By Boh Herbert
It was a Sunday in the early 1990s. It was one of only two days every week for six months when Cameroon pretended to be a normal country. Citizens did brisk business on Saturday and Sunday. Monday through Friday, Cameroon sank into the civil disobedience campaign code-named “ghost town”. Excluding the pre- and post-independence armed struggle, this was unprecedented political revolt for a country that advertises the docile nature of its citizens as proof it is an island of peace. Lapiro de Mbanga in prison November 2009. Photo by Jen Bell. Lapiro in Prison, November 2009. Photo by Jen Bell.
In a small hall on a campus owned by the Presbyterian Church in Bamenda, about three dozen leaders of political dissidents – the coalition later named the Union for Change – the group that had engineered the revolt, were gathered to take stock, refine strategies – as they did frequently… switching towns each time.
The firebrand leader of the Students’ Parliament reiterated the commitment of students to bring about the country of their dreams, decrying “the monster at Etoudi” whom he said was preventing that dream from becoming reality. A Douala-based lawyer laid out what the law provides and what it forbids, cautioning the leaders gathered to seek a cunning path by finding and taking the many legal cracks on the books. Another Douala-based computer expert spoke of how the cause could win support from the West – now that it had mobilized the people – and of the promise that new information technology held for helping spread liberty and transform countries across Africa.
Then a musician, spotting smart, low-heel, white relax shoes, a pair of wrangler jeans, a white T-shirt and a sleeveless jeans jacket rose to speak. You could hear a pin drop as Sandjo Lambo Pierre Roger (Lapiro) prepared to speak.
Also known affectionately by millions of his fans as “Ndinga Man” for his immense talent as a guitarist, Lapiro died last March 16 in Buffalo, New York. He was 56.
While it can be said that the “ghost towns” were begotten, not made by yet another hero from the grassroots, Mboua Massock, it was Lapiro de Mbanga who became its undisputed spiritual leader and community organizer.
At that Presbyterian Church Center meeting, hosted by the then relatively unknown and timid-to-a-fault SDF leader, Ni John Fru Ndi, it was Lapiro who played king and/or king maker. It was clear to everyone at this meeting or others before and after it, that Lapiro was way up in the pecking order within the fast-growing squadron of opposition leaders. Speaking in that trade mark mixture of French, English and Pidgin “Made in Ndinga Man’s Head”, he called for unity among leaders who must, he stressed, remember to serve the people – the poor – “et non se server”… as they work to initiate swift, decisive action needed to oust the dictatorship in the capital, Yaounde. “Na Etoudi be we desination,” he said in that impeccable Franglais he coined.
I had known Laprio, the musician. Just a few months earlier, I believe, I had taken my spouse – at the time my fiancée – to a music concert at Cinema Abbia, where Makossa legend Ben Decca was scheduled to play for the very last time on one of those his many, many retirement concerts that were always followed by a comeback and then another retirement gig. It was a Ben Decca event, so to speak, but the only reason we (my spouse and I) had gone was to see Lapiro bring down the house.
At Cinema Abbia that night, it was Lapiro, the musician and Boh Herbert, one of Lapiro’s fans. At the Presbyterian Church Center, Boh Herbert the journalist was still adjusting to Lapiro, the very savvy political animal. In a career that saw rub shoulders with musical immortals and saints like Jimmy Cliff and Fela Ransom Kuti, Lapiro used his art as a weapon to win freedom, foster democracy, denounce abuse, advance the cause of the poor, decry injustice, lend his voice to the voiceless and defy the tyrant in power to resign or be forced, by the will of the people, to accept an overdue change of guard at the helm of state.
Events in 1991, notably the mistake the regime made to arrest Celestin Monga and Pius Njawe following Monga’s Open Letter in Le Messager, proved that Lapiro had an unnerving ability not only to hit the right musical notes, but also to hit the right cord, right at the heart of the political system. I remember, as a BBC correspondent, how my headquarters at Bush House London was confused about whether I should stay in the courthouse and follow proceedings in the case or stick outside the courtroom, where Lapiro and tens of thousands of his fans held their own court to decry the Kangaroo court the regime had in place.
He led the army of pro-democracy activists not by ordering foot soldiers to do his bidding, but by marching ahead into battle and seeking approval from his followers in political protests as in real life with the wordings: “Mokolo, Ah Chakara?”
The Monga-Njawe trial served in many ways as a spark, awakening Lapiro the musician, human rights activists, freedom fighter and politician. Yaounde found out later to its chagrin that the combustible mix of protest rap, rhumba and ‘kill-man-pay’ “Soukouss Boogie” that Lapiro had long proved he had for dancers and music lovers also had enough fire to bring down dictatorship.
As a “soldat de premiere heure”, Lapiro understood better than most the true nature of some of the opposition leaders Cameroonians had trusted with their aspirations. That is why once some “ghost town” operations turned violent, notably in Douala, and an underground business selling the famous “cartoon rouge a Paul Biya”, extorting funds from some and abusing certain youngsters, Lapiro took the risks to speak up. Today, a majority of those who thought he crossed the carpet into the ruling CPDM by speaking out on state television feel guilt and even a certain sense of remorse for ignoring the telltale signs of the power hungry opposition. Lapiro’s prophecy that the opposition, as structured or not structured was a bunch of “Big Mop For Nothing” has come true. Many, if not all the opposition leaders that Lapiro denounced as seeking power for the sake of it have long proven, indeed, that they seek only an open-ended contract to lead their parties “until death do them part”.
Lapiro’s biggest error in that whole saga in which he was accused by his fans of “chopping soya”, going to the extent of trying to lynch him in Douala and, in the process smashing windows on the glass building of the SITABAC building where he had to take refuge… his main error I believe was that Lapiro trusted state television to show the entire statement he had made. Instead, state television edited out all the parts of the declaration in which Lapiro lambasted the regime in power and broadcast only those parts of it in which he was calling his peers in the opposition to order.
In hindsight, it is clear that the song writer and singer of “No Make Erreur” did not heed his own advice and opponents within the regime and the opposition shamelessly capitalized on it to try to discredit him.
Lapiro was forced thereafter to frequently explain what truly happened, including in songs like “Na Who Go Pay”. He fought to re-establish his honor and to undo a smear campaign of outrageous proportions that the regime in Yaounde skillfully rolled out against him, relying on the dreaded leader of the secret police, the late Jean Fochive, and an unscrupulous, outright dirty “do me, ah do you” opposition. A book that Lapiro had completed but has died before publishing will clear the clouds of the deceit that surrounded these events. Shortly after moving to the USA in 2012, Lapiro and I exchanged several emails discussing the translation of the book into English. I committed in life to him that I will handle the translation. That promise is one I cannot wait to be given the honor to fulfill. The book, he had suggested to me, explains many unsolved mysteries and contains many a revelation.
In closing, let me confess that I hate to break bad news… I have to, thought… so, here it is.
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.
After decades of never-ending police harassment, including sabotage of his means of livelihood such as the burning down of his nightclub in Mbanga… after three years in prison on charges that masked the real reason for his condemnation – which was his courageous campaign in Feburary 2008 to decry the extension of the presidential terms under a “Constitution Constipee” that sadly institutionalizing an empire in Cameroon… After calling out for “Envoyer tout le monde a Kondengui”, it is instead “Ngatta Man”, 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.
Sadly for regime in Yaounde and happily for all of us… happily for Lapiro’s family, his friends, his fans… it just so happens that when you are chief, as Lapiro was chief for his people of Mbanga, death has no power over you. As our people say the chief has “disappeared”. Lapiro is missing! Our tradition demands that we find him. So, let me offer these words of condolence to all who mourn: Long live Laprio de Mbanga! Long live Lapiro de Buffalo, New York!