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Cameroon: Musical freedom fighter dies

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 Lapiro de Mbanga (1957-2014)

Lapiro De M’Banga (Picture: Patrice Vigier / Wikipedia)

Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga, a critic of President Paul Biya whose 2008 song “Constipated Constitution” became a protest anthem and cost him three years in jail, has died.

Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger (April 7th, 1957 – March 16th, 2014), better known as Lapiro de Mbanga, was nicknamed “the guitar man” and had a huge following among the downtrodden and forgotten workers with his satirical lyrics and quasi-rapping style mixing French and Pidgin English.

For several years, Mbanga lived in self-imposed exile in Nigeria and Gabon. He returned in 1985 to Cameroon, where he proceeded to compose and record what Index on Censorship has described as “a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country.”

He died of cancer in Buffalo, in the northeast of the United States, where he had been granted asylum a year after his release from prison, friends said.

“I am sad he left us so early,” Joshua Osih, the deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Front of which Mbanga was a member, said.

In 2008, “Constipated Constitution” lashed out at Biya’s proposed constitutional amendment to scrap term limits. The song became an anthem for protests that were brutally repressed, leaving at least 40 dead. The constitutional change was adopted nonetheless and Biya, who took the helm of Cameroon in 1982, is still in power at 81.

Mbanga was arrested during the rioting and sentenced to three years in prison for incitement to violence in his native southern town of Mbanga, a charge he always denied.

The singer — who has been dubbed “the unceremonial sheriff of the backyards” -nearly died of typhoid in prison and lost repeated appeals before being eventually freed a day before the official end of his sentence. Undeterred, he released a new single simply entitled “Demissionnez” (Resign). That led to death threats and he went into US exile with his wife and children in late 2012.

“Lapiro de Mbanga was a musical freedom fighter,” Freemuse, a Denmark-based musical freedom organisation that campaigned for his release from prison, said. He “articulated the daily injustices he witnessed in his songs — and was punished hard for his right to express them.”

“Undaunted by his experience behind bars, Lapiro and the US-based NGO Freedom Now successfully brought his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in February 2012. The UN issued an opinion that the detention by the Government of Cameroon was arbitrary and a violation of international law. Shortly after his 2013 Montreuil concert, the Cameroonian Supreme Court annulled its 2008 ruling against the music star and ordered a retrial.

“It seemed that Lapiro’s pledge to return from exile cleansed of all charges would triumph. That death denied him this ultimate rehabilitation leaves a bitter taste,” said Freemuse.

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