Anti-government protesters sit on a street in Lom as they keep an all-night vigil to press for constitutional reform. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
Interest in reading surged. It was heartwarming to see restless kids and adults embracing dusty books and magazines . Spontaneous conversation with strangers surged; asking about the status of the internet became the equivalent of Have you got a light? a conversation starter.
Social gatherings improved dramatically. Conversations were lively, as they had been in the days before social media. That old thing called family dinner lasted longer. Without interruptions, it felt as though people were more caring, more available to each other. Was this just nostalgia?
After a week, the government abruptly switched the internet back on. For thousands of businesses and professionals who depended on the web for work, it had been a highly stressful period. The shutdown had undermined their faith in the fragile digital transition. Companies that had moved their core business applications into the cloud could neither access their tools nor retrieve their data. Virtual business, it turned out, might not be suitable for dictatorship-prone countries. . We have yet to get a broad sense of the impact of unanswered urgent emails and lost opportunities.
Families who depend on remittances through Western Union or MoneyGram all suffered too; they could not get the codes to retrieve their money and the banks couldnt serve them.
The government could have been smarter. The best way to divert our youth from politics would have been to give them free, unlimited internet access a few days before the protests, and drop the price of beer and condoms all the while playing Be safe, live long songs on the radios. The youngies would have been watching porn, WhatsApping and YouTubing, and would have been too distracted to think about politics.
Shutting down the internet achieved the opposite. Far from limiting youth mobilisation, it galvanised word of mouth and turned many neutrals against the regime. To young people for whom the internet had become so much part of the daily routine, the shutdown felt like an intrusion, a burglary of their personal life.
Previously preoccupied mostly by sex and alcohol during the long two months of the school vacation, our youth were bloated with testosterone and boosted by a huge surge in political consciousness. They started gathering, talking to each other, commenting on the moves and motives of political leaders. The shutdown brought more people into the political stream.
It was also a lightning rod for discontent among foreign business people living in Togo. They were suddenly denied their preferred channel of communication, making it impossible for them to reach out to families and friends back home. Naturally, most joined the chorus of opposition to a regime whose largesse they had previously enjoyed.
Anti-government protesters in Lom gather around a scrawled message saying: Faure should leave. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
I now have an experience to boast about; Im a member of an exclusive club of countries that shut down the internet without going back to the stone age. Tell me, how many people in the world have lived under a dictator who could shut down the internet on a whim? My country just entered the Guinness World Records book as one of the top dictatorships. Any fame is better than no fame.
In the end, the shutdown was overwhelming stressful and negative. It was like living in a open prison: you could not reach out to your loved ones and they could not reach out to you, because someone had decided so, and was actively enforcing it against your will. Our lives have moved online to the point where an internet blackout is like a high security prison.
Its not because one could have more time to read books when in prison that we should hail prisons.