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Cameroonians Mourn Exiled Music Icon Lapiro de Mbanga

Lapiro de Mbanga

Cameroonian protest singer Lapiro de Mbanga in prison in November 2009. Photo by Jen Bell. Used with permission from freemuse.org.

Lapiro de Mbanga, known as Ndinga Man meaning Guitar Man, died of cancer in the United States on March 16, 2014. The Cameroonian protest singer, social critic, political activist and general spokesperson of the downtrodden had been granted political asylum there in September 2012 after serving a three-year sentence in Cameroon for his alleged role in the anti-government riots in February 2008 – charges that were widely considered to be politically motivated. He was 56 years old.

News of de Mbanga’s passing began as an online rumor. Within hours, however, it was confirmed that he had died in in a hospital in Buffalo, New York. 

The video below shows him performing live in Yaounde, Cameroon:

Mourning soon turned to anger, chiefly directed at Cameroonian President Paul Biya's regime. Chief Bisong Etahoben, former editor-in-chief of the Cameroon Post newspaper, revealed on Twitter that:

This information was confirmed by Jacob Nguni, de Mbanga’s close friend and former guitarist with the late Prince Nico Mbarga’s Rocafill Jazz band, who was quoted [fr] saying:

Il s'agit d'un acte criminel de la part des autorités camerounaises. Lapiro est mort d'une maladie qui avait été détectée dès sa première année en prison… Un ordre explicite avait été donné de ne pas le soigner. Cette information avait été communiquée à Lapiro lui-même pendant qu'il était derrière les barreaux… Au moment où il sort de prison et qu'il arrive finalement aux USA, il était un peu trop tard pour le sauver… Lapiro avait été curieusement libéré parce que les autorités camerounaises, qui connaissaient la vérité sur sa maladie, ne voulaient pas qu'il meurt en prison…

This is a criminal act carried out by Cameroonian authorities. Lapiro died from an illness that was detected as early as his first year in prison… An explicit order was given not to give him treatment. Lapiro was informed of this while he was behind bars… By the time he came out of prison and finally made it to the US, it was already too late to save him… Incidentally, Lapiro was set free because Cameroonian authorities knew the truth about his illness and did not want him to die in prison.

Nguni’s claim was not new. In fact, de Mbanga himself had said as much during a May 2013 interview [fr].

To former Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) journalist Boh Herbert, his death was more than just a case of negligence:

It is no longer a secret, after Lapiro, that the government of Cameroon has specialized in administering death to its most formidable political opponents and dissidents, using prison as the slaughter house or as the transit station “en route” to the grave. We also now know that denying medical care to prisoners is not just negligence. It is part of an assassination plot, meticulously executed.

Even before Jacob Nguni’s revelations, Cameroonians were already pointing an accusing finger at Biya regime. As @Cameroon_Com tweeted:

@Geraldmeh83 went a step farther, promising retribution for the president and his associates:

Tributes and grief

The outpouring of grief for de Mbanga was widespread.

@cameroonbasket tweeted:

His death affects me, his sacrifice, his struggle, his life, and his works elevate him to the rank of a hero in our beloved country.

@SolomonAtah simply thanked him for the music:

@NgumNgafor highlighted one of de Mbanga’s lasting legacies: the new lingo that he introduced and made popular in Cameroon:

Many of the tributes to Lapiro were written in his unique brand of Cameroonian Pidgin English, also referred to as Mboko Talk. One such tribute was from @kathleenNdongmo:

Guitar man, cool guy, the ‘one and only’, man of the people… we will remember you. Lead the way… every person must die.

Award-winning blogger @Ngimbis demonstrated the impact of de Mbanga’s music on language:

I learned to speak Pidgin by listening to your songs

@tchitospakito wondered:

So Lapiro de Mbanga is dead? What a pity. This life is nothing. Who will now give us the good talk? Or, who will speak directly to the government? Rest in peace old guy.

In a Facebook tribute that was picked up by many blogs, Sarli Sardou Nana grieved [wes]:

Lapiro de Mbanga Ndinga Man e mandat don bolè today for Etaz! Erreur or no erreur die na ndos! Waka nayo Ndinga man. We go di follow ya 4 chapters di listen ya mutumbu until we own mandat bolè. We go di mimba you tara! All man must go one day … RIP.

Lapiro de Mbanga Ndinga Man’s life ended today in the United States! Error or not, death is a thief! Go in peace Ndinga Man. We will follow your four chapters and listen to your songs until the end of our own lives. We will remember you buddy! Everyone must go one day… RIP

Tributes also came from the myriad of international groups that had worked with de Mbanga at different times in his career. One of them was the Oslo Freedom Forum:

No Home Coming:
That de Mbanga, known as the people’s champion, died in exile was particularly galling to many Cameroonians. @IGC_Cameroon tweeted:

Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, wrote:

Today a mighty giant in the fight for political space and freedoms is fallen and more so on foreign shores without the opportunity to wave a last farewell to his fellow compatriots — a people to whom he had given so much and meant so much in his youthful activist days. Our ancestors must be asking: what have we become, and where are we headed as a people? May Lapiro's ideas, wit, energy, vivacity and sense of patriotism endure forever.

De Mbanga did not just die in exile; he will not be buried in Cameroon, and instead his body will be cremated [fr]. These were his last wishes – a major blow to his fans in Cameroon who, according to the state-owned CRTV, “have been crying out for the remains to be brought back to Cameroon so their hero can be given a befitting burial”.

As one fan commented [fr] on an article about his May 29 funeral service in Buffalo, New York:

La plus grande erreur de Lapiro était de donner consigne qu'on l'enterre aux USA. Lapiro était note héro et le peuple camerounais avait besoin de voir et de recevoir son corps au pays. La levée de son corps à l'aéroport de Douala devrait amener une bonne masse et même tout la population de douala et d'autre ville du Cameroun…

Vraiment le refus d'aller au pays avec le Corps de Dinga Man me choque.

Lapiro’s greatest error was to demand he should be buried in the United States. Lapiro was our hero and the Cameroonian people needed to see and receive his corpse at home. The collection of his body from the Douala airport would have brought out the masses, and probably the entire population of Douala and other towns…

Really, the refusal to take Ndinga Man’s corpse home is shocking.

This was de Mbanga’s last act of defiance against a regime noted for hijacking the funerals of its staunchest opponents – some whom it pushed to an early grave – and using them as platforms to garner political legitimacy. As Boh Herbert pointed out:

After decades of never-ending police harassment, including the sabotage of his means of livelihood such as the burning down of his nightclub in Mbanga… after three years in prison… it is instead “Ngatta Man” [prisoner], as Lapiro renamed himself after his time in the big house… who, even in death, is having the last laugh, by denying the regime in Yaounde the never-ending affixing of medals of honor on those it kills.

In the end, the “sheriff of the backyards” who drew his strength from the warmth of the downtrodden in Cameroon will paradoxically end up in the distant US – without the massive farewell that his “complices” or partners-in-crime in the streets had hoped for. Nonetheless, he will forever be in their hearts.

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