Cameroon has labelled social media as a form of terrorism, launching a crackdown amid rising unrest. Investors are at risk from the regime and citizens.
Cameroon is cracking down on social media; specifically, the government has launched an anti-social media campaign which seeks to label the medium as subversive, with the state-run Cameroon Tribune on November 1st arguing that “ is fast becoming a threat to peace and a secret instrument of manipulation, promoting character destruction, destabilization of public opinion and defamation of facts, among others.”
More recently, Cavaye Dijibril, speaker of the National Assembly, went so far as to label social media a new form of terrorism on November 10th. This rhetoric has been followed up with force, as three students have been arrested for sharing a SMS joke about Boko Haram recruitment. Boko Haram remains a serious concern for Cameroon, for while a 10,000 strong regional defence force has drastically reduced the number of Boko Haram attacks since 2015, some 4,000 Cameroonians are thought to have joined the group in in recent years.
What is driving Biya’s thinking?
The government is understandably concerned that these radicalized individuals will infiltrate society as Boko Haram’s more overt actions are checked in the country’s north. It is important to note that the threat of Boko Haram provides a useful focus for aging President Paul Biya to rally support and distract from other problems facing the country. The heavy handed response to a SMS joke shows the reach of existing laws policing digital media. Currently, individuals found guilty of using digital media to spread unsubstantiated information face jail terms of between six months and two years as well as fines between $10,000 to $20,000: sentences are doubled if shared information is found to threaten social peace.
Social media users in Cameroon, be they civilians, journalists, organizations, or companies, are subject to the government’s whims and its ad-hoc definition of what constitutes threats to social peace. The National Communications Council already has the power to suspend journalists and shutter media outlets. The government’s new anti-social media campaign appears to confirm rumours that it is drafting a social media bill in the run-up to the 2018 election. This would augment existing anti-terrorism laws passed in 2014, as well as ongoing monitoring efforts by the National Agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ANTIC).
While interference with and hostility towards cyberspace in Cameroon is nothing new, the ever expanding list of ‘illicit content’ is. President Biya has been in power since 1982, and uncertainty is increasing in the run-up to the 2018 election as to the country’s direction going forward. With no obvious successor in place, and decades of opposition intimidation as well as civil society erosion, Cameroon is staring into the unknown.
Dennis Tull of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explains Cameroon’s dilemma. “The country is very much unprepared. It’s dangerous because there’s so much uncertainty and no one knows what’s happening inside the black box of government [sic]”
This uncertainty has the government on edge, with senior officials targeting criticism and opposing narratives on social media. The aforementioned National Communications Council is currently reviewing twenty complaints from senior officials against social media users, including trivial ‘violations’ by individuals who posted footage of a minister dancing to banned music on Facebook.
Crackdown increases as economy stagnates
The Biya regime is trying to dominate Cameroon’s digital media landscape in order to shape the national narrative as the country enters this uncertain time. At first glance the government appears to have an easy task, as internet penetration is only 17.7%. The problem is that this equates to 4.3 million internet users. Moreover, internet penetration is growing rapidly, having almost tripled since 2013 (6.4%). The biggest threat to the government is the correlation between demographics and technology – 73.3% of Cameroonians aged 15-24 have social media accounts. In a country where the median age is 19.5 and economic prospects few, this represents the greatest threat to the Biya regime.
While Cameroon has been able to weather low oil prices, in part due to timber and coffee exports, the country’s GDP growth rate has declined from a high of 8.5% in 2013 to 3.7% for Q1 2016. While inflation has been relatively low at an average of 1.26% for the first half of 2016, last year’s markedly higher rate, combined with ongoing population expansion of over 3% means the economy is actually regressing. Add to this the fact that the emergence of Boko Haram killed the country’s tourism industry in 2014, and economic performance will only continue to decline. Indeed, Cameroon has fallen nine places in the Legatum Institute Prosperity Index – currently the 27th most prosperous nation in Africa – since 2015.
Demographic and economic frustrations are inciting anger towards the government, especially among Cameroon’s youth. “We are a nation of young people being led by elderly ones. They don’t listen to us. I have a Masters degree in law and I want to use it. Instead I’m [bagging groceries],” complains Jean, 25. Even such grocery jobs are under threat, as farmers and food vendors are suffering from rampaging bird flu which has seen two-thirds of egg layers and one half of broilers lost to the disease. The pandemic is putting substantial financial strain on many low and middle-income Cameroonians, engendering anger at the government for its failure to aid those affected.
Companies and investors in Cameroon should be wary of increasing economic uncertainty and unrest, as several risk vectors converge. The first of these is the ongoing fallout from the deadly October 21st train derailment, which saw over 80 killed and 600 injured. Many Cameroonians were angered by the government’s initial denial of and slow response to the accident. Social media played a vital role in disseminating news of the event, as well as questioning the official narrative of the accident provided by the government. As well as torpedoing regime efforts to control information about the incident, social media users at the scene argued that the death toll was far higher than what the government reported.
Moreover, President Biya’s belated response to the accident, praising the government’s handling of the incident only further enraged the population. The fact that Biya made the announcement while in Switzerland (and did not return home afterwards) created a storm on Twitter, with one user writing “What else do you know how to do aside from this? You have become the President of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva.”
This accident also ties into anti-Chinese protests in the country, as social media contended that faulty Chinese carriages, not excessive speed as claimed by the government, were the cause of the accident. Similarly, rising tensions between locals and Chinese companies has resulted in strikes (beginning on November 4th) spreading to two major Chinese-led infrastructure projects. Strikers demanding better pay and working conditions have shut down work on a highway from the commercial hub of Douala to the capital Yaounde, as well as work on a road from the capital to the airport.
These strikes and anger over the October 21st train derailment come on the heels of other anti-Chinese actions in 2016 which saw Chinese gold mining operators forced out by angry locals in March. Increasing social unrest presents a serious risk to investors in Cameroon, as foreign companies and projects become politicized by Cameroonians in order to put pressure on the government. Foreign companies are also increasingly likely to become targets as Cameroonians protest the lack of jobs and the influence of foreign firms in the economy.
The government’s social media crackdown also threatens investors with a dearth of reliable, independent information. Another risk for investors is the possibility of running afoul of government censorship. Any complaints about local investment climate or Cameroon’s economic situation by companies or their employees could put them in the government’s sights as disturbers of social peace.
As if this was not enough, the increasing uncertainty and threat of violence surrounding the 2018 election and questions about Biya’s succession is in itself enough to sink investor confidence in the medium term.