By: Tyler Walton (SALC Fellow)
On Sunday 28 April, starting at around midnight, people in Benin were unable to access social media sites and apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram, and Viber. The partial shutdown was followed by a complete internet shutdown on major internet service providers, including Spacetel, MTN and Moov, which hit full force around 10:00 in the morning, local time. The internet shutdown lasted for about 15 hours, before services began becoming available again. The shutdown was reported by NetBlocks, an international organisation which monitors global internet access, but has not yet been publically acknowledged by the government or internet service providers in Benin. The role of the government in shutting down the internet can be implied by the circumstances surrounding the outage.
That same day, Benin held its parliamentary elections. The election commission reported that only 23 percent of the country’s 5 million eligible voters cast ballots. This was the first year since multi-party democracy began in 1990 that the voter turnout dipped below 50 percent.
The low voter turnout was due to several underlying factors. For one, major opposition parties were banned from participating in the election and called for a boycott. They were blocked from participating following their inability to meet new administrative requirements in an electoral code passed by the party of the ruling president, Patrice Talon. One of the new requirements for parties to submit a list for the 83-seat parliamentary elections was a payment of about US$424,000. The only two parties who were included on the ballot were the Republican Bloc and the Progressive Union, both allies of the current President. The prior parliamentary elections held five years ago included over twenty parties.
Amongst other potential causes for the low voter turnout were the violent government responses to three peaceful protests in the weeks leading up to the election; the police used teargas, batons and compressed air cannons. Additionally journalists and opposition candidates were arrested on dubious charges. Yibatou Sani Glélé, an MP from one of the opposition parties was charged with holding an unauthorised gathering and incitement to hold an unauthorised gathering. Julien Agossou Bode, the second deputy mayor of Dangbo, was arrested for inciting violence on social media. Casimir Kpedjo and Ignace Sossou, two journalists, were arrested for publishing “false information” on social media.
The events surrounding the elections in Benin are disconcerting. Ultimately, the point of an election is to give effect to the citizens’ fundamental rights to participate in public life and to vote. Essential to these rights are the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression. The government of Benin’s arrests, violent reaction to protests, bureaucratic exclusion of political parties, and shutdown of the internet create an environment where it is impossible for citizens to enjoy their rights.
Free and fair elections are an essential, if not the essential, part of an open and democratic society. Leaders who hamper elections in order to maintain power and prevent opposition critically damage the functioning of democracy and prevent citizens from fully exercising their rights. While authoritarian leaders have used tools like arrests, bureaucracy and clamp downs on assemblies for many years to impact election outcomes, tools such as internet shutdowns have more recently arrived on the scene. The novelty of internet shutdowns, however, should not detract from recognising the severe ways in which they prevent the free exercise of fundamental rights.
As more and more people exercise their expression online, platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter have become the modern public squares where ideas and opinions are shared. They are essential spaces for political participation, and have become necessary avenues for organisations such as political parties to communicate with their membership. When the internet is shutdown, the ability to exercise the rights to express opinions, participate in public life, and effectively organise associations is critically obstructed.
Benin should not settle for the hampered elections that took place on 28 April. Parliament should reflect the will of the people, and its representatives should be chosen in a free and fair election. In the future, the government of Benin should recognise how repressive actions hurt the exercise of democracy, and refrain from damaging interference, including through a shutdown of the internet.
These events have all occurred as elections are imminent in countries here in our own region. Malawians will go to the polls tomorrow to exercise their right to vote. There have already been rumours that the ruling party government is attempting to shutdown access to WhatsApp and other social media during the election. Mozambique will be holding a national election in October of this year. The governments and electoral commissions in these countries should work to create an environment which protects the exercise of the fundamental right to vote, and all of the other rights which are essential to free and fair elections. One thing that is certain is that internet shutdowns are just one more action that diminish the integrity of elections. Governments should vow to #KeepItOn so that elections can occur within a fully connected marketplace of ideas.