One of Cameroon’s best-known singers was in chains when he was brought to a court room on 9 July 2008, accused of causing anti-government riots in February. Lapiro de Mbanga’s case, however, was adjourned to 23 July. Another arrested musician, Joe La Conscience, was released on 16 June.
Lapiro de Mbanga chained together with the mayor of Njombé Penja, Kingué, who is a member of RDPC, a government political party of the president Paul Biya. The prisoners are walking to the court by foot from the prison of Nkongsamba. (Photo: courtesy of Issa Nyaphaga).
The singer Lapiro de Mbanga (real name: Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) appeared at the Nkongsamba High Court on 9 July 2008 where he was formally charged. In the first count, the divisional officer for Mbanga Sub Division, Simon Nkwenti, accused Lapiro of rallying youths to make a riot in Mbanga, north of the economic capital, Douala. Then, in the second count, Lapiro was accused for destroying valuables worth several millions in the company SPDC during the strike, reported Cameroon newspaper The Post.
A human rights activist, Churchill Samba, was quoted by The Post as saying that the fact that the accused musician is in chains tells of his persecution rather than prosecution.
“Lapiro’s situation is a clear case of gross human rights violation that exposes the non-independence of the Cameroon judiciary,” Churchill Samba said.
Adjourned the case Journalist Jean-David Mihamle who reports for BBC News in Cameroon, noted that the trial came as more than 100 of those arrested during the riots had been pardoned by the president. He told the BBC that Cameroon’s authorities feared protests by opposition supporters and Lapiro’s fans and therefore had tightened security outside the court in the regional capital, Nkongsamba.
A large crowd did turn out for the trial, but were disappointed when the presiding judge, Michel Ntyame Ntyame, adjourned the case to 23 July 2008, for hearing. Judge Ntyame told the court that since the plaintiffs, Simon Nkwenti and the manager of SPDC were absent, the matter could not be heard. He urged the court to inform the absentees to be present during the next hearing.
Talk through a small hole Lapiro de Mbanga has already spent 90 days in custody and could face a two-year prison term if found guilty of being behind the anti-government riots in his home town of Mbanga in February 2008. The riots left more than 100 people dead after the army and police put down the protests.
At the Nkongsamba Principal Prison, friends and relatives bribed warders with 500 Franc CFA (approximately one US dollar) to talk with Lapiro through a small hole. The musician Joe La Conscience visited Lapiro at the prison. He told The Post that it was shameful that Cameroonian artists had failed to stand behind Lapiro during the trying moments.
Joe La Conscience (real name: Joe Kameni) was also imprisoned at Kondengui for causing the February strike, but he was released on 16 June, after the presidential clemency on 20 May. He said that when he was imprisoned, no member of the ‘music family’ in Cameroon did anything to cause the government to release them.
“Now that I am free, I have decided to fight for Lapiro, my brother in the struggle, with whom we condemned the controversial amendment of the 1996 Constitution,” he stated.
Petition to release Lapiro He brandished a petition to the Minister of Culture, Ama Tutu Muna, where they are urging her to intervene for the release of Lapiro.
Under the banner of Joe and Co International Committee to fight for the rights of political prisoners, the petitioners, reminded the minister of Lapiro’s contributions towards the political evolution and democracy in Cameroon.
Lapiro de Mbanga is a member of the opposition Social Democratic Front. His supporters say he has become a target because of his songs, which often criticise the government and speak of government corruption. Following controversial changes to the constitution, he released a song called ‘Constipated Constitution’. These changes in the constitution pave the way for 75-year-old president Paul Biya to seek re-election in 2011. He has been in power for 26 years.
Lapiro: “Life is unbearable in prison” In the days before the trial, Lapiro de Mbanga’s wife, Louisette, had told BBC that Lapiro, who is 51 years old, had lost 20 kilos since his arrest in April, and that he was sick at the Nkongsamba principal prison.
She said Lapiro has developed chronic back pains, cough and catarrh, and he has not been given medical attention. She decried the poor quality of food served prisoners and sanitary conditions of the prison. According to the newspaper The Post, the musician’s wife was of the opinion that the delay to get her husband tried was a ploy to kill him.
According to senior State Counsel for Nkongsamba, Jean Pierre Ndongo, however, the singer is not sick as his wife claimed. He told The Post that the musician is physically fine and healthy.
The Post quoted Lapiro himself saying that “life is unbearable in prison”. With regards to his reported deteriorating health, he told The Post that he is a little better though still sick.
U P D A T E On 23 July 2008 at the Nkongsamba High Court, the divisional officer for Mbanga Subdivision, Simon Nkwenti, testified that Lapiro de Mbanga rallied boys who caused the February strike in Mbanga, reported The Post.
Simon Nkwenti said that Lapiro de Mbanga had asked for a payment of FCFA 2.5 million in order to calm the striking youths and stop them from destroying the government high school, a plantation and other buildings. Lapiro de Mbanga pleaded not guilty.
In April, Freemuse sent the follwing letter by fax to
Embassy of Cameroon in USA Fax 001 (202)387-3826
Excellencies, We are writing to express our concern over the arrest of two of your country’s renowned musicians Piere Roger Lambo Sandjo – also known as Lapiro de Mbanga and Joe La Conscience. According to our information they were arrested and detained by the authorities in Cameroon for singing songs in which they criticized the recent controversial constitutional amendments.
The two were arrested respectively on 9 April and 20 March 2008.
Freemuse is an international organization advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers. We wish to remind your government of the principles of Article 19 and Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 20: Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
We urge your government to immediately release the two musicians.
“Send them to Kondengui Prison. Everybody to Kondengui… ministers, directors send them to Kondengui,” his lyrics go.
About Lapiro de Mbanga Lapiro de Mbanga – also known as Ndinga Man [‘guitar man’] – is known for his satiric and critical lyrics. Since the 1980s, he has often criticised politicians and addressed social and economical injustice in Cameroun.
Lapiro de Mbanga’s biggest success came with his album ‘No Make Erreur’ which features Naimro from Kassav, Toto Guillaume and Jimmy Cliff. Singing mainly in pidgin, a West African creol language, he was able to reach a broad audience in all social layers of society, especially the young urban unemployed: the street sellers and taxi drivers.
At the culmination of Cameroun’s political crisis in 1991, Lapiro de Mbanga’s was accused of being “bought” by the ruling party. His club in the town of Mbanga and his car were put into fire, and a concert turned into a riot. He suddenly lost his support from his fans. In 1993, he returned with a new album, ‘Ndinga Man contre-attaque’ [‘The guitar man strikes back’].
Lapiro de Mbanga’s album ‘Ndinga Man contre-attaque’