What would you do if the internet went away? Aside from not reading this article, that is. American society would likely grind to a stop. Payments wouldn’t be processed; communication would be disrupted. What sounds like a 21st-century nightmare is reality in part of one country: Cameroon. As Abdi Latif Dahir reports for Quartz, the English-speaking part of that country hasn’t had internet for 70 days and counting—and the problem is so bad that companies are becoming “internet refugees.”
The shutdown isn’t an issue of infrastructure, but of punishment. In January, Cameroon’s government shut down the internet in the northwest and southwest English-speaking regions of the country after widespread protests. As Al Jazeera News reports, the demonstrations have been happening for years as a result of the country’s colonial past.
Modern Cameroon was born out of British- and French-controlled colonial occupations, and as a result its citizens speak either English or French and live in administrative regions that speak either language. The country’s English speakers, who make up about 20 percent of the population, are concentrated in the northwest and southwest and have long complained of official and social discrimination. Laws are written in French, they complain, and English speakers have a hard time finding government work. Some Anglophone Cameroonians have demanded their own state, and in December 2016 protests became violent.
The government’s crackdown on the internet is concentrated in English-speaking areas only and, writes Quartz's Amindeh Blaise Atabong, occurred without notice shortly after the government outlawed several Anglophone activist groups and arrested their leaders. The clampdown has also targeted journalists and even a Cameroonian beauty queen accused of supporting the protesters.
As the internet shutdown drags on, Dahir reports, tech developers have had to come up with creative ways to continue working. A group of startups has now created a co-working space they’re calling an “internet refugee camp” in a Southwest village. There, they pool portable, modem-based internet and have a shorter commute to the country's largest city, Douala—and there they’ll presumably stay until the internet comes back to all of Cameroon.
There’s a reason the internet shutdown has generated so much attention. Not only has it crippled parts of the country’s economy and tech sector, but it’s changed daily life in Cameroon. And as The New York Times’ Dionne Searcey and Francois Essomba report, it’s a tactic increasingly being used by nations looking to control information and the ability of citizens to mobilize.