For three months, the government of Cameroon cut its citizens in the North-West and South West regions off the internet. In the information age, how did the young people cope with the blackout? A young doctor tells his story.
This was the ordeal millions in some parts of Cameroon, in West Africa, had to deal with at the start of the year. It was not because they couldn’t afford internet, but because the government blocked access to it.
This left many in the west of Cameroon cut out from the rest of the world while fearing for their lives.
The government forced telecom providers in the country to cut access to internet in that part of Cameroon because it considered it a threat to national security.
However, what really necessitated the shutdown was that activists were using the internet to organise meetups and protest against the government.
The protests followed the agitations from people in North West and South West Cameroon, who are mainly English-speaking, that they were being discriminated against by the majority French-speaking population who wield topmost political power in the country.
In Cameroon, English and French are the official languages; a legacy colonialism, that ended in the 1960s. The system is supposed to be similar to that in Canada but it has not gone according to plan. For years, many in the English-speaking parts of the country, who are a minority, have expressed concern about the dominance of French-speakers in the government. Recent protests followed the use of French in schools as the language of instruction and the replacement of English common law with the French system in the Anglophone regions. A weakened strive for secession has been resurrected in the Anglophone regions following the unrest.
“It was the most shocking experience I have had for the short time that I have walked the earth. It never even occurred to me that it was possible for the government to even conceive taking away a method of communication from its own people and for what? Just to stop them from talking to the rest of the world about their problems?”, John (not his real name) a young doctor based in North-West Cameroon laments.
Due to the Cameroonian government’s history of human right abuses, we have decided to use a pseudonym to protect his identity and that of his family.
Traveling to checking an email
“A day without internet is like an entire week without electricity. My experience within the past weeks in one word is hell! Misery! Like living in the dark ages. Just imagine if you have to travel to a francophone region each time you need to reply to an email, to download something or even read articles; such a horrible experience. Words cannot express how difficult it has been for me”, John reminisces on the five-hour journeys he made just to check his email.
Before the blockade, John used the internet to read medical articles, watch surgical procedures on YouTube and chat with friends and family on social media. All that ceased because of the blackout.
“At some point, it got so bad that I had to give my password to some friends on the Francophone side to check especially my emails for me. It was one of the craziest things I have ever done. Granting someone access to [something as personal as my email meant that I] actually lost my privacy”, says John.
Counting the costs
Travelling back and forth across the country to check emails and social media and renting a hotel to pass the night if the work had to take bit longer was a major strain on the young doctor’s personal finances.
According to the campaign group, Access Now, the Cameroonian economy lost 4.5 million dollars because of the 94-day ban in lost hours, wages and productivity.
Aside finances, the ban affected healthcare delivery in those parts.
“The internet blackout affected me and my patients in more ways than one. For instance, in order to use the internet most often I need to be absent from work especially when it is urgent. Secondly, seeking second opinion from my colleague doctors [or referring a patient to a particular doctor] elsewhere had all of a sudden become impossible because of poor communication. I could no longer read recent medical updates nor refer online to something in order to properly help my patients when the need arose.”
Human rights in Cameroon
In its 2016/2017 report, the human rights group, Amnesty International, lists a myriad of human rights violations in Cameroon.
“Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly continued to be restricted. Demonstrations in Anglophone regions from late October were violently repressed by the security forces. Journalists, students, human rights defenders and members of opposition parties were arrested and some faced trial before military courts. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people faced discrimination, intimidation and harassment, although the number of arrests and prosecutions continued to fall.”
If President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 34 years, was reading this, what message would John say to him?
I will have nothing to tell him because all that builds within me is hate and anger. If he were a wise president, he won't have allowed lawyers for crying out loud to be beaten up during a peaceful protest. He will have solved this problems way before people started showing their desire for secession.