Cameroon’s Internet Shutdown: The Human Factor
When a country experiences unrestricted domination by an individual or clique, an inevitable elimination and restriction of civil liberties ensues. Cameroon is an apt representation of this reality today. A country where despotic methods of political and social control are employed; which range from arbitrary arrests to human rights abuses, from intimidation to propaganda, from imposing the duty of obedience to methods of terror. One thing always overlooked is the human factor. How these affect the citizens, their realities, their welfare.
Over the years, the English speaking communities in Cameroon have decried government’s indifference towards their needs. Though a minority in the mostly French speaking country, they believe they have been sidelined for more than 50 years and the government has imposed the French legal and educational systems on them. In November of 2016, lawyers from the English speaking side protested against the use of French in the courts. Anglophone teachers joined the strike leading to the shutdown of schools, courts and the introduction of ghost towns in the two main English speaking regions of Cameroon.
However, young people have suffered most from this injustice. Anglophone youth have been caught in a cycle of poverty, disempowerment, unemployment and underemployment. They feel politically neglected, socially and economically marginalized. They have basically given up on the government and have taken matters into their own hands. They have become entrepreneurs, self-employed, creating employment for others as they struggle to stay afloat with no help from the government. This is where the internet has played a major role. The internet has provided opportunities for young people to self-develop and train themselves without government help. This is how the world recognized Silicon Mountain in the town of Buea; this is how several tech start-ups were developed in Bamenda by young people for their own survival. Through the internet, young people have gotten scholarship opportunities to further their studies and make something out of themselves; opportunities the government has been unable to provide. That is why it is mind boggling when the government responds to the cry of the people by shutting down the internet; the very same internet that has had a transformative effect on the economic and financial progress of the country.
At this moment, it has been almost three months with no internet access in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon with millions of dollars worth in losses. The government has intentionally cut of the Anglophone community from the rest of the world. In all of this, everyday citizens in these regions suffer most. Livelihoods have been destroyed, once in a life time opportunities snatched away. So I decided to give this struggle a human face. I wanted everyone to know how this has affected everyday Cameroonians. How it has affected their families and businesses whether at home or abroad. These are the stories of some of the people I got in contact with. Some wanted to stay anonymous because they were worried about arbitrary arrests while others were comfortable with their identities known.
Sophie Monkam Ngassa Epse Fon Nsoh is a teacher in the Government Technical High School in Bamenda, North West Region. She is also an Africa IT Women Member and a member of the Google Developer Group, Bamenda. On the 17th of January 2017, she was in her office about to register 12 girls into 3 teams of four for the 2017 Technovation Challenge program in Bamenda when the internet was cut off. At first, she thought the problem was unique to her office but later discovered that everyone was experiencing the same problem. “I wondered how I would inform my team of girls that I would not be able to register them for this amazing online program intended to train them on how to create mobile applications that address everyday problems within their communities”. Unfortunately, these young girls will not be able to pitch their ideas and compete with their peers from around the world.
Sophie has also been deprived from fully participating in the on line Advanced Digital Change making program organized by World Pulse. World Pulse is a powerful digital platform uniting a worldwide, online community who strive to speak out and build solutions to today’s biggest challenges. “I cannot forgo this training because of internet outage. I have made up my mind to complete this training. Though living in this nightmare has been very frustrating and painful to me, I will keep forging ahead while keeping a positive attitude”. In a country where there are very few women engaged in Tech, it is heart-breaking that the government will destroy the dreams of the few who try to participate.
Janet Fofang is Managing Director of Girls in Tech Cameroon. She and her project management team were working on a huge project in Bamenda at the time of the cut. Deadlines for submission were closed but they kept hoping the cut will be short lived. “While I worked on parts of the project that required my expertise, my colleagues could hardly do anything and had no research power as their connections were down. On the last day, we lost out on the submissions as we could not catch up with the delays this cut had caused.” Janet and her team missed out on a very important opportunity because the government had decided that some Cameroonians were less important than the rest. “My organization cannot afford to displace a team with members that have families to travel to other regions with internet.”
The government has always encouraged Cameroonians who have studied abroad to return home and help the economy grow. That is exactly what Epaphrate Minuifuong, a young Cameroonian from the North West region did. He is a Tech Entrepreneur who Co-founded 2 startups and was at the verge of launching them alongside a Co-working space for Tech entrepreneurs in Bamenda before the sudden internet Blackout in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon. “I returned home from Israel in November 2016 where I was participating in an accelerator program, MassChallenge Israel, for entrepreneurs brought from all over the world to share resources, meet mentors and investors.” eFarm.cm is a platform which helps connect local farmers and consumers. It helps to expand the agricultural market in Africa by giving farmers the opportunity to sell their products online and raise revenue.
Easy Housing on the other hand is a platform that connects landlords to tenants. They help to allow real estate owners to put up their facilities on their platform and rent it out easily, while simultaneously saving time for tenants. Both platforms had been developed completely and were to be launched in January 2017. “We have lost contact with potential investors, resources and even other opportunities online.” This internet blackout has also affected other young people who were to benefit from the opportunities these platforms would have created. “I had made concrete plans to open a Co-working space (TechSpaces) along the commercial avenue in Bamenda to host tech entrepreneurs. The vision was to provide them with space to work, internet connection, and mentorship from experts and successful entrepreneurs on a weekly basis.” It’s been over two months with no internet; what does the future hold?
Many tech startups in Cameroon are located in Buea, a small town that has been described by many as the home of innovation. That is why an internet shutdown of this magnitude automatically brings all projects to a halt. Kenneth Ngah, founder of LCM tours and NoKidBehind, two startups based in Buea has been unable to get any work done. He like many other entrepreneurs are considering other options such as relocating to other regions because they have lost revenue and lost working hours. Most tech entrepreneurs who freelance to support themselves have lost jobs from abroad and cannot touch base with their clients.
“Most of us have funded our startups from our own private resources. The tech community therefore wonders if they will be compensated by the service providers when the cry #BringBackOurInternet is finally heeded to” says Kenneth. Angela Lumneh, an entrepreneur currently pursuing her Software Engineering degree at the African Leadership University in Mauritius has neither been able to launch her app or communicate with her team in Buea. She believes the situation is being further aggravated by the fact that all Government media houses are being dishonest in the way they are reporting the situation. With schools shutdown for over three months now, there seems to be no sustainable solution in sight.
Andy is a Cameroonian living in the United Kingdom. He owns two internet -ependent businesses in the South West region of Cameroon, employing 8 people who depend on their wages to cater for their families. For over two months now, none of the businesses have made a dime and he has spent over 300 pounds in phone card credit charges just trying to keep in touch with family members in Cameroon “If the suspension continues for another, say two months, I will wind up the businesses and terminate the contracts of all the workers. This may sound rather draconian but I'm sorry!”
JR in Douala Cameroon just started a web-based business back in November and the internet outage means he is totally grounded; his target market is first and foremost the English speaking regions so it's very difficult for him to operate without internet. Tadoh, who lives out of the country, has had a hard time explaining to his kids why they can no longer send the cards and pictures they made for grandma who lives in Cameroon through WhatsApp. According to Tadoh, “It may seem a trivial need compared to those people being arrested for attempting to go out of town for internet access. However, it shows the extent to which this internet blackout affects every single aspect of our community at home and abroad”.
Another Cameroonian in the Netherlands who did not want to be identified said he sponsors 6 children in secondary school- mostly Catholic secondary schools which cost him about 3million CFA FRS a year, plus 2 others in the University of Buea whom he cares for. In his words, “With schools closed I cannot keep tabs on them without internet nor monitor and control what they are doing. 4 of them are girls and I worry about what will happen to them all the time. I have had bad experiences in the past of cousins in secondary school getting pregnant. So my constant warning of my children and my sisters' children is gone without internet, and this is just for starters; I cannot sleep at night.”
These are just a few stories of how people have been personally affected. Imagine if all internet users in these regions came forward.
The good news is, just as Cameroonians made conscious decisions to create employment and provide opportunities for themselves in these regions without government help, they resolved to doing the same yet again. Young people have refused to give up. As they say, 'necessity breeds invention and innovation'. An internet refugee camp has been created at the New Bonako Toll Gate sponsored by ActivSpaces Buea in partnership with Njorku. This Bonako area leads into the French speaking town of Douala from the South West Region. Many young entrepreneurs travel from the South West region to make use of the services offered here. This pre-emptive move to create a working space at Bonako is a great solution for developers and techies in the Buea region. Others travel from Bamenda and other areas in the Northwest Region to Bafoussam and other French speaking towns; undeterred and more determined than ever to succeed.
Nina Forgwe is a One Young World Ambassador from Cameroon. She is the former Executive Director of The Organization for World Peace (OWP) African Region. She pushes forward dialogue and lobbies for the restructuring of international thought away from destructive tendencies and towards peaceful non-combative strategies to solve conflicts. She has provided over 50 young people from 10 regions of Cameroon with tools on how to prevent violent extremism.