Editor’s Note: On top of the journalistic research for this article, we’ve also included the voices of our Global Citizens. You can find their quotes woven into this explainer. For their protection, only their first names were used. 

As Sudan experiences a civil war where one of the most severe hunger crises of 2023 (and 2024 so far) is ongoing, access to humanitarian aid is both dire and scarce, and innocent lives are being scraped off the planet every day — authorities added insult to injury by shutting the internet down when citizens needed it most. 

It was mid-February 2024, almost a year into the ongoing violence, when Sudan’s internet would be disrupted for around 10 days. While the current civil war has been ongoing for over a year, violence and conflict have clung to Sudan’s back — on and off — for years, and throughout, internet shutdowns have been the norm. 

A humanitarian aid worker in the country explained the most recent shutdown’s impact on their work on the ground, saying: “Because of the internet shutdown, we are unable to communicate with our volunteers, we are unable to buy food, medicine and deliver these services to those in need. Most of our soup kitchens in the greater Khartoum are cut off and therefore not working.” 

A civilian expressed: “Due to war, using online banking apps for transactions has gained popularity given the lack of liquidity. Now, however, we are almost starving because of this shutdown, as we can’t even buy food and medicine. All my interactions, including business and online courses, have come to a stop too.” 

Whether or not access to the internet should be considered a human right is no longer up for debate: it should be. The internet has become a vital part of the engine that propels the world forward, and to block someone’s access to it is to block someone’s access to their already existing human rights. 

Access to education, food, employment, health, and humanitarian aid, are all within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and because the internet has overwhelmingly become the means by which we access these rights, it should suffice that access to the internet itself should be a human right. We go deeper into this argument here.

So when an entire region or nation has been denied the right to access the internet due to political agendas that are not always in the best interest of the people, we should be worried as a global society. 

Internet shutdowns have increasingly become the norm across the African continent, and as uprisings and protests erupt, elections are scheduled and rescheduled, and wars and conflicts continue, it has become both a weapon and a currency. Internet shutdowns across the African continent are not only frustrating, but they are increasingly harmful. Here’s what more you should know: 

What are internet shutdowns? 

We’re not talking about an outage here. An outage is when an error or accident occurs and the internet goes off as a result, for instance in times of extreme weather where infrastructure is destroyed, or in the case of maintenance repairs. A shutdown, on the other hand, is the deliberate turning off of the internet to control a population or the information flow surrounding a situation, and is often orchestrated by some form of authority.

One of the most prominent internet crackdowns in recent history was that of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests. Egypt’s authorities at the time caught on to the fact that demonstrators were using the internet to mobilize and multiply the protest movement, and so they shut off the internet — directly impacting access to an open civic space for the right to protest and speak freely. While it wasn’t the first internet shutdown in history, because of the magnitude of the Arab Spring protests, the world opened its eyes to how internet shutdowns can be weaponized. 

A similar thing happened in the last African monarchy-state, eSwatini, in 2021, when pro-democracy and anti-police brutality protests erupted, the state shut down the internet citing “security reasons”, depriving children of their education, businesses of their income, and citizens alike of their free speech. 

If it’s still not clear why these shutdowns are a bad thing, a Global Citizen from Ghana, who wished to stay anonymous, broke it down for us: “The internet means Information, which means power in the hands of the people. The reason governments like to impose restrictions is so the information flow can be stagnant, robbing people of their power to be seen and heard.”

How do governments shut down the internet? 

There are two ways that governments can turn off access to the internet. They can either rely on what’s called a routing disruption, which is to stop the transmission of information altogether, meaning people using the internet can’t connect to it, and information being sent will not find its destination. This is largely what we’ve seen across the continent, particularly in the case of Sudan and eSwatini. The second is called packet filtering, where parts of the internet or specific sites are shut down, or specific content is targeted, for instance, Nigeria blocking access to Twitter in 2021

What impact is it having on people’s lives? 

Civic space and West African court cases 

After making the mistake of breaking Twitter’s “abusive behavior” regulations, former Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari’s Tweet was deleted by the social media platform. In retaliation (or what the government referred to as protecting the state from “undermining Nigeria's corporate existence”) the government banned Twitter for the entire country. A ban that would last for seven months. This move also came mere months after the end of the #EndSARS protests, in which protesters used Twitter as a tool to organize and mobilize their movement. 

At the time, Human Rights Watch and other organizations raised alarm about the impact of freedom of expression and an open civic space, however, these calls were ignored by Buhari’s government. What’s more is that any use of Twitter, including by journalists and media houses, was deemed “unpatriotic”, and could result in persecution.

A Global Citizen from Nigeria, Jeremiah, reminisced on how the Twitter crackdown impacted the community:

“The sudden ban of Twitter, now referred to as X, several years ago sent shockwaves through communities, significantly affecting not only individuals' ability to connect and share but also disrupting businesses and revenue streams dependent on the platform.” 

He added: “It highlighted the interconnectedness of individuals and businesses in the digital realm, where disruptions to online platforms can have far-reaching consequences on livelihoods.” 

Eventually the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) court found the government in violation of freedom of expression, and ordered the country to never ban the website again.

In 2024 Senegal is experiencing Nigeria’s history, as civil society organizations are taking the Senegalese government to the ECOWAS court regarding internet shutdowns that took place in June, July, and August 2023 as presidential elections were meant to be en route and popular opposition leader (and fierce critic of President Macky Sall) Ousmane Sonk was criminally charged and held in custody. 

The country saw another internet blackout in Feb. 2024 around the time of the country’s elections. The blackouts not only limited the right to access information and the freedom of expression of everyday citizens, but it also limited the work of journalists on the ground. The government went so far as to suspend the license of a broadcaster during the election period in Feb. 2024.

Speaking to Global Citizen on the internet blackout in Senegal, the African head of the International Federation of Journalists, Louis Thomasi said: “Political interference is really putting a dent in qualitative journalism. If you look at what’s happening in Africa all over, it is now a norm that during election periods, the internet will be cut off. Even yesterday again [13 Feb. 2024] in Dakar, in Senegal, the internet was cut off.” 

“It’s a deliberate attempt to suppress freedom of expression and media freedom in general,” he added.

Internet shutdowns and crimes against humanity

We’ve already mentioned that there’s an ongoing war in Sudan and the country has had its internet cut off several times in the face of the civil war. Sudanese Global Citizen, Mazen, explains what having online access means to them: “Nowadays, the Internet means life. It makes you aware and connected with the world.”

Internet blackouts in the country have heavily impacted people’s lives, but their impacts are a lot worse than you can imagine. The loss of the internet has also meant that conflict-related atrocities can continue without being reported. Advocacy organization, Access Now, has consistently kept tabs on the violent impacts of shutdowns in Sudan. 

The organization noted that in 2021, the day before a pro-democracy protest was to take place, the internet was cut off along with phone and SMS services. The protest continued regardless. With citizens having no ability to transmit information inside or outside of Sudan, authorities took the opportunity to crack down physically on protesters. At least 17 people were killed, and 250 people were injured as a result. 

“The internet blackouts are doing their job and providing cover for the military’s violent takeover and hijacking of a possible democratic future for Sudan,” Marwa Fatfta, MENA Policy Manager at Access Now, said of the situation.

What can we do? 

“I have experienced natural disasters such as earthquakes, social unrest causing violent protests, terrorist attacks, all sorts of events that caused or forced involuntary internet shutdowns,” Rwandan Global Citizen Gabriel said. “The one thing I missed the most in any of those instances was critical services and the ability to connect with my loved ones. This is what the internet means to me.”

It’s futile to deny the importance of online access to people across the continent. However, for as long as the internet exists, there will be ways to exploit it for the use of harm towards everyday citizens in African countries, and around the world. Since 2011, the United Nations has called for universal internet access as a human right, however, this has not been implemented across countries despite the growing call for it. 

Right now what Global Citizens can do is remain informed about internet shutdowns and their impacts on communities, and spread the word about them so that their impacts do not go unnoticed and underreported. You can also follow organizations like Access Now, the Internet Society Foundation, and the Keep it on Coalition (hosted by Access Now) to stay informed.

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

Africa’s Internet Shutdowns: Where, Why, and How Do They Happen?

By Khanyi Mlaba