Prosecutors in Cameroon now say writer and university professor Patrice Nganang faces charges of contempt of state for publicly insulting President Paul Biya, while also accusing the 47-year-old scholar of death threats, illegal immigration and forgery.
Nganang and his attorney, Emmanuel Simh, disputed the charges during a Saturday hearing, according to Radio France Internationale. Simh plans to file for his release on Monday, but Nganang remained in police custody in Yaoundé pending a decision on whether Cameroon will be opening a full investigation.
Word that Nganang had gone missing came late last week, in a case that’s important to the individual but also has sharpened attention to Cameroon’s ongoing Anglophone crisis and human rights situation and, in particular, the risk to lawyers, teachers and scholars who have stood up to Biya’s government.
The Nganang detention already has met with outcry from the international community, including the press advocacy organization PEN International’s chapter in the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the academic and professional institutions to which the prize-winning author is affiliated.
“Investigating corruption or commenting unfavorably on political or human rights issues frequently results in official repercussions for writers and journalists in Cameroon,” said PEN America in its statement. “Nganang is only the latest example of a string of writers commenting on sensitive subjects who risk police questioning, lawsuits, detention, or imprisonment.”
The writer and scholar at risk
Nganang was born in Cameroon and is now Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at Stony Brook University in New York. He teaches Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, and is planning a semester as a visiting professor at Princeton University in Spring 2018.
Nganang authored a commentary piece for Jeune Afrique that ran in the “Ideas” section of the online news site on Tuesday; it was dated from Buea on December 1. Nganang described his encounters in Bamenda and elsewhere as he contemplated the country’s ongoing Anglophone crisis, which has led to widespread violence, repression and alleged human rights violations under longtime President Paul Biya.
“It will probably require another political regime to make the state understand that the machine gun cannot stem a moving crowd,” Nganang concluded. “Only change at the top of the state can resolve the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon.”
On Wednesday night, the Cameroonian-American was set to board a flight to Zimbabwe when he went missing at Douala airport. He never arrived in Harare, and never boarded the flight although his luggage was already checked, his wife told Jeune Afrique. Local media accounts confirmed that Nganang was taken into custody, with a source telling AFP that he was taken to Yaoundé because of his article and social media posts. A December 3 Facebook post was cited by police for content that threatened Biya, although Nganang says it was not meant to be literal.
“We are aware of the situation and are working around the clock with the appropriate authorities and elected representatives to help facilitate the safe return of Professor Nganang,” said Dr. Samuel Stanley, president of Stony Brook, which is located on Long Island east of New York City.
Nganang, a dual Cameroonian-American citizen, lives in nearby New Jersey where his colleagues and neighbors are pressing elected officials to intervene on the writer’s behalf. “I’m working very closely with colleagues at Princeton University,” said Robert Harvey, the former department chair who hired Nganang at Stony Brook. “Several people there and myself are leading an initiative to get a letter to various entities, the Cameroonian embassy, the State Department, Senator Schumer’s office, Senator Booker’s office expressing our distress and hoping they will get something done.”
A case that illustrates a Cameroon in crisis
The U.S. State Department has said it is aware of Nganang’s case and currently investigating the situation. Yet that’s not always the case for most Cameroonians. As word of Nganang’s detention spread, so has the awareness and vocal opposition to what’s been happening in Cameroon for more than a year now. In October 2016, the English-speaking regions of Cameroon – a vestige of its colonial history in an otherwise Francophone nation – stepped up protest over long-simmering grievances in the Anglophone community.
The cultural rift, which at times (and again) has driven secessionist impulses, goes beyond language to encompass the political, economic and social inequalities Anglophones say they experience under the 84-year-old Biya, who has been in power for 35 years.
Biya responded with a crackdown that led to the first violent clashes and fatalities last November, with widespread arrests including that of other Western-educated scholars such as Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, a leader of the banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. The Anglophone movement has been driven by lawyers, teachers and other professionals advocating for reforms.
Internet access was cut off for three months, prompting the anger of businesses and students as well as digital rights advocates like Internet Without Borders. Human rights organizations including Contra Nocendi and Amnesty International have appealed for investigations and intervention, as has the United Nations. Last month, following another wave of violence in which up to 17 people died, a team of experts with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on the government to protect the rights of Cameroonians.
“The experts are disturbed by reports of a series of measures taken by the national authorities, including curfews, a ban on public meetings, and other restrictions aimed at preventing peaceful protests,” the report said. “Excessive use of force by the security services, injuries, mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, torture and other ill-treatment have also been reported.”
It is in this context that the Nganang detention, alarming in its own right, highlights the reforms that clearly can’t come quickly enough to Cameroon. “The detention of Patrice Nganang is an outrage and Cameroonian authorities must immediately release him without charge and allow him to travel,” says CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal from South Africa. “Cameroon seems intent on violating the right to freedom of expression to silence critical voices, including in the press.”
Yet Nganang’s own words, for which he is now held in a jail cell, are probably closest to the truth when it comes to change in Cameroon: It will need to come from the top.
Image: Humanities Council Princeton University