President Biya orders internet shutdown to stop ‘hate’ speech
English-speaking areas protest domination of French language
When the sun sets in Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s English-speaking Southwest region, residents lock themselves in their homes hoping the security forces won’t come knocking.
“The atmosphere reigning here is one of fear, so we go to bed early because the security forces usually organize their raids at nightfall,” Lucas Mbonde, a 39-year-old carpenter, said by phone from the city. “Every week people here report cases of missing relatives.”
President Paul Biya’s government carried out a wave of arrests after lawyers and teachers in English-speaking areas protested about the dominance of the French language in their courts and schools. He also shut down state-controlled internet services throughout the Northwest and Southwest regions, saying the measure was necessary to prevent “extremist and separatist organizations” from “preaching hate and violence.” The step particularly angered residents of Buea where dozens of technology startups have earned the city the nickname of Silicon Valley.
The worst unrest in Cameroon in almost a decade comes as Biya, 84, appears intent on trying to extend his 35-year rule, the fourth-longest on the continent, in elections next year. If he does, it’ll be in the face of rising popular demands for political change in West Africa. Opposition parties won power in the past two years in neighboring Nigeria and Ghana, and street protests chased Burkina Faso’s strongman Blaise Compaore from power in 2014.
“Frustration is building up for a variety of reasons: there’s no effective opposition, there are elections in 2018, and Cameroon is seeing a slowdown of economic growth,” Cailin Birch, a senior Africa analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said by phone. “The government is clearly worried that it may spiral out of control. The internet crackdown hasn’t helped.”
At least six people have died since the unrest began, the government says. The authorities has used excessive force to end the protests, according to Amnesty International, which is calling for the release of three prominent activists who’re being tried by a military court and may receive the death penalty.
Biya’s supporters argue that he’s maintained stability in the ethnically and linguistically diverse country and fulfilled pledges to complete major infrastructure projects such as the Kribi deep sea port, the World Bank-sponsored Lom Pangar hydro-power dam, low-cost housing and a highway linking the two main cities, Yaounde and Douala.
Cameroon is a key transit hub for landlocked neighbors Central African Republic and Chad, and exports crude oil, timber, cocoa and palm oil. While the $28 billion economy has proved resilient despite the oil slump, growth will probably slow to 4.2 percent this year from 4.8 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
After initially showing promise as a leader, Biya and his close supporters have asserted near total control over most government institutions. “The country’s weak governance affects its development and ability to attract investors,” the World Bank said on its website.
The nation ranks 145 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, with the judicial system, government and the education and health sectors all severely affected by graft, according to the Berlin-based organization.
“In the first decades in office, he showed some good intentions and leadership, but in the last two decades he’s run the country aground,” Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West and Central Africa at the National Democratic Institute, said by phone from Washington. “He would leave behind a rather negative legacy.”
Biya has weathered protests before. Anger over a hike in fuel prices prompted widespread anti-government riots in 2008 that left at least 40 people dead. He faced a storm of criticism in October when he didn’t immediately return from a luxury hotel in Geneva after the worst train crash in the country’s history killed 79 people.
The secret to Biya’s ability to stay in power is a divide-and-rule policy that has split Cameroon along ethnic and regional lines, according to Eric Mathias Owona Nguini, a political analyst at the University of Yaounde. While the ruling party has 148 out of 180 seats in parliament, the existence of more than 300 political parties is “intended to disorganize the opposition and hamper any attempts at setting up a solid coalition,” he said.
No matter what Biya does, Cameroon may be headed toward violence, Nguini said.
“If Biya goes, there will be political turmoil,” he said. “If he stays beyond 2018, there will be a crisis.”
By Ntaryike Devine Jr.