[Update: A well-placed source inside Econet says they have not noticed anything abnormal on their network. It’s service as normal]
African governments have a reputation for shutting down the internet to limit their people’s ability to communicate or stay informed. Just a few weeks ago we were talking about the following statement from the Senegalese government:
Because of the spread of hateful and subversive messages … mobile Internet is temporarily suspended at certain hours of the day
The Senegalese have elections in less than 6 months’ time and so the shutdown checks out. We wondered if (or when) Zimbabwe would see its own internet shutdown. It looks like that day is today, or is it?
Netblocks posted the following message to their Twitter at around 5 pm today, the 22nd of August:
Confirmed: Metrics indicate that internet service has been degraded in #Zimbabwe on the eve of elections; the incident impacts online platforms on NetOne, Econet, TelOne and Liquid, potentially affecting citizens’ ability to stay informed
We reached out to Econet and NetOne and will update you when we hear from them. However, TechCabal quotes Econet saying,
We are facing a system challenge and we are working towards restoring normalcy. Any inconvenience caused is sincerely regretted
Who is this NetBlocks by the way? It is a watchdog organisation that monitors the cybersecurity and governance of the internet. It is a legit organisation and has helped us make sense of some internet degradations in Zimbabwe in the past.
That may be but we don’t take everything they say as gospel. We did our own tests and asked around and found that internet service is just at its normal disappointing level for most. Most people are reporting nothing unusual today. Same for us.
So, what gives?
Are NetBlocks lying? Not really, it’s complicated. There really is some internet service degradation.
Two subsea cables – the West African Cable System (WACS) and the South Atlantic 3 (SAT-3/WASC) – were damaged off the coast of West Africa around the 8th of August. This damage has affected us down here in Southern Africa.
Were it not for Google’s Equiano undersea cable that we talked about last year, we would be in deep trouble. The Equiano cable picked up the slack but some degradation was still observed.
Said Liquid Dataport CEO, as quoted by Data Centre Dynamics,
As part of our disaster recovery process and to offer high redundancy to our customers, we have migrated our customers’ West Coast traffic to our new Equiano subsea cable. Whilst this additional capacity has brought in a much-needed increase in bandwidth in Western and Southern Africa, the redundancy is also the reason why we are able to minimize the impact on our customers.
They managed to minimise the impact but there still was some impact and that’s what NetBlocks is picking up.
A compelling narrative
I believe NetBlocks got caught up in a narrative and rushed to insinuate that there was a nefarious reason for the degradation. They didn’t outright say the government had tinkered with things, they merely pointed out the curious timing of the degradation.
The timing appears to be just a coincidence. We asked some experts and the word is they expect one of the damaged cables to be fixed by the 25th of August whilst the other one could stay broken for over 3 months.
It behoves us to remember that NetBlocks’ X bio says “The Internet’s Observatory: Tracking cybersecurity and digital governance • connectivity and democracy • tools and policy for change”. That focus on connectivity and democracy and seeking change may have led to the sensationalisation.
The degradation foretold by many
It didn’t help that influential people like Freeman Chari have been warning us that the government might be planning to shut the internet down on election day. Said Chari on X,
So I hear that they are now contemplating shutting down the internet on election day. In the next few days we will make a major announcement about that….
The opposition party, CCC, intends to use the DemoVox parallel vote tabulation system we talked about earlier this month. It involves ordinary citizens taking pictures of V11s posted at polling stations and sending them over for processing by CCC.
It makes all the sense in the world to believe that the government would want to cripple internet access to prevent that.
Now, this is not to say the government won’t try to shut down the internet tomorrow as Chari is warning. What we are saying is that today’s observed degradation is a result of damage to two undersea cables in West Africa. I would bet my life savings that the Zim govt did not remotely trigger the rock falls that damaged the cables.
Interesting tidbit, Chari says even if the govt shuts down the internet on election day they will still be able to communicate and share images.
I have no idea what kind of solution they have but I can’t wait to dig into the details,
I wish I could announce this but seeing how jittery they are, its better to keep them guessing. If they shut down the network tomorrow you will see us tichingenga. I promise to open source this after elections so our villagers can benefit.
It looks like we won’t have to wait long. We shall push for the open sourcing of whatever it is they have cooking.