The West African country of Benin is currently going to the polls in one of the most farcical elections in recent times.
Not only are there no opposition parties on the ballot papers, but in a last-minute attempt to crack down on any vestiges of opposition, the Government also shut down the internet across the entire country.
Internet shutdown in Benin
In the run-up to the election, rights groups including Amnesty International have reported a whole host of government crackdowns. This includes the violent suppression of peaceful protests and the arbitrary arrest of journalists and rights activists across the country.
Protests against the government of President Patrice Talon stepped up after Benin’s Electoral Commission banned the participation of all but two political parties, both of which support the President, in this month’s elections.
In the past couple of weeks, all protests have been banned and with public anger mounting, the government has now chosen to shut down access to the internet to try and quell dissent and prevent opposition parties from organizing and communicating.
According to NetBlocks, Benin’s state-owned ISP Spacetel shut down from around 9am yesterday. Prior to that, access to a number of social media sites including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Instagram was also blocked nationwide.
At the time of writing, internet access has still not been restored across Benin.
An illegal shutdown
Amnesty International has described the shutdown in Benin as “a blunt violation of the right to freedom of expression.” François Patuel, their West Africa Researcher said, “It is effectively silencing human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers who are monitoring contested parliamentary elections without opposition candidates.”
Shutting down the internet in this way is a clear violation of both the right to freedom of expression enshrined in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Benin is a signatory to both these treaties.
It also goes contrary to a resolution passed in 2016 by the African Commissioner on Human and People’s Rights which expressed concern over a growing number of African states interrupting or limiting access to telecommunications services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, during elections.
Sadly, that resolution has had little traction across Africa. We have reported in the past about the growing number of Internet shutdowns that have taken place in countries like Ethiopia, the Gambia, and Cameroon.
But the trend continues. This year alone, there have already been confirmed internet shutdowns in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Mali and Zimbabwe.
The attempt led to a huge backlash across Benin. The hashtag #Taxepamesmo (“Don’t tax my megabytes”) anchored the opposition campaign and, unlike Uganda, the government eventually backed down and scrapped the idea.
How to use a VPN to get around internet outages in Africa
But it is no surprise that they have become the latest African government to show a willingness to block social media and shut down the internet altogether when their very grip on power is at stake.
VPN use in Benin and other countries in Africa to counter this state interference in the internet is on the rise. But while premium VPNs only cost a few dollars a month, this can be too much for people on the sort of average wages earned in countries like Benin.
As a result, people have tended to choose free VPNs such as the ones we listed above. But, as we have cautioned users many times before, these free VPNs often cause much more harm than good, compromising user privacy and inundating them with adware and even malware.
We would therefore strongly recommend that users in countries like Benin find a way to use a premium VPN if they possibly can. There are ways to do this.
Some providers allow multiple connections on a single account. StrongVPN leads the way here with 12 closely followed by IPVanish with 10. This means you can sign up together with family or friends and share the cost of a subscription, making it much more affordable.
The government of President Patrice Talon is inevitably going to win the latest elections in Benin and, despite international condemnation of his techniques, will serve another term in office.
Who knows what other steps he will take to attack online freedoms in order to try and cement his control of the country in that time.
With many other African governments employing similar techniques, VPNs have never been more important for African internet users than they are right now.