Cameroon: Twitter Ban Will Stifle Innovation and Development

The government of Cameroon has forced mobile operator MTN to end its five-month old partnership with the microblogging site Twitter and to discontinue its Twitter short code service, Cameroonian blogger Dibussi Tande reports.

The partnership between Twitter and MTN Cameroon allowed MTN subscribers to receive tweets for free and send tweets at the standard SMS rates.

The good news is that, as White African observes, Twitter is working on expanding its relationship with African countries. In 2008 Twitter decided to shut down all operations in Africa:

Over 2.5 years ago Twitter shut down all operations in Africa. Back then, in August of 2008, it really didn’t matter too much as the penetration rates for the service in Africa, and most of the world, were negligible. A lot has changed since then as Twitter has become a defacto communications too, and in many ways a new communications protocol, all over the globe.

Cameroon has banned mobile Twitter as the country moves towards elections. Image by Flickr user (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Cameroon has banned mobile Twitter as the country moves towards elections. Image by Flickr user (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The popular microblogging site,White African notes, is slowly coming back to Africa:

In Africa, three countries have it working; Nigeria, Kenya and Madagascar (Note: there used to be a fourth, but Cameroon has banned mobile Twitter as they go towards elections). Just send a text message with the word “start” to the following shortcodes in each country go get started:

Nigeria: 40404 (Airtel); 20644 (Glo Mobile)
Kenya: 8988 (Safaricom); 40404 (Airtel)
Madagascar: 40404 (VIP)

What is the value of Twitter in a country like Cameroon where very few people know about it? The real power of Twitter in Cameroon, Dibussi Tande argues, is “in its ability to drive innovation in a vast array of non-political fields.” The move by the Cameroonian government to ban Twitter will stifle innovation and development in the country:

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.

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.

Dibussi points out that the potential “threat” to national security lies in standard SMS and smartphone and not Twitter, which was used by a handful of people:

Every Cameroonian with a cell phone (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 brutalization of Kah Walla, for example, was captured on a cell phone, 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.

A reader, Cadmun, leaves a comment on Dibussi's post disputing the story:

As a Cameroonian, and one of the majority who doesn't use Twitter, i depend on official press releases from companies concern, especially MTN for information.I keep hearing “an MTN Official” is quoted as saying or tweeting. Is the MTN Official speaking on behalf of the company or is s/he expressing a personal opinion?

“…the person who says he prefers the devil he knows to the one that he doesn't is not for any type of change but for the status quo.” Maybe you miss the essence of my arguement or you deliberately want to contradict my statement.
I am advocating for a change in Cameroon,but a genuine change. Hence we must be cautious of the change we advocate for……
There is a difference in these statements;
Better the devil you know than the devil you do not know.
Better the devil you know than the angel you do not know.
I am talking of the former while you are talking of the latter.
Oncemore don't get too emotional..

Howard responds to Cadmun's argument:


Official press releases must not be soviet-stlyed press released read over radio or published on a newspaper center spread. Corporations and governments now post official statements on Social media sites to reach more people and to cut down costs. MTN Cameroon is one of the first Cameroonian companies to do this, so when the MTN Chief Information Officer tweets about something concerning his company, he is doing so in an official capacity.

Check out the following timeline on Global Voices online about the MTN Twitter Saga.

You can also check out Le Monde and The Washington Post blog for more insider info

Reactions from Twittersphere (hashtag #MTNCameroon #SMSTweets):


JulieOwono: RT @GeorgesMpoudi: @AGROHUB @JulieOwono We can't comment further than “security reasons” on #Government instructions for #SMSTweets suspension #MTNCameroon.


i@mambenanje @AGROHUB We do understand #SMSTweets frustration, but #MTNCameroon had 2 stop by #Government instruction until further notice.


@JulieOwono @bubakaele #MTNCameroon had no intention disconnecting #SMSTweets but didn't have other options neither. #Cmr #Government


Hey @AyobaMTN do you know that #MTNCameroon is complicit with govt ban of SMS-es in #Cameroon? That's not AYOBA. #SMSTweet cc


RT @KonWomyn: @africatechie get pple 2 send emails & tweets 2 MTN SouthAfrica, parent company of #MTNCameroon demanding an explanation 4 aiding censorship

Finally, let's turn to a blog post written in 2007 by Malawian blogger Soyapi Mumba about the potential of Twitter in Africa:

So the launching of Twitter provides a good alternative considering that the use of mobile phones is much higher than that of computers. In Malawi for example, there are about 50,000 Internet users against about 700,000 mobile phone users out of a population of about 12 million. Twitter allows users to post a small update via SMS, instant messaging client and the web. Anyone who chooses to follow you will get that update on the Twitter home page, or their mobile phone of they choose to. Unlike most mobile phone web services, you can update via SMS from anywhere in the world and from virtually any handset.

How can Twitter be used in Africa?:

Here is what I can think of now:

* General announcements to friends and relatives all over the world like illness, death, weddings, engagements, academic and professional achievements, births and maybe even Kitchen Top-ups :)
* Scores, fixtures and general updates on of soccer games live from the stadium or after the game. Everyone is crazy about soccer, right?
* General news and gossip including crazy odd news (e.g. “Nkhani za m'maboma” in Malawi)
* Political Campaigns and news. Politics can be fun, you know.
* Scripture reading and notes from a religious service. This can be our adaption of SXSW twitters where conference participants updated their friends on what was happening ;) I don't know if they'll even allow you to look at the phone during the service, though.


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