In November 2016, protests against French majority rule broke out in Cameroon's north-western and south-western English-speaking regions. Protesters intensified calls for Anglophone lawyers and teachers to apply customary law and the English education system in their regions.
The Anglophone minority in Cameroon constitutes 20%, while the Francophone majority constitutes the other 80%.
These protests relied on social media – especially Facebook – to mobilize and inform.
A look at Cameroon's identity, language and digital rights
- Cameroon is divided between English and French cultures with more than 200 languages
- The government closed the internet in 2017 in an attempt to quell the anglophone crisis
- The Government does not have clear measures to confront hate speech on Facebook
- In January 2019, Cameroon was among the top 15 Facebook users
. The French-speaking government's crackdown on these protests led to a three-year separatist war – largely fueled by identity and language policies – known as the Anglophone crisis.
Throughout this crisis, online attacks and identity hate speeches continue to stifle freedom of expression.
The clashes between the separatist groups and the Police and the State Army have caused at least 2,000 deaths and some 500,000 displaced people. Anglophone separatist groups in southern Cameroon try to separate themselves from French-majority Cameroon and create Ambazonia, a new nation.
In October 2016, a month before the protests began, the government had come under intense criticism on social media for how it handled a train accident in the small town of Eseka, in central Cameroon, which claimed the life of more than 80 people and left 600 injured.
In response, the government launched a campaign against the dangers of social media. The state-controlled Cameroon Tribune newspaper said social media was “rapidly becoming a threat to peace and a secret instrument of manipulation,” and promoting “the destruction of character, the destabilization of public opinion and the deformation of the facts, among others ”.
As of January 2017, this West African country blocked the internet in its English-speaking regions for over a year. The internet blockade – which lasted until March 2018 – occurred after many images of torture and death appeared online that the government wanted to remove.
This not only caused internet users to run out of information – the majority are young – but also contravened a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN) in 2017 on the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of rights humans on the internet ”.
The resolution condemns interruptions to internet access and “states that the same rights that offline people have must also be protected online”, in particular freedom of expression.
Language and identity policy
For decades, Cameroon has been embroiled in numerous and heated debates about how English and French cultures and languages can be more equally represented in public spaces.
The country merged with the English and French languages and cultures after the First World War, when Great Britain and France took over the then German colony, after expelling Germany from the territory by means of war.
French Cameroon gained independence in 1961, as the Republic of Cameroon and British Cameroon voted to join the republic and form the Federal Republic of Cameroon with two states in 1961.
However, Cameroon's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who ruled from 1961 to 1982, dissolved the federal system in 1972.
The result is that today Cameroon is made up of 10 regions, with eight francophones and two anglophones.
“We have a WhatsApp group on sports news in Cameroon,” Samuel, a sports journalist, told Global Voices on March 5 in Yaoundé, the capital. Samuel is an Anglophone Cameroonian from the Southwest, Anglophone region, who asked Global Voices to reveal his full identity because of the repression:
Often we get official documents from federations in French. When my English colleagues ask why it is like that, most French colleagues hit back, saying you are bilingual (‘You need to be bilingual’) – Le Cameroun is bilingual (‘Cameroon is bilingual’). The funniest thing is that they can't even read documents in English. We will quarrel and even lose track of the essence of the document at times – that’s how English journalists struggle for our identity in this country.
We often obtain official documents from the federations in French. When my English colleagues ask why, most French colleagues respond by saying you are bilingual (‘You have to be bilingual’) –Le Cameroun is bilingual (‘Cameroon is bilingual’). The funny thing is that they can't even read documents in English. Sometimes we fight and we even lose the essence of the document – that is how English journalists fight for our identity in this country.
In 2019, Cameroonian lawmakers pushed through a bill to reinforce the equal use of English and French, as seen in Article 1 (3) of the country's Constitution.
Under the law, court orders can be issued in any of Cameroon's two official languages, English and French – depending on the choice of those involved. But some English-speaking lawyers fear that this may lead to assimilation. In contrast, English-speaking citizens want English in the common law courts of their regions.
Journalists in Cameroon have had to be very careful in reporting on atrocities related to the country's long separatist war. Appearing to be very much on the side of separatists or the government can lead to attacks by online trolls on both sides.
“I have received several attacks on Facebook for my work,” said Kehdinga Fabrice, a journalist for The Guardian Post in southwest Cameroon, who spoke to Global Voices on March 6. “A copy of The Guardian Post was posted (on Facebook) and someone came and commented and I reacted to the person's comment. He insulted me on the platform and even wrote me a private message describing me as a ‘government agent, '” Kehdinga said.
Facebook, the platform on which almost half of the country's eight million users have an account, is a website where online attacks occur most frequently.
Kehdinga told Global Voices:
It’s a normal phenomenon… if a frontpage newspaper gives a positive side of separatists, we are attacked – it’s the same scenario if we write on the side of the government. People send me messages (to my) inbox and even threaten me. Now I just read Facebook posts without commenting to be on the safe side.
It is a normal phenomenon … if the front page of a newspaper shows a positive side of the separatists, they attack us … it is the same scenario if we write on the side of the Government. People send messages (to my) inbox and even threaten me. Now I only read Facebook messages without comment to be sure.
Ethnicity Causes Online Abuse
In February 2020, Cameroon held its annual race in Mount Cameroon, in the city of Buea, an Anglophone city in the south-western region of the country.
Runners from the north-western region, the second of Cameroon's two Anglophone provinces, competed against the Fako people, an ethnic group from the south-west, which worships the deity Epas'a Moto.
Most of the Mount Cameroon Hope Race winners came from the northwest.
The editors of The Median newspaper published a Facebook ad with the headline: “Mount Cameroon Race of Hope: Athletes from the Northwest destroy Epas'a Moto, they take tens of millions.”
The headline implies that the northwest competitors outnumbered Fako's athletes and despised his deity Epas'a Moto, to win big.
The word “trash” was not well received on Facebook: Many readers saw the headline as an abusive blow to Fako's people and their beliefs. It elicited numerous negative comments:
John Ndumbe commented:
Idiot! Do you know that NW (northwest) has 100 tribes? If they win the mountain race so what? Has Manyu (another tribal group) ever won a trophy despite their Nyankpes and leopards?
Moron! Do you know that the NW (northwest) has a hundred tribes? So what if they win the mountain race? Has Manyu (another tribal group) ever won a trophy despite its nyankpes and leopards?
Eileen Tabuwe Akwo commented:
Was Epas’a Moto in competition or against the athletes? All gods as we know are impartial and defend the pure of heart. By allowing this headline, The Median is supporting a wrongful insult. Let’s rethink our journalism.
Was Epas'a Moto in competition or against athletes? All the gods we know are impartial and defend the pure in heart. By allowing this headline, Mediana is supporting an unfair insult. Let's rethink our journalism.
Facebook's community rules mandate that posts that incite hate speech and abuse be removed. However, the publication is still online. Furthermore, at the government level, there is no clear follow-up of abuse on social media.
In response to the rise in hate speech online, Parliament drafted a bill on hate speech and tribalism in November 2019 and President Paul Biya signed it into law in December 2019. Violators will be fined a few three million Central African francs (approximately US $ 5,000) and could serve three years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.
However, the government only cracks down on violators when it comes to their institutions or personalities, according to human rights lawyer Félix Agbor Balla, accused of terrorism in the wake of the Anglophone crisis.
Agbor Balla told Global Voices on March 27:
The problem with government is that they politicize it – they use it when it is convenient for them. When people use (hate speech) against people who are against the government – nobody cares.
The problem with the government is that they politicize it, they use it when it suits them. When people use (hate speech) against people who are against the government – nobody cares.
“Cameroon needs a strong deal with Facebook – for it to oversee the removal of any message that is an attack,” said Agbor Balla.
This article is part of a series called “The Identity Matrix: A Regulatory Platform for Online Threats to Expression in Africa”. These articles challenge online hate speech or discrimination based on language or geographic origin, misinformation and harassment (particularly against women activists and journalists) prevailing in digital spaces in seven African countries: Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria , Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. The project is funded by the African Digital Rights Fund for International Policy on Communication and Information Technologies for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA).