Benin held parliamentary elections Sunday leaving citizens without access to opposition candidates and the internet.
Social media platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well as Spacetel—Benin’s leading internet provider—was shut down according to NetBlocks (a digital monitoring organization), Quartz Africa reports. VPNs were also blocked.
This makes Benin the latest African country alongside Sudan, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo to restrict internet access ahead of pertinent elections, protests and dissent—which in turn impacts the democratic process the country is known to respect.
Shut downs are often costly, in Benin for example, a one-day shutdown costs the country $1.54 million, according to data compiled by NetBlocks and The Internet Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization focused on internet freedom. Benin’s outage lasted 15 hours and encompassed all internet services, including social media, according to NetBlocks.
Press freedom and human rights groups, meanwhile, continue to sound alarms about the impact of internet outages on journalists’ abilities to gather and report news.
“The decision to shut down access to the Internet and social media on an election day is a blunt violation of the right to freedom of expression,” François Patuel, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher, wrote Sunday.
Citizens gain access to the internet via an internet service provider, or ISP. Each ISP acts as a gatekeeper to the internet, providing its subscribers access, but also, potentially, cutting them off. In Africa, countries tend to have just one or two ISPs. For regimes intent on control, few ISPs makes it easier to turn off the entire internet for most of the population.
The West African nation now joins the list of African states, including Sudan, Uganda, DR Congo, and Egypt who have limited online access ahead of key elections, political referenda, or anti-government protests this year. Activists say the cut-offs usually have significant economic, political, and social costs, particularly given how popular messaging apps like WhatsApp are crucial for voters, journalists, and election observers.
In contrast, thousands of ISPs provide access in the United States; shutting off the internet would require broad coordination, and cooperation across each independent organization.
In Africa, though, authorities often have an easy time controlling one or two state-owned ISPs. And governments have capitalized on that.