Mozambique: Digital landscape and internet disruption in the context of elections

Elections in Mozambique. Photo by Dércio Tsandzana, September 2019. Used with permission.

This piece was written as part of  Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.

In the digital age, the role of the internet in elections is pivotal, shaping public discourse, political engagement, and the democratic process. In the context of Mozambique’s 2023 municipal elections, the digital landscape and its associated challenges became even more crucial. And, even though there was increased reliance on online platforms for information dissemination, voter education, and communication during the elections, the country faced internet disruptions during that period.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Mozambique is ranked 102 out of 180 countries in freedom of expression. The constitution, as well as laws pertaining to the freedom of the press and the right to information, are meant to safeguard journalistic independence and freedom. However, in a setting characterized by rising authoritarianism and more challenging information access, the law is rarely enforced.

Municipal elections of 2023

On October 11, Mozambique held local elections to choose the nation's mayors and municipal councils. Before the elections, tensions increased as opposition members were detained by the police in a number of places. Following the release of the election results on October 27, protests over alleged election fraud erupted in a number of significant towns, including Nampula and Maputo (the capital).

Human Rights Watch reported in October that it witnessed, over a live feed on social media, riot police shoot into the air and use tear gas to scatter the gathering of protesters in the capital Maputo. Later, smaller groups of young men who had left the gathering were observed to have set tires on fire, obstructed city traffic, and thrown stones at police stations.

In Nampula Province, there are reports indicating that security agents have killed at least three individuals, including a 10-year-old boy. In Maputo, protestors were attacked with tear gas by police, while in Chiúre, Cabo Delgado Province, there were reports of a 16-year-old being shot by police. Overall, there are reports that the elections were rigged in some municipalities. Court rulings found anomalies in the October 11 voting.

Digital landscape in Mozambique

According to the research center Keipos, at the beginning of 2023, 20.7 percent of Mozambique's population was online. The study says that Mozambique's internet user base grew by 848,000 (or 14 percent) between 2022 and 2023. For context, these user numbers show that, in the beginning of 2023, 26.50 million people in Mozambique did not use the internet, indicating that 79.3 percent of the population was offline.

According to the same source, Mozambique had 2.5 million active social media users as of January 2023. Furthermore, according to information found in Meta's advertising resources, 2.3 million Mozambicans were using Facebook as of the beginning of 2023. Finally, numbers published in Twitter’s advertising resources indicate that Twitter had 78.2 thousand users in Mozambique in early 2023.

Internet and elections in Mozambique

For the first time, there was evidence of internet interruptions during an election in Mozambique. One day after the elections, Sala da Paz —  a civil society organization —  reported that the voting and vote-counting procedures in the cities of Maputo, Matola, Beira, Quelimane, and Nampula were marred by gunfire, restrictions on energy and the internet, restrictions on journalists, arrests, and riots.

According to local reports, the nation's major internet providers — most notably Movitel, the provider most frequently used in rural and northern regions — experienced an outage of service on October 11, right as polls were closing at 6 p.m. Social media access and data sharing regarding poll closing and vote totals were rendered impossible by the lockdown. The communication service was reestablished by Movitel at precisely 9 p.m. on October 11. Users denounced it on X:

On the same election night, several Facebook users began to share situations in which their internet was cut off, but they also shared some strategies on how to overcome the situation. On October 11, the youth leader of the main opposition party Renamo, Ivan Mazanga, said:

Jovens, vamos descarregar a aplicação chamada VPN para podermos utilizar o Whatsapp…

Pensei que o meu crédito e o meu pacote de dados tinham acabado, por isso emprestei dinheiro para comprar Internet e agora estou endividado…

Young people, let's download the application called VPN so we can use Whatsapp…

I thought my credit and data package had run out, so I lent money to buy Internet and I'm now in debt…

Even with no internet connection, some users seemed to show some knowledge of how to act in similar situations. Rachide Alifa Alufane, a young user living in the capital Maputo said:

Manipularam as redes móveis pra que não funcione uma certa plataforma, pra os que estiverem fora do país terão o WhatsApp a operar normalmente mesmo os que usam VPN,. Do mesmo jeito que é possível pagar internet apenas pra YouTube é também possível eles diminuirem a capacidade de processamento de dados de internet apenas pra o WhatsApp… eles estão realmente desesperado.

They've manipulated the mobile networks so that a certain platform doesn't work, so that those outside the country will have WhatsApp operating normally even if they use a VPN. In the same way that it's possible to pay for internet only for YouTube, it's also possible for them to reduce internet data processing capacity only for WhatsApp… they're really desperate.

Other comments followed Mzanga’s post on Facebook to demonstrate frustration with the electoral results:

Se ganharem, pedimos uma segunda volta, se recusarem, avançamos para o golpe. Somos muitos…

If they win we'll ask for a second round, if they refuse we'll go for the coup. We are many…

Despite all these reports, the national authorities’ reaction to what really happened on the night of October 11 is unknown. This is a new situation and could be indicative of a violation of the right to information enshrined in Mozambican law.

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