Live from Yaoundé: A Different Kind of ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’

Young Cameroonian rappers are questioning why African leaders were quick to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and not to the atrocities taking place on their own continent.

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The Sunday after gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store, world leaders streamed into the French capital to participate in a solidarity march. One of those men was Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has ruled Gabon for decades and has allegedly become fabulously wealthy by siphoning state revenue into their personal bank accounts.

Considering Gabon’s restrictions on freedom of press, West Africans had a field day mocking Bongo for his hypocrisy and now a young Cameroonian rap group is speaking out against what they see as the double-dealing of the continent’s leaders, who rushed to Paris in an expression of solidarity while bloody conflicts on the continent continue to claim the lives of Africans in far greater numbers.

“I am not Charlie. I didn’t grow up in Paris. I was born in a different realm but I respect life,” the group raps.

Dropping references to colonization, Molière, Boko Haram, and Ebola, the rappers attack African leaders for their lackluster response to terrorism in Africa. Their allegiances lie not with far-away Paris but with African victims of terrorism — with Bella Onana, a Cameroonian corporal who died fighting Boko Haram last month, and a group of young women who went missing from the neighborhood of Mimboman in Yaoundé in 2012 and 2013. “I am Corporal Bella Onana. I am the missing girls of Mimboman.”

The video, titled “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie,” is makeshift and comes off more as a side project for these Cameroonian youths than a serious attempt at a musical career. One of the rappers calls himself Cohiba, Fidel Castro’s preferred brand of cigars. And the video’s caption and some of its lyrics politicize the song even further, asking French troops to leave Chad and the Central African Republic.

But these rappers’ use of the phrase “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” is a different riff on the social media phenomenon than that seen in the aftermath of the Paris attack. Then, those opposed to the magazine and its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad adopted the phrase “I am not Charlie” as a way to register their opposition to the magazine and its willingness to publish cartoons many Muslims found deeply offensive.

But these Cameroonian rappers are using that phrase not as a message of Islamist solidarity but as an expression of pan-African unification against violence. The same day that two masked gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people, Boko Haram attacked the Nigerian village of Baga and may have left as many as 2,000 dead. If that death toll is confirmed, it would be the deadliest attack in the group’s bloody history. But with the world’s media transfixed by events in Paris, the Baga massacre gained little attention in the West.

In recent months, Cameroon, where the majority of the population identifies as Christian or animist, has faced increasing attacks from Boko Haram, an Islamist group trying to implement sharia law in northern Nigeria. Their bloody assaults have killed more than 10,000 on Nigerian soil, and the conflict has started to spill into Cameroon, especially in the town of Kolofata, where Boko Haram has launched assaults on a Cameroonian military base.

“But if anyone asks me, I am not Charlie

In Africa, I’ve seen hundreds die

Me? I am Kolofata

I am the thousands of people who died from Ebola.”

Flashing from their performance on the hills of Yaoundé to pictures of the Paris attacks, the  destruction caused by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon, and the war in the Central African Republic, the rappers ask their audience to consider why one kind of carnage receives attention while another does not.

“Is there an Eiffel Tower here?” one member of the group asks. “No!” the rest respond. “Did anyone come crying for you?” “No!”

The video fades out from Yaoundé to a list of shout-outs from the artists.

“To all those missing in African wars

To those who sick from Ebola

To all the dead bodies in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Cameroon

And good luck to our army…”

Image Credit: Screen Grab