Cameroonians displaced by internet shutdown

Tech entrepreneurs in the anglophone northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon continue to suffer, as a government issued internet shutdown enters its third month. Cameroon’s english-speaking regions say the government has shut down the internet in a bid to crush dissent after protests broke out last year against alleged marginalization of these areas by French speaking authorities.

ON THE ROAD FROM BUEA, CAMEROON (REUTERS) – Imagine having to drive 30 kilometres from home just to use the internet. That is what these developers in Cameroon have to do everyday.

They come from Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region of Cameroon, which is part of a larger area slapped with an internet shutdown on January 17 following protests against alleged marginalization of Anglophone Cameroon by the French-speaking government.

Eighty days into the shutdown, business people like Churchill Mambe Nanje, who runs Njorku – an Africa-wide online jobs platform, have become migrants.

Churchill and other developers set up a base of operation in New Bonako, which is not affected by the internet shutdown because it is part of a province in the Francophone region.

They use a generator for power and have brought in their own furniture.

Analysts say the country’s digital economy is losing billions to the online blackout.

Churchill says he has to run two offices – one at home in Buea, in the hopes that the internet will return soon, and one in New Bonako, as well as paying upkeep for staff forced to work in other cities to stay connected.

“So some clients tend to decide not to work with us so we are losing money. Some other clients, we are scared to take their projects because we are not stable, which means we are also losing money. But the most difficult thing of this all, you know, my platform, it depends on venture capital and before now we are already making some inroads to get investors and to make Cameroon attractive. Right now, it is more difficult because in things like this, investors are now scared to invest their money into Cameroon especially into our businesses because they are scared, they do not know what next the government could do even after they invested, although I am trying to tell them, ‘no… you know these things happen,.’ It is entrepreneurship, we have to calculate the risk and look for ways, maybe set up offices in other countries, or set up operations that do not depend on one country so that we can mitigate this risk, yeah,” he said.

Analysts say the internet shutdown is part of Cameroon’s government efforts to silence growing calls for either federalism or secession, by the two English-speaking regions of the country.

French is spoken in eight of Cameroon’s 10 regions and English in the north-western and south-western regions. Anglophone regions are calling for authorities to stop imposing French on their educational and legal systems.

Cameroon has produced innovative tech solutions like Churchill’s Njorku which are hailed across Africa.

In March 2016, the government announced that it was looking into new projects that would boost the development of the digital economy.

But the country’s reputation as a Silicon Mountain could be fading.

Graphics designer, Djengue Alexandre, a member of the campaign, #BringBackOurInternet, says the shutdown in the Anglophone region is a big step backwards.

“It’s evident that the shutdown has prevented progress in Cameroon. We have already lost an estimated 443,000,000 CFA (729,700 USD) just during this period, during the time of the shutdown. That’s money that could have been used for something. We have problems with security, we also have problems with progress now. All those zones that are considered as Silicon Mountain, which represent the economic lung, which have been evolving and initially had the support of the president, who also encouraged for the growth of the digital economy. So it’s paradoxical to say the least, it’s even contradictory to ask people to develop and contribute to the digital economy and then go and block the digital economy,” he said.

A Reuters journalist said he saw one person travel 70 kilometres to Douala to download a 500MB word document from his email.

Sakwe Njayo, a computer programmer moved to Douala temporarily because the daily commute from the English region was too much for him and his business. He says he has lost all his clients due to the shutdown and is trying to start from scratch.

“It’s like maybe they forgot or they did not know how to do this particular thing. Maybe they forgot to block just What’s App, or just Facebook , or just whatever they are targeting and decided to go for the long shot, like everything and now the banks, the start-ups, the companies that are stable are in this situation where there is no internet,” he said.

Cameroon’s president Paul Biya said in a speech in February that the difficulties in Anglophone regions were due to “the emergence of political demands by extremist and separatist organizations… preaching hate and violence.”

But the government has not given any official statement on why or how long the internet will be off.

The blackout has been criticized by the United Nations and U.S. congress.