Cameroon: Singer Mbanga – Flurry in the court room

25 May 2009
 After appearing in court on 28 April 2008, singer Lapiro de Mbanga still found himself leaving the court’s witness box on 13 and 15 May 2009 without a verdict. Instead, he was ordered to reappear in court on 26 May. The adjournments of his case appear to be never-ending.

By Jen Bell, Freemuse’s correspondent in Cameroon

Cameroonians are wondering if 26 May 2009 will be the day they hear the verdict of the famous singer Lapiro de Mbanga.

Lapiro de Mbanga, whose real name is Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, has already appeared in court on several occasions. Along with his supporters he has been forced to move from one adjournment to another since February 2008, when the court case was opened against him, following a strike action against high cost of living.

Lapiro was arrested while taking part in a manifestation in his native town, Mbanga. First, the hearings of 28 April 2008 were adjourned because the lawyer of the accusing party was absent, but then, on 24 September 2008, the judge found him “guilty of instigating the destruction of private and public property”. Consequently, he was given a three year imprisonment term and a fine of FCFA 280 millions.

More court cases
Lapiro – “the spokesman of the voiceless”, known for his sympathy towards the less priviledged in society, the street vendors and the unemployed – lodged an appea,l and then was ordered to appear at the Douala Court of Appeal on 13 May 2009.

On 13 May, while Lapiro was stating his own version of the incident, a group of women belonging to a religious movement appeared in court demanding his release. These women who numbered about ten and were headed by Brigitte Agoumfo, asked for the musician’s release, because, according to them, he was innocent. Insults such as “group of criminals”, “filthy corrupt people” hurled against the judges and were accompanied by leaflets.

This move caused flurry in the court room, after which the court sitting was adjourned for four hours. When the court session was reopened, it was only to be adjourned for 15 May 2009.

Absence of police officers
On 15 May, the public who came to attend the court session were surprised when they learned that the hearing had been adjourned for 26 May, because, as the presiding judge declared, “Police officers were not present in the court room. Pursuant to Article 303, the court’s security must be assured by police officers,” even though after the interrupted court hearing of 13 May, the presiding judge had promised to ensure that security would be in order for the trial of 15 May so that the hearing could be carried out under lawful conditions.

After a number of adjournments, the public in general believes that everything in Lapiro’s proceedings are deliberately being slowed down. In particular, Lapiro’s defense lawyers ask themselves why the presence of police men is sought by the presiding judge with such keen interest, if that is not just an excuse for slowing down the progress of the hearings. According to some observers, the presiding judge has been ordered from a higher place to slow down the hearings. So, people would like to know who gave the order, and for what reason.

Why these adjournments?
On the part of musician’s supporters, the accusations filed against Lapiro have only one purpose: to paralyze him. In one of his song tracks, he condemned the 1996 constitutional amendment which enabled the president of Cameroon to stay in power. Determined to continue his fight, Lapiro appeared in court on 13 May dressed in a black T-shirt on which was inscribed in French: “2011, c’est demain” (“2011, not long from now”).

The fans, friends and family of Lapiro who showed up in a large number for the hearings appeared to have an understanding of what this inscription means. For them it is clear that there is something fishy, something mysterious, about this case.

In Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, only a few private newspapers are reporting about Lapiro’s case. It seems as if the press is not interested in following a story that goes on for so long. What people would like to know here is what exactly it is the government wants. A question that cannot have its answer before 26 May – that is if and only if there is not yet another adjournment.




Lapiro de Mbanga in court

Photo: Courtesy of Mutations

Related reading on

Ngawang Choephel: For Love of Music
Ngawang Choephel – a Tibetan musician, ethnomusicologist and filmmaker, was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment by the Chinese authorities. He was released in February 2002, after six years in prison.

International Campaign for Tibet: Press and background

Background reading:
Article from Time Magazine (Sept. 2001)

Article from Songlines (Dec. 2000)
By Kim BurtonAlthough few of us give much thought to it, music and politics often share their worlds. There have always been musicians who have used their art to comment directly on the political scene – Woody Guthrie famously inscribed on his guitar “this machine kills fascists” (although there are no reliably documented instances of it ever having done so). Sometimes the engagement is unintended and comic – witness the plummeting of John Redwood`s career as Secretary of State for Wales after television cameras caught his writhing failure to recall the words of the Welsh National Anthem.
But on occasion, matters become very serious indeed.Ngawang Choephel is a 34-year-old musician and ethnomusicologist born in Tibet but brought up in India. He was educated in India and the United States, specialising in Tibetan music and dance, and in 1994 began planning a film project that would take him back to Tibet to document traditional music and its background. In1995 he arrived in the capital, Lhasa, on a scouting expedition to lay the groundwork for that project. It was the first time he had returned to Tibet, and he was expecting to stay there for at least four months, making video tapes of dances, collecting and transcribing songs, and interviewing performers. He was quite clear about the purpose of the film and his activities – a former girlfriend has said, “He was so passionate for the music. He felt that if he didn´t go back there and record these elders, a whole generation of tradition would be lost”.

And this is where the politics begin to bite. In 1950 the forces of the People´s Republic of China occupied Tibet, incorporating it under the title of “Tibet Autonomous Region”, and since then have undertaken a series of activities intended to “protect the unity and security of the whole of China”. These activities have included killings, mass arrests, beatings and violent suppression of protests.

The Chinese view of Tibetan culture is just as passionate as Ngawang Choephel´s- but instead of an asset to be preserved, they see it as a threat, a potential rallying-point for resistance which, if it can´t be controlled, must be stamped out. To them, if a “whole generation of tradition” is lost in the process, then so much the better.

Ngawang Choephel was well aware of the risk, and scrupulously avoided any political activities while in Tibet, but despite this he was arrested in September 1995 and held incommunicado and without trial for over 14 months. There are indications that he was beaten or otherwise ill-treated during this period. He was finally brought to trial in late-1996 and sentenced to 18 years in prison for “espionage and counter-revolutionary activities”. Since then he has been in jail. His trial was held in secret, and the Chinese authorities have failed to produce proof that the charges against him have any foundation whatsoever.

In august 2000 his mother, Sonam Dekyi, was at least given permission to visit her son. She found him ill, weak and frail, “just skin and bones”. Amnesty International has adopted Ngawang Chophel as a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate and unconditional release.

It is hard to believe that Ngawang Choephel owes his sentence to anything other than his work and passion for his people´s music. A more eloquent tribute to the importance of art and a more damning indictment of those who wish to control it could hardly be found.

What you can do to help Ngawang Choephel:
You can write to the authorities in Lhasa explaining that you have heard about Ngawang Choephel and expressing concern about recent reports that he is suffering from severe ill health while in jail. Urge them to consider releasing him on medical parole so that he can recieve all necessary medical care.

Write to:
Legchog Zhuren, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region People´s Government (adressing him “Dear Chairman”).
Xizang Zizhiqu Renmin Zhengfu,
1 Kang’angdonglu, Lasashi 850000,
Xizang Zizhiqu,
People´s Repuplic of China

For further information contact:

Clare Bracey
Amnesty International UK section
99-119 Rosebery Avenue
London EC1R 4RE
Phone 020 7814 6200

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