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Gambia goes on digital lockdown

Gambia goes on digital lockdown

The credibility of the outcome of what has been described the first serious vote to challenge the candidacy of the incumbent Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh, could not be ascertained as the government cut the internet, barred international calls and sealed land borders around the ballot cast on Thursday.

Though it is not the first of such cases to be recorded, governments in Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda have previously towed similar lines around election day - controlling communications by shutting down the internet and text messaging platforms on the pretext that they pose security risks to the well-being of their respective states.

As these shutdowns are gradually becoming a norm among African states with a long history of rule, the signs are getting clearer that the role of the internet in electioneering processes across the mobile phone-led continent is now topical and needs to be debated more.

Earlier this year when the Ghana Police Service said it is considering shutting down social media services in the country for the December 7 general elections - the Inspector General of Police, John Kudalor, cited their abuse by political parties and ordinary citizens as a cause of unnecessary tension, it was met with undiluted resistance from various quarters.

The incumbent Ghanaian leader, John Mahama, who is running for re-election, later came out at the launch of his party's campaign for the elections to say that there would be no shutdown.

However, unlike Mahama, who is contesting for a second term in office after he was elected as the President of Ghana in 2012, Jammeh has been in power for 22 years and is running for a fifth term with his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).

While the Gambian Information Minister, Sheriff Bojang, alludes that the Internet shutdown at around 8:15pm on the eve of the vote - followed by halt to text messages Thursday afternoon - was a security measure to guard against people using it to give out false information, others think it was as a result of the stiff opposition that has risen against Jammeh's rule.

The opposition has been using messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Skype and Viber and texts to organise rallies and move around roadblocks during their campaign. Undoubtedly, these tools would have been used extensively on the polling day especially since international observers like the European Union (EU) have been barred from being on the ground except for a small team of African Union experts working with Gambia-based US and European delegations.

The opposing group had to resort to using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to get around the control. But as a Western diplomatic source told Reuters that internet and phone outages would last until Sunday, three days after the final ballot would have been cast, the impact of the effort against the blackout is indeterminate.

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