OpinionOpinion, Opinion column

Internet blackout in bid to stifle protests in Cameroon

The Internet ban on Cameroon's English-speaking population is cause for great concern in the language dispute, writes Azad Essa. Millions…

The Internet ban on Cameroon’s English-speaking population is cause for great concern in the language dispute, writes Azad Essa.

Millions of Cameroonians have been without the internet for 75 days after the government launched a ban on the service in English-speaking areas.

The blackout, which is deliberately targeting the country’s minority Anglophone population, started after lawyers began protesting against the overt use of French in English-speaking courts.

The protests spread rapidly across the country with English-speaking regions rallying against what they saw as the latest attempt by the government to “erase” their culture and heritage.

Since December, at least four people have been killed, hundreds have been arrested, schools have been forced to close and major trading centres in the south and northwest have turned into ghost towns.

While it may not seem apparent, the crisis in Cameroon can be traced back to the colonial division of the continent.

After the Germans relinquished control of Cameroon following World War I, both French and Britain controlled the country until it gained independence in 1961.

The disparate regions that eventually became the larger country not only spoke different languages, but they also operated in completely different legal and educational systems as created by their respective colonial masters.

After independence, Cameroon was turned into a federal state.

But in in 1972, Cameroon became a unitary state, made up of 10 semi-autonomous regions. Eight states were Francophone and two Anglophone.

Over the past four decades, English-speaking Cameroonians have accused the central government of purposefully neglecting and under-developing their regions.

They argue that resources such as oil have been used to advance developments in the French capital, while leaving their region in the doldrums.

French and English are official languages, but the country’s currency is only printed in French.

Anglophone speakers say they are excluded from employment, forced to sign documents in French and are threatened if they complain.

It is not simply a matter of language; the Anglophones follow British Common Law while the rest follow French Civil Law.

It is a dilemma that makes little sense to the naked eye. Given the current debates in South Africa over decolonising language, narrative and curriculums – the struggle over the prominence of two colonial languages seems almost bizarre.

But the story in Cameroon is a lot more complex.

Cameroon is one of the most diverse countries on the planet; with communities linked to Sudan, Nigeria, and southern Africa – bringing an estimated 250 languages to the fold.

French and English may not be the populations’ first option, but they are seen as the vital for trade, education, and upward mobility.

When it comes to English, at least 5 million people or 20% of the population live in the regions regarded as Anglophone.

The frustration has reached such heights that there have been calls for a return to a federal system, or even secession. But the protests have been met with brutality.

With the story gaining significant traction on social media, the government verily shut down the internet, leaving the society isolated and silenced.

To upload video or content from the ground, students need to travel to the capital Yaounde to get it out.

To deal with dissent, Cameroon, like other African countries, decided to stem the flow of information rather than consider the feelings as a harbinger of public sentiment. Instead of searching for common ground, the government has refused to acknowledge the issue as a genuine crisis.

The communications minister said those looking to sow disorder had manipulated the protesters.

Meanwhile, and most crucially, telecommunication companies that understand perhaps only too well the power of the internet become co-conspirators to the state agenda each time they pull the plug on data.

Of course, this is nothing we haven’t seen before. During the Arab Spring protests in Egypt in 2011 for instance, the internet was repeatedly bowdlerised. The same has occurred in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; in some of these places it has become routine. Access to the internet is now a human right, but not so much when it comes to questioning state legitimacy.

Responding to these developments, Edward Snowden, the iconic American whistle-blower, warned that if such censorship could take place in Cameroon, there was nothing stopping such a move from taking place elsewhere tomorrow.