Yaoundé. Parts of Cameroon experienced unstable mobile telephone network and Internet access on Sunday as thousands trooped to polling stations to vote for president.
The poor signals since the official start of the campaigns have raised fears the government may shutdown the Internet with a view to managing the election results, despite earlier assurances of no Internet blockade during the electoral period.
“We lost MTN and Orange [mobile service providers] network even before the launch of the campaigns for election,” Ms Yvonne Yentoh, a resident of Nkambe in the English-speaking Northwest said.
She said only one of the three mobile network service providers, Nexttel, was working, but with very unstable signals.
Same unstable network was reported in the Southwest, another restive English speaking region.
A journalist based in the Southwest, Mr Franklin Sone Bayen, said he had experienced some instability.
“Knowing signals are never great any time, I can’t conclude yet on a generalised technical hitch, nor even government sabotage as some are suggesting,” he said.
Africa’s mobile telephone giant, MTN had yet to respond to our inquiry, but the Cameroon Telecommunications Regulatory Board blamed the poor signals on road construction works that affected optical fibre installations. The cabling technology infrastructure which is provided to private operators is managed by state-owned Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL).
There have been growing fears that Yaoundé would freeze Internet services, at least to the crisis-stricken English-speaking during the presidential poll, but the government has consistently rebuffed the fears.
It is believed the government fears that social media could be used to circulate results even in remote areas, in a way that could delegitimise the official (final) result. Poll agency ELECAM has also prohibited the use of mobile phones in voting stations.
Post and Telecommunication minister Ms Minette Libom Li-Likeng, in a statement, dismissed the Internet shutdown claims.
“Some information, attributed to the minister of Posts and Telecommunications, is circulating on the social media announcing an imminent Internet shutdown throughout the national territory from October 7 to 9, 2018.
“The minister of Posts and Telecommunications hereby declares that it is sheer manipulation and fake news,” said Ms Li-Likeng.
Critics, however, think that the government should not be trusted. Mr Colbert Gwain Fulai, the chief executive officer of A Common Future, a digital rights advocacy group in Bamenda in the Northwest, said he doubted the minister’s rebuttal.
Mr Fulai said his organisation was closely monitoring the situation, while also working on strategies in case of any eventuality. He said should the Yaoundé regime shutdown or disrupt Internet, it would only increase doubts over the integrity of the election.
“Any Internet shutdown or disruption during the October 7 presidential elections would only go a long way to justify the lack of transparency and credibility in the electoral process,” Mr Fulai said.
Cameroon does not have an experience of Internet blockade during elections, but made history as the first African country to have had the longest Internet blackout.
The central African country endured at least two Internet cuts since January last year with government saying the blackouts were among ways of preventing the spread of hate speech and fake news as the regime tried to control misinformation by separatists groups in the Northwest and Southwest.
But activists say shutting the Internet was an infringement on the rights of citizens and that the government could adopt other measures of fighting against online misinformation, especially during electoral periods without undermining the rights of Internet users.
The Executive Director of Internet Without Borders, Ms Julie Owono, agreed that the current political context was a fertile ground for the spread of hate speech and fake news, but insisted that abuse of the cyberspace could be fought without violating the rights of users.
“We at Internet Without Borders are very pre-occupied with the stability of Internet in Cameroon [during this election period]. Obviously, elections are a time of debate and discussion…The Internet can be a useful tool to foster debate and democratic discussion, and why not to seek solutions to the political challenges the country is facing at the moment,” she said.
Ms Owono wished that the government could learn from the past. “They [Cameroon government] have seen that the last shutdowns did not solve the problem but rather fuelled the conflict,” she said, calling on the authorities to keep the Internet open before, during and after Sunday’s vote.
Internet Without Borders and its partners in Cameroon have also asked the African Union’s election observation mission to the poll to include access to Internet in its monitoring.