When they awoke on April 28, ready to cast their ballots in Benin’s parliamentary election, voters could not rely on WhatsApp or Facebook to communicate with one another, or to seek information about where to vote.
These and several other major web platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and Viber, went dark in the early hours of the day. By 11 am, 99.5 percent of internet connections became inactive, sending the West African country into a nationwide internet shutdown that lasted well into the night.
Human rights groups and election monitors were dismayed but not shocked by the outage, which appears to have been orchestrated by the sitting government.
New electoral laws pushed by the incumbent administration of President Patrice Talon have re-oriented politics in Benin, which until this year had multiple political parties competing with one another. But under new policies that raise the threshold for party participation in elections, only two political parties made the cut to put up candidates for parliamentary election. Both parties are closely aligned with the president.
In the lead-up to the election, a series of public protests — which took place despite a blanket ban on street protests — were dispersed by law enforcement officials, who used tear gas and batons to break up demonstrations. Amnesty International reportedthat multiple political opposition leaders were arrested during demonstrations.
Open web activists at the Media Foundation for West Africa, Internet Sans Frontieres, CIPESA, Access Now, Global Voices (sub-Saharan Africa) and other groups condemned the shutdown in a joint statement:
The UN Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, emphasizes in General Comment no. 34 that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose.  Shutdowns, by contrast, disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services communications during crucial moments. Shutdowns are neither necessary to, nor effective at, achieving a legitimate aim, as they often spread confusion and encourage more people to join public demonstrations.
We respectfully call on you to:
- Ensure that social media is restored
- Publicly declare your commitment to keep the internet on, and to notify the public of any disruptions
- Encourage telecommunications and internet services providers to respect human rights through public disclosures on policies and practices impacting users.
Speaking with Internet Sans Frontieres, Beninese writer and activist Mylène Flicka of Irawo media noted:
Shutting down the Internet on election day only adds suspicion to an already flawed electoral process. Benin is now performing very poorly in terms of democracy.
All internet connections had been restored as of the morning of April 29, at which point voting had concluded.