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Twitter’s Presence in Africa Won’t End Internet Censorship

Big Tech companies see an opportunity for growth on the continent, but they risk becoming accessories to authoritarian regimes.

By , a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Security officers record Bobi Wine.
Security officers record the scene as musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine (unseen) arrives to vote at a polling station in Magere, Uganda, on Jan. 14. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

In April, Twitter announced it was opening an African headquarters in Ghana’s capital, Accra—more than a year after founder Jack Dorsey mentioned his own personal plans to move to the continent.

The decision was received with mixed reactions in the African tech community. Although many were excited, others were not pleased with the choice of Ghana as Twitter’s Africa head office. It was seen by many Nigerians as a snub to Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, which is popular with the African start-up community for its fast growing tech hub in Lagos. Ironically, most of the content and curation roles advertised by Twitter in Accra were created with a focus on Nigeria at its core.

On the choice of its Africa headquarters, the San Francisco-based tech giant said, “Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.” There is no doubt Nigeria’s unconducive business environment—and a rising spate of insecurity, kidnappings, and violence—led Twitter to choose Ghana.

Digital authoritarianism is still a threat to basic freedoms and rights in many African countries.

Even with a new office in Accra, the chances Twitter’s presence on the continent will have a significant impact on the daily realities of people living under authoritarian regimes are remote. Digital authoritarianism is still a threat to basic freedoms and rights in many African countries.

For more than two decades, different governments have used a plethora of measures to stifle people’s ability to organize, voice opinions, and participate in governance online. The most common measures deployed are digital surveillance, disinformation, introduction of laws reducing digital rights, and arrests for online speech. Countries have used national security as a justification to pass vague laws against inciting “public order” and have persuaded sites, such as Facebook and Google, to take down content they consider offensive.

These governments will not hesitate to do whatever they have to do when they see any organization breaching their boundaries or influencing citizens in a way they believe is detrimental to their interests. Considering Africa’s large market and the economic opportunities the continent offers foreign investors, companies like Twitter will seek to stay in the good books of these governments to avoid losing their investments.

Africa has a tortuous history with free speech and online freedom. Though most governments are considered democratic, many operate like dictatorships, and they seem to be asserting increasing control over the digital space.

In 2007, Guinea became the first African country to shut down the internet during protests against former President Lansana Conté. Since then, digital blackouts in Africa have become the norm during political upheavals or in times of uncertainty. The most recent case of internet censorship occurred in Uganda earlier this year. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni shut down the internet for almost five days and blocked access to social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube, two days before the January presidential election.

The internet blackout was undeniably a deliberate attempt by the government to keep citizens and the rest of the world in the dark during the election process. Other African countries that have experienced internet shutdowns as well as taxes on blogging and social media use include Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Cameroon, Togo, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Benin.

A number of these tech giants have spoken out and criticized the actions of African governments that block social media access and shut down the internet. In January, Twitter condemned the actions of the Ugandan government ahead of its general elections via its public policy account.

In February, Facebook’s East Africa spokesperson, Janet Kemboi, decried the long internet shutdowns and social media blackouts experienced in Tanzania, Chad, Ethiopia, and Uganda between January 2020 and February of this year, calling them a violation of human rights in the digital age. However, there is little these tech giants can do in the fight against internet censorship if they want to remain in governments’ good graces.

In many African countries, internet censorship and social media crackdowns are deployed as tools of political intimidation and repressive laws are adopted to prosecute and neutralize political opposition on the internet or on social media.

Tech companies’ efforts have been largely channeled toward winning a vast swath of new users. Tech companies have always talked about offering their services to people who are offline; approximately 700 million of those 3 billion people in Africa. Most new endeavors are focused on getting more people online.

In 2019, Google announced a new private subsea cable, Equiano, that will shuttle high-speed data between Africa and Europe. The Equiano cable will start in Western Europe and run along the West Coast of Africa, between Portugal and South Africa, with branches along the way that can be used to extend connectivity to additional African countries.

There is little these tech giants can do in the fight against internet censorship if they want to remain in governments’ good graces.

In 2020, Facebook also announced plans to build a $1 billion undersea internet cable to connect 23 countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The cable connection will bring faster internet connectivity to the continent by providing nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today.

Facebook is keen on generating stronger monthly active users growth in countries with lower average revenue per user than in the United States, Europe, and Canada—and Africa forms a large percentage of this market.

According to Internet World Stats, Africa has a population of almost 1.4 billion people but an internet penetration rate of just 39 percent compared to a global average rate of 59 percent. Facebook is hoping to build internet infrastructure for developing countries, thereby becoming synonymous with what the internet is for many first-time users.

According to Twitter, Ghana’s recent appointment to host the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) aligns with their overarching goal to establish a presence in the region that will support their efforts to improve and tailor their services across Africa. The AfCFTA agreement is expected to lower tariff barriers, stimulate billions of dollars in trade, and facilitate easier business transactions between more than 50 African countries. This further confirms the notion that Twitter’s move is largely a business decision.

Although Twitter establishing its presence in Africa has been received with much enthusiasm, it is unlikely it will help much in the fight against internet censorship and social media crackdowns. After all, Facebook and Google established their presence much earlier on the continent, however, they have not contributed significantly toward the fight for free speech nor taken steps to counter internet shutdowns.

Facebook opened its first Africa office in Johannesburg, with focus on growing markets in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. In 2008, Google started expanding its presence in Africa with its head office in Kenya while extending to other countries, including Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Senegal. Yet the number of internet shutdowns in the continents have only increased over the past decade.

Social media, formerly seen as a profoundly democratic technology, is increasingly enabling authoritarians and their allies. It is easier to spread fake news on social media than to correct it and faster to fan the flames of social divisions than to fix them.

The way citizens engage with Facebook and other social media platforms now helps authoritarian leaders weaken the foundations of democratic systems. It is therefore crucial to ensure tech companies, in their quest for lucrative new markets, do not bend their own standards and become accessories to autocratic governments.

Torinmo Salau is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has been published in Quartz, Al Jazeera, Roads and Kingdoms, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Twitter: @torinmo_