Lapiro de Mbanga was a musical “freedom fighter” who articulated the daily injustices he witnessed in his songs – and was punished hard for his right to express them.
On 16 March 2014, Lapiro de Mbanga died of cancer in USA, the country which gave him asylum in 2012 at a time when he had to leave Cameroon under dramatic circumstances.
“Authorities in Cameroon continued to harass and threaten Lapiro even after he was released. He needed to get out of the country, and we needed to find an urgent solution,” told Freemuse Director Ole Reitov. With the help of Freedom Now, Lapiro was given refugee asylum in the United States.
“Lapiro said that Freemuse ‘saved his life’. He often told us that he ‘was ready to die’, but we never felt we were ready to loose him,” said Ole Reitov. “His songs will never die. He will always be remembered as ‘the people’s voice’ against corruption and power abuse.”
A few hours after his death, newspapers in Cameroon described his death as “a huge loss to Cameroonian music.”
Three years in prison
Freemuse in collaboration with International Pen started campaigning for the release of Lapiro in 2008, but on 9 September 2009, Lapiro was sentenced three years imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of 280 million CFA francs (640,000 US dollars) as compensation for damage caused during riots where protesters had taken to the streets, angered by high living costs and a constitutional change that would allow the country’s president to stay in power indefinitely.
Lapiro’s crime allegedly was that amid nationwide strikes and mass demonstrations in 2008, he had composed and recorded the song ‘Constitution Constipée’, (Constipated Constitution), in which he describes the country’s president, Paul Biya, as “caught in the trap of networks that oblige him to stay in power even though he is tired.” The song became an unofficial anthem of the protests, and Lapiro was arrested and charged of inciting youth unrest.
“My struggle has always been to denounce inequalities, and danger is part of that mission,” said Lapiro de Mbanga when he was interviewed in 2010 during his unfair imprisonment where he shared a cell with 50 other prisoners.
In 2009, Freemuse nominated Lapiro for the Freedom to Create Award, and in November 2009 at a ceremony in London, Freemuse received the award on the behalf of Lapiro – ‘The Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize’. The jury panel, which included renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim, argued that “his songs constitute a cultural megaphone by which the disenfranchised and politically endangered can vicariously exercise free speech.”
The news was conveyed to Lapiro in his prison cell in Cameroon a few hours before the prize ceremony took place at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in attendance of international luminaries such as the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Time Out founder Tony Elliot and Human rights activist Bianca Jagger.
A month later, Lapiro contracted typhoid fever and nearly died of that disorder and respiratory complications. In addition to Freemuse’s world-wide campaign for his release, Mondomix compiled a CD in support of Lapiro and campaigned actively in France for his release, the U.S.-based lawyers’ organization Freedom Now monitored Mbanga’s case throughout his incarceration, and in April 2010, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN also launched a campaign to help win Mbanga’s freedom.
In 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Mbanga’s arrest was an infringement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He was released from prison on 8 April 2011, one day before the official end of his sentence.
Long list of biting texts
Already one year leater, Lapiro surprised the Cameroon government with the release of yet another anti-Biya music album calling on the president to resign, ‘Demissionnez’.
In September 2012, Mbanga, his wife, and three of their children left Cameroon for the United States, where they had been granted asylum after receiving threats on this life. His exile was described by one newspaper as a major loss for the Cameroonian music scene.
Lapiro de Mbanga – his real name was Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger – composed and recorded what Index on Censorship has described as “a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country.”
His hit songs during the 1980s and 1990s were regularly censored by the Cameroonian government, and he was seen as a spokesman for the youth of his country, using the power of popular music to campaign for social reforms in his native Cameroon during three decades.
Since 2010, a book detailing Mbanga’s trial and the reasons for his exile (Cabale Politico-Judiciaire Ou La Mort Programmée D’Un Combatant De La Liberté) has been said to be “due for release soon”.
Cameroon has still not paid compensation to Lapiro and his family.