Cameroon: Interview with Monique Kwachou, a refugee 2.0

Three months after reports that Cameroonian government had blocked the internet in two English-speaking regions of the country, net services had still not been restored. How does daily life look like for those who live in South-West and North-West regions without internet? Afronline interviewed Monique Kwachou, writer and student affairs officer at the University of Buea. This is the testimony of a Cameroonian “refugee 2.0”, victim of the longest internet ban of its kind in history.

What does daily life look like for those who live in Cameroon without internet?

Daily life has dulled considerably and there’s a blanket of anxiety and apprehension over both regions. To understand the extent of the toll of the internet ban one must consider the context. Two professional unions were already on strike; the lawyers being on strike inhibited those with pending cases in court, prisoners awaiting trial, those who make their livelihood as accessories to the court (clerks and petty traders), and of course the lawyers themselves.

When teachers joined the protest in support of lawyers who were abused and to further their own complaints they equally affected a wide array of people; students, parents who now had to find childcare options, petty traders and contract suppliers who make their livelihood selling around school campuses or providing to schools, and of course the teachers themselves. With the violence perpetuated against students in hostels in Bamenda (Bambili) and Molyko, students fled and local store owners lost considerable business further heightened by the increasingly regular ‘ghost town’ days. You see, the situation was already dire, other professions were keeping things afloat, and with the freedom of expression provided by the presence of internet people weren’t as fearful.

What the government did with the internet ban was heighten trepidation. The union strikes affected certain groups. While the ghost towns affected everyone but for particular days a week, the internet ban affects everyone, be you for ‘the struggle’ or not.

The internet ban inhibits ease of communication between family members in the diaspora and those in the country. I joked the other day that Cameroonians in the diaspora have had to re-discover the calling card after years of Whatsapp/Skype/Viber/Imo facilitating cost and ease of communication. The internet ban has equally assured that all students find it difficult to learn.

While not all students were affected by the teachers strike – those going to francophone schools within these regions, postgrad students involved only in research, and students enrolled in distance learning programs or professional courses such as ACCA, CIMA, CAT were relatively uninhibited -, all students are equally affected by lack of access to Internet to do research, attend classes online, email assignments and more.

With the majority of advertising being done online the internet ban has stifled access to information about everything from jobs to local social events. The web provided access to services our government didn’t provide- an employment search engine such as Njorku, or a sex/sexuality awareness app such as Ndolo 360 both products of Anglophone youth. Both renowned and used locally and internationally.

Yet people are being resilient, and are adapting. I now have a list on my phone of things to look up when next I make a trip to “Internet Cameroon” so I don’t forget. We no longer depend on apps for news, communication, scheduling or games. This has equally added to anxiety as it is more difficult to verify rumors. Our generation has a saying: “pics or it didn’t happen”. Well, without access to internet there’s no way to show the pics and people will believe whatever is sold to them, particularly if it rhymes with what they wish was truth.

What has been the impact on your private life and professional work?

The internet ban has inhibited my studies and work and inconvenienced me in general. Prior to this ban I wouldn’t have praised my government but I definitely wouldn’t have called my government a tyranny. In fact I have gotten into several debates chastising foreign depictions of all of Africa as such, particularly considering that if African leaders get away with the things they do it’s often with international agencies and Western countries as accomplices. Now however I have to pause and consider if the shoe fits.

Having to question that, has affected my personal conviction to work and live at home. As of now I still choose my country above any other but that question ‘is this worth it?’ remains. That in itself is disturbing. For instance, I have always desired to do my PhD by distance hoping to build my career in Cameroon while studying. I currently hold an admission offer for Lancaster University’s Education and Social Justice doctoral program and I was looking for possible scholarships/grants to cover the cost of program in January but now that internet bans are a possibility in Cameroon, I am now apprehensive of this aspiration of mine.

I ask myself: What if they ban internet again in 2018 due to elections? How would that affect my program? The government has made us consider now that the worst is possible.

Professionally, the internet ban has affected my research for academic writing and publication. I have to cross over to Douala regularly to blog, or submit pieces for websites, so I have lost some income by not taking up writing jobs I could freelance for. As a part-time instructor I question the logic behind the internet ban.

Government officials have said the ban is temporary and it will be restored when schools resume. But how do universities resume given that lecturers use the internet to make lesson plans, find relevant/up to date accompanying readings and more.  As an assistant to a full- time lecturer, I had covered a section of an undergraduate course prior to the strike and resulting internet ban, the students were given an assignment which they have to email to me for grading. How does that happen without internet access?

To me, the government sought to stifle the resistance by inhibiting their ability to communicate freely but didn’t consider the wide-ranging effects of the strategy they chose. By punishing over five million people to control a handful, they end up radicalizing more.

The resumption of schools and return of internet access is interdependent. The University of Buea is a pioneer in ICT use in the country with all students enrolled via online registration. How then does school resume when the registration of students is inhibited by the internet ban? By the time the strike began, a significant number of students had yet to register either because they were tardy or because they applied to professional program which commence a bit later in the school year.

After three months of internet shutdown, what is the impact of such a decision on the economic level in the disconnected regions? What are the professional categories more hit by this shutdown?

Well, I’m not an economist so I can’t answer on economic consequences with certainty. What I can say for sure is that several businesses may not recover from the effects of the combined strike and internet ban. It is more unfortunate that the majority of businesses which suffer most from the internet ban are start-ups by young entrepreneurs. Imagine it, these young people have literally made lemonade out of the lemons their country gave them; ‘Silicon Mountain’ in Buea, a hub for tech start-ups, and Bamenda’s now renowned fashion week, the Cameroon Film Industry and the entertainment sector were all made from scratch by young people aged 19- 30. These are the businesses which have employed people, without government subventions. These same industries have put Cameroon on the world map with more and more acknowledgment given to the innovators from these regions. It is they who suffer most as our government continues with this callous strategy.

The Cameroonian national authorities justified the internet and communication cuts to protect the public order and avoid fake news on the crisis. Is that decision understandable?

Understandable? Not quite. To say it is understandable is to suggest the logic stands, whereas their logic is very fallible. Very, very fallible. Was there a proliferation of fake news throughout the strike? Yes! Advocates of the ‘the struggle’ did itself a great disservice by spreading unverified information, unfounded accusations, long tales aimed at destroying the reputations of those who did not agree with them, and disturbing threats. Yes, this happened and it needed to be stopped. However, to think an internet ban on the two regions with people decrying marginalization was the best way to solve problems makes no sense.

First and foremost, the proliferation of fake news is best addressed to the reporting of objective and factual information. People would readily dismiss ‘fake news’ if they had a source or valid journalism to verify with. However our government media has failed us countless times in various ways; failed to be objective, failed to report what happened- lying by omission, failed to report the same information in both languages.

In addition, the private news stations which attempted to provide more substantial information were threatened and in Bamenda some radio stations actually closed down. As such the government cannot blame the use (or abuse) of social media alone for ‘fake news’ and use that as an excuse to legitimate the internet shut down. In fact, I am currently working on an article outlining how governments like ours create the environment for the proliferation of fake news when national broadcasting loses its honesty.

Following the strikes, violence and protests, what is the atmosphere in Buea today?

Well, I’ve been out of home for a few weeks attending a conference. However I’ll be home soon and I can speak for the situation I left behind. People are tired. We walk around carrying two forms of tiredness warring within us; both fatigue with ‘the struggle’ and fed up with our government’s careless oppression. Students are actually visiting the university campus in hope that some negotiations are being done and classes resume; they are tired of staying at home but if you engage them in conversation you’ll note their desire for these months of sacrifice to end with something substantial. So to use a local expression: we’re struggling and smiling.

In such isolation, how are fear and violence perceived without internet connection?

As I said earlier, the internet shutdown has heightened fear and anxiety. As it inhibits communication rumors now spread via SMS and phone calls take a lot longer to be dispelled. I recall one experience, the week of the 20th of February or so, the path of the Mountain was being burned as is usual in preparation for Mount Cameroon Race of Hope. Someone seeing flames in the night must have spread information that the University of Buea had been set aflame. As rebels have spearheaded destruction of property and actually burned some schools in the name of ‘the struggle’ the rumor picked up and friends in other regions – with internet where the rumor spread like wildfire – had to call me and verify if my place of work was actually on fire.

Another experience I found out about a young journalist who once volunteered for my organization being arrested and taken to a military prison in Yaoundé on a weekend trip to Douala. I had seen him in person and we had talked briefly just a week before. The story surrounding his arrest made no sense. You see, without ease of access people are in the dark, and in the dark you are considerably more afraid even if you’re in your own home.

What do you expect from the Cameroonian authorities and the international community?

To be honest I – like many of my friends and colleagues – am apathetic. My generation has learned to expect little or nothing from our government and much less from the international community. We speak out for the necessity of it. We make hashtags, we demand our rights etc. because if you don’t speak up “they will kill you and say you enjoyed it” as Hurston is quoted for saying.  Still, we don’t wait with bated breath. I hope that some people in my government regain their consciousness to insist the internet access be reinstated but…

As to the international community, it has failed us too many times to count. Contrary to what people think my generation watches the news. We are witnessing a massacre in Syria, an immigrant crisis and the deadliest of food crisis in the horn of Africa. Even as Cameroonians – including in the diaspora – have marched in front of embassies all around, if asked they would tell you they fear the UN or any foreign power coming in to ‘solve’ this situation. We do not want to go the way of Libya. Or South Sudan.

So without the government and the international community what’s left? Citizens. I expect them to stand up soon, all of us, not just Anglophones. I expect that we will collectively get fed up and change things that we can no longer accept.

By Joshua Massarenti (Afronline.org)

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