Out of the Chamber of Death: Conversation with Patrice Nganang

Patrice Nganang, writer and human rights activist

Patrice Nganang is an award-winning writer and a thorn in the side of Cameroon’s 35-year-old government. Fresh out of jail, and something of an exile these days, the professor gives Ngum Ngafor a lecture on how his country must change.

Hello Prof Nganang and thank you for agreeing to speak to The Village Square Journal. Our country has been in a political deadlock for almost two years now. Some argue that it is essentially a governance problem. What are your thoughts on this?

It is certainly a matter of interpretation. But governance, it is not, as the conflict is pretty old. Remember that Cameroon has, in Paul Biya, one of the longest serving tyrants in the world. Now, tyranny doesn’t fall on a country by chance. It is a systematically planned way of  keeping a country in captivity. When Biya came to power in 1982, Cameroon was under one party rule, like most African countries. It had had only one president (Ahmadou Ahidjo) for twenty-two years. Biya came with much goodwill and made some decisions to install his rule; three of them. The first was to change the name of the country*, which brought it back to what the French-speaking part was called. The second was to move the nation away from being a federation between the French and the English [speaking] parts, and the third was to install a presidentialist system by getting rid of power sharing compromises that made Anglophones happy.

Does history matter when one looks at Cameroon today?

Oh yes! History matters immensely, but Cameroon has been living under a peculiar form of amnesia. The country may be the only one where those who politically stood against independence, killed and jailed anybody who fought for it, actually gained independence and became the leaders. That is a unique case, and it seems to me there is a need to rectify it because those rulers know that they are just puppets of France. Biya literally spends only half the year in Cameroon, and is always the first to send letters of condolence to the French president when there is an accident in France, whereas the number of dead people in Cameroon has never moved him. Not even the death of soldiers on the battlefield is enough for him to pay them any tribute.

Cameroon may be the only African country where those who stood against independence became leaders. 

You recently made the headlines for being arrested aboard a flight from Douala to Harare. How did it happen and what was going through your mind at that time?

It gave everybody a glimpse of an African tyranny, didn’t it? I was arrested while boarding a flight to Zimbabwe where I had relocated with my family. The coincidence is that the fall of Mugabe had made Cameroonians pretty anxious, and I may have been one of the few Cameroonians with a direct contact to Zimbabwe, at least in the public eye. That quickly became a buzzword. I was brought to Yaounde, and kept in an office of the political police. I could not use a pen or paper. They took away my books and phones. I could not have any contact with my family, friends or lawyers. It took the impressive campaign of my friends for them to allow me to talk to a lawyer.

Fight the power: Patrice Nganang is an unrepentant critic of the Biya regime

The name *Kondengui evokes fear in many. Give me a sense of the place.

I had been in Kondengui many times before, since I have led many campaigns for incarcerated writers. You know, Cameroon is the country in Africa that currently incarcerates writers the most. The guards knew me. I had actually been there before travelling to the English-speaking part of Cameroon, which eventually led to my arrest and incarceration. The prisoners and the guards were indeed surprised to see me, but because my case was all over the place in the media, I walked into a prison where practically every inmate knew me or knew about my case. Anglophone prisoners even gave me a standing ovation! But the place is a true chamber of death. It is severely overcrowded, with most prisoners still awaiting trial.

Why do you think you were released, while other activists remain in jail?

The answer is simple. Because of the historic campaign that was waged for my release. [It was] a combination of Cameroonian, African, European and US efforts.  I came out to see a pyramid that was built by people of good will, and international institutions. My supporters contacted governments from Japan to the US, from South Africa to France and Israel! It may have helped that I am a writer, but Cameroon had never seen such a campaign. I can tell that from the level of absurdity of the government’s reaction. In the end, they treated me like a president, as they did not only abandon all their charges, they also escorted me out of the country in a presidential convoy, with a motorcade and sirens!

Kondengui is a chamber of death

Cameroon’s government insists on a ‘one and indivisible’ nation. How did your travels across the North and South West Regions inform your opinion on that viewpoint?

Yes, they could also insist on one party and one leader. The time for such rhetoric is truly passé, and it is not an 85-year old tyrant who will teach us how to feel about each other. We have seen countries, as big as the Soviet Union or as small as Ethiopia, collapse.  Ideology did not help them. Violence kept them together. Ideology is a very weak medicine when people do not want to live with each other, and I do not think that Cameroon can match the former Soviet Union with ideology. The best way to keep people together is to respect their rights, and make them feel that they are actually important. Now, Cameroon treats Anglophones like animals. A governor actually called them ‘dogs. ‘ He is still in post!

Elections are coming up later this year. Do you see opportunities for a new nation?

No. Cameroon has never organized a real election since 1956. In other words, the regime we have in Cameroon is a continuation of what was installed in the country by French colonialists, when the nationalist leaders were assassinated. The system has managed to keep itself in power through murder and  a conspiracy of silence on their deeds. I have never understood how people managed to never talk about what is happening in Cameroon. But I also felt the country to not be that important on a global scale. This was until I understood that the government was paying journalists not to speak about Cameroon or to  paint a rosy picture of the country. 

Some have argued that the on-going political impasse is fuelled by a lack of female voices at the decision-making table. What do you think of this?

It is certainly an issue, and I hope to see more women in positions of power. I actually was freed, and I am very proud to say that, by a team of women. What I am saying is that all important posts of decision in the campaign for my release were held by women, including my wife and daughter, and they effectively led across the globe and on the ground. The leader of the campaign on the ground was a woman, and these were decisions that I had taken from jail, or that became self-evident without me. I insist on that because I think it is through such steps that one can actually propel change. It could be applied to the country.

I hope to see more women in positions of power. I was freed by women.

As an artist, you follow in the footsteps of writers like Bate Besong and Mongo Beti to critique political and social issues. How urgent is it for today’s Cameroonian creative to be society’s conscience?

It is more than urgent, particularly because Africa has had a very long disconnect between its younger writers and the countries of their birth. The culture of [focusing on] US or Europe-based African writers who are trained in creative writing has effectively curtailed the politicisation of writers. And this at a moment, when battles are so urgent on the continent. Just look at the landscape of homophobia, tyranny and poverty! People are sold as slaves in front of our very eyes –  in Africa! It is amazing to see how the continent has sunk to a level of sheer public criminality, while writers are most of the time busy writing about the plight of their lives in Western capitals and how cool they are. It is truly amazing to see the number of voices that are silenced on the continent, as writers talk about their travails in Western metropolises that were built by people who showed courage in adversity and sometimes even in wars. Some soul searching is necessary for African writers, particularly the younger ones. 

At a time when the American government is tightening its borders, how does it feel to have been thrown out of your own country?

The most difficult part for me is to have been expelled from the city of my birth (Yaoundé), where I have a house, and about which I have written all of my twelve books. That one is difficult. I told the police officials who escorted me that I will be back. Of course, I will come back, and the next Cameroonian president will give me my passport back. It is essential because the current government made me cross the middle passage to the US, by plane, forgetting that millions of Africans were indeed sold into slavery by people like them. They are so unaware of the historical significance of their actions!

Over 60% of Cameroonians are under 25. What does this mean for the nation’s future?

It means that change is on the way, and that we will prevail. It means that we will chase the current tyrant from power. It means that we will build a Cameroon which all will be proud of, because it will be a welcoming place; a place from which people will stop running away, because it will spend its money on people’s lives and not on advertising campaigns.

*President Paul Biya changed Cameroon’s name from The United Republic of Cameroon, to the Republic of Cameroon in 1984

*Kondengui is a notorious high security prison in, Yaoundé Cameroon.

Ngum Ngafor is The Village Square Journal’s Editor for Interviews/Film.