Concerns over persecution of Cameroon academic

West African academics and intellectuals have expressed their concerns about the detention and withholding of their colleague’s Cameroonian passport by the government of Paul Biya.

Professor Patrice Nganang (37), a native of Cameroon who teaches cultural studies and comparative literature at Stony Brook University in New York State, was detained at the Douala International Airport in Cameroon on 6 December.

At the conclusion of his Christmas vacation in Cameroon, Nganang, who is a novelist, essayist and poet, was on his way to Zimbabwe via Kenyan Airlines to meet his wife and eight-year-old daughter. On his arrest, Nganang’s attorney, Emmanuel Simh, was informed by authorities that his client would be charged with insulting and defaming long-serving Cameroonian President Paul Biya.

The charges presumably related to an interview Nganang gave in November 2017 to Jeune Afrique, a weekly Francophone tabloid, in which Nganang indirectly criticised Biya’s handling of the ongoing political crisis in Anglophone Cameroon.

Senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Abuja, Dr Henrietta Williams described Nganang as “one of the prominent voices against the regime of terror in Anglophone Cameroon”.

Unexpected release

On 27 December, well before his scheduled court appearance on 19 January 2018, Nganang was released without explanation and deported to the United States via Addis Ababa. Although his United States passport was returned to him, his Cameroonian passport was not.

According to Dr Adewale Suenu, vice-chairman of the Nigerian Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, Lagos State University Chapter, Nganang’s release was the result of combined pressure from the United States embassy in Yaoundé and Baroness Patricia Scotland, secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Adewale Suenu, who had mobilised ASUU members to campaign for the unconditional release of Nganang during his detention, said it was not the first time a community of writers, university teachers and journalists had to mount pressure on Biya to release ‘prisoners of conscience’.

He said in the past Biya had been irked by the ‘effrontery’ of Nganang who collaborated with PEN America, the African Literature Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists in pushing for the release in 2015 of Cameroonian writer and poet Enoh Meyomesse who was jailed for three years for challenging the ‘sit-tight syndrome’ embodied by Biya. Meyomesse published more than 15 books challenging Paul Biya’s 30-year rule and unsuccessfully ran for the Cameroon presidency in October 2011.

Little did Nganang realise that two years later he would be facing the same fate and reaping the dividends of the solidarity structures he helped to put in place.

In an interview after his release from detention, Nganang said: “What unites the people is also the tragedy of its history, which makes it a common destiny. Each of us should therefore be concerned about the teleology of violence that is taking shape step by step in the skeleton of the Cameroonian state.”

Academics speak

While academic and human rights communities have rejoiced over the release of Nganang, university teachers in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin Republic and Nigeria who spoke exclusively to University World News have expressed concerns over the implications of the withdrawal of Nganang’s Cameroon passport.

Francis Akindès, professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire said while he took strong exception to Patrice’s use of unprintable language to describe Biya and his wife, Chantal, it was no justification for his shabby treatment.

“No matter the level of indignation and anger, one cannot make use of unprintable language to characterise President Paul Biya and his wife, the first lady. This is absolutely disrespectful and therefore unacceptable. At the same time and on the same strength, my colleague Nganang does not deserve to be treated shabbily. The humiliation he has suffered in the hands of the state … simply demonstrates the fact that the judiciary in Cameroon is not independent and is therefore easily undermined by the executive.”

Professor of Constitutional Law Olamide Eyidara from the faculty of law at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Sagamu, Ogun State, Nigeria described the withdrawal of the passport as ‘pure lawlessness’ and a violation of Nganang’s basic and fundamental rights.

“Expelling Patrice has not removed his nationality because it was not renounced by the victim of oppression. This is outright crime against humanity punishable under the rules of the International Court of Justice. Since Cameroon is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Atlantic Charter of Man, there is no way Cameroon would not escape being sanctioned,” he said.

Dr Richard Etohaim based at the faculty of law, University of Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, said Nganang had committed no crime which justified the withdrawal of his traditional nationality. “The prescriptions and conditions were not there in the first place and so, both local and international laws protect him,” he said.

Dr Richard Basset based in the faculty of law at the University of Calabar, Nigeria, described Nganang’s detention as ‘uncalled for’ and ‘unfortunate’.

Expulsion of African intellectuals

According to Dr Ajagbe Mathieu, a lecturer of political science at the University of Parakou in the Republic of Benin, this is not the first time African intellectuals have been expelled by post-colonial African states and returned to the ex-colonial metropolis.

He cited the example of Gilles Capo Chichi, an economist and naturalised French citizen who was expelled from Dakar in Senegal four months ago and sent to France. His offense was to publicly burn a French CFA note in symbolic protest against France’s domination of the economies of Francophone Africa.

“It is a pity that our independence has not been used to protect us from new colonial masters. I am referring to Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks,” he said.

Comparing intellectuals like Nganang to military generals, Dr Nathaniel Kitti, a constitutional lawyer, said the intellectual leads the troop which contains different soldiers with conflicting visions. He is the soothsayer who predicts the future of and for the civil society.

“Patrice is a soothsayer of Cameroon. He is in a paradoxical situation. Despite the fact that his passport has been withdrawn from him, he remains a Cameroonian soothsayer. In his writings, he predicts the eventual fall of Paul Biya’s regime. That is why he is expelled from his own country without justification,” he declared.

A press release produced by PEN America at the time of Nganang’s arrest last year stated: “Investigating corruption or commenting unfavourably on political or human rights issues frequently results in official repercussions for writers and journalists in Cameroon. Nganang is only the latest example of a string of writers commenting on sensitive subjects who risk police questioning, lawsuits, detention, or imprisonment.”

Meanwhile, the universities of Buea and Bamenda in Anglophone Cameroon have remained closed since last September. Some of the students and lecturers are taking refuge in Nigeria.