reports that:

The country’s lack of a robust media landscape has driven protesters and activists to break through the wall of fear and use social media platforms to broadcast live reports on what’s happening in the streets. Amateur footage of the protests is being widely circulated on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as broadcast by foreign media outlets.

Traditional mainstream media are considered “government mouthpieces”, driving protesters to rely on social media platforms to spread the word about what's happening on the ground. However, the government retaliated by disrupting access to networks and social media platforms.

The protest movement also brought an aggressive wave of ‘’fake news’’ and disinformation on social media platforms.

With the presidential election of 12 December—considered by the protesters as a ploy designed to keep the old regime in power, approaching, pro-government supporters took to social media to attack anti-government activists. The protesters were targeted and subjected to conspiracy theories, such as accusing them of working for foreign governments, secret services, or paid to spread instability and unrest in the country. Twitter hashtags in support of the regime and denouncing calls to boycott the election also trended in Algeria.

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