First he came for the writers, then he came for the internet
UPDATE: Good news! On December 27, 2017 a judge dismissed Patrice Nganang’s case and ordered him released from detention. However, the government has confiscated his passport and it appears he may be stripped of his citizenship in Cameroon. This would be a cruel move by the Biya government, as Patrice’s alleged crime entailed highlighting government abuses against Anglophones, a sign of cross-cultural solidarity. He stood up for others and surely will do so again.
In 2013, a voice in a polite Francophone accent told me over the phone about a writer named Enoh Meyomesse, who had been detained by authorities in Cameroon. Meyomesse had been accused of some startling crimes, such as smuggling gold for guns, but the caller explained the charges were all fabricated, and that if we didn’t act soon Enoh might die in prison without a trial. Officially, Enoh was “detained” in legal parlance, since no charges had been brought or a trial date set — meaning he could be locked in solitary confinement or packed in a cell with 50 other people in one of Cameroon’s notorious prisons. (It later turned out that both had occurred.)
The caller was author Patrice Nganang, and I wasn’t the only person Patrice called that day — he’d reached out to all the major human rights organizations. His earnestness and passion convinced me. I pushed for PEN America, where I was a fellow, to speak out. Enoh’s real crime, it seemed, was not only to write liberation political tracts but to run for the office of the President, challenging Paul Biya, who has held power for 35 years while turning Cameroon into his private fiefdom.
Together with Cameroonian advocates, English PEN, and Paris-based Internet Without Borders, we raised awareness about Enoh’s case and managed to get him transferred to a better prison. Three years later, Enoh walked free (actually, he was physically pushed out of the prison, Enoh later explained, but he would take what he could get.)
During this time, government-sponsored newspapers accused Patrice and other human rights defenders of being “vultures” meddling in Cameroonian affairs and published an accusatory photo on the front page. When I asked Patrice about this, he laughed and explained they would call anyone a vulture who they disagreed with. I was struck by Patrice’s courage, especially since he had a plum appointment as a literature professor at SUNY and a family in the U.S. It would have made perfect sense for him to wash his hands of politics entirely and enjoy the fruits of his American life. Instead he continued to visit Cameroon and denounce injustice where he saw it through his nonprofit Tribunal Article 53.
Since we were both writers, I invited Patrice to join me in a reading at a bookstore in Brooklyn. That’s when I realized he’s a true creative artist. First of all, he reminded everyone he had published 12 novels (I had written a measly one) and after reading aloud each typewritten page, he would toss it onto the ground like a rose petal. We soon discovered that Patrice had recently moved to the same small town of Hopewell, NJ (pop. 2,500) where I grew up, which now has a thriving population of two African families, including his.
Meanwhile, President Biya has stepped up his attacks on free expression at an unbelievable scale. He continues to arrest journalists and he sought to crush protests in the Anglophone regions of the country by shutting off the entire internet for 5 million people, including Silicon Mountain, a tech hub that produced Africa’s first young Google Coding champion. As documented by the organization Access Now, the local economy has now lost several million dollars, preventing emergency services from doing their work and people from receiving remittances from the Cameroonian diaspora. Internet users and entrepreneurs have been forced to cross the border into Nigeria to get online, often placing their lives at risk in the process.
But Biya hadn’t forgotten about Patrice. While the internet empowers millions to press for change, the president hasn’t ignored the power of symbols, the ability of a single advocate to embody the voices of the many. Authorities arrested Patrice on Wednesday, December 6 as he deplaned — just like Enoh Meyomesse before him. The official explanation was that he published an article detailing the repression in Anglophone Cameroon.
Paul Biya is one of Africa’s last dictators, but he is not invulnerable. Cameroon relishes its aid from France, Europe, and the U.S., particularly in the fight against the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. Such aid, which often lines the pockets of rulers like Biya, is a powerful lever. Strong, unqualified statements from local embassies can make a difference, too, along with official travel warnings for tourist and business travelers about lack of internet access in emergencies. On a practical level, local lawyers in Cameroon cost money and will need to be paid to support Patrice’s defense. (Even large human rights organizations typically don’t have local counsel who can appear in court.) New Jersey representatives such as Cory Booker can speak out on his behalf.
Patrice courageously came to the defense of other writers, and he deserves our support.