Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga gives an exclusive interview to Daniel Brown from prison on protest, politics and the art of satire
Since his return from self-imposed exile in Nigeria and Gabon in 1985, Cameroonian musician Lapiro de Mbanga has been a constant thorn in President Paul Biya’s side. During the past two decades the singer has composed a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country. Unlike fellow artists, he uses the local pidgin, mixing English, French and Douala to articulate the daily injustices he witnesses. This language, so rich in imagery it is hard to translate, is called Mboko talk. Lapiro (an acronym abbreviating his name Lambo Pierre Roger and adding his place of birth, the town of Mbanga) has thus become the idol of the downtrodden and forgotten workers who people the slums and bus stations of Cameroon. His songs echo the struggle for democracy of the late 80s and 90s.
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 seven year 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-for-download 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.
Daniel Brown: You were arrested on 9 April 2008, just two days before parliament adopted the new constitution that you attacked in your song “Constitution Constipée”.
How are you?
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.
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