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Friday, July 14, 2017

Internet shutdown: New toga for African states

First quarter of 2017 saw Cameroun in the eye of the storm for Internet shutdowns in north-west and south-west region, just as it was top on agenda at the Internet Freedom Forum (IFF) writes Remmy Nweke.
Cameroun in eye of the storm:
Of late, there has been a new form of clamp down on the society and citizens particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa, latest of such crack downs being on the people of North-Western and South-Western regions of Cameroun leaving some 5 million people in the dominantly Anglophone regions, inaccessible.

Investigations by DigitalSENSE Business News showed this shutdown gave way after some 94 days without access to the Internet for these regions, which attracted lots of condemnations and petitions across the globe on the government of Cameroun led by Mr. Paul Biya, who has been on the saddle for some 35 years, amidst alleged marginalization by these regions across all shades.

At the initial protest on Internet shutdown, Biya was quoted to have declared that he is no different from other African leaders in Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, the Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo to name a few, who have used internet restriction to oppress the opposition voices against injustice and marginalization.
This was when it dawned on observing civil rights community and activists that, the shutdown style of governance may be assuming another dimension in the leadership of Africa.

#BringBackOurInternet:
Worried, a couple of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) stakeholders globally wrote the President of Cameroon, Mr. Paul Biya and agencies in-charge of telecommunications to return Internet access to the region. A copy of the letter dated January 22 and made available to DigitalSENSE Business News by Internet Without Borders, insisted that an internet shut down is a human rights violation.

The CSOs made up of Access Now, Internet Sans Frontières, Internet Sans Frontières-Togo, Africtivistes, Cameroon Ô Bosso, implored President Biya, to restore the Internet, arguing that research has shown that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand, just as shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that allows repression to occur without scrutiny.

Frenzy shutdowns:
Disturbingly, the Republic of Cameroon would be joining an alarming global trend of government-mandated shutdowns around election issues, a practice that many African Union member governments have recently adopted as a way of governance, including:  Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Gabon, Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, warning it must never be allowed to become the new normal. Although it will hit hard on the burgeoning digital economy, known as Cameroon’s Silicon Mountain, Buea, and plugs whole societies into fear and destabilizing the internet’s power to support small business livelihoods and drive economic development.

CRAC insists on reversal:
Still concerned with the foregoing, DigitalSENSE Africa, an At-Large Structure (ALS) at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), on behalf of African-based Cyber Rights Advocacy Coalition (CRAC), sent a letter to President Paul Biya, according to the Executive Director, Operations at DigitalSENSE Africa, Nkemdilim Nweke, describing the Internet shutdown as uncalled for in the first instance at this era of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) ruling the world.

"We are mostly disturbed that this shut down by the government of Cameroun under your watch, has led to disconnection and lack of Internet connectivity in two regions, at a time country like Canada a few days before proclaimed a high-speed internet, a basic service "necessary to the quality of life" of all Canadians," she said, stressing that the coalition like every forward looking organization of repute sees the future of African countries including the Republic of Cameroun and their economies, as well as efforts to largely alleviate poverty in the society; greatly depending on the availability and quality of Internet access to the citizenry at this 21st century and beyond.

… Negation of Africa’s 2063 agenda:
The coalition noted, this action not only negates the possibility of Central Africa not meeting the Africa’s target within the 2063 Agenda, but Republic of Cameroun, being adversely affected both in the infrastructure development and human capital. Soliciting as matter of urgency reversal to the order given to the service operators through the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.

Also CRAC urged the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) to quickly liaise with other regional and continental bodies to ensure a change of heart by Mr. Biya’s government. Pointing out that ECCAS intervention would send the right signal to Mr. Biya and any other African country that may be thinking on following this ugly footstep, mostly in ECCAS region to realise the essence of the Internet to today daily existence.

ECCAS was implored to initiate a roundtable diplomatic process to Mr. Biya’s government to discuss the implications of their step among other begging issues in Cameroun, Central Africa and the continent as a whole. Decrying that most African nation’s especially within ECCAS are now adopting Internet starvation against the citizens as a political weapon, lamenting that Cameroun is the 10th African country to disconnect its citizens from the Internet in recent times. Out of this figure, 7 are members of ECCAS, namely Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, while the rest are Egypt, Sudan, and Niger.

"Above all, the citizens access to the world should be upper most in the African leadership," CRAC said, urging for guaranteed internet access without further restriction to these two regions: South West and North West; otherwise known as Anglophone regions; reinstate commitment to keeping the internet connected and accessible, including social media to the people of Republic of Cameroun; collaborate with the African Union (AU), ECCAS in resolving whatever seemingly problem suspected to have led to the shut down in first instance; and to embrace a new slogan of ‘Internet is for everyone’ because any clamp down on one is an injury and violation of cyber rights of citizens.

Shutdown going above board:
Reacting, the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative (PIN), Mr. ‘Gbenga Sesan, told DigitalREALMS that issue of shutdown in Africa has gone above board, hence it was top on agenda at the Internet Freedom Forum (IFF) hosted in Lagos recently by PIN, which saw stakeholders working on digital rights in Africa including the academia, civil society representatives, media, technology companies, government agencies and active citizens, assembling for a common purpose.

He underscored the fact that IFF discussed how to safeguard the digital rights and freedoms of citizens in Africa and beyond, citing the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in its 32nd session in June 2016 had declared that “the rights that people enjoy offline should also be protected online” which is a forceful reminder to governments, telecommunications companies, civil society and all stakeholders that human rights across digital platforms must be upheld.

“As we spend more of our time online across digital platforms, protecting the same rights and freedoms people enjoy offline such as freedom of opinion, expression and association on online platforms becomes increasingly important; especially set against the background of recent Internet shutdowns, the arrests of ordinary citizens for expressing their right to freedom of expression online, the enacting of legislation which curtails free speech on digital platforms, and government mandated surveillance of citizens in Africa,” Sesan said.

92 days after:
However, some 92 days later, President Biya’s government restored connection to about 5 million people living in the anglophone regions of the country, which follows an official statement by the Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary. He said that the Northwest and Southwest Regions have been restored with Internet Connections due to social situation linked to the demands expressed by English-speaking lawyers' associations, extremist activists, driven by secessionist intrigues, who took the opportunity to disseminate hate messages and incite violence and abuses of all sorts.

He alleged instigation of elites which left children molested and prevented from returning to school, whereas men and women saw their daily activities disrupted, public and private buildings were burned, others were attacked, among others. Insisting that those criminal activities, fall within the scope of the law, notably the one relating to the repression of acts of terrorists, have been perpetrated for the most part via social networks.

“These information and communication technologies, essential tools of economic and social progress which benefit from the constant solicitude of the Head of State, have thus unfortunately been detoured by the enemies of the republic,” Bakary said.

States & public order:
Also, the minister said that in such circumstances, the public authorities had an imperative duty to restore order, to ensure the security of citizens and their property, and to guarantee the functioning of administrative services. Maintaining that the government of the Republic, had to, among other security measures suspend Internet connections in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

“Since then, the government has not stopped constantly assessing the situation on the ground. The current situation is that the North-West and South-West Regions have been living in remarkable calm for several weeks,” part of the press statement read.

The Cameroonian people, Bakary said, is attached to the unity of the country and living together, thus have once again shown its great maturity. “The important steps taken by the Government to respond favorably to the legitimate concerns of English-speaking lawyers and teachers, as well as the creation of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, of the national territory,” Bakary said.

Reversal imperative:
Therefore, he said, it appeared that the conditions underlying the provisional suspension of the Internet in this part of the national territory have changed considerably. So, the Head of State, Mr. Paul Biya, instructed the Minister in charge of Posts and Telecommunications to ask mobile operators to re-establish Internet connections in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

Also, the government urged the populations of these regions to be vigilant in order to continue to block the way for the extremists, secessionists and enemies of the Republic, emphasizing that the government of the Republic reserves the right to take, as necessary, appropriate measures to prevent the Internet from being used again to incite hatred and discord between Cameroonians or to create public disorder.

International Law:
DigitalREALMS gathered that a growing body of jurisprudence declared shutdowns to violate international law, hence, the UNHRC spoke out strongly against it. The resolution 32 of 2013, “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

The Council, DigitalREALMS also gathered, intended this clear declaration will combat the blocking and throttling of networks, applications, and services that facilitate the freedoms of expression, opinion, and access to information online. In addition, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights stated in its November 2016 Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa that it was “Concerned by the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections.”

Sum-up:
The internet has enabled significant advances in health, education, and creativity, and it is now essential to fully realize human rights including participation in elections and access to information.

As CSOs continue to pray that shutdown of the Internet does not become a new toga for African leaders, it is important to note that a study by the Brookings Institution recently indicates that shutdowns drained $2.4 billion from the global economy last year, 2016 alone. While Cameroun alone reportedly lost $1.39m in investment and economic activities during the shutdown.

Now, who is at loss? Even though the political marginalization that paved the way for crisis in the region and subsequent shutdown is yet to be addressed. It goes to show that above all, good governance should be seen above nepotism, having in mind that as people we are stronger together.


Both the Association of African Internet Service Providers Association (AFRISPA) and African office of the Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) must see the burgeoning threat of Internet shut downs as inimical to the growth of the continent and their industries respectively by facing it head on and possibly addressing it at the African Union (AU) level, once and for all.

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