Opinion (4/10/17): Ambazonia, Biya’s intolerance and internet democracy, by Reuben Abati
A Biafra-like agitation for independence has been unfolding in neighbouring Republic of Cameroon since November 2016. The people of Northern and Southern Cameroons under the umbrella of the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF) finally decided to affirm the independence of the English-speaking sections of Cameroon from the Republic. Like the Indigenous People of Biafra, the Ambazonians as they have called themselves since 1984, are protesting against their alleged marginalization by the dominant Francophone Cameroon and the Paul Biya government in Yaounde.
They insist that whereas oil is found in the English-speaking South Western part of Cameroon, the central government has practically neglected the region, and the people have been turned into “slaves” on their own soil. Like the Biafran movement in Nigeria, they have their own flag (white and blue) and a national anthem. The Cameroonian Anglophones claim that their struggle is non-violent and peaceful but they will insist on their independence, and the declaration of their own Republic. They further argue that whereas French and English are the official languages of Cameroon, the central government has imposed French as the language to be spoken in Anglophone Cameroon. They insist on their right to speak English.
After World War 1, the League of Nations shared the geographical territory known as Cameroon between the French and the British. The latter administered its own share from Nigeria. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. British Cameroon had a choice between joining Nigeria or Cameroon. In a referendum conducted in 1961, the people of British Cameroon chose to join French-speaking Cameroon to form a Federation. But the planned federal system never really worked. In 1972, Cameroon changed its name to the United Republic of Cameroon. In 1984, the word “United” was removed from the country’s name by the Paul Biya administration, thus adopting the pre-unification name of French Cameroon and effectively raising fears of alienation among English-speaking Cameroonians.
Colonialism and its legacy may have been the foundation of many of the crises in post-colonial African states, but poor governance, ethnicity, competition over power and national resources, religion and sheer leadership incompetence have done worse damage. Post-colonial African leaders have failed to act as statesmen but as new colonialists adopting in West Africa, the twin colonial policies of divide and rule and assimilation. Cameroon has been a long-suffering country, first under former President Ahmadu Ahidjo and especially under 84-year old Paul Biya, who has been President for 35 years. It is ironic that 56 years after the country became a Republic, English-speaking Cameroonians are fighting against the seeming attempt by their French-speaking compatriots to “assimilate” and “marginalize” them. The two Cameroons are fighting over the language of the colonialists, national resources, and power-relations.
On Sunday, October 1, 2017, Sisiku AyukTabe, Chairman of the Southern Cameroons Governing Council, formally declared the independence of Southern Cameroons or the Federal Republic of Ambazonia: “We, the people of Southern Cameroons are slaves to no one”, he said, “Not now, not ever again! Today we reaffirm autonomy over our heritage and over our territory…It is time to tell Yaounde that enough is enough!” The response from Yaounde has been characteristic. Weeks before the protests and the declaration of independence in Southern Cameroons, soldiers were sent to the region to shoot in the air, prevent rallies, and intimidate the people. About 15 persons have so far been killed. “This division will never happen”, says Cameroon’s Communications minister, Issa Tchiooma Bakary, speaking for the central government. Just like IPOB and NIgeria? Yes.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a wave of nationalist agitations across the world resulting in self-determination, secession and partitions, and the emergence of new countries. But self-determination or secession is not an automatic process, and it is not in every instance that the protests result in the Nirvana that the separatists seek. In Cameroon, the Biya administration must get off its high horse and engage the leaders of the separatist movement in dialogue. The international community must prevail on him to put an end to the abuse of human rights and the killings in Southern Cameroon. It is the refusal of the central government to address the grievances of the people of Southern Cameroon that has brought Cameroon to this moment. To quote AyukTabe, again: “The union was always intended to be a union of two equals. Unfortunately what our peace-loving people have experienced ever since is oppression, subterfuge, discrimination, violence, intimidation, imprisonment, forced occupation, cultural genocide, and misappropriation of our natural resources by the leaders of the Republic of Cameroun.”
It is instructive to note the similarity between the expressed concerns of the Ambazonian movement and similar movements in recent times in other parts of the world, and the attitude of the governments in power. In Spain (the Catalan secessionist move), Nigeria (the Biafra movement) and Iraq (the Iraqi Kurdistan) – the Catalans have held a referendum to leave Spain, but the Spanish government says this is “unconstitutional.” Biafrans want a referendum in Nigeria – the government says this is unconstitutional because Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. The Kurds also want out of Iraq, but the central government is opposed to it on the grounds that the September 25 referendum is unilateral and unconstitutional! It is not just rhetoric that is involved, the military is deployed, violence is unleashed on separatists or critics of the extant union and the government. While these may seem to be traditional responses, the assault on the human rights of protesters now includes an increasingly important territory: the internet.
The internet is perhaps the most striking phenomenon of the century, in the manner in which it has extended the frontiers of human freedom and expression. It is the most modernist icon of globalization and the borderlessness of space and time. The internet does not know fear. It is an irreverent tool of political mobilization, commerce and social networking. It is the public mind in motion, and the anonymity that it offers in certain forms makes it a strong instrument of revolt. Elections can be won or lost, governments can be pulled down or popularized, through the mind of the internet. Given its power, reach, and impact, dictators are uncomfortable with the democracy of the internet which has proven to be much stronger than dictatorships, tyrants and intolerant governments. The relationship between the internet and authority has therefore been one of unease and distrust.
The result has been the attempt by intolerant governments and political figures to control the internet, shut it down or violate the rights of its users. China has an internet police that filters internet traffic. In 2011, Egypt tried to stop the people’s revolution by shutting down the internet. Tunisia, Italy, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Libya, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Maldives, Iraq are other countries where the internet has been censored in one form or the other or completely shut down. The degree of civil society repression varies from one country to the other, but the excuse for abridging internet democracy could be as ridiculous as saying that the internet had to be shut down in order to prevent cheating in students’ examinations as has been the case in Iraq and Ethiopia.
Generally, shutting down the internet has become the new mode of repression and a standard response to dissent. African states and governments have joined the trend. In the last year alone, 11 African governments have shut down the internet in one form or the other. These include the Democratic Republic of Congo (ostensibly to reduce the capacity to transmit “abusive messages,” but actually to stop the people from opposing President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to prolong his tenure); Gambia (a few days to the 2016 elections), Togo (to check protests against President Faure Gnassingbe, and the people’s request for multi-party elections and Presidential term-limits), Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Egypt, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Morocco.
In Nigeria, there has also been so much official discomfort with what is termed “hate speech” on social media platforms particularly whatsapp, instagram, blogs, and twitter. One lawmaker even proposed a Social Media Bill which criminalises internet democracy. The worst anti-internet culprit so far in Africa would be in my view, not Egypt (where the revolution succeeded in spite of the repression) but Paul Biya’s Cameroon where intolerance and unpleasantness have been elevated to the level of state policy. In January, the government of Cameroon shut down the internet in English-speaking parts of the country. This lasted for more than three months. This has again been repeated. It is unacceptable.
The cost of internet shutdowns is enormous and disruptive, and the gain for governments is so small. The free flow of information is breached, the targeting of specific regions as in Cameroun is discriminatory; the right to free speech is violated, along with other rights: association, choice, and freedom of thought. The UN Human Rights Council in 2012, 2014 and again in July 2016, resolved that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”, and all states must refrain from taking such measures that can violate internet freedom. The African Union Declaration on Internet Governance (Algiers, February 13, 2017) is on all fours with this UN Resolution. The UN should go further and impose sanctions on countries that violate internet freedom.
Worse, businesses suffer in the event of an internet shutdown. Internet services are accessed through broadbands provided by mobile telecom companies. When such companies are asked to shut down their services, they easily comply out of fear of being blackmailed by the government. They can be accused of supporting terrorism for example! By co-operating, they incur losses, part of which they may eventually pass to their subscribers. Similarly, with growing internet penetration in Africa, so many other businesses are dependent on the internet. Indeed, the internet is increasingly a shopping mall – for bloggers, advertisers, consultants and the average consumer of services, an internet shutdown in the light of this, undermines economic growth and development. Human dignity and relationships are also affected. The internet is a networking tool, so much so that many families depend on it for contact and interaction, and many individuals on it for survival.
Shutting down the internet rolls back the gains of the democratization process in Africa. African countries seeking growth and investment in the telecommunication sector, and within the economy generally shoot themselves in the foot when they seek to destroy such a significant tool. Internet registries worldwide should sanction errant governments which deny their citizens access to the internet. Men of conscience and thought leaders should speak out against the growing trend of internet shutdown or violation by African governments. In Nigeria, we must continue to discourage the government from ever contemplating any such misadventure. I am not in any way recommending, by this article a “sovereignty of the internet” in the sense in which John Perry Barlow, an internet activist spoke, when he issued “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996), rather I urge the protection of the democracy of the internet and this democracy is about rights, obligations and the rule of law.
To return to the politics of imperialism and dissidence in Cameroon, Nigeria (for strategic reasons – the proposed Ambazonia being a buffer zone between Nigeria and Cameroon), ECOWAS and the African Union should intervene early to prevent an outbreak of social and humanitarian crisis, if not chaos in North West and South West Cameroon. The feuding parties should be encouraged to go to the negotiating table. What is going on in that country is as much a Cameroonian problem as it is a Nigerian problem.
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