Last December, writer Patrice Nganang was detained for 21 days in Cameroon on allegations that he threatened Cameroonian President Paul Biya. Nganang, a Hopewell resident who is currently a visiting professor with the Princeton University Humanities Council, had penned an article and a Facebook post criticizing the Cameroonian government’s treatment of the country’s English-speaking minority. He was released and reunited with his wife and daughter following an extensive international campaign.
What were you doing in Cameroon prior to your arrest?
I took a year sabbatical to travel around and to see the plight in Cameroon because Cameroon has been sinking into conflict. I wanted to understand the day-to-day lives of people who lived in the English-speaking parts Cameroon.
The Internet shut down. How does one function when there’s no Internet? When you walk on the streets and see 20 police officers walking with their faces totally covered in black, how do you feel? How do you feel seeing that every day? The teachers have been on strike for one and a half years. With no salary, how do they pay their rent? What are the conditions they are living in? What do students do during the day when there’s no school for a year? These are practical questions that one has to answer. I wanted to have answers to those kinds of questions for myself.
In your defense to the criminal court, you said you wrote only about what you “saw, experienced, and understood.” What did you see while you were in Cameroon?
For a month, I traveled around and stayed with people. I have a sense of how people feel. I have a sense of how people actually experience things. I saw how it is natural for the police and the military to be violent — because they know that because nobody is controlling them, they can unleash their anger on their own people the way they want.
Why do you think you were released?
For my particular case, the campaign for my release was such that one could not keep me any longer. When I entered the jail, I automatically became Prisoner Number One. All of the other prisoners knew me, and it was a prison of 4,800 people. Every day, my face was the headline of one of the newspapers. The campaign was such that, being negative or positive, it was always floating. As a consequence, the government understood that the more they kept me, the more popular I became and the more difficult it became to solve my particular case. It was better to cut my sentence short to keep me from having that much publicity.
How did you spend your time in prison?
Because my arrest was everywhere, people started coming to tell me their stories. The Anglophones came first to introduce themselves to me because they knew that I was arrested because of them. The government has also been arresting many people who they feel have been threatening their position. They introduced themselves to me, also. There was a certain understanding that I would not stay long in jail, which is maybe why they were speedy. It was really like office hours. Someone would always want to come see me. At night I would write. I had some books, but I didn’t come to read too much because I would be tired for the next day’s activities.
What books did you read?
I asked my staff to bring classics because I wanted things to remove me from the day-to-day debates and discussions and bring me back to something written with a sense of the long term. I had enough time to read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.
Biya is expected to run for reelection in October. What impact, if any, do you believe the upcoming elections will have on the current situation in Cameroon?
Zero. I’m actually running a campaign called Zero Election 2018 for people and political parties to not participate in that election. The English-speaking parties are currently sunk in violence, so the election will be a farce.
In 2011, I ran a campaign to train people in election observation. We trained 2,000 people. Come election day, a lot of them were kicked out of the voting booths and were not allowed to observe. I simply could not use a lot of the reports because they lacked numbers and reports of violence. And the person who organized the election in 2011 is now in jail serving a 20-year sentence. It’s a level of lawlessness that I think needs to have a total reboot.
How do you think the ongoing Anglophone crisis in Cameroon will play out?
There are many possibilities. If we woke up today and read that Biya was out, whatever the case, I would say all of the problems have been solved. The problem is not what is being presented. The problem has been him all along. Any thinking person would realize that someone who is 85 years old in a country where the age expectancy is 50 years old is running a country where most people are twice as young as he is. He is the one who is locked up in his own castle, sending soldiers to maintain people who are used to living together without issue.
The outcome to expect is that the people will finally start talking to each other. They have been cut away from each other by a language of violence and by a heavy-handed propaganda. If Biya is out of the question, one would have a dialogue that would be totally possible.