Defending Democracy: Preparing Senegalese Civil Society for Shutdowns

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Internet Shutdowns in Senegal

Senegal’s reputation as one of the most stable democracies in Africa has faced a stress test under its President Macky Sall. In 2021, Sall’s government arrested the main opposition leader, resulting in extensive protests on the streets and online. With a 46% internet penetration rate—one of the highest in West Africa—many young Senegalese use the internet daily, most frequently via their mobile phones, and turned to it to voice their opposition. The hashtag #freeSenegal became a rallying cry for protesters.

Yet on the morning of March 4, 2021, a day into the protests, the network-measurement NGO Netblocks detected a government-orchestrated internet shutdown, restricting access to prominent digital communication apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram on a popular mobile ISP. The government also suspended two TV stations covering the protests. Additionally, it censored popular websites as election results came in.

The threat of a shutdown had loomed before the election. Even as Sall’s government pursued a digital agenda to expand the ICT sector crucial to the country’s economic development, it blamed social media for political “agitation” and called for regulations that would expand its power over these services. Such statements signal state efforts to assert tighter control over digital information flows, mirroring governmental incursions on traditional media. In 2017, Sall’s administration passed the Press Code, which curtails media freedom within the country. The legislation has been accompanied by intimidation and arrests of journalists under the banner of national security.

While the country has no laws that explicitly address internet shutdowns, the government can invoke existing legal frameworks governing telecommunications networks to disrupt online information flows and even shut down the internet. For instance, the 2018 Electronic Communications Code allows regulators significant leeway to manage internet traffic with little oversight.

Meanwhile, many worry that Sall will try to pursue an unconstitutional third term in the upcoming 2024 elections and may disrupt internet access during them. Yet Senegalese journalists lack the expertise to document and report on shutdowns, making it difficult to verify whether a shutdown has occurred and to demand governmental accountability. Civil society has little knowledge about shutdowns in the country, including how they happen technically and legally, and limited familiarity with VPNs and other circumvention tools. Many feel unprepared for future shutdowns and few organizations have contingency measures in place if one were to take place.


Computech Institute’s Key Approach: Public advocacy, on the road

Computech Institute is a Senegalese educational organization in the capital city of Dakar. With its team of educators and professionals, it prepares young Senegalese for employment through technical and professional training. Its pedagogy promotes independence, entrepreneurship, and technological training, and cultivates commitment to equity, excellence, solidarity, social responsibility, and multiculturalism, all in service of a well-trained and ethical workforce that will contribute to the social and economic development within Africa.

Computech’s anti-shutdown project developed in the shadow of the 2021 internet shutdown. As a first step, the organization conducted a survey of Senegalese civil society to gauge the level of preparedness for future shutdowns and the results were bleak.

“The main finding was that we were not ready. Senegal was not prepared for internet shutdowns. This was a new subject to us,” notes Daouda Diagne, CEO of Computech. A deep dive into Senegal’s legal frameworks followed at a workshop the organization convened, and it revealed the government’s extensive authority to shut down the internet. For Diagne, this work represents a best practice in anti-shutdown advocacy.

“From that research and that workshop, we said, ‘to move forward we have to raise awareness and to train people,’” says Diagne. Computech was faced with a key question: how to effectively reach and inform everyday Senegalese about internet shutdowns?

“If you want to reach people, we have to go to them. We have to meet them on the streets, in their offices, wherever we can meet them,” emphasizes Diagne. Computech partnered with Jonction, an advocacy nonprofit focused on digital rights, and came up with the RAISE (Raising Awareness on Internet Shutdowns Events) campaign. One component included a social media campaign. However, a key innovation emerged when one of the activists with ties to a theater troupe proposed an original idea.

“We had a road show, and we implicated a theater group just to have fun and to raise awareness for people. We went to ten locations throughout Dakar. We were distributing posters. We talked to anybody we met and explained to them what a shutdown is, how it can happen, why it happens, etc. During that process, we distributed like 2,000 posters. We reached 2,000 people. In each location, we worked with ten teenagers. We trained them, we prepared them to talk to people. Next to talking to people and next to distributing the posters, the theater group was performing,” recounts Diagne.

The troupe would enact scenarios that covered how shutdowns occur and what their impact is. Then, the actors would engage the spectators in a discussion on how to best address the scenario. Audience members came up with many solutions, including petitioning ISPs and the government. “It was quite a success,” says Diagne.

“After the campaign, we said ‘We have to train people so they can do [network] measurements,’” says Diagne. “We need people [to know how to collect] data to document internet shutdowns. You don’t just have to say, ‘Yes, the internet is shut down.’ It is the government, or it is a telco? We need technical details.” The workshops, which attracted recruits with small grants for advocacy projects, established a foundation for a trusted data collection network and prepared trainees to answer these questions. “We trained 11 people from civil society organizations and they’re doing measurements,” notes Diagne.

Following the trainings, in early June 2023, Senegal faced another internet shutdown.

“We did a great job,” stresses Diagne. “Before the shutdown, we learned that people did not know about VPNs. And we talked about VPNs during the campaign. So when the shutdown happened, everybody was starting to download VPN and I received phone calls: ‘What is the best VPN that I can use? What do you advise?’”

Computech’s efforts paid off and continue to pay dividends. Many more people are now more aware of internet shutdowns and how they can manifest. Several network measurement training participants have begun to conduct their own workshops throughout the country. A community of testers continues to collect network data. “That’s what we want to do: keep that community alive,” says Diagne. However, scaling the project, including travel and producing resources, is expensive and funding is essential. “We don’t yet know on what door we can knock to get those resources,” admits Diagne. Currently, the goal is to sustain the network via online communication and coordination.

Computech’s work yielded important lessons about shutdowns. “We realized Senegal was not immune and that it can happen any time. But since we did the campaign through Dakar and the online campaign, we’re getting ready.” Thanks to Computech’s work, the civil society network is preparing ahead of the upcoming elections. During the recent shutdowns, several organizations trained in Computech’s shutdown preparedness workshop sent warnings to the government and ISPs about shutting down the internet in the future.

Additionally, the testers’ ongoing measurement has produced data on the recent shutdown that informs reports by international measurement groups. A best practice exemplar, the data also serves as a foundation for the development of an after-action methodology, whose goal is to help civil society facing similar shutdowns to learn from and build on the Senegalese response.