English-speaking citizens in the central African nation were protesting what they are calling discrimination against those who don’t speak French. The government has responded by cutting off their internet.
So, what’s happening?
English speakers feel marginalised. They have long complained that Cameroon’s wealth has not been shared fairly and that they are discriminated against because French is the dominant language.
They are protesting against the decreasing use of English in the multilingual state, and demonstrations have exposed national divisions and stoked opposition to Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, a French speaker.
They want a complete overhaul of Cameroon’s language policy and a constitutional amendment recognising English as an official language.
Are there a lot of English speakers in Cameroon?
English speakers make up 20 percent of Cameroon’s population of 22 million.
Some have suggested a two-state federation, divided along linguistic lines.
All court proceedings and legal documents are in French. Those studying in English speaking schools have also complained that teachers are native French speakers with inferior command of the English language.
“Ghost town” protests have been held by English-speaking residents from two of Cameroon’s ten districts since late last year by shutting down schools and businesses.
Is there really an English-French divide?
Cameroon’s linguistic divide goes back to the end of World War One when the former German colony of Kamerun was split into French and British-administered areas.
Shortly after independence in 1960, voters from the smaller English area opted to join Cameroon over neighbouring Nigeria. Some now regret this.
French and English districts then merged to form Cameroon, forming a state mainly inhabited by francophone.
What is the cost of the internet blackout?
The shutdown has affected the economy but the cost has not been determined.
It has also forced people to move.
Digital based companies in Cameroon are mainly located in an English speaking area known as the Silicon Mountain, in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region. Those who have to relocate to areas with internet access, are calling themselves “digital migrants.”
Without internet, money cannot be transferred, online businesses cannot operate, and students cannot study or sit for their exams.
Users on social media have begun a trend, #bringbackourinternet, calling for an end to the block.
The United Nations has defined internet access as a basic human right and said the shutdown “violates international law.”
The government says critics could be jailed. What?
The Minister for Posts and Telecommunications released a statement saying criminal penalties will be “provided by law in Cameroon for those who might be found guilty of issuing or spreading false news, including via social media,” and text messages were sent out by telephone service providers saying that those found guilty of “spreading slander” will face a prison sentence up to 20 years.
More than 100 protesters have also been rounded up. In December 2016, four people were killed in clashes between government forces and protesters.
Two Anglophone groups, Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and Southern Cameroons National Council, were also outlawed when the leaders of both groups were arrested.
Although Biya recently created a commission promoting bilingualism and multiculturalism, he has said that Cameroon is “one and indivisible,” a far cry from the two federation state secessionists have been calling for.