Last week, Ghana, widely acknowledged as one of Africa’s role models for best democratic practice, caught democracy watchdogs off guard when the country’s police chief announced the government intends to shut down social media on voting day in November. The shutdown is to take place from 5 am to 7 pm “to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilize the country.” While it is a surprise Ghana is making this move, it has become more common for several other African countries who haven’t been as courteous as to give voters notice before curtailing the use of social media and the right to free speech around elections. Deji Olukotun of Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now, notes Ghana “was clearly looking to what other countries have done.” Citizens in Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Uganda, and elsewhere have found elections are a particularly popular time to crack down on social media.
Consider Uganda, which experienced its second social media shut down in three months in the days before president Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his controversial fifth term. The previous time Ugandans faced a social media shutdown was on election day in February. People resorted to using virtual private networks to get round the restrictions to use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
While social media may seem frivolous to those in the West, these platforms have become a critical part of political mobilization in Africa. According to analysis, Twitter accounts from Africa tweet more about politics than accounts from other continents.