International PEN protests the three-year prison sentence and exorbitant fine imposed on the well-known singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga (real name Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) on September 24, 2008 for allegedly taking part in anti-government riots. Mbanga is known as an outspoken critic of the government, both as a songwriter and an opposition party member. PEN fears that the sentence is connected to his critical lyrics and, as such, in violation of his right to freedom of expression. PEN calls on the Cameroonian authorities to release Mbanga immediately and unconditionally.
 

Background Information

On September 24, almost six months after his arrest and detention, Mbanga (51) was found guilty of taking part in riots protesting the high cost of living in Cameroon in February 2008 and sentenced to three years in prison. The songwriter was convicted of three of the six charges against him: “complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading the public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings.” He was also ordered to pay a fine of 280 CFA francs (US$640,000) payable to the company Société des Plantations de Mbanga (SPM) and the Ministry of Finance as compensation for damage caused during the riots. The charges against Mbanga are widely held to have been made in retaliation for his criticism of the government. The verdict was met with a stunned silence, according to one press report.
 
Claims that the case is politically motivated have been denied by the government. Mbanga has been detained since his arrest on April 9, 2008, on the basis of his alleged role in the mass demonstrations and strikes that took place in February. However, some reports have indicated that his presence during the protests was merely a pretext, and his arrest was in fact linked to a song he wrote entitled "Constipated Constitution," which warns President Biya of the dangers of controversial constitutional amendments. Mbanga’s wife has denied that Mbanga took part in the riots and maintained that he had actually calmed people down and prevented them from burning down Mbanga town hall. Some evidence to this effect was reportedly presented in court during the trial.
 
Mbanga was reportedly convicted on the grounds that, as a local traditional leader, his presence during the protests had galvanized the rioters. It was further argued that he would not have been allowed to film the events, as he did, had he been an outsider, and this tmade him an accomplice. However, according to local press reports, the riots were widely televised and none of the journalists who filmed the footage have been brought to trial. Moreover, Mbanga’s sentence, almost six months after the events in question, 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.
 
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 already spent in prison, where the food and sanitary conditions are poor. Mbanga’s defense is appealing the verdict.
 
Mbanga has often sung about government corruption and is also known as a member of the opposition party Social Democratic Front (SDF). An extract from Mbanga’s song "Constipated Constitution": "le Chef de l'Etat est pris au piège des réseaux qui l'obligent à rester au pouvoir alors qu'il est fatigué…Libérez le Big katika" ("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 [President Biya’s nickname]"). The song is banned on some TV and radio channels.

The Cameroonian Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was adopted on April 10, allows an unlimited number of presidential mandates (President Biya is 75 and has been in office for 26 years), as well as granting the president immunity for any acts committed while in office.

Earlier this year, another Cameroonian singer-songwriter who wrote a song criticizing the constitutional amendments, Joe La Conscience, was sentenced to six months in prison for organizing an allegedly illegal demonstration, but was released in June following a presidential pardon. More than 100 people arrested during the riots have reportedly now been pardoned.

More information

Write A Letter

  • Protesting the three-year prison sentence and US$640,000 fine imposed on the singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga (real name Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) for allegedly taking part in anti-government riots;
  • Expressing the belief that Mbanga’s detention since April and subsequent conviction stem from his lyrics critical of the government, particularly a song he wrote criticizing controversial constitutional amendments, in violation of his right to freedom of expression (guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cameroon is signatory);
  • Calling on the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally;
  • Expressing concern that Mbanga’s health has deteriorated due to poor prison conditions, and requesting that he be treated humanely while in detention including being provided with adequate medical care.

Send Your Letter To

President
President Paul Biya
Fax: +237 22 22 08 70
E-mail: cellcom@prc.cm
 

Minister of Justice
Mr. Amadou Ali
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice  
Fax: +237 22 23 00 05 

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Cameroon in your country if possible.

Please send appeals immediately. Check with  PEN if sending appeals after November 6, 2008: ftw [at] pen.org