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Zambia blocks WhatsApp as voters wait hours to cast their ballots in ‘tense’ election

An official of the Electoral Commission of Zambia stands at the entrance of a polling station, as voters queue outside in Lusakas Matero.

Authorities in Zambia blocked WhatsApp messaging on Thursday, according to data from a global internet monitor.

The suspension of WhatsApp comes as Zambians cast their ballots in an election taking place in a tense security environment.

Polls opened at 04:00 and were due to close at 18:00 local time. Voting was slow at several stations, with queues snaking around some of the 12 000 polling stations across the country.

Observers and opposition politicians raised concerns over the slow pace of voting, fearing many would not reach the ballot box before the official closing time. Zambians still able to communicate on WhatsApp reported using a VPN to bypass the restriction.

Just days before the election, the Zambian government assured voters that there would be no disruptions to their internet connections. The 7 August promise came after observers raised concerns that Zambian authorities would enact a tool that has become increasingly popular with authoritarian regimes.

Netblocks, the global internet watchdog monitoring Zambia’s servers on election day, found that both back-end and front-end servers in Zambia were unavailable on Thursday afternoon. Netblocks found restrictions on the government-owned Zamtel, as well as private networks Airtel Zambia and Liquid Telecom.

South African-headquartered MTN also saw restrictions of use for WhatsApp, the Netblocks report said.

“WhatsApp is down in Zambia but the cause is not on the MTN mobile network or other operators. Mobile operators did not cut anything. It is outside the environment of the mobile network operators,” said Bart Hofker, CEO of MTN Zambia.

MTN’s subsidiaries in Uganda also previously blocked WhatsApp and social media during the election there in January this year. During the unrest in Eswatini, local lawyers also tried to sue MTN after it blocked WhatsApp following a government directive.

Twitter and Facebook were also restricted according to some reports. Observers fear that this could be the start of an internet shutdown that will continue as vote-counting begins on Thursday evening.

Waiting hours to vote

All day, Zambians waited in long queues to cast their vote. At a polling station in a middle class Lusaka suburb, men and women were separated into queues that stretched around around the corner for more than 300 metres.

An “anxious and tired” Monica said she had stood in a queue for four hours. The 25-year-old university student said she hadn’t voted in the 2016 election because she didn’t “take it seriously,” but this year had followed the competing politicians on social media.

Twenty-seven-year-old Agatha continued to wait to for over three years to cast her ballot for the first time in her life. A stay-at-home-mom, Agatha said she wanted the incoming government to fix the economy.

Ann Phiri (not her real name) has voted in each election since 1991, when Zambia transitioned from a one-party state to become a multiparty democracy.

“That took me five hours. I’ve voted every time, but I’ve never waited so long,” said the 52-year-old.

“There’s a thing in the air that you must vote, you have to vote.

“There’s a hype, but a silent hype, because you don’t want to be too cheerful,” she said, adding that citizens were being more “vigilant” about their civil rights.

Observers fear that the use of biometric voting stations in certain areas will further delay the vote, and depress turnout in high density areas where the opposition may secure a swing vote.

The biometric voting stations were already beset with challenges, with training only introduced at the end of last month. On voting day, observers at polling stations said these stations had markedly fewer workers who could effectively operate the system.

Neither the government, nor the electoral commission, could be reached for comment at the time of publication.

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