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Cameroon restores internet to English-speaking regions

Mark Caldwell Reuters, AFP
April 21, 2017

English-speaking parts of Cameroon are now back online as the government in French-speaking Yaounde overturns an internet blackout, which damaged the local economy and triggered a free speech campaign.

Kamerun Präsident Paul Biya
Image: imago/Xinhua Afrika

The government of Cameroon has announced that it has restored the internet to its English-speaking regions.

The move comes three months after the authorities imposed an internet blackout in those regions in response to protests against the predominantly French-speaking government of Paul Biya.

Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma said in a statement that "the conditions that preceded the suspension of the internet to that part of the national territory have much changed" and that President Paul Biya had ordered the resumption of internet servces in the northwest and southwest regions.

Monitoring to continue

Cameroon was asked by the United Nations to restore internet conections last week. Francois Lonseny Fall, the UN Secretary General's Acting Special Representative for Central Africa, said only the reconnection of the internet and frank dialogue would enable the Cameroon's government to resolve its problems with the English-speaking regions.   

Cameroon's Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Libong Lili Keng said the government would continue to monitor online usage to make sure there were no abuses even though services had been restored.

"Our security forces have platforms to track and control people just as in all other countries of  the world," she said, adding that it was "the goal of the government to encourage the digital economy." 

Smartphone users in Africa
"When I got the news I was delighted," one cyber cafe worker in Buea told DW via Skype on being asked for his reaction to the return of the Internet Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Pulling the plug on the internet was a particular blow for Cameroon's "Silicon Mountain," a cluster of tech start-ups in the region that had been flourishing prior the crackdown.

Deprived of the internet, "Silicon Mountain" entrepreneurs were forced to take to the road and drive to other parts of Cameroon when they wanted to go online. These long drives were eating into work time. 

"Money is being lost, some of us can't work with foreign clients because of the cut in internet service. It's disruptive to everyone," said Churchill Mambe, speaking earlier this month. Mambe is the owner of Njorku, an employment and hotel services company recently listed among the top 20 African startups by Forbes Magazine.

He told AFP he even had to move offices 50 kilometres (over 30 miles) down the coast towards Bonako, in a neighbouring region, to access the internet. 

Follow The Hashtag: Cameroon's English speakers demand #BringBackOurInternet

'Future of repression'

Free speech activists launched a campaign on behalf of the English-speaking regions under the hashtag #Bringbackourinternet, which was supported by fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden who responded to the blackout by tweeting in January "this is the future of repression." 

The French NGO Internet Without Borders estimates that the blackout cost Cameroon's economy at nearly 3 million euros ($3.2 million) as well as being a violation by the government of the right to freedom of expression. 

The Cameroonian government was using the withdrawal of modern technology as a weapon against dissent. The origins of the unrest can be traced backed Cameroon's colonial past a century ago..

Map showing in English and French speaking regions in Cameron and its neighbors
Cameroon's linguistic tensions have a long history whose origins can be traced ack to the colonila era

When World War One ended in 1918, the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, divided the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors.

After independence in 1960, voters from the smaller English-speaking zone opted to join Cameroon rather than neighboring Nigeria, but they have often felt marginalised by the Francophone government in Yaounde.

Collective punishment?

Simmering tensions came to the boil in November when a group of English-speaking professors and lawyers called for the return of Cameroon's federalist system or the creation of a separate English-speaking state.    

English-speakers account for around a fifth of the majority French-speaking population of nearly 23 million people.

In January 2017, the lawyers and professors, backed by students, called for protests in the regions, bringing several cities to a standstill.

Some members of the English-speaking opposition were arrested and face charges at a military court.

At least six protestors have been shot dead and hundreds arrested prompting criticism from human rights organizations. 

Activists had condemned the internet shut down as a form of collective punishment. 

Moki Kindzeka in Yaounde contributed to this report