On the evening of 17th January 2017, two regions in Cameroon- one of which is my permanent domicile- were indefinitely cut off from internet access. Today marks two months.
The government claims it “had to take drastic measures to curb the spread of false information and extremist messages”. This could be debated. However collectively punishing over 4 million people by limiting their freedom of speech, hindering their business operations and so much more just because our government cannot stand bad things being said about them? That is not debatable. It is just wrong, short-sighted and dictatorial.
I have no doubts that if Cameroon were a lot more united. If my people had a stronger sense of social justice, this would not be happening. The other eight regions would not have taken it in stride that two were being silenced. Both Anglophones and Francophones make up the other eight regions. If we had even a tenth of self-respecting government administrators, this would not be happening… again, I find myself concluding that we are all to blame. No one person can successfully mess up a country with tens of millions.
Yet here we are.
I wrote about my experience living under the internet ban and my thoughts on #BringBackourInternet for ThisIsAfrica.me
Find an excerpt with a link to the full piece below:
Life in No- Internet Cameroon
It used to be difficult to explain that there were two Cameroons. At conferences, international round tables where Africans and Afro-inquisitive Westerners would swap stories, as well as questions and assumptions about each other’s countries, you would often have to debunk the myth that you were fluent in French by virtue of being Cameroonian and being called Monique. It would take too long to explain the invisible divide of that Picot Line. This problem, which has since either been ignored or normalised, would be too broad to broach. So you limit your comments on your country to corruption, the president’s everlasting reign, conveniently patriarchal cultural ‘values’ – issues all Africans understand and face, unfortunately, irrespective of their country of origin.
But recently your government has made it easier to explain that there are two Cameroons. They somehow found that dividing line that no one would acknowledge existed and now it is clear: There is Internet Cameroon and No-Internet Cameroon, that is, La Republic du Cameroun, which gained independence from French rule on 1 January 1960, and former British Southern Cameroons, which gained independence by merging with ‘long lost brothers’ on 1 October 1961.
Now when your colleagues from other countries ask you about Cameroon, it is easier to explain the problem that has long been ignored and subdued. Easier, not easy. The issues of who and what you identify as remains as complex as ever. Now your colleagues ask you, how are you coping? What is it like living under an Internet ban? You attempt to help them envisage it. Imagine this, you say:
So, what is it like?
It is 7pm. Just two hours earlier news had broken of the government banning the associations at the forefront of the longest and largest strikes in recent national history. Now you are reading reports online, stating that some of the leaders of the strike (and one of the now banned associations) have been arrested. Upon reading this you feel alarmed. You attempt calling those you know to check on their well-being. Your call doesn’t go through. You try reaching out to mutual friends and family online to discuss your fears and ascertain their safety, but your messages keep loading. You can’t see the tick next to your WhatsApp messages, the one that would confirm that they had been delivered. You assume it is the network; that the lines are probably crammed as the news of arrests sends everyone scurrying to call their loved ones. Things will surely escalate. And they do. You see cars held up on the road just outside your window – bikers have taken to blocking the roads with burning tires and abandoned cars to show their displeasure. You hear shots being fired into the air, the police descending with tear gas. People try to park their cars on the pavements to hide in the safety of neighboring buildings like the one you live in. Others use the opportunity to loot and steal – you see them running with gas bottles stolen from the local gas station. You have dismantled your phone and reassembled it twice, removing and replacing your SIM card, restarting it, feeling confident that the network will return so you can check in with your loved ones or follow updates on the situation.
An hour later you receive a call from a friend who is stuck a mile from your place due to the road blocks. Could he come spend the night? he asks. The roads are blocked and the police are arresting whoever they can. When he arrives at your place, he tells you of the fear on fellow passengers’ faces when they saw tires burning on the road and bikers with bottles – ‘kerosene bombs’ – only for the gendarmes to follow with batons and tear gas. He tells of running for his life and feeling ashamed for not stopping to help a female passenger who fell into the gutter as they both tried to escape. He says all this while reassembling his phone. You both still think it is a network problem. Hours later, you can’t sleep. You receive an SMS from a friend in Douala: Has your Internet been cut off too? she asks. It dawns on you that this may actually be it; the government may actually have cut off Internet access. You two laugh. Crazy people! you remark. How long can this last? Douala, the economic capital, needs Internet access or else businesses will crash. Heck, everyone needs Internet access. You two discuss the government’s lack of foresight until you fall asleep. The next morning you learn that the other regions had their Internet restored overnight. Just the two Anglophone regions where protests had occurred, just the people who had complained about marginalisation, had been cut off. As if to further confirm their claims…