Why has Cameroon blocked the internet?

  • Published
Demonstrators in BamendaImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
There have been anti-government protests in Bamenda in recent months

Three weeks after reports that Cameroon had blocked the internet in English-speaking parts of the country, residents say services have yet to be restored. So what is going on?

Cameroonians have little doubt that pulling the plug on internet services for about 20% of the population is an intentional act by the government.

The two regions affected, South-West and North-West, have seen anti-government protests in recent months.

Just a day before services disappeared, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued a statement in which it warned social media users of criminal penalties if they were to "issue or spread information, including by way of electronic communications or information technology systems, without any evidence".

The statement also confirmed that the authorities had sent text messages direct to mobile phone subscribers, notifying them of penalties, including long jail terms, for "spreading false news" via social media.

A number of Cameroonians have posted screenshots on Twitter showing the various warnings they were sent.

Image source, Twitter

There has been no official comment about the internet since then (or any credible reports of technical faults) leading many Cameroonians to conclude that the severing of services is part of government attempts to stifle dissent.

What do the mobile phone companies say?

In criticising their government, some Cameroonians have also taken aim at the mobile phone companies who provide the services through which many access the internet.

These firms may not have been able to prevent the outage, since they all rely on fibre-optic infrastructure provided by a state-owned company, but nor have they been objecting publicly about the interruption to their services.

Image source, Twitter

The biggest provider, MTN Cameroon, denied it had violated customer privacy by forwarding the ministry's warning texts and added that all its services remained accessible. That was on 15 January and since then it has not commented.

Some subscribers say they have since received messages referring to "circumstances beyond our control".

There has been no comment by Orange Cameroun, Nexttel or Vodafone Cameroon.

What has been the effect of cutting internet services?

Much of Cameroon's digital economy is located around the South-West capital, Buea - an area known as Silicon Mountain.

Some entrepreneurs and their workforces are reported to have relocated temporarily to Douala or Yaounde where the internet is available.

Less mobile, digital-dependent businesses will be suffering.

Image source, Twitter

The outage is also reported to have hit the banking system, causing cashflow problems for businesses and individuals.

A week ago campaign group Internet Sans Frontieres estimated that blocking access to the internet over the previous two weeks had cost businesses up to $723,000 (£570,000).

That may not sound very much now, but the long-term cost of damaging the area's digital ecosystem could be very much higher.

And then there are the unquantifiable social costs entailed in cutting channels of communication and entertainment.

The United Nations has said internet access is now a basic human right. Cameroonians with access to Twitter have been tweeting their opposition to the outage using the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet.

Why is this an issue only in English-speaking areas?

It follows a period of rising tensions in which long-held grievances of English speakers against the government have erupted into protests and strikes.

The protesters say that Anglophones are discriminated against by Cameroon's French-speaking majority.

Last November, more than 100 people were arrested and at least one person was shot dead in demonstrations over the use of French in courts and schools.

In January, lawyers and teachers in Bamenda went on strike over the issue, turning the main city in Cameroon's North-West region into a ghost town.

Image caption,
North-West and South-West are Cameroon's two English-speaking regions

The government responded by arresting activists and warning against protests and "malicious use of social media".

English speakers in Cameroon say they are often excluded from top civil service jobs and that many government documents are published only in French, even though English is an official language.

English-speaking lawyers object to the employment of French-trained court workers who do not understand the English common law system.

Residents also object to the posting of teachers who do not speak good English to the region's schools.

Why is the country divided along language lines?

The official language or languages of African nations are usually a legacy of their colonial past.

Cameroon was colonised by Germany in the 19th Century and then split into British and French areas after World War One.

Later, areas controlled by Britain and France joined to form Cameroon after the colonial powers withdrew in the 1960s.

In 1961, a referendum was held in the previously British areas - Southern Cameroons voted in favour of joining a unitary Cameroonian state, while Northern Cameroons decided instead to become part of neighbouring, English-speaking Nigeria.

A secessionist movement, the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), emerged in the 1990s and has been banned.

How widespread are internet shutdowns in Africa?

There have been many other partial or full internet shutdowns by African governments in the past 12 months, including in Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Morocco and Uganda.

This is generally seen as an attempt to stop opposition activists from using social media to mobilise protests, although governments say it is to prevent violence, or to stop people circulating false election results.

Human rights groups have said such action probably violates international law and should "never be allowed to become the new normal".

Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, said in December: "As more people use the internet and social media, they are also increasingly enjoying the freedom and opportunity these provide to organise themselves and advocate for what they want.

"In response, it seems governments are shutting down the net more often to stop this practice."

Around the BBC