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In a bid to insulate Cameroon against popular uprisings similar to those that have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in recent months, the government of Cameroon has forced mobile operator MTN to end its five-month old partnership with the microblogging giant Twitter, and to discontinue its Twitter short code service.
This service allowed MTN subscribers to receive tweets for free and send tweets at the standard SMS rates.
During his press conference of February 22 2010, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Cameroon’s Minister of Communications and regime spokesperson had lashed out at Cameroonians in the Diaspora who were using Facebook and Twitter to try and launch Egypt-type protests in Cameroon. And during the February 23 protests , international media relied primarily on tweets for information on what was going on in the country.
Obviously, the government has failed to learn the lesson from North Africa, particularly in Tunisia where the Ben Ali regime was still toppled even though it had banned all social media sites for years and had engaged in a sophisticated cyber-war with Tunisian digital activists.
The government has also completely misread the lessons of the February 23 protests; even though Twitter played a prominent role in informing the world of what was happening in Cameroon, more than 95% of the tweets which the international media relied on for updates did not originate from within Cameroon. It was information obtained via mobile phones, regular SMS and email which ended up on Twitter and not real-time tweets from activists on the ground. Thus, banning the Twitter short code does little to change the balance of power online.
When politics trumps innovation and development
Before today’s ban, very few Cameroonians were even aware that Twitter was available in Cameroon via SMS, and the majority of those who were did not even grasp its potential as a tool for political activism. In fact, the groups and individuals who used this service were either folks in the IT fields of organizations such as the Buea based Agro-Hub which used the Twitter service to provide tips to famers in rural areas and also help them market their produce. As Bill Zimmerman explained in back in December:
“Agro-Hub realizes that their target audience—smallholder farmers in Cameroon—aren’t willing to pay for an unproven SMS service, so their model is based on providing free updates. After farmers follow Agro-Hub:Informer on Twitter with their mobiles, Agro-Hub:Trader aims to earn revenue from nominal fees collected when goods are sold directly to the end consumer. Farmers benefit from economies of scale by organizing into cooperatives and bypassing exploitative middlemen, while consumers get local produce at reduced costs.”
That the Twitter short code could be used for political activism was simply incidental in the Cameroonian context. Its real power was in its ability to drive innovation in a vast array of non-political fields. Quoting Bill Zimmerman again,
“A Twitter-MTN Cameroon partnership raises the bar for everyone. Twitter gains an early foothold in a growing market, innovators get a no-cost group SMS platform and MTN subscribers connect with one another and consume mobile content like never before… In the long run, Twitter’s entry into Cameroon increases the base on which innovation can occur. While Google has missed the boat on the cost of access issue, Twitter and Facebook are poised to make their mark with messaging platforms that transcend borders and connect Africans globally.”
In a country where politics trumps everything else and where the survival of the Biya regime is becoming a self-destructive obsession, the socio-economic benefits of Twitter have been completely overlooked in favour of a largely symbolic policy which does not change the digital balance of power between the regime and the digital activists within and out of Cameroon.
A futile battle
Every Cameroonian with a cellphone (that is about 6 million individuals) knows what a text message is, and/or has texted at least once before. Increasingly, smartphones are making their way into Cameroon, and practically every phone in the market has a camera. The combination of standard SMS and smartphones is where the potential “threat” to national security (i.e., the Biya regime) really lies, and not on a service that was used by only a handful of people; the police brutalisation of Kah Walla, for example, was captured on a cellphone, uploaded onto the internet and also distributed via email before it ultimately found its way on Twitter.
Even without Twitter, the video would have still gone viral. Cellphones and SMS will play a pivotal role during the 2011 presidential elections when political parties and activists will use these tools to provide real-time information on vote rigging schemes and other election irregularities.
So, unless the government plans a total internet blackout, including the banning of all mobile phones and standard SMS, then it has embarked on a very futile battle which it will never win.