Lapiro is the one who has to pay for all
In this complicated case, there are problems of leadership, tribalism and politics, writes journalist Jen Bell in this personal commentary. She is convinced that singer Lapiro de Mbanga’s case is a political persecution in disguise.
COMMENTARY by Jen Bell
It is clear to me that Lapiro de Mbanga’s case is a political persecution in disguise. He had a really unfair trial in a country which considers itself a country of freedom and human rights, and where justice is supposed to be equal for every citizen.
State prosecutor Justice Helen Fon-Achu said it openly in the court room on 24 June 2009, in the hours before the musician was convicted. According to her, “Lapiro should be given an exemplary and dissuasive sanction in order to intimidate those who would try to repeat such act.” So, she asked for a 10 to 20 years jail sentence for him.
The matter of making a decision by the bench would normally have lasted less than one hour. In Lapiro’s case, it took about ten hours. By the end of the day, Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger; alias Lapiro de Mbanga, was given a sentence of three years in prison and a FCFA 280 millions plus CFA 540,000 fine.
It is difficult to comprehend how an innocent musician can be sanctioned to this extent only because he has to be served as example.
For those who were present in the court room on the 24 June 2009, and to those who followed the court case and the other judgements before it, it appears evident that there was nothing which could have convinced the judges to change their mind in order to to make a fair decision.
Lapiro was accused for instigating looting and destruction of property during the September 2008 strikes of hunger. The demonstrations and the looting happened not only in Mbanga, but also in some main towns of Cameroon, notably in Douala and Yaounde.
After that event, which generally was regarded as a quite reasonable protest of the people against the high cost of living, the Head of State decided to make some changes. He increased the salaries of the Cameroonian state employees, he asked the government to do whatever it would take to reduce the prices of the most important stable products; and for those who had been caught participating in the demonstrations, he issued a presidential pardon.
This is why those who were caught in the same matter as Lapiro are all free now. Despite the fact that everyone recognizes that Lapiro didn’t act on his own, he was acting in complicity with many other people all over the country, he is still condemned to jail with a high amount to pay as fine.
In this matter, where Lapiro is the one who has to pay for all, according to my own investigations, the February event which the judges are so focused on, is only the part of the iceberg which can see above the water line.
In this case, there are problems of leadership, tribalism and politics, even jealousy, below the surface.
Apart from the fact that Lapiro is a traditional chief in Mbanga, he has the ear of the local population. This is why he was called by the SPM authorities (Société des Palmeraies de Mbanga — a palm grove enterprise in Mbanga),. They asked him to use his popularity to stop the destruction and looting carried out by a gang of youths. Lapiro tried to do so, but didn’t succeed.
Why did he fail? Because of a certain gang which is lead by a man whose name given to the court, but who for some surprising reason was never arrested. This gang leader wanted Lapiro’s head, because he considers Lapiro to be their opponent. Lapiro’s father is from the West Region from the Bangoua tribe and his mother is Abong from the Littoral Region in Douala whereas the people of Mbanga are from the Balong tribe. So the gang cannot possibly understand why Lapiro, who is not a native son of the village, could be so popular there.
His popularity even came to a point where he would have won the recent municipal election in Mbanga town for his party, the Social Democratic Front, according to the number of votes in his favour. But nevertheless it was the candidate of the ruling party who officially was declared to be the winner of that election.
Lapiro’s family has been living in Mbanga for many years and in the Cameroonian constitution, every Cameroonian is at home everywhere in the country.
His song ‘Constitution constipée’ (‘Constipated constitution’) was a mean to express his opinion, and also many fellow Cameroonian’s opinion, who didn’t want the constitution to be modified just to enable the president of the republic to continue to stay in power.
The fact that Lapiro is enjoying a high degree of respect from his fans, and that they would listen to him, and follow his orders, was suddenly used against him in the court room. According to the judges, Lapiro could easily have done something to stop the demonstrators if he had wanted to.
Lapiro’s defence lawyer Augustin Mbami has ceased the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the judgement there is now awaited. In relation to this last hope and recourse, it is not to be pessimistic to be saying that unless something is done at an international level, I am afraid we should most likely expect to see this musician serving his full sentence. And that will be unfortunate for the human rights that are so easily flout in certain countries of the world.
Lapiro de Mbanga in court on 24 June 2009
Constitution provides immunity to the president
Why it is generally believed that Lapiro de Mbanga was arrested for his song about the constitution, and not because of his acts during the anti-government protests.
On 10 April 2008, the National Assembly in Cameroon overwhelmingly passed a bill to amend Law 96/06 to change the country’s constitution to provide the president with immunity from prosecution for acts as president, and to allow the president to run for unlimited re-elections, along with a number of other changes.
The vote took place after the opposition Social Democratic Front representatives walked out of the assembly, and just one month after the 2008 Cameroonian anti-government protests — widespread violence in February 2008 that resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests of demonstrators protesting price rises and the proposed constitutional changes.
Limited public discussion
• A song titled ‘50 ans au pouvoir’ (‘50 years in power’) by popular Cameroon singer Longuè Longuè was reportedly banned by Celestin Boten, the Director of Programmes at the national public broadcaster Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV, on 31 January 2009. The director slammed the ban after one journalist not only played Longue Longue’s critical piece but commented on it.
• In a service note No. 002/CRTV/DG/DP-R, Celestin Boten stated that any journalist who airs Longue Longue’s ‘50 ans au pouvoir’ would face serious sanctions. Billy Karson, the journalist who aired the song, was suspended and banned from going on air at CRTV.
• Painter and musician Joe La Conscience (real name: Joe De Vinci Kameni), who had attempted to walk from Loum to Yaounde to give a petition of 100 signatures to Cameroon president Paul Biya against the constitutional changes, was sentenced to six months in prison.
• Singer Lapiro de Mbanga, who had composed the song titled ‘Constitution constipée’ (‘Constipated Constitution’) was arrested on 9 April 2008.
Lapiro de Mbanga — against the grain
Analysis of Lapiro’s music as political commentary – an excerpt of an audio placed on YouTube.com by Awung
After spending the late 1970s and early 1980s between Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon the musician Lapiro de Mbanga returned home to Cameroon in 1985.
Lapiro sang in Camfranglais: a popular French-based speech form that merges lexical items from English, Pidgin English and local languages.
The album ‘Kop Nie’, released in 1988, establishes the importance of public spaces in Lapiros music. Markets, train and bus stations became symbols of the struggle against economic crises, and eventually would become important spatial axes of political activism during the 1990s prodemocracy movements.
Having established a fan base among the underprivileged, Lapiro then engaged the government with the peoples grievances. This is Mimba We Lapiros direct appeal to the president: to look into the peoples plight.
In the heat of the struggle for democracy in the 1990s, Lapiro released ‘Na You’ — an indictment of the president for messing up the country. He called on the president to clear up the mess.
But the song that would land Lapiro in hot waters was ‘Constitution constipée’, released in 2008. It is a protest song against the amendment of the constitutional clause limiting presidential mandates to two nonrenewable seven year terms. This song is very categorical in its call for the president to step down because he has outlived his usefulness.
The song is representative of popular opinion at the time. It was banned from the national radio and television networks. In February 2008, angered by high living cost and the presidents intention to stay on after 2011, violent youths stormed the streets asking for change.
Lapiro was arrested and framed for inciting violence and arson. He now languishes in jail as we speak. Cameroonians believe he is being punished for his barefaced description of the president as a chief gangster surrounded by a band of looters of state funds.
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