The Colbert Factor:
Cameroon Digital Rights Week: Dangers of Taking a Second Step Before the First
With the wide-ranging powers over life and death that the mystical juju in the Order of Nantang Yoh had in Muteff village in the Fundong district of the Boyo Division in North West Cameroon, it became a rule of thumb for every able-bodied male child in the community to be a member of that secret cult. To enjoy its mystical benefits or be free from incurring its wrath when one mistakenly crossed the juju’s path, it was safer to be a full-flesh member by going through all the membership processes or the ritual ‘rite de passage’.
To be considered a bona fide member of the fraternity, one needed to compulsorily go through the three processes of separation (ichu’-i-mukum), liminality (itang-i-mukum), and incorporation (ikwae-i-mukum). The separation or initiation stage signaled that one was moving away from the world of the secular (profane) to the sacred world through the liminality and incorporation stages.
It would have therefore been inconceivable for one who had just undertaken the initiation or separation process, to claim to partake of the body polity of that mystical order. The initiation could offer one the possibility of collecting offerings for individual jujus during their live performance at funerals as well as the possibility of stepping on the veranda where the juju was lodged for the particular occasion, and nothing more. Taking the second step before the first, therefore had dire consequences, especially for an order that was quick to anger and slow to forgive.
Never taking the second step before the first is not unique to Nantang Yoh. Catholic Christians know for a fact and as a matter of dogma that one cannot attempt to do
First Confession or receive First Communion (First Eucharist) without ever first receiving the Sacrament of Baptism (even if one had undergone doctrine). The same could be said of a non-Muslim who insists on first going for Hadj before returning to be initiated into Islam, or a Muslim faithful who resists going for Hadj.
This week, and beginning from October 16-20, 2023, the government of Cameroon has been seen behaving excitedly like my late kid brother, Marley, who after knowing that he had been initiated into the Nantang Yoh fraternity, went ahead excitedly picking up the juju offerings and even entering the lodge without having completed the needful. Without warning, he was not only struck by an interminable curse but the juju did not allow him to survive, despite countless attempts made by family members to redress the situation.
The government of Cameroon has been advertising the Cameroon Digital Week as the venue par excellence to showcase its strides at digital innovation and the promotion of the digital economy which is the bedrock for the country’s emergence in 2035. It prides itself on embracing digitalization in both the public and private spheres and how attractive Cameroon is to foreign investors in the domain. Post and Telecommunications officials and the telecoms regulatory body also pride themselves on the piecemeal 2014 cyber security and the 2023 online Child Protection laws. Although the mobile internet penetration rate in Cameroon doubled in four years to reach 34% in 2023 up from 18% in 2019, these efforts are to a large extent those of the ordinary determined Cameroonians, not necessarily those of the government. It is not the government of Cameroon that imposed these strides on society. Society imposed them on the government. Where the government is expected to act to accompany society in its digital transformation journey, the government has been found wanting.
Need for a Digital Rights Bill:
Before jumping to celebrate any successes recorded in the digital rights field, the government must take the first essential step of passing a comprehensive digital rights bill that creates an enabling environment for these achievements to be eternalized. Without a comprehensive digital rights bill that addresses critical concerns of free and open internet, freedom of speech, privacy, surveillance, control of user content, control of personal data, limits on the use of personal data, consumer rights, encryption, right to unrestricted internet access, right to access and use of publicly-funded data and research, digital literacy, and how especially these rights should be enforced; all the gains and achievements being celebrated by Cameroon would amount to naught.
A digital rights bill would set Cameroon on the world stage as one of the few African countries to initiate a citizen-friendly digital rights bill that draws inspiration from the UN Convention, African Union directives, and the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Principles.
The digital rights bill would enforce the rights of linguistic and minority groups, women, youths, and the disabled, as it would allow for the unrestricted use of the Internet, thereby making them informed and engaged in public life. It is also vital for the proper functioning of public services, and underpins the functioning of markets.
To leave what they are supposed to do and celebrate what ordinary citizens and the markets have achieved through toil and sweat, the government is taking credit where it is not due. There is no gainsaying the fact that the government of Cameroon is resolute on moving away from the archaic and manual system to the digital system. Yet, just like a person has to cut away his or her hair when he/she joins the army (as a sign of separation from the former self: the civilian self), the only way Yaounde can demonstrate their resolve to completely move away from the old self to the new is by passing a comprehensive internet rights law. This would seal the sacred bond and sacred cord with the digital world.
Stronger Group Identity with CTO:
The only way for the government of Cameroon to express a stronger group identity with the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, CTO, that has been assisting it in its digital economy drive would be to allow parliament to debate and pass a comprehensive digital rights bill for Cameroon, not the piecemeal legislation that it has been passing since 2014 that does not address critical issues of privacy and data protection. That would make the CTO have an increased feeling of affiliation with the government of Cameroon. Cameroon cannot afford at this stage to remain in cognitive dissonance instead of conformity to international principles and standards in the domain.
What marks a country into full group membership of the Internet Society is the passage of a digital rights bill. This is not foreign to Africa. Initiation rites are fundamental to human growth and development. In Hamar, the culture of ‘bull jumping’ initiates a boy into manhood. Just as arms and legs are natural and necessary extensions of the human body, and just as Jesus underwent Jewish circumcision, the right of passage into the internet society for every country is the digital rights bill. The same holds for dental avulsion in some African societies as transition to manhood and ‘cutting away of tails’ for fresh college students.
The best way Cameroon can demonstrate it is serious about the digital economy would be to ensure that individuals and families are confident that their private information, photos, and conversations are not vulnerable to hackers. Going by the experience of the 94 days of complete internet shutdown in 2017 in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, the government needs to ensure the citizens through comprehensive digital rights legislation that intentional internet disruption is not an option, and that if such were to occur, it must meet the requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimacy.
Just like one can’t be a full-fleshed member of the Nantang Yoh Order without having gone through the initiation process; just like a fresh college student can only claim to be immersed into college life when his/her “tail” has been cut off; just like one can’t be considered a military student without his/her hair being ‘cut-away’; just like one can’t be a bona fide Jew without going through the circumcision rights; so too, a country cannot claim to have embraced the digital economy and digitalization without first passing the digital rights bill.
*Colbert Gwain is a Digital Rights Advocate, Aviation Journalist & Content Creator @The Colbert Factor. Talk back at