Severed Undersea Cables Plunge West and Central Africa into Digital Darkness

Severed Undersea Cables Plunge

The digital landscape of West and Central Africa has been plunged into chaos after a series of devastating failures in the region’s undersea internet cables. Millions of people across countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal have been left without reliable internet access, crippling essential services, businesses, and communication networks. 

This crisis highlights the fragility of the infrastructure that underpins the digital age, and the urgent need to build more resilient and redundant systems to serve the rapidly growing online populations of the African continent. As authorities race to restore connectivity, the long-term implications of this outage on economic development, education, and social cohesion are beginning to come into focus.

The Cascade of Cable Cuts – 

The first signs of trouble emerged on March 8th, when internet users in Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau reported widespread disruptions to their online services. Within days, the issues had spread across the region, with Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast also affected. Investigations soon traced the root cause to multiple breaks in two major undersea cable systems – the SAT-3/WASC and the ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) cables.

These cables, which form the backbone of internet connectivity for much of West and Central Africa, had been severed in multiple locations across the seafloor. Repair ships were immediately dispatched, but the remote and difficult-to-access nature of the cable breaks meant that service restoration would be a slow and arduous process.

“We’ve never seen anything of this scale and magnitude before,” lamented Funke Opeke, the CEO of MainOne, a major internet infrastructure provider in the region. “The timing couldn’t be worse, as businesses and communities had just started to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Experts point to a variety of potential causes for the cable failures, including ship anchors, fishing trawlers, and even seismic activity on the ocean floor. However, the sheer number of breaks across multiple cable systems suggests that a more systemic vulnerability may be at play.

The Ripple Effects of Disconnection –

The loss of internet connectivity has had a devastating impact across West and Central Africa, touching nearly every aspect of daily life. Businesses, from multinational corporations to small-scale entrepreneurs, have been crippled by their inability to communicate with clients, access cloud-based services, or process digital payments.

“We rely on the internet for everything – from placing orders to managing our supply chain,” laments Amina Sow, the owner of a fashion boutique in Dakar, Senegal. “Without it, we’ve had to close our online store and turn away customers. It’s devastating for our bottom line.”

The education sector has also been severely disrupted, with millions of students unable to attend virtual classes or access digital learning materials. In Nigeria, the government has been forced to postpone critical national exams due to the lack of internet access.

“Our students are already behind due to the pandemic, and now this cable outage has set them back even further,” says Fatima Usman, a teacher in Lagos. “It’s a real setback for their academic progress and their future prospects.”

The impact has also reverberated through the healthcare system, with telemedicine services, remote patient monitoring, and the digital exchange of medical records all grinding to a halt. Doctors and nurses have struggled to coordinate care, access medical databases, and communicate with colleagues in other facilities.

“We’ve had to revert to analog systems, which is incredibly inefficient and puts patients at risk,” explains Dr. Bakary Diallo, the director of a hospital in Conakry, Guinea. “The cable outage has compromised our ability to provide quality care during a critical time.”

The Social and Economic Toll –

Beyond the immediate disruptions to business, education, and healthcare, the internet outage has also taken a significant toll on the social fabric of affected communities. Social media platforms, messaging apps, and video calls have become essential lifelines for families and friends separated by distance, and their sudden unavailability has left many feeling isolated and disconnected.

“I can’t even call my mother in Dakar to check on her,” laments Amara Diallo, a student in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “It’s incredibly frustrating and worrying, not knowing how she’s doing.”

The economic impact of the outage is also expected to be severe, with analysts predicting significant losses in GDP across the region. The inability to conduct online transactions, access e-commerce platforms, or engage in digital entrepreneurship will likely stifle growth and investment in the short to medium term.

“This is a major setback for the digital transformation we’ve been working towards,” says Oumar Seck, the CEO of a tech startup incubator in Dakar. “Many of our young innovators and entrepreneurs rely on the internet to power their businesses. Without it, they’re simply unable to operate.”

Governments in the affected countries have scrambled to implement temporary measures to mitigate the crisis, such as deploying satellite-based internet services and encouraging the use of mobile data networks. However, these solutions are often costly, unreliable, and unable to match the capacity and speed of the severed undersea cables.

Towards a More Resilient Future –

As the region grapples with the aftermath of this crisis, it has become clear that the need for robust, redundant, and future-proof internet infrastructure in Africa is more pressing than ever. Experts argue that the outage serves as a wake-up call for policymakers and industry leaders to prioritize the development of diverse, interconnected cable systems that can withstand disruptions and ensure continuous connectivity.

“This event has highlighted the fragility of our digital backbone,” says Funke Opeke of MainOne. “We need to invest in more resilient and diversified infrastructure, with multiple cable routes and landing points, to prevent such catastrophic outages from happening again.”

Governments and regional organizations will also need to work closely with private sector partners to strengthen the regulatory and security frameworks that protect these critical assets, while also exploring innovative technologies like satellite-based internet and mesh networking to provide redundancy and flexibility.

Only by taking a comprehensive, collaborative approach to building a more resilient and equitable digital future can West and Central Africa avoid being plunged into darkness again.