Today, April 20, 2017, is the 93rd day of the Internet shutdown in the English speaking regions of Cameroon. On January 17, 2017, the Cameroonian government cut off access to the Internet in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of the country in a bid to control the protest of citizens alleging marginalization of the minority English-speaking population by the government of a largely francophone Cameroon. Citizens in cities such as Bamenda also protested the imposition of the French language in courts and schools.
Internet shutdowns are not new in Africa. In fact, last year, there were at least 11 documented cases of Internet and Internet applications shutdowns recorded across the continent. These intentional disruptions of the Internet were done under such guises as preventing examination malpractice, preventing the sharing of false information by citizens and addressing security concerns around political protests. In a sense therefore, Africans have become sensitized to this gross violation of human rights.
However, there is the feeling that the Internet shutdown in Cameroon has taken the incidents of Internet shutdowns in Africa to a new level of disregard for human rights. Shutting down the Internet for 93 days is quite unprecedented in Africa, and along its trail is a catalogue of stories of human suffering and losses. The unprecedented nature of the Internet shutdown has brought with it lessons for the digital rights advocates in Africa. I share two of these lessons here:
- Internet shutdowns affect real human livelihoods. Digital rights advocates, in response to Internet shutdowns in Africa, often take the human rights approach to the problem, emphasizing the fact that Internet shutdowns cut off citizens from their right to freedom of expression (as a case in point), while not necessarily highlighting other (economic and social) deprivations Internet shutdowns cause. The prolonged Internet shutdown in Cameroon has however given digital rights advocates the chance to correct this narrative. A report by a coalition of civil society organizations working on digital rights estimated the economic loss after a month of the Cameroonian Internet shutdown to be $1.39m. The report however notes that the conservative estimate “did not take into account the long-term effects such as the disruption of supply chains and the significant amount of remittances that Cameroonians living abroad sent to the affected regions”.
As noted by the report, remittances to families from the Cameroonian diaspora were also affected, putting the economic welfare of families at risk. There were countless stories of missed opportunities foisted by the Cameroonian Internet shutdown, such as disrupted health services and online payments, but perhaps none was better reported than the fate of the budding tech industry in Cameroon. The country’s budding tech scene, dubbed Silicon Mountain, after America’s Silicon Valley, had to creatively confront the problem by creating an “Internet Refugee Camp” – an Internet connected haven where their businesses could thrive despite the shutdown. However, this spirited move could do little to mitigate their losses. The enormous human suffering occasioned by the shutdown was recently highlighted by the UN envoy for Central Africa in his appeal to the Cameroonian government to restore Internet access.
- Greater African stakeholder involvement could bring the desired solution. It is heartening to note that the international community have, to some extent, weighed in on the Internet shutdown in Cameroon, notably with the statement in February by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and the recent statement by the UN envoy for Central Africa, Mr. François Louncény Fall. However, the tense geopolitical situation elsewhere in the world (Syria, the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea), together with the rising global terrorist threats, have perhaps shifted the world’s attention from the situation in Cameroon. Perhaps in the midst of serious global challenges, including within the African continent, a government shutting down access to the Internet for millions of people is not perceived to be a priority after all.An opportunity has therefore arisen for an African-led initiative to bring an end to the situation in Cameroon.
In this regard, it is heartening to see more African nations embracing the African Court for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the premier institution for recourse in cases of human rights abuse on the continent. On April 14, 2017, Tunisia joined Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Ghana and Tanzania in allowing its citizens and Non Governmental Organizations direct access to the Court. The African Union (AU), under whose authority the Court operates, has recently strengthened its human rights focus, declaring the year 2016 as the “African year of human rights (with a focus on the rights of women)” and the following decade as “the Human and Peoples’ Rights Decade in Africa”. This renewed human rights focus is timely. With many of the world’s governments distracted by events more immediate to them, African solutions to the Internet shutdown in Cameroon and indeed to Digital Rights abuses across the continent are urgently needed. In any case, external help is more likely to come when it is perceived that the human rights authorities in Africa are already doing all that can be done. That cannot be said to be the case at the moment.
In a timely intervention, from April 25 to 27, 2017, over 200 stakeholders representing more than 35 countries – drawn from civil society, government, the private sector, academia and the press – will converge in Lagos, Nigeria, to discuss the state of digital rights in Africa, at the 5th edition of Paradigm Initiative‘s Internet Freedom Forum (IFF). This platform represents another opportunity for discussions and advocacy towards evolving an African solution to the challenges to digital rights on the continent, including the Cameroonian Internet shutdown. Let’s hope it marks a new beginning of a greater involvement of African actors in formulating solutions to Africa’s problems.