By Sanna Camara
Lamin Yarboe, a young man in his late 20s, celebrated the end of a blockade to social media applications in The Gambia on Saturday morning, calling it “freedom in its entirety.” Some 48 hours earlier, as his country went through presidential elections, Yarboe couldn't even visit Facebook or use WhatsApp.
The small West African country went to the polls on Dec. 1 to elect a president. Twelve hours before the polls opened, online traffic began grinding to a halt due to a “presidential directive.” The entire internet gateway was shut down. Telephone calls into and out of the country were impossible, raising questions about the transparency of the electoral process taking place in Banjul. Despite these attempts by the incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, opposition candidate Adama Barrow won the election, marking the first change in leadership since 1994.
The internet blockade was lifted soon after the victory was announced. “It seems the WhatsApp is unblocked; free Gambians,” Yarboe posted on his Facebook timeline on Saturday morning. Yarboe is one of the thousands of young Gambians who throughout the recent struggles for change have been active on social media, a tool that helped define the election and delivered an overwhelming and shocking defeat to President Jammeh. From livestreaming opposition conventions to launching candidates and raising funds, social media drove the change agenda of the Gambian people.
It came as a relief for some that a two-decade tyranny has come to an end. However, the expectations for freedom in a “new Gambia” are still mixed. The political change means different things to different Gambians, both at home and abroad.
Journalist Lamin Jahateh, member of The Gambia Online Journalists network, said the diaspora raised over $50,000 in 24 days to support the opposition campaign using the online crowd funding tool GoFundMe. While people living in the diaspora have been disenfranchised, their influence over voters on the ground was significant—a factor even the president couldn't ignore. Raising funds was necessary to match the “vast resource imbalance” between the incumbent party and its competitors, which Economic Community of West African States observers decried as a key factor in the 2011 presidential election.
The effect of social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, also helped close the gap between the opposing candidates’ media presences, as mainstream outlets were dominated by the incumbent’s information and propaganda during the campaign. For example, the Gambia Youth and Women’s Forum, a public Facebook group with 55,000 members, was very active leading up to the election. It regularly posted about and debated current issues, endorsing the opposition coalition and rallying voters.
The opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), which came in second place in the 2001 and 2006 presidential elections, created over a dozen WhatsApp groups since April, when hundreds of people protested in the capital to call for political change and electoral reform. Many were arrested during the #GambiaRising campaign, and UDP secretary Solo Sandeng, along with two others, was killed in state custody. The WhatsApp groups have been used over the past several months to communicate and discuss issues with the party’s supporters. By the time the UDP joined an eight-party opposition coalition in October—an unprecedented effort to put forward a unity candidate after an unsuccessful attempt in 2006—the number of opposition WhatsApp groups nearly doubled and were collectively dubbed “the coalition forum.” Members receive messages that they can share with their various contacts and can also post their own messages in the forums. Other social and community groups also became rallying tools for opposition voters.
In reaction to this high volume of activity, WhatsApp was blocked in The Gambia. After users were advised to install virtual private networks (VPN) in order to circumvent the blockade, the government enforced a VPN blockade as well. Unable to completely block WhatsApp, the government soon instituted an entire internet shutdown before voters went to the polls.
Halting Internet Traffic
Both Akamai technologies, the “global leaders” in content delivery network and cloud services, and Psiphone Inc. reported an “internet disruption” in Gambia the evening before the election. Online traffic in the country dropped to zero by 8:44 p.m. and stayed there for more than 18 hours.
“In addition to the internet, phone lines and electricity were being cut off in some areas of Gambia,” said Jeffrey Smith, founding director of the political think tank Vanguard Africa. There are also reliable reports that the country’s borders were closed.
By the morning hours of polling day, sources in the capital city of Banjul confirmed that communication was largely back to normal, and that problems were limited to long-distance phone calls and internet access. The information minister Sheriff Bojang said to Agence-France Presse that the internet blockade was necessary to minimize the spread of false information during the elections.
A security incident handler at AccessNow, a coalition of civil society actors advocating for open internet, said the net blockade prior to polling day was not easy to counteract: “I have done a quick search and according to the results, the telecom infrastructure in Gambia is fully under control of the government. There are mentions of several licenses that have been issued by the government to the private companies to get international connections. This gives us a slight hope that some of the ISPs will remain operational during the period. I have to admit the chances are rather low.”
“This crisis and its epilogue demonstrates the important role the internet has in the democratization of Africa, reminding everyone of the importance of protecting freedom of expression and information online,” said Julie Owono of Internet Sans Frontières, a member of the #KeepItOn coalition, a group of civil society groups speaking up against internet shutdowns around the world.
Many thought it will be impossible to bring down one of Africa’s brutal dictators through civil means. Numerous coup attempts failed, as did diplomatic and civil society lobbying, but a determined population supported by social media has enabled a democratic change in West Africa’s smallest country. President-elect Adama Barrow won 227,708 votes, defeating the incumbent Jammeh, who received 208,487. Barrow is now presiding over a transitional, coalition government with a three-year mandate to build strong institutions, introduce governance reforms, and foster economic stability to once again attract investors. The Gambia is free for the second time since independence from Britain in 1965.
Sanna Camara is a Gambian journalist and blogger, a member of Africa Web Activists for Democracy, and Banjul Correspondent for Internet Sans Frontieres based in Paris. He was previously a teaching assistant at the Gambia Press Union School of Journalism.
[Photo courtesy of Jagga]