PEN International is deeply saddened by the death of Cameroonian singer-songwriter and former PEN main case Lapiro de Mbanga who spent three years in jail after one of his songs – Constipated Constitution – became a protest anthem in Cameroon in 2008. He died in exile in the United States on 16 March, 2014.
An outspoken critic of the Cameroonian government both as a songwriter and an opposition party member, Mbanga (real name: Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) was arrested in Mbanga City in 2008, accused of instigating the mass demonstrations and strikes against the high cost of living in Cameroon that had taken place two months prior. However, it was widely held that his arrest was due to his critical views and his song, Constipated Constitution, which warned President Biya of the dangers of proposed constitutional amendments which limited presidents to two seven-year terms. The Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was adopted on 10 April 2008, allowed an unlimited number of presidential mandates, as well as granting the president immunity for any acts committed while in office. President Biya has been in office since 1982. He remains in office today, aged 81.
On 24 September 2008, Mbanga was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison and handed heavy fines. Mbanga appealed the sentence but his final appeal before the Supreme Court had still not been heard by the time he was released on April 8, 2011. Mbanga faced extremely harsh and overcrowded conditions in prison and developed health problems as a result, including typhoid fever and respiratory problems. In June 2010, a group of US lawyers working with the campaigning group Freedom Now submitted Mbanga’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
In the same year Mbanga was a recipient Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Free Expression – a prestigious literary award given in recognition of writers and journalists committed to free speech despite the danger to their own lives. In November 2009, he was one of five cases highlighted for the Writers in Prisons Committee’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual international day intended to recognise and support writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression.The same month, he was also awarded the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize.
He was released in April 2011 after serving his three year prison sentence. In 2012 Mbanga left Cameroon with his family for the US, where he was given asylum after receiving death threats.
In a local media interview following his release, Mbanga commented: ‘Power creates monsters. If, because of a little seller of tomatoes the regime fell in Tunisia, I think that a singer can also change things in Cameroon.The Haitian President is a singer’
(Video courtesy of Freemuse)