Africa in the news: Protests continue in English-speaking parts of Cameroon, AU summit concludes, and Liberian businesses strike

Cameroon’s government shuts down internet in the country’s English-speaking region

Two weeks ago, protests escalated when the Cameroonian government ordered the shutdown of the internet in Anglophone Cameroon, prompting the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet. The region—historically marginalized and discriminated against—has been without internet since then. The outage has been detrimental to the region’s local economy. Banks are paralyzed and salaries have gone unpaid, as companies are unable to access their bank accounts. ATM services have been suspended. Reporters have been compelled to communicate information to their head offices via SMS. In addition, journalists have been asked to not report on the conflict, under the threat of revocation of their media license. The government states that the shutdown was necessary in order to “preserve peace” during this time of protests.

The tension goes back to the country’s independence in 1960, when the part of Cameroon colonized by the French merged with the part controlled by the British to form one country. Now, Cameroon’s Anglophone population makes up a fifth of Cameroon’s 22 million people. Presently, the official languages of the two regions remained the ones they had during colonization. However, this situation now poses a problem as the minority English speakers often face discrimination and are unable to hold civil service jobs, as the government often publishes documents in French, despite having English as one of the official languages. Last November, 100 people were arrested after days of protests against the use of the French language in courts and schools in Anglophone parts of Cameroon. Lawyers from the region opposed the employment of court workers who lack an understanding of British common law: The courts in the Francophone administrative regions use French civil law.  

In the last couple of week, opposition leaders have been arrested and several activists have been placed in jail while lobbying for human rights in Anglophone Cameroon. This week, fear mounted as the trials of protestors were postponed, without the provision of an explanation.

African Union summit elects a new AU Commission chairperson and makes historic decisions

The 28th African Union (AU) Summit concluded earlier this week with a number of major announcements and a new AU Commission chairperson. On Monday, Morocco, which left the organization’s predecessor 33 years ago, was re-admitted to the AU by a vote of 39 of the 53 countries. Though praise for a unified Africa has dominated much of the coverage, not all leaders (such as those in Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana) agreed with the decision. Indeed, Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe has strongly criticized the decision. Morocco had left the AU over the union’s admittance of Western Sahara, of which Morocco controversially claims ownership. However, facing a changing Europe and a shifting global trade regime, the North African country is turning towards its African neighbors as intra-African trade continues to grow. Experts state that a second reason for Morocco’s return is that its membership in the AU gives it “legitimacy” in its attempts to resolve the dispute over Western Sahara.

In addition to admitting Morocco, the AU also adopted a strategy for a “mass withdrawal” from the International Criminal Court (ICC) during the summit. A frequently contentious issue, South Africa and Burundi[1] are already pulling out of the ICC, and other countries, such as Kenya, have been considering it, often citing racism, colonialism, and political interference by the court. However, the strategy was passed with “many reservations,” it is non-binding, no communique has been issued, the strategy has no timeline, and it maintains “few concrete recommendations for action.” Indeed, in the recent past many countries have expressed support for the ICC, including Nigeria and Senegal along with many others.

Also during the summit, Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected AU Commission chairperson. For more on the candidates, see last week’s Africa in the news. For an in-depth analysis on the vote, see AGI Nonresident Fellow John Mukum Mbaku’s extensive look at the July candidates as well as the complex politics and repercussions of the July outcome.

The summit ended with a grave rebuke, though, of the recent U.S. travel ban, which affects three African countries—Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. In response, outgoing AU commission chairwoman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said, “The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.” Relatedly, also at the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised African countries for being “among the world’s largest and most generous hosts of refugees.” For more on refugees in Africa and around the world, see this week’s Figure of the week.

Liberian businesses hold three-day strike over economic hardships

Tuesday, January 31, marked the first day of a three-day mass protest organized by business owners and merchants in Monrovia, Liberia who are calling on the government to address growing economic challenges, including mounting inflation, the depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the U.S. dollar, high tariffs and incidental taxes, and police harassment of petty traders. The protestors shut down their businesses to draw attention to their cause and marched on the capitol. There, they entreated legislators to consider the effects of the Liberian dollar’s depreciation and high tariffs on imported goods and the burden they pose for entrepreneurs. Lawmakers acknowledged their concerns, and House Speaker J. Emmanuel Nuquay sought to reassure the protestors, stating, “Both chambers of the legislature together with the Justice Ministry and the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) have already begun series of meetings aimed at addressing this situation.”

Meanwhile, last week President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made her final annual address to lawmakers before the country holds general elections in October 2017. During her speech, Sirleaf similarly enumerated the economy’s woes, explaining that falling commodity prices and the 2014 Ebola outbreak reduced government revenues in recent years, and coupled with declining foreign aid, could lead to severe spending cuts to keep public debt from rising. Despite averaging economic growth rates of 8 percent between 2006 and 2013, the IMF expects that Liberia’s economy contracted by 0.5 percent in 2016 and will rebound slightly by 3.2 percent in 2017.

[1] The Gambia had begun to pull out in 2016, but newly elected President Adama Barrow has stated his administration’s intention to remain with the ICC.