In response to the violent riots that erupted after the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, the Senegal government has taken the drastic step of blocking internet access, citing the dissemination of “hateful and subversive” messages online.
The ongoing protests, which have lasted for three days, have resulted in the deaths of 16 individuals, marking one of the deadliest episodes of civil unrest in Senegal in recent history.
The government’s decision to restrict mobile internet services in specific areas was announced in a statement released on Sunday.
The move comes as a direct response to the posting of inflammatory messages that have further fuelled the riots.
While the statement did not specify the affected regions or the duration of the internet blackout, residents across Dakar reported an inability to access the internet without a Wi-Fi connection during Sunday afternoon, a time when demonstrations typically intensify.
Previously, the government had limited access to certain messaging platforms; however, this measure proved ineffective as many individuals managed to circumvent the outage using virtual private networks (VPNs) to conceal their locations.
Consequently, the government expanded the internet blackout on Sunday, encompassing all mobile internet data in select areas and during specific times.
The root cause of the unrest stems from the recent sentencing of prominent opposition figure Ousmane Sonko to a two-year prison term, a verdict that could potentially bar him from participating in the upcoming presidential election scheduled for February.
Adding fuel to the fire, protesters have also expressed their discontent with President Macky Sall’s refusal to rule out seeking a third term, contravening Senegal’s established two-term presidential limit.
Although internet shutdowns are not unprecedented in Africa, often utilized as a means to suppress dissent, they have faced criticism from human rights organizations for violating freedom of speech.
Such restrictions not only infringe upon international law but can also inflict economic damage on already vulnerable economies.
In response to the initial wave of internet outages in Senegal, Amnesty International denounced these actions as arbitrary measures that cannot be justified by security concerns.
The use of internet blackouts to control the spread of information originated during the 2011 Arab Spring and has since been employed by countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo during periods of political instability.