Internet Shutdowns in Sudan and Senegal: The Humanitarian Fallout

Internet Shutdowns in Sudan and Senegal: The Humanitarian Fallout

In today’s world, mobile phone networks and in particular the internet serve as a lifeline for communication, information dissemination, and humanitarian efforts. However, when the authorities in charge shut down this essential tool, the consequences are profound, particularly for vulnerable populations and humanitarian organisations working to provide humanitarian assistance and protection.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, internet shutdowns have become a trend amongst several African governments to establish control over the unrest in the region. At least ten countries had internet shutdowns in Africa last year (techcabal).

Recently, both Sudan and Senegal have experienced internet shutdowns, raising concerns about the impact on humanitarian endeavours, democratic processes, and the diaspora communities striving to support their home countries.

Diaspora play a crucial role in supporting their home countries, both economically and socially. Through remittances and advocacy efforts, diaspora members contribute to the development and wellbeing of their communities. Internet shutdowns disrupt these channels of support and engagement, creating barriers to communication and humanitarian efforts.

In times of crisis, diaspora networks often mobilise to assist through fundraising campaigns, resource mobilisation, or spreading awareness about unfolding events. The Internet serves as a vital tool for connecting diaspora communities across the globe, facilitating coordination and solidarity efforts. When this tool is taken away, the ability of the diaspora to mobilise and support their homeland is severely hampered. For the diaspora, being cut off from family members and loved ones and unable to check on their wellbeing or whereabouts is also exacerbating people’s suffering.

TechAfrica

Senegal – A Constitutional Coup

On 5 February 2024, the Senegal Parliament announced the delay in elections until December 2024, which was followed by protests from opposition supporters against the president’s decision to run for a third term (ABC News).

The authorities imposed a nationwide internet shutdown following the protests. The government claimed that the measure was necessary to maintain public order and security, but critics denounced it as a violation of human rights and freedom of expression (kewoulo.info).

The lack of internet access has hampered the flow of information and communication among the protesters, journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations. Shutting down communications is a recurring event in Senegal, as this is the third time in nine months (techcabal.com).

Restoration of the internet  came after intense pressure from civil society groups, international organisations, and foreign governments (jurist.org).


Sudan Internet Shutdowns: A Barrier to Humanitarian Efforts

Sudan has witnessed regular internet shutdowns in the past few years, highlighting a worrying trend of governments stifling communication channels under various pretexts, including political unrest and protests. While governments often cite security concerns or the need to maintain order, such as in Senegal, the collateral damage extends far beyond the political sphere.

In the case of Sudan, and since the beginning of the war in April 2023, both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have used telecommunications blockages as a weapon to stop information exchange in areas controlled by the opposing party.

As part of the Sudanese diaspora, there is a growing concern about the ongoing internet shutdown in Sudan and its impact on humanitarian efforts. The international community must act urgently to protect internet freedom as a human right.

Article 57 of Sudan’s Constitution gives citizens the right “to access the internet, without prejudice to public order, safety, and morals in accordance with what is determined by law.” (OHCHR). 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OHCHR) and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) on access to information and the freedom of expression, which Sudan has ratified, also provide for the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and access to information to be protected by states at all times, online and offline. 

Finally, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa 2019 (ACHPR) calls upon states not to “engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet and other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.” 

Communication is essential for coordinating relief efforts, disseminating vital information to affected communities, and ensuring the safety of aid workers on the ground.

Without the Internet, there are no means to transfer money from abroad, or to make many payments inside the country. With the collapse of the banking system, following the outbreak of conflict in April 2023, Sudan relies heavily on e-banking and money wallets for purchasing daily essentials such as food and medicines.

The ongoing internet blackout has posed severe challenges for emergency assistance and humanitarian aid. Accessing lifesaving information on safe routes and wiring money or using e-wallets, which many in Sudan depend on, has become more challenging.

Communication is also vital for identifying safe passages for humanitarian aid and evacuation from conflict zones. When the Internet is cut off, local humanitarian actors cannot efficiently respond to crises. International organisations working in the region have limited access through satellite links (Dabanga). However, communicating with the affected communities and local actors is a challenge.

Addressing the issue of internet shutdowns requires concerted efforts from local and international stakeholders. Governments must recognise the detrimental impact of these actions on humanitarian efforts and commit to upholding the humanitarian law, rights to freedom of expression and access to information. Additionally, the international community, including humanitarian organisations and advocacy groups, can be crucial in condemning internet shutdowns and pressuring governments to respect digital rights.

The recurring pattern of internet shutdowns during conflicts warrants attention from regional and international bodies, with calls for such disruptions to be recognised as humanitarian offences.


Further information and resources

2024 elections and internet shutdowns watch – Access Now

Network blackout cuts communications for millions in war-torn Sudan | Reuters

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