Cameroon:Celestin Monga’s famous open letter to Paul Biya which landed him in Jail

Like many other Cameroonians, I was shocked by the outrageously condescending, paternalistic, and pretentious tone that you used in the National Assembly on December 3 [1990] when addressing the Cameroonian people. How could you allow yourself to say to 11 million Cameroonians: ‘I have brought you democracy … ‘ This is a country where every day, the most fundamental human rights are ridiculed and where the majority of the people do not have enough to live on, while a small number of opportunists share the riches of the country with impunity?”

      Le Messager #209 of December 27, 1990.

 

 


The following testimony is an excerpt from Celestin Monga Anthropology of Anger: Civil Society and Democracy in Africa. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1998. ISBN 1-55587-841-5


 

In late December 1990, four years after I had come back from Europe, I was fed up with the political monolithism that was destroying the economy. I wrote a small piece for a private local paper, criticizing the government. In early January, I was arrested, held without charge until my release (a few days later), and was not permitted any visitors. Charges were subsequently brought against me, notably for contempt of the president of the republic.

The first session of my trial took place on January 10 in Douala. More than two hundred lawyers from the Cameroonian Bar Association joined to act as the defense counsel. Several thousand people showed up to manifest publicly their opposition to the government. It was the first time since the early 1960s that popular demonstrations against the government had taken place in the country. Everyone (including myself) was surprised. The trial was adjourned until the following week.

On January 17, when the second session of the trial was set to begin, demonstrations took place in a number of cities. In the northern city of Garoua, troops fired on a demonstration supporting me and calling for democratization (the country was still under a single-party regime). Several people were killed, dozens were wounded, and many were beaten by the police or jailed without any specific charges.

Such an event is banal under monocracy, to use Ambroise Kom’s word (1991b). I was lucky that a popular uprising and international pressure prevented the Cameroonian regime from using against me some of its usual repressive tactics (such as secret trials and executions). But the fact that some people who did not even know me had been killed shook me profoundly.

I visited their families, but did not know what to say to weeping mothers, tearful fathers, suspicious friends and cousins. I decided to step back momentarily from my economic writings and to record my thoughts on the political transformations I was part of. I wanted to tell the story of the variety of ways in which people in Cameroon and elsewhere stood up—despite their fears, their material poverty, and the very real danger they faced—in order to defy humiliation and to live their humanity.

Washington, D.C., July 1995.

A Cameroonian businessman now living in Maryland as a political refugee told me his bitter tale. Although he had once enjoyed a prosperous existence in Yaoundé and been considered a darling of the Biya administration, he had had to leave his country abruptly after the rigged 1992 presidential election. He had “compromised” himself with opposition parties, and the government would not forgive him for having betrayed his friends in the upper echelons of the regime, for having bitten the hand that had fed him for years. Ill-prepared for his new life as a nomad, he said what bothered him most was his friends’ and family’s lack of understanding concerning his decision to join the fight for democracy.

Over and over again, people told him: “Why on earth would you risk your fortune, your important political connections, your reputation, and maybe even your life to become an opposition party activist? Business doesn’t mix well with politics. You stand to lose a lot more than the intellectuals and the unemployed who are lining the streets. Don’t get involved! We’re all in favor of democracy. But why should some people have to sacrifice themselves for the cause? When democracy comes, we’ll all rejoice. In the meantime …”

Comments like these were especially disturbing to him because they often came from people in the lower ranks of society, from the very disenfranchised whose plight had sparked his desire to rebel and who stood to benefit the most from democracy.

My friend’s words reminded me of the advice I myself had received from the Cameroonian authorities, who had tried to put a lid on my political activism. “Who would think that a man like you, a young executive, the director of central Africa’s largest commercial bank, with a great career ahead of him, would sacrifice both his own future and that of his family by getting involved in politics?” Albert Ekonno Nna, governor of the Littoral province in Douala, asked me in 1991. “I’m speaking to you now,” he continued, “not as a political opponent but as a father, or an older brother.

Don’t you see that your so-called supporters are pushing you into a suicidal trap? You’re the one who’s sleeping in a prison cell. The machinery of the state is going to come down hard on you, not them. Does it give you pleasure to destroy your own future? Are you a masochist? What about your wife? Your children? Your family? I can’t believe they let you do so many reckless, unnecessary things.

Stop opposing the government. Beware of all your friends who are encouraging you to commit suicide. You’re an intellectual. You know all about the French Revolution. You’ve heard Georges Brassens’s song, ‘Die for ideas, yes, but die a slow death,’ because dying for the sake of ideas is what all those people who are exploiting your enthusiasm and naïveté live for!”


 

 

 

 

 

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