By Mwalimu George Ngwane
Freedom of Expression by Cultural Practitioners is getting more and more stifled in Cameroon. In November 2013, more than 1000 musicians gathered in an elective Assembly within their Association called Cameroon Music Association (in French SOCAM) and voted overwhelmingly for their President, composer and musician Ndedi Eyango. Only two weeks in office as the newly elected President, Ndedi was dismissed by the Minister of Art and Culture (supervisory authority of SOCAM) on the grounds that Ndedi Eyango has double nationality (American/Cameroonian). It is alleged that the Minister had her preferred candidate who lost the elections. In spite of consultations by musicians to get Ndedi Eyango back as President, the Minister has dug her heels in and there is presently a legal battle between Ndedi Eyango and the Minister.
In August 2012, the Musicians trade Union of Cameroon organised a peaceful march for their royalties to be paid but was harshly repressed by the police. More than 500 of them were beaten and 63 of them detained in custody for more than seven hours in Yaounde.
The popular singer Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger better known as Lapiro de Mbanga went on exile in the United States of America after being arrested in 2008 for criticizing President Paul Biya in the song “Constitution Constipee”. He later died in exile on 16th March 2014 at the age of 57.
The case of film makers is more glaring because since 2010 more than three films have been banned from screening in Cameroon owing to their rhetoric on social change, political commitment and policy engagement.
In July 2013, the film “Le President” by Jean Pierre Bekolo, a film that indicts the longevity in power of President Paul Biya was banned.
In March 2013, the film maker Richard Fouofie Djimeli was abducted by unidentified men. Djimeli was found alive in April but his body had been armed including the amputation of a finger. The director and actors from his film “139…les dernieres predateurs” (“139...the last predators”) received death threats weeks before the film’s launch. The movie is about a 139 year old totalitarian regime in an imaginary country named Chimpanz. It is believed that the film satirises Paul Biya’s regime.
In 2011, a film “Djombe-Penja: le calvaire des populations” (“Djombe-Penja: the ordeal of the population”) that reveals the “slave treatment” meted out on Cameroonian plantation workers by their “French lords” in a town called Djombe-Penja was banned and the director of the film has been in hiding since then. Even high government officers have seen the wrath of higher officers for rightly or wrongly being perceived to be sympathetic to rhetoric of the film. The Mayor of Penja and Lapiro de Mbanga are alleged to have been detained for other charges when part of their “crime” seems to have been their collusion with the director of the film. Indeed the film had been authorized for screening in Yaounde by the then Director of Cinematography, Mr Johnson Wang (Ministry of Art and Culture) only for the authorization to be withdrawn a few days later and the Director of Cinematography dismissed from his duties.
First even though Cameroon is a signatory to many national and international instruments on human rights she has not endorsed International Conventions dealing with cultural practices (UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; United Nations Conference on Trade and Development; UNESCO’s Recommendations concerning the status of the Artist; African Union Charter for the Cultural Renaissance etc).
Second, there has been a timid presence by top officials of the Ministry of Art and Culture in International Forums on Art and Culture especially in Africa. This lack of exposure deprives the Ministry of knowledge and experiences about new trends and legal policies that surround art and culture.
Third, Cameroon’s constitution does not guarantee cultural rights nor does it ensure the freedom of creative expression. In fact there is no explicit mention of any rights and freedom by the constitution. That is why it was easy for the Minister of Culture to dismiss me from my duties as Regional Delegate (Commissioner) of Culture in 2004 because I wrote an essay in the newspapers on Cameroon’s lack of democratic and development vision ( Cameroon went ahead and crafted such a long term vision in 2010). It is still common currency for the State through some overzealous state functionary to arbitrary interfere and restrict freedom of creative expression for all art forms knowing that the Administrative or Supreme courts lack Judiciary Independence.
Fourth, to date, Cameroon does not have a cultural policy even though reference is sometimes made to the 1975 monograph containing the late President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s speech and thoughts on culture. This 95 page monograph is erroneously referred to as a cultural policy.
Lastly, cultural practitioners like other civil society actors in Cameroon have failed to recognize their potency in congregating as a group and remaining steadfast in what is their rights and responsibilities hence the tendency for them to be manipulated. The civil society in Cameroon is in an emerging state. It is true that we have made some progress since the law of liberalization of 19th December 1990 because the democratic space has been widened and there are many voices that act as alternatives to government view. Yet I do have a beef with the depth of the democratic content which can only be realised if civil societies congregate around common thematic interests and if they become proactive by setting their own agendas rather than reactive and following government-led agendas. Part of the problem is that civil society leaders in Cameroon have not been exposed to forums of exchange internationally where they can borrow from other robust countries the value and power of civil society in stimulating positive change.
Without a space for dialogue that engages Cameroonian Authorities to sign and implement International Conventions on Culture; without a coherent participative governance forum aimed at partnering cultural practitioners and Cameroonian policy makers to design, legislate and implement a cultural policy and without the training of a critical mass of Cameroonian Art monitors to identify, track, document and whistle blow art repression and protest art in Cameroon, the future of artists in defiance and committed art shall remain unapologetically bleak.