Voice to the voiceless
|In ‘Smashed Hits 2.0’, Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga gives an exclusive interview to Daniel Brown from prison on protest, politics and the art of satire
Lapiro’s songs — ‘No Make Erreur’, ‘Pas argent no love’, ‘Kop Nie’, ‘Mimba We’, ‘Na You’ — often flirted with censorship and provoked the ire of officials. But it was the 2008 composition ‘Constitution Constipée’ which really brought Lapiro face to face with the country’s repressive justice system. This protest song denounced the amendment of the constitutional clause, which limited presidential mandates to two non-renewable sevenyear terms. The lyrics mix humour and anger in calling for Biya to step down, since the pacho (old man) is daya (tired) and has outlived his usefulness. ‘Constitution Constipée’ was banned from the television and radio networks. But it became something of a rallying cry for thousands of youths, students and workers who took to the streets in February 2008 as they refused the constitutional change and the steep rise in the cost of living. Lapiro was arrested in April and accused of inciting violence and arson. In September 2008 he was sentenced to three years in the New Bell prison near Douala. This could be extended by another 18 months if he continues to refuse to pay the fine of 546,000 FCFA (around 830€).
Since the sentence was passed, the Danish-based NGO Freemuse has been leading an international campaign for his release. The US-based lawyers’ advocacy organisation Freedom Now is monitoring the case. In June 2010, it urged UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call for Lapiro’s release at a meeting with President Paul Biya that month. By then, the Mondomix music site had launched a free-fordownload album in support of the singer. Meanwhile, Lapiro and his family have managed to survive and fight the case, partly thanks to winning the prestigious Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist prize and its award of 25,000 in November 2009. In April 2010, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN launched a campaign to further help the beleaguered artist.
The calls are becoming more urgent as the health of the 53-year-old has deteriorated, following a typhoid attack in December, along with respiratory problems and lumbago. Sanitary conditions are reportedly poor in cell number 18, which Lapiro shares with 50 other prisoners. Until recently, they included the director of the Douala weekly newspaper La Détente Libre, Lewis Medjo, also sentenced to three years in prison for articles he wrote about Biya. Medjo was released in June 2010, two years early.
In early July 2010, Index on Censorship contacted Lapiro de Mbanga on his cell phone. Over two days, the artist shared his thoughts and vision. He was at times shaky but, through the conversation, it became clear that his voice remains strong and defiant.
Lapiro de Mbanga
Lapiro de Mbanga: Not so good. There are 3,000 prisoners here and the sanitary conditions are very bad. I’m coming up to 53 years old, and the lumbago I’ve been carrying with me for a few years has worsened. There is no hygiene here and we must share our most intimate moments with the other cellmates. I should have been taken to hospital for a consultation but my status as a political prisoner has meant I have not been allowed to go once in these two years. I somehow survived the typhoid attack in December by taking the antibiotics my wife Louisette brought me. It’s fortunate she comes every few days. It’s a five-hour round trip from Mbanga, it’s taking a toll on her, too.
Daniel Brown: Could you describe your daily life?
Lapiro de Mbanga: You could say prison has taught me to be lazy. I sometimes feel like I’m someone who has nothing more to give in life. I wake at 7 to 8 every morning and watch my TV. I keep informed about the outside world thanks to TV5 [France’s international station] or Radio France International. I eat, chat with the others in the cell, play Ludo, scrabble, draughts. It’s impossible to compose in such an atmosphere. I need calm, serenity. Here, I cannot concentrate and write the thoughtful songs people expect of me.
We have penal rations twice a day. At 1pm we are given boiled corn and at 5pm there’s rice in some warm water. It’s the same every day. It’s way below minimum requirements. My wife brings me food every two days, I couldn’t survive otherwise. I’ve seen people die of hunger. It happens every day in Cameroonian prisons.
Normally, I should have no contact with the outside world. Telephones are illegal here. I’m speaking to you because we have to scheme like common crooks. In prison there are all kinds of trafficking going on, including this one. You pay guards to turn a blind eye. You know, in Cameroon you can buy everything. This country has been world champion in terms of corruption. It’s everywhere and filters down to here.
Daniel Brown: Are you not frightened of the consequences of being so frank?
Lapiro de Mbanga: It’s all part of my struggle. If I was the scared type I would never have started singing in 1985. I’m not going to start getting scared after all these years. My struggle has always been to denounce inequalities and danger is part of that mission. The only thing that has changed for me since 1985 is I’m at the head of a family with six children. I can guarantee my own security, but not theirs. I’m scared for them. But I have no choice. If you start such a struggle, somebody must pay. Still, my family is unhappy with such risk taking. That’s why I think if I don’t go into exile after this prison term, I won’t survive very long out there — they’ll kill me. Because it’s obvious people in charge don’t want to be confronted with somebody who stops them from just getting on with things.
Daniel Brown: The managing editor of the Cameroun Express, Bibi Ngota, was found dead in his cell on 22 April. He was another critic of the Biya regime, arrested with two other journalists on fraud charges. Officials said the death was due to infections related to the AIDS virus, a statement his family has denounced as pure invention. Your reaction?
Lapiro de Mbanga: You don’t die of AIDS nowadays. There are retroviral drugs to keep you alive. That’s too frivolous a statement. He died because of the poor sanitary conditions here. They refused to have him go to hospital, like me. Yet Ngota was just doing his job. We’re not far from an assassination for political reasons. When people in power are defending their own personal interests, they’re ready to do anything to preserve them. All in the name of state security. I also feel in danger. Before going to jail, they tried to kill me twice. First, they sent some soldiers to my house on the night of 2–3 March [three days after rioting in Mbanga ended]. They were people working for Biya. They were able to carry it out. Then, two weeks later, a government official came over with four policemen to kill me. When the two attempts failed they threw me in prison. So, you see, I don’t feel safe in this country. My life is under threat here, mine and those of my family.
Daniel Brown: What exactly happened leading up to your arrest?
Lapiro de Mbanga: The national strike started on 25 February 2008. I had been in Douala for a concert on the 23rd and returned to Mbanga at 7.30pm on the 24th. I had decided to go back because these strikes are always concentrated in the cities. They never spread to towns with only 45,000 inhabitants like Mbanga. But on the 25th, I found the town had ground to a halt. This kind of thing hadn’t happened since the big campaigns of 1991 and 92. This time, there were even demonstrations in front of the presidential palace in Yaounde. People were striking to protest the constitutional change and the hike in prices. In Mbanga, it was the moto-taxis that were demonstrating against the rise in petrol prices. They had set up barricades in front of the home of the local police chief. I went to try to sort it out because I’m also a traditional chief in Mbanga. I’m responsible for good relations in District 12 where I live [there are 16 districts in Mbanga].
You know, I’m a leader of opinion here, I write about the society I live in. So I had to go. On the way, I found out there were high-school students who wanted to burn down their school. People also wanted to burn down the town hall. I stopped them all. I told them they would lose all their papers, their birth certificates and ID cards. On my way home, I went by people wanting to burn down the Total petrol station. ‘Where are you going to buy your petrol afterwards?’ I asked them. They listened to me and spared the station.
The next day, I heard people were attacking various big companies in Mbanga. There were the banana growers, the mineral water company and the company called SPM, the Société des Plantations de Mbanga. The SPM is half-owned by the French. I tried to stop the pillagers there but it was too late. What can you do when you are faced with 30,000 angry youths? I filmed it all with my camera, hoping the images would help in the inquest after. People were taking computers, documents, even stuff that was no use to them. Then, I returned home as the army moved in and the fighting got worse the next day.
I was safe, however. No one can attack me at home. Everyone knows I’m a defender of the common man (le petit peuple). The strike wasn’t involving me directly. I’m the one who gives voice to the voiceless. Afterwards, however, the authorities accused me of calling on the people to go on the rampage. They were after me. The SPM said I was responsible.
Daniel Brown: But you and your defenders have always said it was your song ‘Constitution Constipée’ that is the real reason behind the arrest. What do you think the authorities feel is so dangerous about the lyrics you’ve written about the president?
Lapiro de Mbanga: The song denounces with humour the corruption and injustices in Cameroon. I just show what a masquerade the revision of the constitution is. And I attack Paul Biya without ever mentioning his name. I say: ‘The father is tired, leave him alone.’ I add: ‘White collar bandits want to ransack the constitution of my country.’ I say that presidential mandates are limited in the US and France, but not in Cameroon. I sing that Cameroon is the ‘birthplace of advanced democracy, it is peaceful, full of electoral frauds and a paradise for corruption. We don’t care’, I insist.
Daniel Brown: This use of humour and irony is characteristic of your work.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes, the most serious things in humanity must be said with a laugh and not with bitterness. I say serious things with lightness. It has always worked. When you laugh, things stick in your mind. And lots of Cameroonians listen to me. Eighty-five per cent of our population are marginalised. I’m their idol, their voice. I’m the one who takes the microphone into public places when they are demonstrating.
Daniel Brown: This is not the first time you have composed a subversive song. There was ‘No make erreur’ in 1986, talking about those living on the margins of society.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes. I was born in a small town. You have to see Mbanga to understand what misery is about here. We offer very cheap labour to anyone who wants it. That’s why the Europeans have invested in the palm and banana industries here. People earn 20€ a month for 30 days of work on the banana plantations. They start at 5am and finish at midnight. All for 20€! People are suffering. How can they send their children to school on that salary?
Daniel Brown: ‘No make erreur’ has an mboko as the central character. These are conmen, swindlers, thieves plying their trade in public areas.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes, I have a certain vision of society. How do we create these mbokos? Where do they come from? Well, when their parents earn 20€ a month, they have no money to buy their kids a ball, a doll, or take them on a holiday. And they see the tiny privileged minority getting a bicycle and enjoying luxury. So, for them, it’s steal or die. Here, in our prison, I see a lot of these children. The system pushed them to be thieves, they even end up robbing their own parents.
Daniel Brown: In ‘Kop Nie’, your 1988 release, you describe the common man whom you call the ‘sauveteurs’. These men and women survive through petty trading of food or trinkets.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes, they also play hide and seek with the police. Yet, the state forces them to pay taxes. They are lumped with all the duties and none of the rights. They pay their taxes and get nothing in return. Informal when they work, formal when they’re fleeced (laughs).
Daniel Brown: In this song, we see how important public spaces are for you: the bus or train stations, the markets.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Ha, Cameroon has a Ministry of Transport. But there is no public transport, no buses, trains or planes. We’re the only state in the world with a transport ministry which has no policy for public transport. It’s a nation where the people have to privatise and improvise. For example, you must buy the worn-out European cars to get around. That’s why we have a record rate of road accidents here. There are a huge number of deaths as a result (pause). When I talk about all of this I become very bitter. But I have no choice. It’s the truth.
Daniel Brown: Moving on to your next hit, ‘Mimba We’. Here, you engage the government with the people’s grievances. You appeal directly to the president for him to intervene.
Lapiro de Mbanga: The government must do something for its people, not against its population. It’s supposed to be there to serve the people. That’s why the English call it ‘civil servants’ [in English]. The state is not supposed to wage a war against the people it cannot house, educate, or keep healthy. No wonder they can’t feed themselves. I call it a genocide against the people. There is no other word for it.
Daniel Brown: In the early 90s, there was an effervescent call for popular participation in politics in this country. At the time you released ‘Na You’, which accuses Biya of messing up the country. You called on him again to clean things up.
Lapiro de Mbanga: This is about a president who has no links with his people. Cameroon is divided in regions with powerful local leaders. Yet Biya spends no time with them, he hasn’t in the 30 years he’s been in power. He lives in Switzerland more than here. But he listens to my songs, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this prison. He has developed a very sophisticated secret service, it’s a legacy from his predecessor [Ahmadou Ahidjo, whom Biya succeeded in November 1982]. Even this exchange with you is being taped by them. How do I know? I know. Cameroon is a police state.
Daniel Brown: Apart from Freemuse, there have been a number of initiatives abroad to have you released. One such effort was a letter written to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, also a musician, in an attempt to rally her to your cause. Yet, her husband [President Sarkozy] has been greeting Paul Biya with open arms ever since he took office in 2007. What do you think of France’s position over your incarceration?
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes, a committee called the Collectif des Organisations Démocratiques de la Diaspora Camerounaise, or CODE, wrote to Carla Bruni. But she has done nothing till this day. So, Nicolas Sarkozy and Paul Biya are part of the same system. You must understand one thing, however: I’m not asking to be freed. I just want a real, equitable trial. Out of the 3,000 prisoners here, 2,600 have not been judged. They stay years like this. So, in Cameroon there is not a presumption of innocence, but one of guilt.
I don’t believe in this justice system. It cannot be independent when the man at its helm is the president who put me in prison. I appreciate people calling on me being freed. But I want no pardon. I want an international penal court to try me, with three international magistrates. If I’m guilty, then let them sentence me to 50 years in jail.
I filed a complaint against the magistrate who condemned me because I believe he changed someone’s testimony, what we call in French faux dans l’acte. I sent the complaint to the Supreme Court and they have remained silent ever since. That was three months ago.
I want no pardon. I refuse it. A pardon is for a guilty party and I’m not guilty. I want justice without a pardon. I want to be freed in the normal way. It’s the same thing concerning the fine of 546,000 FCFA. If I pay it, it would be like admitting I was guilty. Too bad if I have to stay another 18 months behind bars.
Daniel Brown: But if you were released in April 2011, you could be involved in the next general elections.
Lapiro de Mbanga: You must understand: I am no opponent to Biya! Because if you change Biya tomorrow, nothing will change. He’s just part of a system that is directed by the Quai d’Orsay [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] in Paris. I’m no idiot. I’m not naive. If the successor of Biya does not want to die, he has to be the same as Ahidjo and Biya. People have to stop saying we’re celebrating 50 years of independence this year. Cameroon is not independent!
Daniel Brown’s interview with Lapiro de Mbanga was conducted in French. © Daniel Brown
Daniel Brown is a senior staff reporter in the English service of Radio France International. He is also vice-chair of Freemuse and a regular contributor to Songlines
This is an article from the theme issue ‘Smashed Hits 2.0’ which was published by Index on Censorship in September 2010.
Photo: Lapiro de Mbanga
Journalists imprisoned in Cameroun
According to the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International reported that the editors Robert Mintya (Le Devoir) and Serge Sabouang (La Nation) were arrested and briefly detained in early February 2010, along with editor Germain “Bibi” Ngota Ngota (Cameroun Express),and reporter Simon Hervé Nko’o (Bebela).
The journalists had been investigating alleged corruption involving Laurent Esso, Secretary General of the President’s Office, and the state-run oil company, National Hydrocarbons Company (SNH), of which Esso is also board chairman. Nko’o, who was reportedly tortured while in custody, went into hiding following his release.
Robert Mintya and Serge Sabouang were released on 24 November 2010 on orders of the President.
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