Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cameroon: internet restored but repression continues

Repressive regimes have an arsenal of deplorable tactics that they use to quell political dissent, including brute force by state security forces, arbitrary arrests of dissidents and political activists on trumped up charges, killings and internet shutdown in a bid to control the narrative through state-sponsored media and stifle free expression and communication in opposition strongholds. Over the past couple of months the government of Cameroon has used all the aforementioned tactics in a futile attempt to squash political dissent in English-speaking parts of the country.

In October 2016 English-speaking Cameroonians who make up 20% of the country's population took to the streets to demand an end to marginalization and what has been described as "Francophonization" of English-speaking regions of the country: appointment of French-speaking judges and teachers who lack English language proficiency to work in courts and schools in the region - thereby forcing French down the throats of the local population in schools and courts. Lawyers oppose the appointment of French judges who lack language skills and an understanding of the Common Law system to preside at proceedings in Common Law courts; teachers oppose the appointment of French-speaking teachers to English schools. The general English-speaking public, including students joined the protest, and what started as a protest by lawyers and teachers morphed into popular civil disobedience that paralyzed courts, schools and local businesses -- all in an effort to force the government to address the "Anglophone problem".

In response, the government unleashed state security forces who teargased, brutalized and killed protesters; broke into students' living quarters in the university town of Buea, beat up students, subjected some to degrading and inhuman treatment, arrested many, ransacked student's rooms and allegedly raped some; civil society organizations were banned and their leaders arrested on charges including acts of terrorism, secession, revolution, insurrection, group rebellion and incitation of civil war.

Killings and mass arrests did not stop civil disobedience as schools and courts remained closed in protest, and calls for boycott of state activities including "Youth Day" celebrations became louder.

The government then orchestrated a crippling internet shutdown in the English-speaking parts of country. According to Al Jazeera the government ordered the internet blackout in January 2017. The blackout lasted three months but again failed to address the problem. Then on 21 April 2017 the government reportedly ended the internet shutdown on the orders of president Paul Biya.

 My Take

At a time when a lot of people depend on the internet as a source of information and livelihood cutting it off for three months represented a new low -- even for the Biya regime which has an unenviable record of heavy-handedness. The shutdown is an indication of how far the Biya regime is willing to go stifle political dissent and tighten its grip on power -- 33 years after rising to power.

Ninety four (94) days is a long time to be without internet access nowadays. Small businesses like cybercafés literally went out of business for three months. In a country with a broken or non-existent social security system the internet shutdown was basically a shutdown of the only or major source of income for small business families that depend on businesses like cybercafés for their livelihood. The regime condemned such families to three months of abject poverty and hardship. For three months students could not access information and journalists had to make a four-hour trip to a neighboring region to submit reports to their editors. Innocent people from all walks of life in English-speaking parts of Cameroon were affected by the repressive decision of a dictatorial regime.

It is therefore understandable that people in English-speaking parts of Cameroon were delighted when the internet was restored.  However, the people should not lose sight of the fact that the internet, which should not have been cut off in the first place, was restored but continues as civil society leaders arrested on trumped up charges as a result of the struggle against marginalization of Cameroon's English-speaking minority remain detained; civilian deaths in the hands of state security forces, destruction of property, brutalization and alleged rapes by state security forces remain uninvestigated.

The internet returned to English-speaking parts of Cameroon but repression continues as Anglophone political detainees like Nkongho Agbor-Balla, Fontem Neba, Mancho Bibixy, Ayah Paul and 30 others remain in detention in Yaounde on politically motivated charges. Cameroon remains a dictatorship as long as people are arrested and charged with terrorism as a result of nonviolent political activism. Turning the internet back on is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. President Paul Biya deserves no credit or "motion of support" from English-speaking Cameroonians or any Cameroonian for that matter for ordering an end to the infamous internet shutdown. The internet should not have been cut off in the first place.

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