15 October 2008


This April, Cameroon adopted an amendment to its constitution that eliminated term limits for the President, as well as granted him immunity for any acts committed while in office. No one was smiling more prettily than President Paul Biya, who at 75 has been in office for 26 years and is seeking re-election in 2011.

But one of the country's best-known singers, Lapiro de Mbanga, wasn't happy about it, so he voiced his disillusion in song. "Constipated Constitution" goes like this: "The head of State is caught in the trap of networks that oblige him to stay in power even though he is tired? Free Big Katika" (Big Katika is Biya's nickname).

Not only is the song banned on some television and radio channels, but Mbanga was sentenced to three years in prison last month and doled out a US$640,000 fine for what International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) says is punishment for his critical lyrics.

But the authorities have a different take. They say Mbanga had to pay the price for taking part in deadly riots in February over the high cost of living and the constitutional reform (more than 40 people were killed). As a local traditional leader and an influential member of the opposition Social Democratic Front, his presence galvanised the writers, and for that, he was convicted of complicity in looting, obstructing streets, and forming illegal gatherings.

What's more, says WiPC, he was considered an accomplice for filming the events - a strange accusation, considering that none of the journalists whose footage was widely televised have been brought to trial.

"The charges against Mbanga are widely held to have been made in retaliation for his criticism of the government," says WiPC. "The verdict was met with stunned silence."

Mbanga's wife has denied that he took part in the riots. In comments to AFP news agency, she said he had actually "calmed people down so that they wouldn't set fire to the city hall" in his hometown.

Mbanga's sentence, which came nearly six months after his arrest and detention, is twice that received by the actual authors of the riots, who were handed 18-month prison terms the month after the riots and subsequently received a presidential pardon, says WiPC.

Following his conviction, Mbanga was taken, in chains, to Nkongsamba principal prison to serve his term. His health has reportedly deteriorated as a result of the six months he has been in detention. Allegedly he has been denied medical attention and the food and sanitary conditions in prison are poor.

WiPC and Freemuse, a free expression organisation for musicians and composers, are appealing to President Biya to release Mbanga now. You can write to the authorities too. Details are on the WiPC website: http://tinyurl.com/4fvpzo
Also visit these links:
- Freemuse: http://www.freemuse.org/sw29911.asp
- BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7635405.stm(15 October 2008)

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