Friday, 10 March 2017

Lingua Fracas - Cameroon Clamps Down On The Internet, and Anglophones

The images beaming from the screens of Cameroon’s state television channel, CRTV, show a country riding on a wave of glory. 

In February the national football team, “The Indomitable Lions”, beat Egypt to win the Africa Cup of Nations trophy for the first time in 15 years. In January a Cameroonian teenager became the first ever African winner of the Google coding challenge, an international programming competition.

But turn away from the goggle box and the country is troubled. When the footballing trophy was brought to Bamenda, Cameroon’s third-biggest city, placard-carrying protesters joined the crowds of onlookers. And for almost two months the country’s young Google prodigy, along with hundreds of thousands of others, has been unable to surf the web because the government has shut it down in two English-speaking regions (see map). The plug was pulled as part of a clampdown on Anglophone activists in which more than a hundred people have been arrested and pressure groups have been outlawed. At least six people have been killed and scores more injured since December by policemen and soldiers who have opened fire on demonstrators.

The protests initially began as a series of strikes by the country’s English-speaking lawyers, who took to the streets in their wigs and gowns in October 2016 demanding English translations of the country’s key legal texts and better treatment by the authorities. Since then many others have joined in, including teachers. The conflict between the government and the Anglophone minority is escalating.
The roots of Cameroon’s linguistic rift date back to 1919, when Britain and France divided the country between them, having taken it from Germany after the first world war. After both parts gained their independence in 1960 and 1961, they reunited to form a bilingual, federal republic. But English speakers, who are less than fifth of the population, feel hard done by. They say that their regions get less than their share of public money and that it is too hard to interact with the state in English.

President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-oldest ruler, after Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Yet despite his age, he has mastered social media, in the sense of figuring out how to silence digital dissent. After young Arabs used smartphones to organise the uprisings of the Arab Spring, despots everywhere grew nervous. But then they found the off-switch. Last year 11 African governments, including Zimbabwe and the inaptly named Democratic Republic of Congo, interfered with the internet during elections or protests.

The government cut off the internet to a part of the country known for its technology start-ups, which probably hasn’t done much for economic growth. Before the crackdown internet usage in Cameroon had been soaring, with penetration rising to 18% in 2016, from 4.3% in 2010. Phones are also ubiquitous, which may be why the communications ministry has been sending text messages, sometimes several times a day, warning of prison sentences of up to 20 years for anyone “found guilty of slander or propagating false declarations on social media”.

Journalists have been arrested and a popular radio station has been taken off the air. Although the conflict in Cameroon has mainly affected the English-speaking minority, the government’s heavy-handedness suggests that worse may lie ahead. Next year the country’s 84-year-old leader is expected to run for a seventh term. With no clear successor or challenger in sight, Mr Biya probably has no need to ratchet up repression. But meddling with the internet can be addictive, like the internet itself.
Lingua Fracas - Cameroon Clamps Down On The Internet, and Anglophones
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "Lingua fracas"

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