Late Sunday, March 5, four prisoners escaped from the central prison in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, killing two soldiers.
Late Sunday, March 5, four prisoners escaped from the central prison in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, killing two soldiers. Authorities labeled the detainees as jihadist terrorists.
The next day, customers of all three major cell phone providers – Mattel, Chinguitel and Moov Mauritel – had their Internet connections cut, ostensibly to prevent the refugees from communicating.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding,” recalls Abdou Biye, a comedian and online content creator. A week later, the government announced that three fugitives had been killed and the fourth recaptured. Internet connection was restored on March 13th.
Local journalist Aliya Abass said the internet blackout made her job more difficult than usual. “We didn’t have access to information, and even if we had information, we had no way of verifying it,” she told The Continent.
It wasn’t just journalists fighting for jobs. Mauritania relies heavily on mobile connectivity for day-to-day business. “For a predominantly trade-oriented population, the costs must be enormous,” Abass said. On the first day of the shutdown, hundreds of people queued outside shops selling routers in Nouakchott as landline access was unaffected.
The government justified the Internet shutdown with the statement “safety first”.
National security is among the most cited justifications for internet disruption around the world — although human rights organizations are skeptical.
“Mauritania is a serial perpetrator of internet shutdowns,” said Kassem Mnejja, a regional activist with Access Now, a global organization dedicated to protecting digital human rights. A near-total closure was imposed in June 2019 following a disputed presidential election. The internet is also routinely blocked during national exams.
Governments around the world are increasingly resorting to shutting down the Internet, usually during times of political stress. Last year, Access Now saw more shutdowns than ever before, with 187 in 35 countries.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.