While the world works itself up into a frenzy over Donald Trump’s political maneuvering, elsewhere in the world, other governments are going about undermining privacy and fundamental freedoms much more quietly.
We have written before about how Governments in Africa have used internet blockages to boost their own position of power with Ethiopia and Gabon just two countries we have highlighted. Unfortunately, there is a new name to add to the list as people in parts of Cameroon have been experiencing politically motivated online censorship this week.
According to reports in Quartz, two regions of Cameroon have seen internet outages over the past two weeks. The northwest and southwest regions of the country are the ones in question and it is no coincidence that these are the parts of Cameroon which are home to the majority of the countries English-speaking population.
Cameroon’s Anglophone population has been protesting for some time against the policies of the Francophone Government, which it sees as having resulted in marginalisation and discrimination against them.
The issues in question go back as far as the foundation of modern Cameroon in 1961. It was then that the region of Cameroon previously administered by the British was bought together with a region formerly run by the French.
The French-speaking region of Cameroon is much larger than the English-speaking one, accounting for around 80% of the population and they have long dominated the Government of the country as well. This has led to animosity between the two groups and in more recent time has seen mass protests in the English-speaking areas.
Cut to January 17th when the Cameroon government took action to ban two Anglophone campaign groups; Southern Cameroons National Council and the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. Their leaders were arrested at the same time and taken to the capital Yaounde.
The Cameroon government were fully aware that this action would be met with anger in the Anglophone regions and so they attempted to quell this expected dissent, as other regional governments have in recent times too, by blocking internet access in the regions in order to restrict communications.
This is a course of action which is fairly straightforward for them as the country’s internet connection comes via a single fibre optic backbone which is controlled by Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL), the state-owned communications company.
Government track record
The Government has tried and failed, to instigate such a block in the past, after their botched response to a serious train crash last year and subsequent public outcry. The general consensus is that they failed to achieve this because of a lack of technical understanding. It looks like they have put that right since then.
As researchers began to notice the large scale outages, there was no official confirmation from telecoms companies. But it quickly became clear, via organisations such as Internet Sans Frontiers that this was instigated by the Cameroon government, who had put pressure on telecoms in the form of threats about withdrawing operating licenses. It is not the first time the regime has tried to use threats to get its way, as these texts from the country’s Ministry of Post and Telecoms show [in French].
The central role of the Government in the blockage seems to have been confirmed by a letter from the director of CAMTEL which has been widely circulated online [in French].
As things stand, the internet is still unavailable across both regions including major towns such as Bamenda, Buea, Kumba, Limbe and Kumbo. There has been no indication as to when this blackout might end or what has happened to the arrested political activists.
All of which makes for a very uneasy situation in Cameroon, especially for its English-speaking population, who are currently cut off from the world and at the mercy of their French-speaking Government.