Last month, Google announced the 34 winners of its annual “Code-in” competition, a rigorous months-long contest involving hundreds of pre-college participants from all over the world. For the first time, an African ranked among the winners: a 17-year-old Cameroonian student named Nji Collins Gbah. But Quartz reports that the Cameroonian government made Gbah’s return more than a little complicated:
But one day after the competition ended, the government shut down the internet in Bamenda, Gbah’s hometown and the capital of the northwest region. The shutdown also affected the southwest region and was instituted following protests in the two Anglophone regions against marginalization from the French-dominated government. Since then, the shutdown has drawn criticism from digital advocacy groups, and from United Nations experts, who have called it “an appalling violation” to freedom of expression.
The ongoing protests in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions—home to the minority Anglophones, who are outnumbered four-to-one by their Francophone countrymen—have their immediate roots in government actions last year designed to further marginalize the Anglophones. Despite the constitutional commitment to bilingualism, the government—which is led by Francophone President Paul Biya and contains 37 ministries, only one of which is headed up by an Anglophone—has been passing laws in French and not translating them to English. The central government has also been appointing judges in the northwest and southwest whose English is barely good enough to buy food on the street, let alone listen to complex oral arguments in court. And one of the five ministries responsible for education (yes, there are five—patronage has a way of multiplying bureaucracies) also bussed in teachers from the capital, Yaoundé, with laughable English skills.
In response, activists, unions, and civil society organizations in the Anglophone regions organized protests, starting this past November. Students have stayed home from school. People are withholding taxes. And, in a throwback to the massive and iconic protests of 1991, Anglophone cities have become “ghost towns” for several days a week. On “ghost town” days, the market is closed, offices shut their doors, and citizens generally stay at home. The objective of these efforts? Preservation of institutions inherited from British colonialism like the common law system. To secure those ends, some are calling for a return to the federal system of pre-1972 Cameroon, while others are seeking outright secession and recognition of an independent Anglophone republic, Ambazonia.
Over a month ago, the central government shut down the internet in the northwest and southwest, blaming the Cameroonian diaspora for riling up the people there. Not only does this mean that activists can’t coordinate protests over WhatsApp and Facebook, but it also signals a shutdown of online remittance flows that families use to supplement their incomes.
The irony of Gbah’s coding win in the midst of the Anglophone crisis and internet shutdown cannot be overstated. Cameroon’s government gives lip service to “development” and state-run media regularly trumpets state-led efforts to promote l’informatique (computer science), but now that technology appears to be helping protesters organize against the Biya regime, the state’s true priorities rise to the surface. An individual African can master a skill and win a world competition—only to have his own government limit his own potential and the potential of his generation, when it does not serve their purposes.
Computing does empower individuals like Gbah to learn new skills and contribute to society (read more about the young man’s charitable work here), and technology also allows civil society to coordinate protests against the state. But the power of the state should not be underestimated either. This much is certain: other African strongmen are watching whether Biya, who turned 84 last week and has ruled since 1982, gains any leverage from the internet shutdown. For dictators and would-be dictators, will the internet shutdown become a model of repression worthy of imitation?