Cameroon Shuts Down Internet For Separatists

On October 1st, the anniversary of Anglophone Cameroon’s independence from Britain, there was a state-initiated internet blackout following the open fire attacks involving separatists in the country. A report from Amnesty International documented at least 17 deaths from the clashes. According to U.N. Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville, credible sources report that the excessive use of force by Cameroon security forces were the cause of some of these deaths. The internet ban is only one of the responses to civilian and military casualties caused by the conflict.

With Cameroon’s minority population of nearly five million English speakers, the separatists’ popularity and momentum has been steadily increasing since protests last November. English-speaking teachers and lawyers, frustrated with their marginalised linguistic treatment in a French-dominated workforce, took to the streets fighting for greater autonomy and the independence of “Ambazonia”, a sovereign nation for Anglophone Cameroons. Following the death of six people, the Cameroonian government, fearing further escalation, implemented a strict security blanket over Northwest and Southwest regions. These security measures include the mobilization of thousands of police and soldiers, arrests of key activists, and the imposition of a three month internet blackout.

Based on this internet blackout being a precedent set by previous government actions, the internet shut down is viewed by many throughout Anglophone Cameroon as an attempt to stifle activists’ media platform and preventing the possibility of further protests. Fearing further escalation, Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s government is targeting the communication platforms of the separatist group SCACUF, or Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front, as well as other separatist groups, in hopes of delaying and disrupting their agendas. These separatist groups are actively pushing for the independence of an Anglophone state by coordinating protests, spreading awareness on ground, building the foundations for the new state, and even staging violent strikes against government forces.

Although this internet ban is a significant inconvenience for the separatist agenda, it is only a superficial and short-term solution for the issue, as separatist sentiment is continuously fostered from a long history of division along colonial lines in Cameroon. The League of Nation’s decision to partition Kamerun, a former German colony, led to a majority French and minority British rule. Although Cameroon unified in 1961, French has been the preferred official language despite the constitutional mandate that recognizes both French and English to be official national languages. The disconnect Anglophone Cameroonians have with the currently French-dominated government, along with policies that increasingly override the English language in the public sector, raises concerns of linguistic discrimination in the country.

Restricting access to the internet not only results in socio-economic harms, but also is a violation of human rights. According to the campaign group Internet Sans Frontieres, it is estimated that the internet ban has cost businesses $723,000 over the course of two weeks. With much of Cameroon’s digital economy located in regions impacted by the ban, companies that are digitally dependent are anticipating a loss of business. Continued internet blockages may result in the “long-term cost of damaging the area’s digital ecosystem”, which will inevitably hurt economic growth in Cameroon. Furthermore, there are numerous social costs incurred by the ban, such as denied access to entertainment, communication, information, and equal privilege – all components of the Declaration of Human Rights. MTN, a popular mobile-phone operator, sent out text messages to its subscribers warning users of criminal penalties for “spreading false news” on social media.

Although the government justifies the shut down as a means of “preventing violence” and the “malicious use of social media”, the denial of access to an effective communication platform such as the internet can result to further miscommunications, fear, and frustrations that can potentially induce further violence, by separatists and non-separatists alike, directed towards the government.

In Hee Kang