The arrest of Patrice Nganang, Cameroonian writer and scholar, in Douala on Wednesday, December 6, 2017, caught many people by surprise. He was apparently on the way to Zimbabwe when security agents forced him to deplane, and then they took him away. The only explanation (or suspicion) was that he had recently published an article in Jeune Afrique, about political repression in the “Anglophone” parts of the country. As if the entire country weren’t one vast repressed ground.
Professional associations of writers and scholars like the African Literature Association, and PEN America, have issued statements condemning Nganang’s arrest and calling for his release, and the president of State University New York at Stony Brook, his institutional home, has also spoken up.
There is a Cameroonian quip which reflects the sense of political fatalism to which the population seems held in thrall with the spell of a Paul Biya presence: “Cameroon is Cameroon.” It has the pertinacity of a refrain in Dog Days (2007), Nganang’s joyously dark neighborhood novel told in the voice of a dog named Mboudjak.
The fatalistic quip contains a paradox: the apparent indestructibility of Biya in spite of the great variety of first-rate intellects coming from that country, from Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, through Marcien Towa to Achille Mbembe and Francis Nyamjoh to Olvalde Lewat, Jean-Marie Teno, Frieda Ekotto and Nganang himself.
To all intents and purposes Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s 2013 film Le President conceives of the president of the title as an autocrat type that is generic. It is tempting to see Paul Biya, president of Cameroon since 1982 (seriously, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Teodoro Obiang), as the sole target of this characterization. I will yield to this temptation without remorse: Bekolo’s compatriot Simon Njami writing the screenplay makes it even more difficult to resist.
Less arresting than the quip, but more cancerous, is a myth among Cameroonians: that Biya should be tolerated because his seeming eternal presence in the national psyche ensures peace in the body-politic. The autocrat could be in France for months on end without anyone asking questions. Meanwhile residents of Douala, the country’s second major city, could go on living like zombies, as they do for long sequences in Jean-Marie Teno’s Chef! But we know from Le President tells us that “peace will go to die in war as long as there’s a head to be crowned king.” The president is an adept at political games; he’s both sovereign and superpower.
The much-bemoaned political impotence of the Cameroonian intellectual elite—the fact that the wonderful richness of outstanding artistic and philosophical talents is no match for the success of Biya’s autocracy—is mirrored in the repressive aftermath of the failed Lumumba revolution in what was once known as Zaire. Mobutu Sese Seko initiated and supervised a phase of pacification to which not even the excruciating simplifications in V. S. Naipaul’s “The Cult of Mobutism” could do justice. The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji, who was on the faculty of the National University of Zaire at the time, in the early 1970s, speaks of the phenomenon of pacification thus: “Once fear was internalized and the appropriate ideological environment was created, the tyrant could sleep peacefully.”
He could have been writing about Biya’s Cameroon.
It is to this state of things that writers like Nganang have remained awake, or woke, in the lingo of social media. Their intention being, one may assume, to ensure that the tyrant cannot sleep peacefully henceforth. Nganang has not been shy in speaking about his political work in Cameroon. He co-founded or played a major role in the emergence of an activist group called “Generation Change,” and he has for long championed the cases of persecuted journalists, writers, and other activists.
Nganang’s current ordeal at the hands of the agents of the Cameroonian state should outrage everyone. He should be free. He is a writer of the free, abstract, and high-minded sentence. Even if he isn’t that, he should be free.
Sometimes I tease him for his critiques of “political African writing” because those critiques often appear to me to be at odds with his own politics—which are shown to be engaged in the most baldly direct manner. I do know that there are writers for which writing is a sphere of activity impossible to align with public interventions. That is a readily debatable position.
Nganang deserves to be free. He has spent a lot of time and effort in the past decade making a similar case for other victims of the Biya regime.