Lapiro de Mbanga
Lapiro de Mbanga, a.k.a “Ndinga Man” or “Guitar Man” was a popular singer-songwriter and political activist who was wrongfully imprisoned in Cameroon in 2008. On April 8, 2011, Mbangawas released from detention after serving three years in prison for charges related to the mass demonstrations that took place in Cameroon in 2008. In March 2014, he passed away after a long battle with cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Louisette, and four children.
As an artist, Mbanga was known for using satirical lyrics to criticize corrupt politicians and address social and economic injustice in Cameroon. Many said he provided a voice for the working class of Cameroon. His earliest success came in 1986 with his album, No Make Erreur. His quasi-rapping style and use of French and “Pidgin” English-influenced street codes captured the nation’s imagination. Mr. Mbanga was an outspoken critic of the Cameroonian President Paul Biya and a member of the Social Democratic Front, the primary opposition party in Cameroon.
Mbanga was arrested in Mbanga City, Cameroon, on April 9, 2008. After being summoned to help calm crowds during a demonstration (something he did in the past out of his commitment to non-violent protest), Mbanga was accused of fomenting the mass demonstrations and strikes which took place in Cameroon throughout February 2008. The government formally charged Mbanga with “complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings.” These charges were immediately dismissed by observers, including participants in the demonstrations, as being politically motivated and are believed to have been made in retaliation for his frequent criticism of the government.
It is likely Mbanga’s arrest was prompted by a song he had recently released entitled, “Constipated Constitution.” The song warned President Biya of the dangers of holding onto power absolutely, a criticism stemming from a controversial constitutional amendment that was adopted by the Cameroonian National Assembly eliminating presidential term limits.
On September 24, 2008, almost six months after his original arrest and detention, Mbanga was found guilty of three of the six charges against him and sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of FCFA 280 million (approximately $600,000 USD). Mbanga attempted to appeal his conviction at the Court of Appeals; however, his conviction was upheld and the fine increased by approximately $1,180 USD. After losing at the Court of Appeals, Mbanga appealed his case to the Supreme Court. At the end of March 2011, the Supreme Court dismissed his case due to an alleged filing error.
Mbanga was held at New Bell prison, also known as “hell on earth,” which is notorious for unbearable conditions and is generally reserved for Cameroon’s most hardened criminals. It holds more than 3,000 prisoners, despite being built to accommodate only 500-800 inmates. During his detention, Mbanga’s health deteriorated rapidly due to typhoid, chronic back pains, and respiratory infections; conditions that were aggravated by the poor sanitary conditions in the prison.
For more than two years, Freedom Now worked to mobilize international pressure for Mbanga’s release, collaborating with the organization Freemuse and Vigier Guitars, and with the support of the Lantos Foundation and RealNetworks Foundation. Lawyers with the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP represented Mbanga as pro bono international counsel and, among other initiatives, filed his case with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Working Group determined he was held in violation of international law. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Il) has been a strong advocate for Mbanga in seeking his freedom from unlawful detention.
Following his release from prison, Mbanga and his family were subjected to repeated threats and harassment. In September 2012, the United States granted Mbanga asylum and he, his wife, and three of their children moved to Buffalo, New York. Upon his arrival in the United States, Freedom Now’s executive director Maran Turner had the opportunity to meet with Mbanga and his wife and speak with them about their experiences. Watch clips from the interview below:
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Can you imagine a doctor being imprisoned just for treating a patient, or a journalist detained simply for publishing an article critical of his government?