Crucial link

Lanre Ajayi, the president of the Nigeria Internet Group, told Nigeria's Business Day newspaper, that the cable was "a critical national resource because of its importance to the economy and to security".

According to Rebekah Heacock, a blogger on OpenNet Initiative which monitors internet filtering and surveillance, internet access in Nigeria had been further complicated by the failure of Nigerian telecommunications operator Nitel to pay its dues to the SAT-3 Consortium, which has disconnected the Nigerian end of the cable.

Heacock said internet users in Benin, Togo and Niger were forced to rely on rare, expensive satellite connections to get online.

When a damaged undersea cable disrupted services in the Middle East and South Asia in January 2008, operators were able to reroute service and continue to provide access.

However, in West Africa, rerouting is more difficult as the SAT-3 is the only cable connecting the region to the rest of the world.

Internet penetration in the affected countries is low. Nigeria has the highest rate with 7.3 per cent coverage and Niger the lowest with just 0.5 per cent.

The SAT-3 communications cable links Portugal and Spain to South Africa via the West African coastline.