Author: Thijmen Calis
Topic: Access to Internet
On 16th of January, a 17-year old Cameroonian Nji Collins Gbah submitted his entry to the Google Code-in competition. The next day the government of Cameroon shut off the internet in the anglophone region which includes the hometown of the boy Gbah.
Cameroon is divided in anglophone (english speaking) and francophone (french speaking) regions. Citizens from the anglophone region had started a protests against the government of Cameroon. To silence and disrupt the millions of citizens living in the anglophone region the government shut off their internet. (Atabong, 2017)
To continue his online learning and to monitor the Google competition outcome, Gbah traveled seven hours to Yaounde the capital of Cameroon which is located in the francophone region. Two weeks later, when the internet blackout was still going on, it was announced that Gbah had won the coding competition as first African in history. (BBC, 2017). In the period January 2017 till March 2018, the Cameroon government would not allow the anglophone regions to access the internet for 240 days (Dahir, 2018a).
The United Nations condemns governments who intentionally disrupt its citizens’ access to the internet because it violates the human right to freedom of speech and information access. The UN states that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online” (Vincent, 2016). International human right groups, most notably Access Now and Internet sans Frontiers, have sued the authorities of Cameroon for these violations of rights (Dahir, 2018b). The campaign #BringBackOurInternet launched to get international attention for the blackout and put pressure on the government. One of the supporters of the campaign is Edward Snowden who warns us about the future of governments using internet shutdowns to oppress the population.
The root of the unrest we see today in Cameroon can be traced back to 1919 (Ndi, 2014). After Germany had lost the First World War, the League of Nations decided that Cameroon would be divided among England and France. In 1961 these two parts would merge again into one Cameroon with ten districts. Two of the districts would be anglophone, and eight would be francophone. The current population has 24.7 million citizens with roughly 20% being anglophone. In the years after unification, the anglophones would feel more and more sidelined by the francophone majority, despite the constitutional articles which should protect their culture and rights (Onyiego, 2018; World Population Review, 2018)
In October 2016, the teachers and lawyers of the anglophone region went on strike to demand better treatment. Their discontent stems from the forced use of the French language, the reduced opportunities for anglophone people and the limited economic resources given to the anglophone region. The government provides all communications and documents only in the French language. French teachers with little English knowledge are sent to anglophone schools. French-educated civil law judges are sent to the anglophone courts which use the English common law (Morse, 2017). From the 36 ministers who are in charge of department budgets, only one is anglophone. The budget allocated to the anglophone region is said to be disproportionally small (Anglophone Archbishops, 2016)
Soldiers opened fire on the peaceful protest, thereby killing at least six people (The Economist, 2017). At the same time, hundreds of people have been arrested. Anglophone pressure groups asked everyone in the region to join a Ghost Town action which would mean that no one would show up at work and all businesses would remain closed. WhatsApp and Facebook were essential tools for these groups to get support for the anglophone cause and mobilise people for a protest march or a Ghost Town action (Al Jazeera, 2017)
To curtail the dissent spread online, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications sent out SMS messages warning people that they could go to jail if they shared false information on social media (BBC, 2017B). Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon, who has been in power since 1982, could have been afraid Cameroon would befall an uprising as seen during the Arab spring. However, several African countries including Zimbabwe showed in 2016 how to silence internet dissent during protests or elections by simply turning off the internet. On 17 January 2017, Biya outlawed the pressure groups, put their leaders in jail and cut the anglophone region off the internet (The Economist, 2017).
Sophie Monkam Ngassa Epse Fon Nsoh is a teacher in the Government Technical High School in the anglophone region. On the 17th of January, she was registering girls from her school in an online Technovation Challenge when her internet stopped working. She first thought the problem was related to her computer, but later found out that everyone in the region had the same problem. She stated: “I wondered how I would inform my team of girls that I would not be able to register them for this amazing online program intended to train them on how to create mobile applications that address everyday problems within their communities” (Forge, 2017).
The government had not informed the citizens that it would shut down the internet. When citizens confronted their internet service providers, the providers stated that there is indeed a blackout due to “circumstances beyond our control” (Atabong, 2017b). No one knew how long the blackout would last. The government could easily shut off the internet because it owned the company Cameroon’s Telecommunications (CAMTEL) which is in charge of the optic fibre of whole the country. Internet providers including the mobile networks have a license to utilise this fibre and run their operations. The government informed the providers that it was a matter of state security. Internet providers obliged to the shutdown requests because they were afraid that they would lose their license (Dahir, 2017b).
On 20 April 2017, the government gave the anglophone region access to the internet again, thereby giving in to international pressure (Loftin, 2017). The government informed the citizens that their internet usage would be monitored and that in case of misuse the anglophone region would be sent back to the state of blackout. “Our security forces have platforms to track and control people just as in all other countries of the world” said the minister of Post and Telecommunications (Caldwell, 2017). After 93 days without internet, the anglophones could communicate again with the world. Some stayed away from discussing politics, while others took the moment to ventilate their anger regarding the government.
Although the internet was given back, many prominent anglophone journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society figures remained in prison. Hence, the situation in in Cameroon continued to be tense (Loftin, 2017). Negotiations with the government about better treatment had not yielded any significant commitments from the government according to the anglophones. The anglophones tried to push the idea of federalism, which would give their region more autonomy. Cameroon used to be a federal state, however, the first president of Cameroon abolished this in 1972 (Matfess, 2018).
With time and increased unrest, the separatists who fought for a complete separation of anglophone from Cameroon started to receive more support (Taoa, 2018).
On the 1st of October 2017, thousands of anglophones walked the streets to celebrate a symbolic independence day. It is symbolic because Biya had told them there would be no option that the anglophone region would separate from Cameroon. (AFP, 2017). The military on the ground and within helicopters started to shoot the peaceful crowd (Amnesty International, 2018). The government pulled the internet plug again and would put the anglophone region in the dark for an even longer period.
Separatist groups started to become violent as well, killing at least 44 security forces in the period September 2017 to May 2018. In addition, the separatist groups attacked ordinary people in the anglophone region who were not participating in boycotts or were expected to be informants to the military (Amnesty International, 2018). According to evidence from Amnesty International (2018), the military burned the city of Kawa and was responsible for multiple murders and torture actions. Due to the violence, 150,000 people became displaced in Cameroon, and 20,000 have fled to remote areas of Nigeria.
The second internet blackout lasted from 1st of October 2017 to 28 February 2018. The first and second shutdown together account for roughly 240 days without internet for the anglophone regions (Dahir, 2018a). The lack of internet hurt the region in multiple ways. of which a few can be found in the infographic made by a supporter of the #BringItBackOurInternet campaign.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (UN General Assembly, 1948).
The UN passed a resolution in 2016 which condemned countries which disrupt internet access. The UN is of the opinion that the internet is such an essential enabler of human rights and especially the right to freedom of expression. (Vincent, 2016) During the blackout, anglophones were not able to express themselves anymore via the internet. As a result they could not discuss government actions over the internet.
An example is the statement of Sama Tany, a Tech Entrepreneur who saw the police shoot tear gas in a residential building during a protest. As choking women and children poured onto the street, he considered documenting the crackdown to share on social media, only to realize the internet connection had been cut (McAllistar, 2017). The government actions captured by photos and videos could only be shared once the internet was back. At the same time, the government can use the internet and make the case that anglophones are using social media to spread false information.
“(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” (UN General Assembly, 1948).
The internet is an important tool for citizens peaceful protest movements and demonstrations. Hillary Clinton stated that: “cyber space, after all, is the public square of the 21st century” (Rutzen & Zenn, 2011). During the Occupy Movement or demonstrations of the Arab Spring, the role of social media has proven to be vital (York, 2012; Bok, 2011). The blackout cripples the anglophones in their ability to amass themselves in a demonstration.
The internet enables economic development. A UN Special Rapporteur states: “without Internet access, which facilitates economic development and the enjoyment of a range of human rights, marginalized groups and developing States remain trapped in a disadvantaged situation, thereby perpetuating inequality both within and between States” (UN General Assembly, 2011). The internet is a portal to educational resources as well as access to financial services.
Microfinance institutions and digital financial service companies in the anglophone region could not serve the anglophones. ATMs did not work anymore, and internet bank transfers were impossible (Dahir, 2017c). The anglophone economy got a big hit because many organisations either directly or indirectly depend on the internet. Different figures on the exact costs of the shutdown for the economy exist. CIPESA calculates that every day without the internet cost the anglophone region 1.67 million dollars (CIPESA, 2017).
Especially Silicon Mountain is hit by the blackout. Silicon Mountain is the new term for a small place called Buea near Mount Cameroon because of its innovation and presence of digital startups. It is difficult to run a business built on the internet like an e-commerce website or a business built around the internet like an internet cafe without internet. These companies lost clients and money every day. One entrepreneur stated: “Silicon Mountain is now in a coma” (Dahir, 2017c).
Companies have paid in advance for rent and even a yearlong internet subscription with the government. No one expects the government to reimburse them for this. The companies in the anglophone region who have the resources, move to the bigger cities in the areas with internet access. Others need to move back and forth between the bigger city incurring significant transportation cost (Dahir, 2017c). People moving to a different place to get connected again with the internet are coined digital or internet refugees. An incubator organisation from Silicon Mountain rented a room in a village on the border of the anglophone and francophone region to reduce the traveling cost of people needing internet. The manager of ActiveSpaces, Akama, is happy to welcome the digital refugees who want to keep their business alive (Dahir, 2018d).
The learning opportunities of youth in anglophone Cameroon are affected both because of the school strikes, but also because of the lack of internet (Africa News, 2017). People who want to enrol at a university fail to submit the application documents before the deadline (Mukeredzi, 2017). Accessing sites like Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Scholar or online course providers is not an option and makes it more difficult to research for assignments or follow online courses. Neba Kitts is a student who crosses the border to Nigeria to resume his online studies. He states: “I do not intend to return to Cameroon until the internet is restored.” Immigration officers have witnessed more youth crossing the border in search of the internet (Atabong, 2017c).
Anglophones interviewed about their lives without the internet mention that they miss the communications with their family and friends. “I’m unable to reach my relatives. They last contacted me on the 1st of October to say they were fleeing our home in Bamenda. The Cameroon military forces invaded our family home and started beating, shooting, and maiming people” shares Myra. Valentiene states: “I feel isolated from the rest of the world. It is hard to connect with friends or my sister and her husband in the U.S.” (Rogoff, 2017).
On 20 May 2018, the national day of Cameroon was celebrated. A parade with singing schoolchildren, goose-stepping soldiers and a huge portrait of the president Biya was shown. The day was staged to showcase unity in Cameroon. Members of the opposition party were not allowed to hold banners, but when they walked by the president, they pulled up their shirts to expose pictures taped to their bodies featuring people tortured and murdered by the government (The Economist, 2018).
In addition to the anglophone problem, the president faces two other difficulties in its country. Boko Haram with its attacks and suicide bombings in the north of Cameroon forced roughly 250,000 Cameroonians to flee while leading to the influx of 95,000 Nigerian refugees. Eastern Cameroon is fled with 230,000 refugees who run away from the power struggle in the Central African Republic (The Economist, 2018b).
In October 2018, Cameroonians are supposed to vote for the presidential, parliamentary and local elections. However, the legitimacy of the polls is questioned when the voters of the anglophone regions will not participate. The BBC has received a copy of a letter from the president with the requested to postpone to elections to 2019 (BBC, 2018).
Biya, at the age of 85, is expected to run for a seventh term. The Economist (2018b) states that there is no clear successor in sight. The country’s instability has increased and, when further chaos prevails, other neighbouring countries might be pulled down with it.
The government of Cameroon has used an internet shutdown two times and 240 days in total. Nothing stops them from turning off the switch again. Access Now states that the trend of shutdowns can be stopped through the participation of several stakeholders such as business leaders, international financial institutions, telecommunication companies and government officials. For example, the IMF, which provided a $666 million loan to Cameroon while the country was a few months in the first blackout, could have pushed for universal access to the internet (Tackett, 2018).
Together with Sans Frontiers, Access Now filed a lawsuit at the constitutional council against the government of Cameroon. It is the first time international NGOs try to hold a government accountable for an internet shutdown in court. “The government needs to hear clearly, and urgently, from courts that these shutdowns violate Cameroonian and international law, and must end” states Micek from Access Now (Dahir, 2018b).
In 2017, internet freedom declined for the seventh year in a row. Disruption to internet services as well as online content manipulation and technical attacks on human right defenders were causes of this decline (Freedom House, 2018).
According to measures of Access Now the use of internet shutdowns are on the rise with 75 shutdowns in 2016, 108 shutdowns in 2017 and 81 shutdowns in the period Jan-Jun 2018 (Access Now, 2018). The shutdowns are most prevalent in Asia and Africa. “Africa is becoming a new testing ground for authoritarian practices online” said Francois Patuel, West Africa researcher at Amnesty International (McAllistar, 2017).
A small number of interventions have been witnessed in Europe. For example, the Spanish government blocked access to websites regarding the Catalonian referendum and organisations in favour of independence (Jones, 2017). The main reasons for governments to tamper with the internet is public safety according to the governments themselves. Access Now (2018) suggests that protests is the actual reason.
The UN states in a non-binding resolution that they condemn countries which intentionally disrupt the internet access of its citizens. However, no real implications follow from this non-binding resolution. Several countries including Russia, China, India, and South Africa voted for amendments to this resolution which would weaken the protections for freedom of expression online (Vincent, 2016).
So far governments have been able to interfere with the internet without consequences. The case of Cameroon has increased awareness in the public community on the existence of internet shutdowns and their impact on citizens and their human rights. The future will have to show whether governments can be held accountable for internet shutdowns or whether internet blackouts become the new form of repression in this world.
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