“Marginalisation?!”, “Nous allons vous montrer ce que nous appellons la marginalisation!”
Were these words in the thoughts and intention of the signatory and or co-signatories to the order which shut down internet services in the North West and South West Regions in Cameroon for two months running, they have largely succeeded. Because by that decision to remove internet services from these regions, its inhabitants are feeling the full power of the state as it interferes in their lives, their work, their education and their leisure in ways it doesn’t to others in regions East of the Mungo.
I returned to Cameroon against the backdrop of swirling debates on “Marginalisation”. But the time which I had spent out of the country had left me with a sense of detachment. After all, we lived in a Global Village and the talk of “La Republic” v. “West Cameroon”, was just banter which detracted from the unity of purpose which the country needed in a world where fractious wars and failed states were abound.
Two decades is a long time but I must also confess to a very poor memory because in those interleaving years when comments were made about the poem “Lamentations” I wrote back in ‘93, I always tried to remember my motivations for the poem. Nevertheless, these few months have given me a sense of that same anger which I brought fresh out of Nigeria in the early 90s to also pen the play, “Beyond the Promise.”
In “Lamentations”, a battered bride recalls how she was wooed into marriage and how her marriage has gone badly wrong. But even in her desperation she still clings to hope that things can be resolved before their marriage hit the rocks in “disruptive disunity”.
While the bride could clearly recall all that had gone on in their marriage, I was something of an amnesiac but in these past months – the politicising of education by errant unions and the clamp down, including the shutdown of the internet by a nervous state – have done much to rekindle the memories and feelings which initiated my early writings.
I know in certain offices in Yaoundé the argument has been one word. Security. Just to be clear, I am one for security. I am one for law and order because without these, you have zero. Nothing. So, security is paramount, and those in the North of Cameroon where Boko Haram has been waging war for the past 2 years would not disagree. But herein the paradox, because we haven’t read that Internet Services have been disrupted in the Northern and Extreme Northern regions.
In the UK, US, France etc., there have been periods of unrest, exemplified in London Riots in 2011, US Race Riots Ferguson 2014 or Baltimore 2015, Paris Banlieu Riots 2005 and terror related incidents including but not exclusive to US 9/11, London 7/7, or Paris Bataclan in Nov. 2015. But in all of these securty challenges, there has not been internet shutdowns of the kind we have witnessed in the NW and SW regions. Neither was there a shutdown deployed in Russia during the 2012 “Pussy Riots” and other subsequent pro-democracy civil order disturbances which have taken there place recently. Lastly in Hong Kong, during the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2014, we did not see state authorities reaching for the internet switches. And just in case you missed it, Hong Kong is in China.
So, the argument for security runs hollow, firstly because in the many instances around the world – and there are many – where there has been unrest or threats to public security, normalisation has been restored not by disrupting internet services as we have seen in the NW and SW regions. Secondly, individuals who want to be malicious in society would always find ways to be, with or without the presence of internet services. In that dark realm, it could be argued that internet services would merely be “facilitators” rather than “enablers”, thus disabling it achieves nothing.
But semantics aside, what is it that so roils the authorities about internet in the SW and NW regions? What is it they fear?
When in Christmas 2009 Social Media was used to send Rage Against The Machine to No. 1 in the UK charts, upstaging an X-Factor single, commentators marvelled at the power of the internet and social media. That symbolism wasn’t lost on me also, because at the time, I was in the thick writing “The Addis Agenda” a story in which Internet and Social Media activism plays a central role. About that time too, a hawker set himself ablaze in Tunisia and what became known as the “Arab Spring” had sprung.
If the decision to deny internet services to the NW and SW regions is not to be seen in the light of a collective punishment on Anglophones, then the decision must be because of the primal fear by those who pulled the connectivity leavers that a socio-political revolution of the kind we witnessed in the North of Africa was in situ in the NW & SW regions.
But how real is this fear? And is a dislocation of communication in the NW / SW regions an answer to the problem?
Thousands of years ago when inhabitant and citizens of Babel decided to build a tower, their aims were thwarted by a sudden loss of communication. So, this idea is nothing new but though it may boast some tactical effectiveness, it’s very much less so strategically.
Yet, I would expect those who pulled the plug on the connectivity in the NW / SW regions to be strategic in their thinking and actions. Strategic thinking would require winning hearts and minds of those in the NW & SW regions. Because I can say that for me and many I know, the decision to put the two regions in digital darkness is NOT winning hearts and minds West of the Mungo.
But if the virtual agglomeration of individuals through social media was their phobia, would they not just have been better served in getting the networks to block connections to IP addresses used by the social media apps e.g. Facebook, Google+, Twitter et al. ? Although this would still be an infringement on some basic freedoms which others enjoyed around the world and especially across the Mungo, such a move would place these actors on a collision course with some corporate behemoths who haven’t buckled even in the face of the mighty US State Department. So, perhaps it was relatively easier to get MTN, Orange and Nextel to execute a complete shutdown. After all they had signed their Telecoms Licenses giving the state authorities a carte-blanche to pull the Internet plug – without much ado.
However, just in case folks in Yaoundé don’t really understand, the internet is not just a source for education and enlightenment but there are many in the NW / SW regions and beyond whose livelihoods depend on that connectivity.
Personally, ever since I embarked on that transformative course in ’94 which earned me a Masters in Information Technology and many other courses I have attended would not have been completed without ready access to the internet – simply because the curriculum relied on accessing online materials – reports, research articles, journals. For example, until recently, I was enrolled on an online course via Coursera. This has had to be suspended. Also, as a source for enlightenment as I use the internet to catch up on current events from around the world. News on the go which helps inform my thinking and opinions about the global world shrunk to a village by digital access in the palm of my hand. Likewise, digital connectivity has brought my family geographically dispersed across the globe closer as we make use of the various VOIP utilities to chat, video call and conference call without incurring ruinous network costs. Lastly, I have and still use it to develop applications to assist clients improve productivity, so the current shutdown is hampering my projects, because access to online resources have been impaired. Quite despairing, to think of the cumulative lost revenue by all those businesses relying on the internet to register and validate financial transactions.
So, when the decision came to pull the plug did anyone really think about what it is they were doing or was it just a knee-jerk reaction, which they’re now at a loss to justify?
A UN Resolution on 1st July 2016 on state internet shutdowns expresses deep concern on “measures aiming to or that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law…”
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in one of its clauses urge “..States Parties to respect and take legislative and other measures to guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services;”
Clearly the internet disruption is frowned on by the above bodies, to which Cameroon belongs, and is seen as a breach of Human Rights. But do those who pulled the plug on the 17th of January 2017 really care? After two months of the status quo, apparently not.
But this is a decision mired in inequity. It is absurd. It is self-defeating and a collectivised punishment hitting those in the NW & SW Regions, in their wallets, their social relations, and their education. All in the same period when those in the other eight regions are enjoying full connectivity to the internet. Lest we forget, we got here because the NW & SW regions of the country felt “marginalised”.
So as one tries to understand the rationale behind the internet shutdown it takes little imagination to figure the thoughts of those who pulled the plug and it goes thus, “Marginalisation?!”, “Nous allons vous montrer ce que nous appellons la marginalisation!”
Indeed one wonders if the internet shutdown was intended for some other reason. For the length of time the internet has been shut down, the strike has continued unabated. Yet no one seems to realise that the collateral damage on course is more than was expected by this rather hasty move. I presume, the aim was to shut out the diaspora from the influence they seem to have on the striking population.. Has this strategy actually worked? Have our authorities missed the point, that the strike is not simply driven by some outside influence but that it is a genuine expression of a malaise that affects fellow North and south westerners? Some people even believe that this move was deliberately orchestrated to target the regions fast growing IT industry so as to give other parts of Cameroon the advantage, the usual strategy to undermine the regions economy. This may be true or false. However the continuous clamp down on the IT sector in these regions, (despite the inability to demonstrate its relationship to the strike), may just justify and strengthen this argument. The motivation and intention to further marginalise the peoples of these regions is perhaps more felt now than ever before.
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