LUSAKA – Zambian authorities blocked WhatsApp messages on Thursday, according to data from a global internet monitor.
WhatsApp’s suspension comes as Zambians vote in an election taking place in a tense security environment.
Polling stations opened at 4 a.m. and were due to close at 6 p.m. local time. Voting was slow at several polling stations and queues formed around some of the 12,000 polling stations across the country.
Observers and opposition politicians expressed concern about the slow pace of voting and feared many would reach the polls before the official closing time.
The Zambians, who can still communicate via WhatsApp, said they use a VPN to circumvent the restriction.
Just days before the elections, the Zambian government assured voters that there would be no disruption to their internet connections.
The August 7 pledge came after observers expressed concern over Zambian authorities’ implementation of a tool that is becoming popular with authoritarian regimes.
Netblocks, the global internet watchdog that monitors Zambian servers on Election Day, found that back-end and front-end servers in Zambia were unavailable Thursday afternoon.
Netblocks found restrictions on state-owned Zamtel, as well as private networks Airtel Zambia and Liquid Telecom.
South Africa-headquartered MTN has also seen usage restrictions on WhatsApp, according to the Netblocks report.
“WhatsApp is down in Zambia but the cause is not in the mobile network MTN or other operators. Mobile operators have not cut anything. It is outside the network operator environment mobile,” said Bart Hofker, CEO of MTN Zambia.
MTN affiliates in Uganda also previously blocked WhatsApp and social media during local elections in January this year.
During the unrest in Eswatini, local lawyers also tried to sue MTN after it blocked WhatsApp on government orders.
According to some reports, Twitter and Facebook have also been restricted. Observers fear this could be the start of an internet blackout that will continue when vote counting begins on Thursday evening.
Waiting hours to vote
All day, Zambians lined up to vote. At a polling station in a middle-class suburb of Lusaka, men and women were separated in lines that stretched more than 300 meters around the corner.
An “anxious and tired” Monica said she waited in line for four hours. The 25-year-old university student said she didn’t vote in the 2016 election because she ‘didn’t take it seriously’ but had followed competing politicians on social media that that year.
Agatha, 27, waited more than three years to vote for the first time in her life. Agatha, a stay-at-home mom, said she wanted the new administration to fix the economy.
Ann Phiri (pseudonym) has voted in every election since 1991, when Zambia transitioned from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy.
“It took me five hours. I voted every time, but I’ve never waited that long,” said the 52-year-old.
“There is something in the air that you have to vote, you have to vote.
“There’s hype, but there’s quiet hype because you don’t want to be too cheerful,” she said, adding that citizens are “more vigilant” about their civil rights.
Observers fear that the use of biometric polling stations in some areas will further delay voting and lower turnout in densely populated areas where the opposition could get a swing vote.
Biometric polling stations have already faced challenges as the training was only rolled out late last month.
On election day, polling station observers said these polling stations had significantly fewer staff to operate the system effectively.
Neither the government nor the electoral commission could be reached for comment at the time of publication.