High-Tech Region Reboots Amid Cameroon’s Internet Blackout in English-Speaking Areas

Cameroon’s government, complaining of “fake news,” has shut down Internet service in the nation’s Anglophone areas. In response, tech companies and others have initiated a social media campaign to oppose the blackout.

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High-Tech Region Reboots Amid Cameroon’s Internet Blackout in English-Speaking Areas

Irene Zih Fon, GPJ Cameroon

Technology entrepreneurs work from their computers and mobile phone, at Activspaces co-working tech hub in Douala, Cameroon Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. Internet users in English-speaking regions lost connectivity from all three telecom internet companies, after the Cameroon government warned against anti-state comments and fake news on social media. Technology start-ups are suffering from the ban, and some travel to French-speaking cities to keep their businesses operating.

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DOUALA, CAMEROONAkum Ayuk Etta first learned about the government’s internet blackout when he got a call Jan. 17 from the chief technical officer of his startup company, which provides banking software to credit unions, micro-finance operations and banks.

“Boss, did you turn off the internet?” the chief technical officer asked.

Ayuk Etta hadn’t. He turned on his home computer and discovered his internet connection was also down. Calls went out to other company owners. The internet was out across the nation’s English-speaking areas – an emergency for the nascent tech companies concentrated in what is becoming Africa’s version of Silicon Valley. The region is dubbed Silicon Mountain for its highest point, Mount Fako, also known as Mount Cameroon.

Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2016” report says more governments than ever last year targeted social media and communication applications to control the spread of information. This was particularly noticeable during anti-government protests, according to the independent watchdog organization. An October 2016 study by U.S. research think tank Brookings Institution estimates that internet shutdowns between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016 cost countries at least $2.4 billion in GDP.

By the next day, the tech companies understood. The government, which controls the fiber-optic backbone of the nation, had shut down access to the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions – the areas that had erupted in several violent days when police were sent in to quell a wave of protests.

The demonstrations challenged the majority French government’s policies that assigned French-speaking judges and teachers to Anglophone-area courts and schools. Cameroon’s Constitution lists the two languages as equal, and about 20 percent of the population speaks English and resides in the two Anglophone regions.

“We realized that the government had threatened us that they would cut the internet, and they probably just did,” says Ayuk Etta, 25, founder and CEO of Skylabase, whose headquarters are in Buea, capital of the Southwest region.

The Jan. 17 shutdown was followed by text messages from the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, warning that those convicted of publishing “fake news” – especially on social media ─ risked six months to two years in prison and fines of 5 million to 10 million Central African francs ($8,000 to $16,000), as provided by the Penal Code.

Shortly before the internet shutdown, the government had released a statement banning the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, alleging its activities threatened national security and cohesion and arresting two of its leaders.

Technology workers and others are fighting back with a social media campaign to pressure the government to reinstate internet access. The campaign, #BringBackOurInternet, is now trending on Twitter as more Cameroonians and outsiders join.

“The real sense of this Twitter campaign is that it should affect people out in the world who can have influence on our government, to call them and ask them, ‘Hey, did you really shut down internet from these people? Please, put it back! It’s against international law,’” Ayuk Etta says.

“So you cannot really shut down the internet because people decide to spread false news; just deal with the people, instead of the internet,” says Ayuk Etta. “It’s not the technology that is the problem.”

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Irene Zih Fon, GPJ Cameroon

Akum Ayuk Etta center, Founder/CEO of tech startup Skylabase, discuss their banking software service with his colleague, Isaac Kamga, right, at Activspaces, a co-working tech startup in Douala, Cameroon Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. Etta now travels two hours every day to French-speaking Douala to use the internet.

Civil society organizations, including Internet Without Borders and Amnesty International, addressed open letters to the Cameroonian government on Jan. 22, calling for the release of protest leaders Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla and Fontem Aforteka’a Neba and citing the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Internet Without Borders put losses in the first 15 days of the shutdown at 443 million Central African francs ($725,000).

That cost estimate rose to U.S. 1.39 million by mid-February, according to a letter by Internet Without Borders, also known as the Internet Sans Frontières, the Committee to Protect Journalists and 25 other civil society groups to the heads of telecommunication companies MTN Cameroon, NextTel and Orange Cameroon that urgently requested their support in restoring internet access.

The letter implored the companies to help turn the internet back on. It noted that the shutdown “coincides with the arrest of judges, lawyers, journalists, and citizens, who are taken to military court and charged with terrorism for voicing calls for more federalism,” according to the English translation of the letter.

The real sense of this Twitter campaign is that it should affect people out in the world who can have influence on our government, to call them and ask them, ‘Hey, did you really shut down internet from these people? Please, put it back! It’s against international law.’

Fritz Ekwoge, founder of Silicon Mountain company FeePerfect, says the shutdown makes it difficult for all businesses in the area to generate revenue and pay salaries and taxes.

“I don’t know how long this has to continue for international bodies to go to the level of extending sanctions to Cameroon,” he says.

Ayuk Etta and others from Buea’s growing tech community now travel two hours every day to French-speaking Douala to access the internet and keep their companies operating. He works alongside other techies from the English-speaking blackout areas who take digital refuge at tech hub ActivSpaces. Some have moved to Douala temporarily.

The rest of Ayuk Etta’s team work offline from Buea, and come to Douala about once a week to conduct online research and download any files they need, he says. Ayuk Etta’s company has 20 employees. They include paid and volunteer workers, as well as student engineers who are recruited after they finish school.

Without the internet, Skylabase clients still can use an offline version of its software, but a micro-finance client in Buea cannot communicate with its branch in another town, Ayuk Etta says. Without an internet connection, clients can withdraw funds only from the branch where they established an account, he says.

Ntani Paulinus, the manager of Kimbo Police Cooperative Credit Union in the northwestern city of Bamenda, affirms that although his organization can facilitate transactions internally, thanks to software, it cannot access other branches without the internet. Instead, bank officers have to call the branches.

Police Actions at Protests Need Scrutiny, Cameroonians Say A student details the clash between schoolmates and police at the University of Buea, during one of many protests in English-speaking regions of Cameroon in the last few months. Various groups are compiling information on arrests and the possible disappearance of citizens, and urging the release of demonstrators and sanctions against any police officers who used excessive force or committed other crimes. Read the story.

Ayuk Etta estimates that his company lost 3 million to 5 million Central African francs ($5,000 to $8,000) in business in the first two weeks of the shutdown. And that doesn’t include his travel expenses. Ayuk Etta says he spends at least 6,000 francs ($10) per day for transportation and food when he travels to Douala. The cost mounts quickly, he says; for 10 days out of the first two weeks, the cost is 60,000 francs.

If the blackout continues, he says, he will consider moving Skylabase to Nigeria, which he already has scoped out as a new market for the company’s software.

“With this kind of thing happening, it is a blow to our plans,” he says. “Two weeks of no internet to us is like two years without internet.”

The tech professionals believe they have much to offer, if only the government would encourage them and utilize their capabilities.

“Internet is actually a basic human right. This thing that has been done in Cameroon is not normal, it is not fair,” Ayuk Etta says. “We look at Silicon Mountain as the future of Cameroon.”

As for technology needed to discourage the spread of fake news on social media in Cameroon, he believes the solution lies within Silicon Mountain.

“The people who are supposed to build that are in Silicon Mountain. If the government needs it, they should come to us,” he says.