After spending three years in incarceration on trumped-up charges at the Douala maximum security prison in New Bell, Cameroon’s political gadfly, Pierre Lambo Sanjo, alias Lapiro de Mbanga remains as unfazed as before by Paul Biya’s aborted antics to silence him. As he puts it, “I have no respect for Mr. Biya; consequently, I am not afraid of him. Who would be afraid of a bandit? Who fears a thief? Dr. Vakunta sat down with the Ngata Man in his palatial home in Mbanga on July 1st, 2012 to take stock of the vicissitudes in the life of an unsung hero.
Dr. Vakunta: Tell me a little bit about your musical career. When did you start playing music and what do you think you have accomplished to date?
Lapiro de Mbanga: Thanks for coming. I am grateful for the honor you have shown me by coming all the way from the United States to converse with me. This is evidence that someone out there is thinking about me; this gives me courage to persist in doing what I am doing. In short, this is a happy encounter. In reality, my musical career began in 1973-1974 when I left school, perhaps, due to the fact that I was a little stubborn. After leaving school, I suddenly found myself playing music. At that time, an orchestra came to play in the town of Mbanga but they had no drummer and so I became their drummer. Yet, I had never played the drum before. I believe it’s a gift from God.
Initially, there was conflict because I was very young and band members couldn’t decide whether or not I should be hired to play in the band. In one of the two camps, there was a man named Kademchi who stood by me and insisted that I should be hired. He put pressure on his colleagues until they hired me. I have made reference to this man in one of my musical compositions when I referred to him as Kademchi Kadembo. If fact, he is my mentor in the field of music. However, I soon became bored with playing the drum and asked band members to allow me take a shot at singing. They did and that’s how I started singing some of their songs. This whole trajectory is fascinating and I can tell you that there are many things I have done like that in my life without actually sitting down to learn them. For instance, I have been driving for many years now but have never been to a driving school.
Huh, as soon as I started singing, the urge to play the guitar became irresistible. No one taught me how to play the guitar. All I did was watch others play and took a chance at it. That’s how I became the guitarist for that band. Today, I am the Ndinga Man International alias Ngata Man that you all know. What have I accomplished? Wao! Is there anyone on Planet Earth who has accomplished anything? Each individual is driven toward an ideal but isn’t quite aware of what they have accomplished. That is true for me as well. I have not yet reached my goal given that Paul Biya is still the president of Cameroon.
Dr. Vakunta: Would it be a logical conclusion to say that your childhood served as a rite of passage toward the molding of the accomplished man that you are today?
Lapiro de Mbanga: Indeed, my childhood molded me. The things that I witnessed during my youthful days have continued to inspire to date. Sadly enough, not much has changed and it bothers to realize that there is no change. I have lived close to people who are miserable. Look, I was born somewhere else but grew up here in Mbanga. Take a look at my neighborhood. I live in a barricaded compound. Oftentimes I have a heavy heart because we are not supposed to live in fences in this world. We don’t need barriers. Look at the homes of my neighbors; they are distinct from mine. So, it has always been this way. We live in a world of haves and have-nots. This state of affairs has always perturbed me.
I was fortunate or unfortunate to be fathered by a man who was extremely rich. My father was a billionaire. So, I was a little spoilt boy. I had tons of stuff but other kids in the vicinity had nothing. Thus, it dawned on me that our world was a world of inequalities. It saddens me to think about it. With age I have come to the realization that these inequalities are not just local; they are global. Between North and South, there is inequality. Northerners are interested in misappropriating the resources that God has given Southerners. Listen, we of the South may not have the capability to manufacture an ipad like this one here or a car but God has given us some resources. And what do Northerners do? They come and grab what we have but leave us with nothing in return.
Inequalities exist everywhere but the thing that bothers me the most is the fact that my own African brothers; Cameroonians for that matter, have become instruments that Northerners utilize to oppress us. I find this scenario vexing. That is why I pay tribute to people like Laurent Gbagbo, Muammar Ghaddafi, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Sankara, and others for the extreme courage they have mustered to tell the North that there is dignity in the South as well. On the contrary, we have people like Paul Biya to whom power was handed on a plate by Ahmadou Ahidjo; who himself inherited power from the colonialists. Biya maltreats Cameroonians, doesn’t live in Cameroon; is not even a Cameroonian. Let me give you an example, not long ago he went to inaugurate, rather to lay the foundation stone of some project somewhere (God alone knows that if all the foundation stones that have been laid in Cameroon where transformed into accomplished projects, our country would be in 2035 today).
Anyway, he went to lay the foundation stone like many others before but while his ministers and members of his CPDM who came to sing his praises plodded in mud to the site, Mr. Biya came by helicopter! Do you think this man lives in Cameroon? Why didn’t he come by road to experience the hassles that Cameroonians endure on a daily basis? He refuses to see reality and elects to live in fool’s paradise. That’s why he does nothing to ameliorate the fate of Cameroonians. You see what I mean?
Dr. Vakunta: Absolutely. When I listen to your music, I have the impression that I am hearing several voices at the same time. I was wondering which of these voices is intimate to you.
Lapiro de Mbanga: Everything is spiritual, you know. I am creator of the intangible. God who endowed me with these talents doesn’t tell me to say this or that at any given point in time. He gives me the leeway to say what I want. Regarding what is intimate to Lapiro de Mbanga, honestly it does not matter because Lapiro de Mbanga is only one man among many others. What pleases him is of little importance. You see my point? If you asked me today to tell you which of my songs were the best, I wouldn’t be able to tell you because my choice may not be the winner if it was put to a vote. To sort of gauge the popularity of my songs, I have formed the habit of going to YOUTUBE and trying to see which clip has been watched most frequently. That gives me an idea of the degree of popularity the clip has.
Dr. Vakunta: In 2009 you had quite a few problems with the powers- that-be in Cameroon. You were arrested subsequent to the riots that took place in the major cities of Cameroon. Could you tell me what transpired at that time?
Lapiro de Mbanga: Yes, it was actually in 2008 that I had brushes with Cameroonian authorities. Riots took place toward the end of February 2008.I was arrested on April 9 of the same year. In fact, they didn’t arrest me; they threw me in prison. I say this because arrest is when a warrant of arrest is presented to you. I was simply summoned by telephone on April 9; when I got there I was taken to prison. Riots occurred because Cameroonians had had enough of price hikes and unbearable cost of living. The strike was initiated by the National Union of Road Workers in reaction to the rising price of gasoline.
I am not a road transport worker; I am a mere consumer of gasoline. I don’t own a commercial vehicle; consequently I am not a member of this trade union. Their activities are of no importance to me. The only trade union that is of interest to me is the National Association of Artists in Cameroon. I have been singing for years but no one has paid my royalties yet. If I were interested in participating in a strike it would be the one organized by the National Association of Artists. Strangely enough, I was thrown in prison for supposedly instigating riots in Mbanga and its environs in response to the strike called by the National Union of Road Workers nationwide. If the strike had taken place in Mbanga alone, one would understand but the 2008 strike was nationwide including the city that harbors Etoudi where Biya lives. The person that instigated the strikes in Yaoundé was never arrested. There were riots in Buea, Bafoussam, Bamenda, Douala, and throughout the entire southern part of Cameroon. The Grand North alone was exempted.
In Mbanga it was decided that the instigator of the riots was Lapiro de Mbanga and like I said I was thrown in jail with no warrant of arrest. I was in prison for three months before anyone told me why I was incarcerated. As I said before, and will say it again solemnly for the record, I did not instigate the riots in Mbanga in 2008. On the contrary, I endeavored to calm down the people of Mbanga because I have the conviction that genuine battles are fought by idols. The battle that I am fighting right now was not initiated by me. Mahatma Gandhi is a role model for me because he carried out his revolution without drumming up support from anyone. He fought single handedly. I am jealous of people like that.
Martin Luther King is one of the idols that I admire. I admire the young Mohamed Bouazizi whose lone battle served as a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. I venerate people like Bouazizi! I am even jealous of them because I want to be like them. Grand revolutionaries don’t thrive on bloodshed. And that is the stance I took in 1992: I said yes to the Sovereign National Conference! Yes to Ghost Towns but no to wanton destruction! Why do people espouse the idea that things must be destroyed in order to make Biya relinquish power? Alright, things have been destroyed, things have been burnt but Biya is still in power! So who was right? Is it me or the so-called opposition who, by the way, are all friends of Biya?
Let me tell you something, today we have what is called G7 in Cameroon. When I look at G7 I cannot help laughing! What indeed is G7? G7 are all Paul Biya's friends! The CDU is window-dressing for CPDM. Adamu Ndam Njoya pays allegiance to CPDM in his closet. He is a former minister under the ruling CPDM party. Fru Ndi is a militant of the CPDM. When Biya came to Bamenda in 1985 to create the CPDM out of the CNU, who was the CNU section president for Mezam? It was John Fru Ndi. So Fru Ndi is a member of the CPDM.Today he is a member of G7. Zongang Albert is a CPDM party militant. He has been mayor and MP on the banner of CPDM. Bernard Muna was a militant of CPDM.
These folks should stop fooling around and come clean! They are political chameleons trying to throw dust into the eyes of dullards! The G7 is a conglomerate of CPDM supporters who have not found something to eat within the party and have pretended to decamp. They are not members of the opposition. They don’t desire change in Cameroon. Their turf is the CNU-CPDM school. That’s it! These fellows who cause much brouhaha in Cameroon are not trustworthy by any stretch of the imagination.
To access an audio version of this interview in French, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD4g8CxwZew
About the interviewer: Dr. Peter Vakunta is professor at the Defense Language Institute, POM-CA, United States of America. He blogs at http://www.vakunta.blogspot.com