Social media’s role in the crisis and repression in Cameroon

In 2008, anti-government riots sparked by anger over exorbitant fuel costs, the president’s bid to extent his 25-year rule and a rise in food prices took hold of Cameroon. Termed ‘the food riots’, protests began in the port city of Douala, eventually spreading to the capital Yaounde and several other cities across the North West and South West regions.

The response to this week of unrest was a violent government crackdown. Reports say that police shut down the protests by making dozens of arrests, beating some participants with rifle butts and even murdering scores of protestors. Government officials instructed state media and hospital staff not to publicize these deaths, however, and the evidence that might prove the government’s high-handed response remains stifled today.

10 years later, there is another simmering crisis in the North West and South West regions of the country, sparked – again – by discontent and protest against Biya’s government. But unlike in 2008, this time, there is no hiding place for those who perpetrate atrocities. In the age of social media, ordinary Cameroonian civilians are able to take to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, in order to voice their disquiet and demand that the world engages with their county’s plight.

Throughout 2018, a steady stream of shocking and distressing clips from Cameroon have appeared on social media, showing villages being burned to the ground, property destroyed, and civilians being tortured or even killed. A simple Twitter search of the word ‘Cameroon’ reveals multiple posts, by numerous individuals, all claiming to show the results of indiscriminate government brutality in the country.

These graphic and sickening images are accompanied by comments from civilians, calling upon the international community to take heed of the ongoing genocide in Anglophone Cameroon. Those posting videos and images are not afraid to share their eye-witness testimonials with the world – even though this means speaking out against their leaders.

While the Cameroonian government has refuted accusations made on social media, arguing    that the army uniform worn by perpetrators could have been stolen by separatists in order to pose as troops, the BBC and other reporting bodies have used a variety of open source tools to debunk online speculation and verify facts. Combined with freely shared eye-witness accounts of brutality, Cameroon’s government is under increasing pressure as the inescapable facts emerge to an international audience of billions.

Social media platforms are allowing the current crisis in Cameroon to be published in real time, by eyewitnesses, rather than being reported after the fact, by third parties. This use of social media is beyond the government’s control – finally, a voice has been given to the voiceless and the government can do little to silence them.

In the 1990s, when Cameroon’s government abused journalists, activists and civilians, very little information about this escaped the country, as there were so few outlets for free speech. The government was able to control and manipulate the media, shaping the narrative that was brought to the world stage. Today, the nature and volume of social media posts, the sharing of similar information, and active citizen reporting is impossible to dismiss or ignore. Now,  there is little opportunity for Biya and his ministers to brush away the facts.

Several recent Twitter campaigns have harnessed the power of social media in Cameroon, bringing civilians together as one voice, along with mobilizing support from international communities, in order to agitate for change.

  • #freemimimefo saw Twitter users spreading the word about the plight of Mimi Mefo, a Cameroonian lawyer arrested for ‘spreading fake news’, after tweeting information about the killing of an American missionary in the country’s Anglophone region. This action was a clear threat to free speech, and saw both Mefo’s fellow journalists and ordinary citizens taking to social media to campaign for her release.
  •  The Bishop of Mamfe, Andrew Nkea, accused government troops of killing  Kenyan missionary, Father Cosmos Omboro Ondari, after firing shots at random into a church where he had been saying evening mass. Though the government issued a denial, the eye-witness report,  shared widely on social media served, as proof of what truly happened.
  • #FreemicheleNdoki, a campaign that began after the arrest of Michele Ndoki, a Cameroonian lawyer who helped to expose vote rigging on a massive scale during the country’s recent election, saw Twitter users protesting the suppression of evidence that implicated the government and the repression of an individual who challenged their corruption.
  • #FreeAllArrested, #AnglophoneCrisis, #Etoudi2018 and many other campaigns have served as online avenues for Cameroonians to reveal to the world, firsthand, their frustrations and discontent with a regime that has undermined democracy for 36 years.

It’s little surprise, then, that the Cameroonian government have made no secret of their distrust of, and distaste for social media. On November 10th   2016, a statement was issued that labelled social media ‘a new form of terrorism,’ also suggesting that sites like Twitter and Facebook had created ‘a social pandemic, perpetuated by amateurs, whose ranks continue to swell and who do not have a sense of etiquette and decorum.’

This response is believed to have been prompted by an outcry, after the president, Paul Biya, was criticised for not returning to the country quickly enough after a large-scale rail tragedy. Social media users in Cameroon have, for some time, been keeping track of Biya’s movements, angry that their leader rules their country from afar, missing numerous far reaching national events due to foreign travel.

Social media does, of course, have some credibility issues and is notorious worldwide as a purveyor of fake news stories, hoaxes and misinformation. There are also those who take to social media to promote hate speech and propaganda, with sites having little control over provenance and authenticity of information.

Throughout Cameroon, local groups, advocates and technology hubs have taken responsibility for addressing these issues – providing  training, education and empowerment for  social media users so that platforms are used more responsibly (and the government are not able to justify their campaign of social media antagonism.) Nina Forgwe’s work with Peacetech Labs, along with Julie Owono’s contributions as MD of Internet Sans Frontiers are notable examples. As too is, Rebecca Enonchong’s AppsTech training and support.

Cameroon’s government responses suggests that they’re running scared from a rising tide of angry criticism, made by civilians who have found an outlet to voice their displeasure at a pseudo sense of peace and democracy that Biya and his cabinet have established through deceit and repression.

This administration has a history of suppressing use of social media in order to segregate and control its population, having previously cut off internet provision to Anglophone areas of the country. This has happened on several occasions, often for prolonged periods. In the run up to 2018’s presidential elections, for example, multiple internet blackouts occurred in Anglophone Cameroon, placing severe restrictions on freedom of expression (according to the advocacy group, Freedom House.) Along with restricting free speech, shutting down the internet has also had devastating and widespread economic and social effects on citizens in affected areas.

In June 2018, the gendarmerie in Cameroon also banned officers from using mobile phones or social networks such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter without permission.

Access to the internet in Cameroon is growing, however, and its 24 million residents are among Africa’s most vocal when it comes to using online and mobile platforms  to hold the government to account and call for reform. This appears to be making some important changes in the country, with 2018 being the first year that constitutional court hearings were aired live on national TV – and online – in Cameroon. If anything, because of social media, social hypnosis seems to be breaking for many younger people who will be using it more not less.

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