It is with a heavy heart that I share sad news with you. Former Freedom Now client – and my friend – Lapiro de Mbanga died yesterday in Buffalo, New York.
Lapiro de Mbanga (born Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) was a beloved singer-songwriter from Cameroon who was wrongly imprisoned by the Cameroonian government for three years as punishment for his outspoken advocacy against corruption and injustice. Denied adequate medical treatment in prison, Lapiro was diagnosed with cancer one month after his release in 2011. The cancer had already spread from his prostate to his bones and eventually spread to his brain.
Lapiro was known for using satirical lyrics in his music to address social and economic inequality in Cameroon and the government’s failures to meet the needs of the people. He was a member of the Social Democratic Front, the primary opposition party in Cameroon. As an outspoken critic of longtime Cameroonian President Paul Biya, Lapiro wrote and recorded the song “Constipated Constitution” in response to the President’s successful bid to eliminate presidential term limits. Authorities banned the song shortly after its release and Lapiro was arrested on charges related to the mass demonstrations that engulfed Cameroon in 2008.
Lapiro served three years in New Bell prison, known locally as “hell on earth,” due to its horrific conditions and use as a detention center for the country’s most hardened criminals. While in detention, Lapiro’s health deteriorated. I know this because I spoke to Lapiro on the telephone weekly while he was in prison. Despite his worsening condition, he also spoke positively and looked forward to regaining his freedom. We worked with him in partnership towards that goal.
Freedom Now brought on board the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and together we mounted a legal and advocacy campaign on Lapiro’s behalf. We submitted Lapiro’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which found his detention arbitrary and called on the Government of Cameroon to release him and pay compensation for the violation of his fundamental rights under international law.
Lapiro had many people supporting him, including the Copenhagen-based organization Freemuse, his sponsoring guitar company Vigier, and the Lantos Foundation. Among his biggest campaigners was US Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Lapiro was released from prison on April 8, 2011.
In September 2012 and resulting from the year-long efforts of Wilmer Hale, the United States granted Lapiro asylum. Along with his wife, Louisette, and three children, Lapiro settled in Buffalo, New York. Upon his arrival in the US, Freedom Now executive director Maran Turner had the opportunity to sit down with Lapiro and Louisette. During their conversation, which you can see here, Lapiro expressed nothing but gratitude for his freedom and new life, but he also maintained deep concern for his country of Cameroon.
Lapiro leaves behind four children (one of whom remained in Cameroon) and his wife Lousiette, who has been at his bedside much the same way she stood by his side throughout his imprisonment. Lapiro’s family grieves his passing while at the same time desperately trying to heal from the trauma that has impacted the family in recent years.
Freedom Now mourns Lapiro’s passing. His loss will not only be felt by his family, but also by his many friends and the people of Cameroon for whom he had pledged his life’s work. His was a life of great impact.
Lapiro and his family arrived in the United States to start their new life with very little. Please consider a tax-deductible donation to Freedom Now, all of which will go to support the costs for Lapiro’s funeral arrangements and his family’s needs during this difficult time.