By Elie Smith
The Internet has been turned off for more than 80 days in parts of the West African country of Cameroon. And while this has garnered international condemnation, what most onlookers have not yet fully grasped is how the shutdown is related to long-simmering regional tensions within the country that recently boiled over. Since the end of 2016, the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon–home to the opposition–have been in open conflict with the majority French-speaking central government in Yaoundé. It began when two Anglophone teachers’ unions–the Teachers Association of Cameroon (TAC) and the Cameroon Association of Teachers Trade Union (CATTU)–voiced their displeasure at what they termed the government’s attempts to “Francophonize” the Anglophone educational system in these two regions. When the government’s attempt to stifle the Anglophone community’s dissent via a violent crackdown and media censorship proved largely ineffective, authorities resorted to a regional Internet shutdown.
The tactic of disabling the Internet in regions, or even entire countries, has become increasingly popular among authoritarian countries around the world in hopes of stifling dissent. Although, as the situation in Cameroon demonstrates, it is unclear whether an Internet shutdown always has its intended outcomes. We do know that it has widespread, negative impacts the regions affected and results in the violation of fundamental human rights like freedom of the press and access to information.
Long-standing Regional Tension in Cameroon Flares Up
The internal conflict flared up in late 2016 when the Anglophone teachers unions complained that English-speaking schools in both regions were flooded with teachers who could not speak English and thus were unable to dispense lectures in the official lingua Franca. The trade unions pointed at the higher education sector, Universities of Buea and Bamenda, as examples of institutions where French was gradually drowning out the English language. The response from the minister of higher education Professor Jacques Fame Ndongo was simple; the country being bilingual, English and French, teachers could teach in the language that best suits them. While Ndongo’s pronouncement might technically be correct, there is nonetheless a problem. How can people who have studied in English, suddenly cope with lectures in French? The reaction from the minister of higher education did not calm the situation. Instead, it sparked protests in a region whose citizens consider themselves the losers in the unification of the British colony of Southern Cameroon with the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon in October 1961.
Soon, Anglophone lawyers entered into the fray complaining that most judges in both regions were unable to speak English and, moreover, they did not also understand the common law legal system practiced in Anglophone Cameroon. Anglophone lawyers attempted to stage protest marches in Bamenda, Muyuka, Kumba and Buea in a bid to make their grievance nationally and internationally known, but they were violently repressed by the police.
Repression Began Offline and Journalists Were Prime Targets
Even before the Internet shutdown began, repression was already high in the Anglophone regions. The government arrested many of the leaders of the groups that were protesting. These arrests were carried out by plainclothes security men and women as well as by heavily armed troops. The government agents made massive arrests of anyone suspected of supporting Anglophone civil society organizations. Even journalists reporting on the activities of Anglophone civil society organisations have not been left out. They have either been arrested or summoned to explain their stand at the state security services. Currently, seven Anglophone journalists are in detention in Yaoundé and among them Atia Azonhwi Tilarious, the political editor of The SUN newspaper, is reported to be seriously sick.
According to the outlawed consortium of Anglophone civil society organizations whose chair Barrister Agbor Balla, is currently in jail, there are about 151 English-speaking detainees held at the Yaoundé maximum security prison. The government through its spokesman, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, denies those figures. He claimed in a recent interview that was broadcast on the state owned broadcaster, Cameroon Radio and Television, and was also published in various print media that, there are only 61 English-speaking Cameroonian detainees at the Yaoundé Maximum security prison at Kodengui.
The Government Censors the Media
The violent repression in Anglophone Cameroon was accompanied by media censorship. The National Communications Commission issued warnings to privately-owned electronic and print media organizations that their licenses could be revoked if they reported on what was going on in the Anglophone regions. The commission also issued a statement banning debates on federalism or secession. Any reporting on the topic would be interpreted as active support of federalism or independence; therefore media outlets would risk their licenses being revoked and employees being arrested. Thus, the new government order has made it more difficult for Anglophone political leaders to freely express themselves on both state and privately-owned media. One such leader is chief judge Paul Ayah, who is now in jail. Before his arrest he was interviewed on the privately-owned Spectrum Television, but the government has now ordered that his interviews not be rebroadcast. The government has gone even further than simply censoring content. It also launched a campaign to discredit the Consortium, the umbrella Anglophone civil society organization, by accusing their leaders of being terrorists. But this has not dampened the appeal of these activists. On the contrary, some would say that it has made them even more popular within the Anglophone regions.
Social Media Fills the Media Coverage Gap and Enables Collective Action
Mindful of their limited access to public and private media, Anglophone leaders took to social media not only to express their views, but also to expose human rights abuses such as rape, unwarranted arrest, and beatings being carried out by security forces. For example, the beating and rape of students at the University of Buea was publicly exposed. Anglophone civil society organizations also used social media to flex their organizing muscle. For example, via social media they organized student boycotts that effectively shut down local schools and universities. Their calls have effectively ground the region to a halt as schools are closed and other activities are regimented according to appeals of Anglophone civil society. Another example of this power was a call for students to boycott an important school exam used to measure student achievement in their final year. According to Cameroon Concord newspaper, this year only 70,000 students, as opposed to 130,000 last year, have registered to write the official exams. This is in spite of repeated calls from government officials and multiple tours by the prime minister to the region, asking parents to send their children to school and to also register for the exam. Thus, social media has empowered the Anglophone community in ways that were much more difficult to do in the past. Additionally, an engaged Cameroonian diaspora community abroad has used social media to shine light on the trouble’s plaguing the central government.
The Government’s Last Resort–The Internet Shutdown
Confronted by a clear challenge to its authority, the government decided to carry out more arrests targeting young men and boys and it also banned the Internet throughout the region. The ban has successfully crippled the economy of the region, and in particular the burgeoning digital economy symbolized by Silicon Mountain in Buea, but it has not made children return to school or stopped the weekly protests.
According to staff at the ministry of Post and Telecommunications, who requested anonymity to speak freely, the government’s Internet shutdown has been a failure. It has not completely suppressed the circulation of images and information on social media platforms, such as Whatsapp and Facebook, and it has also not diminished the growing support for Anglophone civil society leaders. And while there is no access to the Internet in the region, with the help from the Cameroonian diaspora abroad and people crossing over to French-speaking regions where the Internet is available, information about what is happening in the English-speaking regions is still circulating on social media and support for Anglophone civil society continues to grow. In the end, the Internet shutdown might end up being a strategic mistake on the government’s part. How the current tensions in Cameroon will be resolved are far from certain. But we do know that censoring the media, allowing for human rights abuses to occur, and shutting down the Internet for large swaths of the population are not constructive steps towards a peaceful solution.
Elie Smith is a Cameroonian journalist, reporter, and translator who has worked with a number of Central African and French media outlets, including Télésud, France 24, Canal France International, and Radio France International. He served most recently as director of the MNTV television station in Congo-Brazzaville, where he encouraged the practice of investigative journalism and helped promote free speech by providing a safe space for politicians and civil society activists to express their views.
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