The Powerful Silence of Digital Dialogues

In a speech delivered earlier this year, Cameroonian President Paul Biya commemorated the nation’s 50 years of independence from France and Britain stating that as “a President of the Republic elected by direct universal suffrage … we have established a regime that meets the basic requirements of democracy.” While Biya’s summary of his regime’s achievements to an idea of the ”basic requirements of democracy” may appease the international community, it is deeply flawed against the reality of the actual political climate, which has been subjected to draconian press laws and repressive tactics in thwarting public dialogue and debate. At best, what Biya’s regime has achieved is an illusionary practice of democracy and a disconcerting sense of stability that has driven the populace toward self-censorship, fear, and anxiety.

For more than 28 years, the nation’s citizenry has endured the consequences of Biya’s increasingly authoritarian, centralized, and corrupt rule. His abuses of power and exploitation of natural resources have skewed signifiers of stability, distorted the economy, neglected basic infrastructure at the community level, and evaded time and again public accountability. In 2007, according to Transparency International’s Perception Index, Cameroon held the crown for the third time not only as the most corrupt country in Africa, but also in the world (this is arguably against failed states, such as Somalia). More recently, Cameroon has been flagged by International Crisis Group as a nation increasingly at risk for military upheaval and chaos as the 2011 election nears with the threat of Biya, once again, monopolizing the political playing field.

Within such circumstances, ordinary citizens can assert resistance and compliance with the state, as noted by media scholar Francis Nyamnjoh, toward a seeming “semblance of collaboration with the state” as a strategic survival mechanism in accessing a degree of state power and resources. Reflective of this is the contested media environment in Cameroon, heavily linked to the state where journalist and media practitioners on the ground are faced with complex negotiations to either tow the official line or tap into a more critical stance while facing constraints at the same time. Alternatively, anthropologist Abdul Maliq Simone establishes that the space for social mobilization can occur and public deliberation can exist in which “localities both activate and resist change in relationship to the decision of government authorities constructing tentative platforms for people to collaborate in silent but powerful ways.” In many ways, the emergence of digital technologies within Cameroonian society are serving to broaden these “silent” but powerful ways for ordinary citizens to enact spheres of social and political dialogues into virtual spaces, which in turn broaden civic engagement and intensify greater public awareness. Digital activists, such as bloggers Dibussi Tande, Martin Jumbam, Francis Nyamnjoh, Elie Smith, Simon Wol, Rosemary Ekosso, Canute Tangwa, and Tikum Mbah Azonga, are a few of Cameroon’s bloggers gaining popularity as they mark out digital spaces distanced from associations with the state and the problems of self-regulation. The growing Cameroonian blogosphere is evidence alone that digital dreaming can amplify the space for public engagement on issues and political affairs of the nation, while navigating around the repressive climate of daily life.

Perhaps most importantly and most conspicuous among citizens, regardless of their context, is the “hunger for access to their leaders and the means for expressing their own opinions and judgments.” The core questions are whether and if digital technologies can indeed serve to empower collective voices of ordinary citizens; broaden the grounds for realizing a thriving Cameroonian public sphere; strengthen and facilitate greater participatory democratic processes; enable and uplift development perspectives; or if they hold the key to level out the playing field and transform the mode of governance.

The Digital Landscape

The current digital environment in Cameroon remains as complex as its political circumstances. As it stands, social and political mobilization through digital technologies (new medias and mobile technologies included) in Cameroon is not well positioned to stand in as the main tool in determining the nation’s democratic potential. This is the result of both ill-fated policies and an overall lack of government commitment to coordinate a cohesive Information Communication Technology (I.C.T.) policy, a combination that obstructs access for ordinary citizens in making use of digital technologies in any significant or radical way. Obstructing development is also a strategy for repressing development under the guise of poverty.

In 2005, Olivier Nana Nzépa and Robertine Tankeu Keutchankeu, professors at the University of Yaounde II, conducted research on access and usage of information communication technologies finding that only 8,000 users were accounted for in Yaounde, a city of just over two million in which two universities are based with a combined student population of roughly 120,000 students. In addition, numbers of Internet subscribers were estimated at merely 10,000, in which most were presumed to be dedicated to the business sector and international nongovernmental organizations (I.N.G.O.s). In large, a primary impediment to the explosive growth of digital technologies and extended access in Cameroon remains fixed in law and contracted to the government appointed incumbents Camtel and Camnet ISP as the sole Internet providers, effectively monopolizing local, long distance, and international services. Nzépa and Keutchankeu also found, not surprisingly, that government corruption has also hindered the development of the communications sector, “despite full coffers financed by operators to pay for universal access… the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has been engaged in an ongoing battle to take control of this money.”

For Nzépa and Keutchankeu, their study is not particularly based on either social mobilization or within a framework of a viable civil society, though they are implicit at both the offset of their research and in concluding that the “needs for coordinating efforts and creation of synergy requires a multi-stakeholder approach from government, private sector and civil society [my emphasis] to tackle various problems facing the country” (not only issues relevant to digital technologies). Their research centers precisely on the technical and logistical trappings stagnating the growth of Cameroon’s I.C.T. sector, and seemingly yields caution in making any provocative incitements against the role of the state and its lack of support of making more accessible digital developments.

Those Who Dare

However complex the I.C.T. terrain is presented, in no way has it stopped ordinary Cameroonians, both within the nation and throughout the diaspora, from enacting clever and creative uses of digital technologies to transform the political landscape. And while international agencies and nongovernmental organizations advocate for programming centered on digital initiatives and development—increasingly becoming branded and coined as “media and development” —they may be in part failing to take recognition of the already agile ways in which ordinary Cameroonians, and many Africans for the matter, are already harnessing digital technologies for the futures they envisage. A clear example of this can be shown in statistics released by Miniwatts Marketing Group in June 2010 showing that Africans have shown an impressive 2357.3% use-growth of Internet based technologies, roughly five times that of the “rest of world’s” 444.6% growth rate.

When analyzed these statistics demonstrate, despite all the talk concerning the digital divide, that Africans are increasingly finding ways to plug into the digital world. Such an example would be the work of CRTV journalist Pochi Tamba-Nsoh in developing The Network of African Youth for Development (NAYD), an initiative which aims to connect African youths across the continent and beyond into a forum (a network) to facilitate exchange and encouragement in effecting positive change on the continent. In 2007, I lived with Tamba-Nsoh while working in Cameroon and witnessed her day-to-day determination to access the information superhighway to cultivate digital dialogues that evokes change, hopefulness, and a collective vision to organize African youths and young professionals to work together. While we lived in urban Yaounde, Internet connections were slow, equating costly time-usage to limited online navigational power, not to mention that Internet connections were not always guaranteed. Certainly these create obstacles for Tamba-Nsoh’s vision to motivate a movement for an online deliberative space. Nevertheless, with the continued development of NAYD, Tamba-Nsoh has proved obstacles are not necessarily obstructions. This follows the observation made by political scientist Pippa Norris that it is not solely the Internet that drives these movements, but rather “these causes are triggered by deeper passions – but it facilitates their organization, mobilization, and expression”.

Issues of digital access, better known as the digital divide, are indeed real and do have implications for ordinary citizens; long-term solutions to these issues, however, will not be found merely in more funding or programming ushering in more technologies by international nongovernmental actors under the guise of “media and development.” Such an approach risks undermining the vibrant array of digitally active Cameroonian’s already leading the way and negating the real issues limiting the distribution and outgrowth of digital technologies at the policy level. Rather, such issues can only be addressed by advocating for policy change and government accountability at the national level, supported by globally robust international investment strategies by the communications and technologies sector. As Cameroonian digital activist and blogger Dibussi Tande emphasized in his keynote speech at the Highway Africa Conference in September 2009, the most significant challenges for online activism is that “online engagement must translate into offline collective action.” If international nongovernmental organizations believe that the advent of digital technologies will facilitate online public engagement and democratic possibilities, considerations to their offline approaches would benefit from a careful review. Cameroonians may suffer in a repressive environment, but they neither lack vision nor motivation to unlock the democratic potential of their nation’s future.

Carol-Ann Gleason is a development specialist with a multidisciplinary expertise on African politics and international political dynamics. Her work focuses on contemporary political frameworks, the variables of globalization and social mobility, the character of civil society in a digitized world, and the impact digital technologies and new medias have in amplifying the voice of ordinary citizens.