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This Country Has Kept Its English Speakers Off The Internet For Two Whole Months

In a country where 80% of people speak French, English speakers feel like they're being punished for wanting equal status for their language.

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Wednesday marks 73 days since people in northwest and southwest Cameroon have had no access to the internet — at all. And it doesn't look like it's coming back anytime soon.

Mücahiddin Şentürk / Getty Images

On Jan. 17, the government of Cameroon shut down the internet in two regions of the central African country. Courts and schools in the two regions have also been on strike for the duration.

The blackout has affected everything: ATM machines no longer work, students can't gossip on WhatsApp, and businesses have folded up as they're no longer able to operate online.

The shutdown has targeted Bamenda and Buea, two regions that are home to most of the country's English-speaking minority. Citizens there have long said they're marginalised by the central government in Yaoundé, the French-speaking capital.

Day 70 and counting... No Facebook, No Twitter, No Gmail, No Firefox, No Wikipedia, No Google,No Internet… https://t.co/MIc9qlEwDK

"The anglophone problem" dates back to the end of colonialism in the 1960s.

Afp / AFP / Getty Images / Via Twitter: @ambaexit

What's known as Cameroon today was once under control of both British and French colonialists. After independence, a series of referendums were held and the country went from being a two-state federation to having a centralized government with 10 semiautonomous administrative regions.

But anglophone Cameroonians say it's far from a case of being separate but equal. Although English and French are both official languages, language remains a barrier in getting often lucrative state jobs, state funding is skewed towards Francophone regions, and official documents and activities that should be bilingual are frequently in French alone.

Over the decades, several civil organizations and caucuses have formed amid calls for the state makeup to be reviewed. Some activists are campaigning for a return to a two-state federation; in recent years though others have gone further, calling for the anglophone regions to splinter and form independent states.

The internet shutdown came after a surge in protests by English-speaking Cameroonians against the government last year.

BBC / Via bbc.co.uk

Throughout the last three months of 2016, the government faced a series of protests from lawyers, teachers, and students. The marches were triggered by the presidential appointment of French-speaking judges to courts in the anglophone region. Aside from operating in a different language, English-speaking regions still operate under the English common law, as opposed to French civil law, which the appointees were trained in.

Judges went on strike. Teachers soon joined them, saying the prevalence of French-speaking teachers in classrooms — who spoke limited English — was hampering students' progress.

While discontent has simmered in the background for decades, by December they bubbled over into violence. The government responded brutally. Incidents of soldiers brutally assaulting students flooded Cameroonian Twitter. Several prominent government critics were arrested, including a senior judge. They have yet to be released.

Paul Biya, the autocratic ruler who has held power for 35 years, claimed soon after that the internet needed to be shut down for "security reasons."

Cameroonians have responded creatively by setting up internet "refugee camps" where the data is always flowing.

Day 71 no Internet in Anglophone Cameroon! Here comes "internet refugee camp!" https://t.co/z7bgIQhUrI #BringBackOurInternet and #Keepiton

To get online, residents in the affected areas have been forced to travel for tens of kilometers to get to Francophone areas where there's still connectivity.

But in Buea, known as "Silicon Mountain" for its booming tech startups, a group of techies have come together to set up a "refuge," Quartz reported. They've rented a room in Bonako, a village bordering the French region, bought portable modems and hooked them up to generators, creating an oasis for struggling startups.

In a tech-connected world, solidarity has come from around the globe.

Anglophones protesting in Johannesburg, South Africa against human rights abuses in NW & SW Regions.… https://t.co/Za4PaWiWhD

Cameroonians at home and abroad have been using the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet to show solidarity as the blackout edges towards three months and shows no sign of lifting.

I keep pinching myself, is it real? Day71 internet shutdown in Southern #Cameroon. Lives are being destroyed #BringBackOurInternet @hlnr_

But there are also fears such repression can cross borders.

US watchdog Freedom House found last year that governments curbed social media communications in 24 countries last year, up from 15 the previous year.

African governments been increasingly using blackouts as a tool to crush dissenting voices. This week a Tanzanian rapper was arrested after a song criticizing the government went viral. And partial or complete internet blackouts were order in Gambia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon in 2016. Officials in Zimbabwe also hiked the cost of internet cell data after protests jumped from social media to the streets.

Even Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor turned transparency advocate, weighed in on the drama.

This is the future of repression. If we do not fight it there, it will happen here. #KeepItOn #BringBackOurInternet… https://t.co/artWAPGiNV

For now, most Cameroonians are calling on the government to begin implementing three simple measures.

We believe there is consensus amongst most #Cameroonians today. 1) #BringBackOurInternet 2) #FreeAllArrested 3)… https://t.co/u5sc2cNvgo

Monica Mark is the West Africa Correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Dakar, Senegal.

Contact Monica Mark at monica.mark@buzzfeed.com.

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