Lapiro de Mbanga back on track
Lapiro de Mbanga, the bard of Cameroon’s working classes, was freed on 8 April after three years in a Cameroonian gaol. He has chosen the French town of Lille to mark his return to centre stage. The concert, which was organised by Cameroonian ex-patriots in the town, is scheduled for 13 July.
In 2008, Lapiro de Mbanga was condemned by the Cameroonian courts for incitement to violence and arson. The condemnation was a reaction to the bloody incidents that followed modifications of the country’s Constitution to allow the president, Paul Biya, to run for a third term.
Since his return from exile in Nigeria and Gabon in 1985, Lapiro had been stirring up trouble for the regime that Biya has been leading since 1982. Taking his inspiration from the shanty towns that harbour the country’s outcasts, the 53-year-old singer became the spokesperson for young people in his country, and in particular the ndos, the unemployed who can be found scattered round the train and bus stations. His songs are accompanied by some inspired guitar playing, which has earned him the nickname Ndinga man, or “guitar man”.
He writes his lyrics in a pidgin that blends French, English and Douala, and sings of social and political injustices he sees as time bombs. His hits from the 80s and 90s – No Make Erreur, Pas argent no love, Kop Nie, Mimba We, Na You – were regularly censored. But it was the track Constitution Constipée that really created a rumpus with political and legal powers. The song criticised the amendment to the constitutional clause that had until then limited presidential mandates to two. In April 2008, Lapiro was condemned to three years in New Bell Prison, near Douala. He was also fined 280 million CFA Francs for the damage caused by the riots that shook Mbanga, a town located one hour from Douala.
Since his condemnation, an international NGO based in Copenhagen called Freemuse Freedom of Musical Expression), and the American lawyers’ association Freedom Now, have been fighting to have the sentence annulled. The fine is still hanging over the artist. If it remains unpaid, Lapiro risks another five years in prison.
Despite the decades he has spent at odds with the Biya regime, this father of five doesn’t appear to have given up the fight. On the eve of his departure for Europe (this summer he will also perform in Lausanne, Brussels, Paris, Barcelona and towns in the USA, Canada and the UK), Lapiro welcomed us into his modest home in the 12th district of Mbanga.
The rainy season had left large puddles around the traditional hut in the courtyard where Lapiro, a former traditional chief, used to receive local inhabitants and rule on their grievances. Clothed in combat trousers and a white t-shirt, he didn’t appear scarred by the 36 months of deprivation and illness endured in the prisons of Cameroon. As soon as we turned on the microphone, the diminutive man, his sharp eyes veiled behind reading glasses, launched into his tale.
Lapiro de Mbanga: I’m an artist, a musician, who has just been released from the rotten prisons of Cameroon, in Mbanga, Kosamba and Douala, where I was condemned on fallacious grounds, namely for having allowed some young people to break into and pillage properties in February 2008. I never did anything of the sort. I actually did everything I could to stop it happening. But the powers that be had it against me and took advantage of the events to throw me in prison after a Kafkaesque trial where everything had been decided in advance. Without the slightest proof, and not one single perpetrator of a break-in who could give witness that “Yes, I broke in because Lapiro de Mbanga told me to”. Like Kafka (sic), I was condemned and ended up in prison.
RFI: Why did you choose Lille to make your live comeback after three years in prison?
Lapiro: I didn’t choose the place, it was the Cameroonian community living abroad, and especially in France, who suffered a lot from this false trial. No one believed that I was going to come out of prison alive. But, by the grace of God, I managed it. Of course there were some set-ups that really took my affair to heart. Which gives me the opporunity to thank the group Vigier Guitare, who have been making guitars for Lapiro de Mbanga for 30 years, and Freemuse. It’s thanks to them that the world got to hear of my case. And the Cameroonian community abroad really supported me. So they are very happy to know that I’ve been freed at last.
The calvary isn’t over yet, it has to be said: I’ve still got the 280 million CFA Francs to pay, otherwise I serve another five years in prison. A lot of people took up my cause, I’m going to take advantage of the tour to say: “Here I am, and I swear to you that you were right to support me because I didn’t do anything I’ve been accused of.”
I’ve received around 5,000 letters of support to give me courage and tell me to hang on in there. Now I feel better armed to prove to the world that the Cameroonian system is a rotten one that uses the law to blot out anyone who fights for the freedom of the people.
What have you retained from your experience in prison?
A lot. I tell people that if I hadn’t gone to prison I wouldn’t be a whole man. Going to prison gave me a chance to see the misery of my fellow men. Of course some people go to gaol for blameworthy acts, but that doesn’t stop them from having rights. And those rights are ignored. You might not believe it, but in a prison like Douala, you don’t get enough to eat. You don’t have a place to sleep if you don’t pay a warden to sleep in a cell. And so you sleep right on the ground, out in the courtyard, under the rain. If you don’t have money, you can’t get treatment in hospital. So then what happens? You die from lack of care. I went there, I saw it, I brushed death with my finger. [Ed’s note: Lapiro almost died of Typhoid and respiratory complications last December. He was refused transit to a hospital. The treatment and medication brought in by his wife, Louisette Noukeu, helped him survive].
Today, I’m in a position to say that the money that the European Union sends to Cameroon to help prisoners doesn’t arrive. The EU should lead an enquiry into the fact that people are siphoning off the money aimed at prisoners.
You are preparing your next album, which you will probably record in Paris in September. What aspects of these last few years are you going to tackle?
I don’t know if I’m unlucky or lucky enough to have been writing premonitory songs for twenty years. I might continue in that vein. The single that I’m bringing out will be a nod to my co-prisoners on the day-to-day life we shared. And to send them a musical smile and get them dancing. Even in prison, you have the right to dance. It would also be to tell them that someone like them, who was there, has come out and still thinks of them.
On the other hand, I’m going to be much more direct in my book, which is due out before the end of the year. It’s called Cabale politico-judiciaire, ou la mort programmé d’un combattant de la liberté (Political-legal cabal, or the planned death of a freedom fighter).
How do you feel from a personal point of view after spending three years in prison?
I’m happy to be back with my wife and children and those who supported me. But I’m still frightened. Frightened for my life. And if you can’t be brought down, your dog can still be brought down. So I’m scared for my family, just before the elections (Ed’s note: due end 2011) because for the authorities I’m someone who could tip the balance at any moment, like in Tunisia, Egypt or Côte d’Ivoire. For the authorities, that’s the man I am. It’s better to remove me from where I can do harm fast, before that happens. So don’t be surprised if this is the last interview I give. Because the authorities never wanted me to leave prison. (…) What’s going to happen now? Maybe Lapiro de Mbanga’s going to be knocked out so that the others can have their elections. But that would be a shame. An orange seller in Tunisia set himself alight and the whole world started moving. Lapiro de Mbanga in Cameroon doesn’t sell oranges… but too bad!
You are sure that you’re in danger, and yet you’re prepared to carry on criticising.
I’m talking for my children, I’m talking for all the oppressed, I’m talking because there’s no point living for nothing. Lapiro de Mbanga will have lived and led a just, noble fight. And for that, even my great grandchildren will be honoured. And for me it’s very, very, very important. You see, people die everyday for one reason or another: you might be making love and suddenly have a heart attack. I’ve led a just fight, and I’m going to have to die from something, so I would rather die that way. I am going to continue to preach, and criticise social inequality in Cameroon. I’ve been doing that for 20 years, and I’m not stopping. Yesterday, Lapiro de Mbanga was known on one certain level, but since I was imprisoned, I’ve changed, I’ve gone up a rank. And now I want to be a lawyer protesting to international tribunals to get my country to change. Because that’s what it’s about now.
You are going to France for this first concert. France has close relations with the Cameroonian authorities. What role can it play to change what you describe in your country?
The relations with France are well known. France had very close relations with Ben Ali, and Mubarak. But France is the country of liberté, égalité and fraternité. That’s the France we know. Now, there may be French politicians who don’t agree with that policy, interests can come together in one way or another. But the great France that we know is the France of liberty, and I need to go via France if the power in my country is going to be power for the people with equality and recognition for peoples’ merits. France is a country with its own, painful, history that knows how to feel for other peoples in pain. France has been there.
After Europe, you’re off to the United States. What do you hope to bring back from this summer voyage?
A bit of money for a start! Because I need to work to live. I have to say that no one in Cameroon right now is prepared to take the risk of organising a concert for Lapiro de Mbanga. The authorities wouldn’t authorise it anyway, because a declaration by Lapiro de Mbanga can change the country. For me it’s my job! I’m following my logical path.
The fight carries on. I only got out of prison three months ago. And I have to continue the fight with the tribunals, because for me that’s what it’s about. You’ve seen where I live. Here in Mbanga it’s 7.30 pm and it’s dark everywhere. Without electricity you can be attacked here. Yet there are people who work hard all day, and at the end of it, there’s no light, no health care, the children can’t go to school. There’s no way out. That’s what my fight is about. That’s the Cameroon I’m fighting for. And I want the Americans and Europeans to understand. I’m coming to tell them myself: thank you for fighting for Lapiro de Mbanga, but there are 20 million Laprio de Mbangas in Cameroon who live like martyrs every day. Wake up and do something about it.
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper