Joe la Conscience: Cameroon’s Forgotten Prisoner of Conscience

By Dibussi Tande:

Joe_la_conscience In the past couple of weeks, there have been numerous stories in the national and international media about the arrest of prominent Cameroonian protest singer Lapiro de Mbanga. However, the arrest, summary trial and sentencing of the less known protest singer, Joe La Conscience, has not received as much attention.

Unlike Lapiro who is accused of being the mastermind behind the February riots, particularly in his native town of Mbanga (although eyewitness accounts and initial reports from local officials indicated that he had helped calm down angry rioters…) Joe La Conscience is not accused of any violence. His only crime is that he organized a one-man nonviolent protest against recent moves to scrap presidential term limits in Cameroon.

Click here to view or download a "Free Joe La Conscience" Poster (PDF)

In this regard his detention is even more significant that Lapiro's because it is a clear indicator of Cameroon’s new authoritarian political landscape where all sources of dissent – real, imagined and symbolic – are systematically silenced. Today it is not only vandals and “apprentice sorcerers” who get caught up in the Biya regime’s repressive maelstrom…

Joe La Conscience or the Road to Kondengui

Shortly after regime officials began agitating for an amendment of Article 6.2 late last year, Joe La Conscience (whose real name is Kameni Joe de Vinci) wrote a memorandum titled “50 good reasons not  to change the Cameroon constitution” to protest against plans to scrap presidential term limits in Cameroon. He also composed a song condemning the planned constitutional amendment titled  "Emmerdement constitutionnel" (constitutional hassle).

After adding 1000 signatures to his anti-amendment memo, Joe La Conscience decided to embark on a 320-kilometre (200-mile) solo trek from his native town of Loum to Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, to hand the said memo to the President.  On February 17, Joe began what he called the “Long March for Peace”. However, the march ended prematurely after he was arrested at the outskirts of Loum by security forces on grounds that he had violated an order by the governor of littoral banning public rallies and demonstrations in the province.

On February 26, three days after troops sealed Equinoxe Radio and TV, Joe La Conscience began a hunger strike outside the gates of the US embassy in Yaounde to protest the government’s crackdown on the media. The next day, troops stormed his residence in Loum, shot his 11-year old son, Aya Kameni Patrick Lionel, to death, and ransacked his workshop. In a letter addressed to President Biya, Joe’s wife, Sidonie, describes how Lionel was shot « before my eyes and that of my other children ». Unable to travel to Loum due to the rioting, Joe continued his peaceful protest outside the embassy. Two days later, on February 29, about 30 heavily armed gendarmes stormed the US embassy gates and whisked Joe off to a cell at the Secretariat of State of the National Gendarmerie where, according to his wife, he was tortured. He was then transferred to the Kondengui Maximum security prison on March 6.

On March 19, Kondengui became Joe La Conscience’s permanent home when the Mfoundi Court of First Instance handed him a six-moth jail sentence for organizing “illegal meetings and demonstrations” after an expeditious trial widely condemned by legal experts. Even non-violent protest à la Mahatma Gandhi does not pay in Cameroon. Only the silence of the slave – or of the grave – does…

Joe La Conscience or The Authoritarian Impulse of the Biya Regime

At first glance, the story of Joe La Conscience is just another personal tragedy in good old Cameroon; the tale of an individual and his family paying a heavy price for his political activism. But deep down, this is a story about Cameroon, its government, its people and its future. It is a very telling snapshot of the reigning political climate in Cameroon and a good indicator of what the Biya regime’s so-called troisième mandat will look like.

Nearly two decades ago an observer argued that :

Under the ancien regime, power was mostly exercised in a bullying and overbearing manner to limit people’s freedoms and ensure the survival of political leaders, but during the New Deal era it was usually employed in far less brutal ways mainly to feather the nests of our leaders.

We have come a long way since then, as the Biya regime has now merged the brutality of the Ahidjo regime with its own homegrown Kleptocracy. Today, just as during the Ahidjo regime, survival is the name of the game. Recent events have shown that in its bid to hang on to power at all cost, the Biya regime is, more than ever before, driven by an élan autoritaire or a dark authoritarian impulse which does not bode well for the country.

Extremists who for years have been itching for a head-on confrontation with “the forces of change” have finally gained a solid footing within the regime and are creating a deleterious political climate reminiscent of that which prevailed in the last years of the Abacha regime in next door Nigeria; a climate characterized by the emasculation of the civil society and organized political opposition, the muzzling of the press and persecution of journalists, the militarization of political life and the increasing use of martial language in regular political discourse, the isolation of potential catalysts for popular mobilization and political reawakening particularly artists, an increasing appeal to ethnicity, etc.

In 1994, Miltion Krieger posited that Cameroon's democratization experiment had taken off on the wrong footing because “Biya [was] more likely captive than capo” to obscure political lobbies which had “moved beyond conventional patrimonial politics to... ‘ethno-clientelism’”. Today, these lobbies, which were largely responsible for the political turmoil during the early multiparty years - and which conceived the infamous “Operation Mygale” in 1991 which bore an eerie similarity to the blueprint for the Rwandan genocide a few years later - are once again coming out of the shadows.

These lobbies have found solace in the motley collection of ethno-regional, political and personal interests which crystallized around the President duringthe campaign to modify the constitution – a constitutional amendment which was less about support for the Prince or the City and more about a political class desperately clinging to its privileges which would most likely disappear in the event of a regime change in 2011. In such a context, it is no surprise that individuals such as Joe la Conscience or Lapiro de Mbanga with even the slightest potential to mobilize the public against these corporate, ethnic and personal interests are mercilessly crushed.   

Joe la Conscience or the Demobilization of the Cameroonian Masses

With no viable organized political force to stand up to Biya, it is now left to artists and other “lone wolfs’ to pick up the mantle for political change in Cameroon, usually with dire consequences as we have seen in the cases of Joe and Lapiro. Unfortunately unlike the 1990s where regime attempts to silence its most vocal critics ( Yondo Black, Celestin Monga, Pius Njawe, Senfo Tonkam, etc.) was met with resistance and mass mobilization, today there is instead a general feeling of resignation – the all-out militarization of national life has created a state of fear, or at least apprehension, which, although not as palpable or obvious as in some other African countries, is present nonetheless.

This “demobilization”, argues Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang who has commented extensively on the Joe La Conscience case, does not augur well for the republic:

Never before have the arts forewarned us so clearly about the future of Cameroon; but never before have artists been so alone!... That Joe has been abandoned to the care of his wife… and a handful of friends is the most dangerous sign from the Cameroonian political scene… To abandon Joe la Conscience in the hell hole that is his cell, to abandon Lapiro de Mbanga… is to tell anyone who intends to rise up to assert his citizenship that he is alone. To forget these damned individuals… in the miasma of their loneliness, is to plant the seeds of discouragement in the heart of every citizen who, tomorrow, will wish to rise up to push back the darkness that has enveloped us. [my translation].

So are Cameroonians going to abandon Joe La Conscience, Lapiro the Mbanga and others to their fate, thereby giving the Biya regime a free hand to do as it pleases in Cameroon? Or are they going to join them to fully reassert their confiscated citizenship and freedoms?