The story of Cameroon's late 'Guitar Man,' who spent his life fighting to take down a brutal autocrat.
- By Alex GladsteinAlex Gladstein is Director of Institutional Affairs at the Human Rights Foundation and Vice President of Strategy at the Oslo Freedom Forum. He tweets at @gladstein.
Lapiro de Mbanga, the great Cameroonian musician, political prisoner, and champion of human rights, died of cancer this past Sunday, March 16, in Buffalo, New York. Known as "Ndinga Man" to millions of Cameroonians, Lapiro escaped President Paul Biya’s regime in 2012, after three years of political imprisonment. He received asylum in the United States with the help of a global campaign for his freedom.
His death is a huge loss for Cameroon, and for the global spirit of dissent. During his three-decade career, Lapiro built a legacy as one of Africa’s most famous musicians. Called the "bard of Cameroon’s working classes," Lapiro become an icon for his country’s unemployed youth. Much like the masses he inspired, his lyrics were a diverse blend of pigin, combining Douala, English, and French.
Born Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, Lapiro chose his stage name in memory of Mbanga, the small farming town he called home, where people earned $15 a month for working 17-hour days on banana plantations. He began his career in 1974, after dropping out of school, when, despite not knowing how to play drums or guitar, he was recruited by bands to do both, picking the skills up on the fly. He called the talent a "gift of god," and eventually his lively playing style became so good that it gave him his nickname: "Ndinga Man," or "Guitar Man."
His music filled West African streets through the 1980s and 1990s, providing a rare outlet for the frustration of the disenfranchised. The Index on Censorship calls his repertoire "a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country." One of his songs, "Lef am so," calls out the country’s rampant corruption: "You bribe in a hospital to see a doctor. This country is sick." Even though his music was routinely censored, people still found a way to listen.
A country of 23 million people, Cameroon gets very little media attention in the west. Dictator Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, and has implemented what he calls "advanced democracy." According to Lapiro, this advanced democracy looks "more like a toilet than freedom." In reality, it displays all the hallmarks of dictatorship.
Over three decades, Biya has built a system of corrupt and autocratic power, using the legal and justice systems to imprison and bankrupt dissidents, opposition leaders, and journalists. Writers are aggressively jailed under defamation and libel laws, and reporters face prison for even speculating about the health of the president. The secret police prowl university campuses, the army regularly patrols urban centers, and state permission is required for public assembly. Biya’s party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, allegedly rigged the country’s first multiparty elections in 1992, and has dominated presidential and legislative contests ever since.
Biya’s regime is also one of the world’s most corrupt. The World Bank reports that the average Cameroonian makes $1,169 a year, but Biya has amassed a personal fortune of more than $200 million. He owns castles in France and Germany and a prominent villa on the Cote d’Azur. In a display of wanton spending exposed in a 2009 Wikileaks cable, Biya vacationed in the French coastal resort of La Baule for three weeks and proceeded to spend $60,000 a day on 43 luxury rooms, racking up $1.2 million in hotel expenses alone, not including the feasts, champagne toasts, shopping sprees, and daily massages.
Lapiro made a courageous public stand against this abuse of power. In 2008, Biya proposed a constitutional amendment to remove Cameroon’s two-term presidential limit, which would allow him to stand for re-election in 2011. In response, Lapiro released a single called "Constitution constipée" (or "Constipated Constitution"), criticizing Biya’s bid to rule for life. In the song, Lapiro sings, "The head of state is caught in the trap of networks that oblige him to stay in power, even though he is tired. Free Biya!" The sarcastic tune was banned from TV and radio, but quickly became an inspirational anthem for Cameroon’s students, who rallied behind the song to push for reform. Thousands took to the streets of dozens of cities that February, protesting against the proposed constitutional amendment and the government’s corruption and economic mismanagement.
As a result, Biya targeted Lapiro, accusing him of starting the demonstrations. His thugs finally arrested him on April 9, 2008, in Mbanga City, accusing him of "complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings."
"Before going to jail," Lapiro said, "they tried to kill me twice."
Six months later, Lapiro was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of approximately $600,000. He called the trial "Kafkaesque," claiming that the outcome was decided in advance. Meanwhile, Biya crushed the protests, killing more than 100 demonstrators with impunity, and passed the constitutional amendment, securing his ability to rule for life. His regime tried to hide the bodies, announced that human rights groups were exaggerating the death toll, and tried to act the victim of costly looting. A local human rights alliance published a 34-page report documenting the murder of civilians, but said no officials were held accountable. To make up for the bad press, Biya raised salaries for civil and military personnel and nixed a few import taxes.
Lapiro served his sentence at New Bell prison, one of the country’s most infamous jails, known as "hell on earth." Despite being built for 500-800 inmates, it regularly holds more than 3,000. Lapiro shared a cell with 50 other prisoners. According to a 2010 U.N. report, more than half of Cameroon’s prisoners are in provisional detention, and torture is commonplace. Bibi Ngoto, managing editor of the Cameroun Express, was also serving time at New Bell for criticizing Biya. One day, he was found dead in his cell.
While in jail, facing awful sanitary conditions and surviving on little to no food, Lapiro almost died of typhoid fever, but remained brazen. "My struggle has always been to denounce inequalities, and danger is part of that mission," he said in a 2010 interview from jail. While there, Lapiro won the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize and its prize of $25,000. The curators said "his songs constitute a cultural megaphone by which the disenfranchised and politically endangered can vicariously exercise free speech."
In March of 2010, Biya’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill giving his regime control over the polls. To no one’s surprise, Biya went on to win another seven-year term in 2011 with 78 percent of the vote in an election that critics say was rigged.
Meanwhile, Freedom Now, Freemuse, and PEN International started a campaign to win Lapiro’s freedom. With their help, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finally declared his arrest a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Lapiro was released on April 8, 2011, one day before the end of his sentence.
In a display of his indefatigability, he produced more anti-Biya songs and toured the world, playing concerts across Europe, Canada, and the United States in the summer of 2011. He criticized foreign governments like Nicolas Sarkozy’s in France for cooperating with Biya, but still believed their people could commiserate with his cause. In 2012, he received political asylum in the United States and moved to Buffalo with his wife and five of their six children.
One of Lapiro’s last public talks was in Norway in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum. In a 14-minute speech, he asked the audience to "let me be the humble voice that conveys to you the warmest greetings of the oppressed people of Cameroon." He joked that while his country had won Olympic gold medals and even beaten Brazil and the great Diego Maradona’s Argentine squad in football, it was also the two-time "world champion of corruption." He warned that Cameroon was a volcano, and "if nothing is done soon, the eruption will be devastating." "I am here to shout, to scream," he said, "on behalf of men in the streets of Cameroon, to sound the alarm that human rights are in peril."
Lapiro called the justice system Biya’s most lethal weapon, and described how the dictator manipulates it to condemn his opponents and detractors to long jail sentences. He described a "modern day Machiavelli" who appoints or revokes judges and politicians as he sees fit. "The regime," he says, "has never been elected. It terrorizes the population." He talked about how Biya creates a climate of fear where the lucky critics end up in jail, like him. The unlucky ones, he says, are massacred by army commandos, like the student protestors crushed in 2008.
The world, he would warn, should not be fooled by Biya’s moments of cleverness, like when he founded the National Commission to Fight Corruption in 2006, which helped him to jail dozens of ministers and businessmen in a campaign against bribery. In reality, the commission has just given Biya an opportunity to generate good international press while jailing potential political rivals. Bribes and payoffs remain, as Cameroon ranks 144th out of 177 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Just like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Biya is also playing the scapegoat card, blaming gays for Cameroon’s ills and jailing them mercilessly. His laws forbid homosexual activity, which carries a prison term of up to five years. LGBT activists have been murdered with absolute impunity. Meanwhile, the regime turns a blind eye to child trafficking, female genital mutilation, and violence against women.
In the first interview after his release from prison in 2011, Lapiro said that "singers are the voice of the voiceless." He said he hoped that more would follow in his footsteps, and even outlined one specific way the West could help his country: He urged the European Union to investigate where its aid went once it got to Biya’s coffers. He once claimed that he was "in a position to say that the money that the European Union sends to Cameroon to help prisoners doesn’t arrive."
Meanwhile, Biya continues to crack down on dissent. Last summer Human Rights Watch reported a "spate of attacks on rights defenders" in Cameroon. Biya is also adapting to the threat that technology can pose to his rule: During the Arab spring, he ordered mobile phone companies to suspend their mobile services for Twitter. Just last fall, he shuttered 11 media outlets. Although his regime no longer imposes Burmese-style pre-publication censorship, the constitution gives him power to ban newspapers based on "threats to public order."
Lapiro was lucky enough to escape this paranoid regime and experience freedom. But he couldn’t enjoy it for long, and so many of his citizens continue to struggle. Today, in memory of Lapiro de Mbanga, perhaps we can listen to some of his revolutionary music. Maybe we can start paying attention to Cameroon’s 23 million citizens, trapped in Paul Biya’s personal prison.