Mr Colbert Gawain Fulai, a freelance journalist in Bamenda in the Northwest Cameroon, says he has been finding it difficult to work for the past three weeks as the government has chosen to deprive the region of internet services.
“I have to do my reports here (in Bamenda) then rush to neighbouring French speaking Bafoussam in the West to file them,” he explains.
“We are animated by fear because police and gendarmerie officers stop vehicles and ask us to explain what we went to do; when you don’t show concrete and convincing evidence, they will conclude that you went to send information about what is happening in Bamenda. There’s the likely possibility that you may not go back home,” Mr Fulai says.
He regrets that it has been difficult for him to meet deadlines for most of his reports.
Like Mr Fulai, Mr Ignatius Nji, the Bamenda Bureau Chief of the Eden newspaper goes through similar ordeal to file stories to the head office in Limbe, in the English-speaking Southwest.
The police wrath
“It is painful,” Mr Nji said, explaining he always hides his phone and laptop to avoid the police wrath.
The pain is more for Mr Nji’s colleagues of the newspaper division at the Limbe-based head office of Eden Media Group as they have to travel to French speaking Douala, 76.4km by road and spend two days to produce the paper.
“It is very cumbersome and expensive too,” said Mr Solomon Tembang, Editor of the Eden.
The government ordered the suspension of internet services to the English speaking Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, since January 18 with socio-economic activities reportedly almost grinding to a halt.
Thousands of bank account holders have also been stranded as ATM operations have been shut.
Internet Sans Frontieres (ISF) estimates that businesses in the regions lost $723,000 (FCFA 440 million) in the first 15 days of the service freeze.
Mobile phone/internet service providers said in text messages to clients that the blackout was for “reasons beyond” their control.
The government has not officially admitted it ordered the shutdown, but Communication minister and government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said the grievances and tensions in the regions were exaggerated and the residents were abusing the social media “portraying sad images of our dear and beautiful fatherland”.
An apparently leaked letter from the Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL) to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications confirmed that the government ordered the internet disconnection.
“Following your high instructions, CAMTEL took all necessary measures on January 17 and 18 to suspend internet services to some sensitive regions,” CAMTEL General Manager David Nkoto Emane said in a document that has been circulating on social media.
The Yaoundé regime has also been threatening those reporting the protests on the social media with prison terms.
“You incur 6 months to 2 years imprisonment, and 5 to 10 million ($8-$16,000) fine if you publish or spread on the social media, information that you cannot prove,” the government has been warning through text messages.
“Do not be an accomplice of disinformation or the destabilisation of our country through the social media.”
Global activists, including Edward Snowden have condemned the Yaoundé regime action with the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet flooding social media pages.
A work boycott by lawyers and teachers in the central African nation has paralysed courts and schools in the two English speaking regions since October last year.
Barrister Felix Nkonghor (centre) leading a lawyers' demonstration in southwestern Cameroon. NDI EUGENE NDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
The regions went offline after Yaoundé launched a crackdown on leaders of the now banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), an organisation of representatives of the teachers’ union, lawyers’ association and other civil society officials that has been coordinating the protest.
The demo took a different twist since mid-January when leaders declared “operation ghost towns”—calling on residents of the two English speaking regions to stay at home in a peaceful protest against Yaoundé’s continued silence over their grievances.
Amongst the demands the lawyers submitted to the government and diplomatic missions accredited to Cameroon in 2015 were a six-month ultimatum for the 84-year-old President Paul Biya to facilitate Cameroon’s return to the federal system as obtained before 1972, protect the Common Law sub-system, respect the bijural system as well as protect the Anglo-Saxon educational system in the two English speaking regions.
Other groups have been advocating an outright secession.
“The lawyers’ and teachers’ strike just opened a Pandora’s box,” said Prof Paul Nkwi, an Anthropologist and Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Academics at the Catholic University of Cameroon in Bamenda.
Several people have been killed and tens of others arrested in recent weeks in relation to the campaign. But the government says neither federalism nor secession will be accepted.
The President of the Fako Lawyers Association (FAKLA) cum vice-president of the African Bar Association (AFBA) and chair of the outlawed consortium, Mr Barrister Felix Nkongho, together with the scribe of the group, Dr Fontem Neba, were arrested on January 17 in the Southwest town of Buea and conveyed to the Secretariat of State for Defence (SED) in Yaoundé.
Their seizure followed a government ban on the consortium and its activities the minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation said “are contrary to the constitution and liable to jeopardise the security of the state”.
Mr Emmanuel Rene Sadi said the government had imposed the same ban on the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC); a secessionist movement created in 1990s to advocate the independence of the two English speaking regions.
The activists are facing trial for charges of terrorism, secession, rebellion… and could face death penalty for committing crimes contrary and punishable under law N° 2014/028 of December 2014, colleagues of Mr Nkongho, who flooded the Yaoundé military tribunal on February 1 disclosed. Hearing of the case was due to commence February 1, but was adjourned to February 13.
Being tried alongside the community leaders is Mr Mancho Bibixy, an activist who stood in a coffin at the Liberty Square (City Chemist Roundabout) in Bamenda last November in protest against the poor roads.
A BBC reporter, Mr Randy Joe Sa’ah, who was recording the briefing outside the court room was arrested and whisked to a dungeon at the Secretariat of State for Defence (SED). He was later released on bail after spending over 10 hours in detention.
A Bamenda-based publisher arrested a week earlier was still detained at the SED. Mr Tim Finnian, in a report published in his weekly the Life Time newspaper, alleged that two of some youths arrested in the wake of the upheavals in Bamenda died in transit to Yaoundé.
Cameroon’s Anglophones have held grudges against their Francophone brothers for duping them in a post-independence reunification deal, where they expected to be equal partners. They often complain of being treated as second-class citizens.
In 1961, a vote was held in the then Southern Cameroons—today’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, over whether to join Nigeria, which had already obtained independence from Britain, or the Republic of Cameroon, which had obtained independence from France. Voters elected to become part of French speaking Cameroon, and the country practised a federal system until 1972.
“Like President Biya said in his 2017 New Year address to the nation, Cameroon is one and indivisible. Therefore, there’ll be neither federalism nor secession,” Mr Bakary told a press conference in Yaoundé.