The United Nations (UN) has called on the Cameroonian government to restore internet service in its English-speaking areas, rocked by months of protests and strikes. The block, implemented in January, is forcing people to travel to French-speaking regions where they can use the internet.
“I am particularly concerned at the tightening of the space for free speech at a time where its promotion and protection should be of the utmost importance,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye.
A network shutdown of this scale violates international law – it not only suppresses public debate, but also deprives Cameroonians of access to essential services and basic resources.”
The Southwest and Northwest provinces, Cameroon’s only English-speaking regions, have been rocked by anti-government protests for months.
Lawyers, teachers and students have been striking and protesting since October 2016 against perceived marginalisation and the use of French in courts and schools in the provinces.
The Cameroonian government is facing condemnation for the way it is handling protests, amid fears at least six people have been killed during rallies. Dozens have been arrested, with rights groups calling on authorities to investigate the fatalities.
Amid the ongoing unrest, some groups have taken to the streets demanding a return to a federal state system, the breakaway of the Northwest and Southwest provinces and the restoration of Southern Cameroons, the Republic of Ambazonia, a British mandate during colonisation.
The Cameroonian government, which denied allegations of excessive force by the military and police to quell protests, initially engaged with the organisers of the strikes. However, it has rejected calls for a referendum on a possible return to a federal system.
People are calling on President Paul Biya to release activists including Felix Agbor Balla, Fontem Neba and Mancho Bibixy, arrested for organising so-called “ghost town” strikesin English-speaking areas.
The three are standing trial in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde on charges including hostility against the homeland, secession and civil war.
The trial was originally scheduled to begin on 1 February, but it was postponed to 13 February and has now been adjourned to 23 March, to allow the prosecution to present its list of witnesses.
The three have denied the allegations and declared they are not guilty.
Some analysts have claimed authorities are failing to address people’s long-standing grievances, which go beyond the use of French in courts and schools. The internet shutdown has now intensified resentment, with claims that the measure is now affecting local businesses.