Declaration made to the Criminal Court in Yaoundé
December 27, 2017
Thank you for allowing me to address the court at this historic moment when writing is on trial. The case is all the more historic given that several times in the past writing has been on trial in Cameroon without the presence of a writer. Our country does have the infamous reputation of being the African country that has persecuted writers the most, from Njoya, who was imprisoned in Mantoum in 1921 and who died in exile in Nsimeyong—right here in Yaoundé—to Mongo Beti, the last Cameroonian writer, who also died here, after forty years of exile. Here we have made a habit of speaking together about a house without input from an architect, each of us believing we know more about walls than any mason. We speak about the State without considering the citizen, even though every constitution is written. But this time this is not the case, and I thank you for that. I stand before you accused of three things that are clearly linked to writing, by which I mean the use of the alphabet to make meaning, for in the end, I used nothing more than twenty-six letters to write the contested text. Nothing more. So, I will prove to you in my statement that those twenty-six letters, such as I employed them, cannot in any way constitute a threat to the Head of State, nor an affront against “whomsoever”; they were set in motion in order to defend our armed forces—not to lie, defame, or affront them. And finally, I will prove to you that the alphabet—the writer’s one and only tool, which the State in its wisdom obliges us to teach to our children—could not ever be an instrument of violence, as it is the very sign of non-violence.
First, the question of a threat (article 301 of the penal code).
The structure of the contested text, one short paragraph, is clear. It is comprised of three parts, the first stating that which I am not. In short, I am not a member of the opposition. I am a Cameroonian citizen. I am an intellectual. By that I mean that I use my intellect to speak truth, and I do so in writing. The Concierge of the Republic: I say what I see and have seen. What I have experienced. The second part then states the truth, which it is my duty to speak: Biya does not exist for me. He is outside of the limits of my field of perception. The government’s prosecutor seems to concur as he has replaced that name with “whomsoever”. I thank him for that, because it is something we agree on. His absence—Biya’s absence—is manifest, not just for me alone, but for all of us Cameroonians, much more so than his presence. He is in fact what the Bangangté call Fam—what doesn’t exist at all. Thus, the third part of the paragraph, which pertains to the threat, the primary accusation against the writer, actually concerns something that does not exist, and that the prosecutor rightly replaced by “whomsoever”. Is it possible to threaten something that does not exist? That is the question that brings us together here. The evident response is: no. And even less so because this part of my text is framed upon a radical impossibility. “If I had a rifle,” is the requisite condition, the sine qua non of the situation, and even then, it is meaningless unless I know how to use one—which is not the case. If I stand before Biya who, let me repeat, does not exist. And even if he did, it is contingent upon the possibility that I stand before him. For that to happen would require that the Presidential Guard no longer exist, that the security searches at the presidential palace, le Palais d’Unité, be stopped, and that the President of the Republic meet me, by which I mean that he agree to do so. And finally, it would require that he bare his brow before me for the hand-to-hand battle imagined by my text to take place. Of course, this is all predicated on the first condition—that he have already begun to exist—which is not the case. One cannot threaten to kill a Fam, your Honor. Thus, my text presents one cardinal impossibility, supported by an infinite number of probabilities, all absurd, all impossible; therefore, in the end, it cannot be taken as a threat, neither in letter nor in spirit. I have no money. If I had seven hundred francs, I’d buy you an ice-cold Guinness; this is not an offer to buy you a Guinness but a straightforward refusal. To say that if I were free, I would be with my family means that I am a prisoner, the condition expressed through antiphrasis.
Let’s now move on to the affront. In what way does my text constitute an affront to the Armed Forces? [Article 152; 154]. I have thought long and hard about this; I suppose that is what being held without charges is for, because I have been cut off from all communication; and I suppose that is what prison is for, because I have here been forced to introspection. Well, I have thought and I have realized that, in the end, this is a contradiction in terms: by use of periphrasis, what I actually do is defend our Armed Forces. I want them to be strong, I want them to be grand, powerful; so strong, so grand and so powerful, in fact, that they would win a war against the US army, the army of the country where I live and whose actions the prosecutor—not me—qualifies as “murders”; by that he means the execution of Khadhafi by a Franco-American coalition, the execution of Saddam Hussein by the American army. Yet, if you have traveled around the Anglophone regions during this time of war, as I did before I wrote my text, you know that as you make your way through the Kumba forest, you will find some Cameroonian soldiers who are corruptible. Can you even imagine an American soldier asking for a tchoko, for strangers to buy him a drink in the forests of New Jersey? But if you have been on the unpaved route that leads from Tombel to Nyasoso, as I have been, then you know that isolated soldiers posted in the forest stretch a cord across the road in front of their feet in order to stop and search the peasants, who are all armed with machetes. If you have traveled the road between Bamenda to Mamfé, as I have, you know that the fifteen check-points there function according to what you are wearing: those in suits are not searched, nor are private cars—by which I mean to say that I was not searched once along that road. And what’s worse, you know that cars registered in the Francophone Central region are systematically not searched, even when they are headed to Akwaya. If you have led campaigns to secure the freedom of writers, as I have, and have been allowed into the Ministry of the Defense several times without being searched, putting that in writing is just telling the truth. Rather than punishing those who have seen and experienced these serious professional lapses on the part of the Cameroonian Army, your Honor, the State should instead punish the offending soldiers, professionalize the Army–for unlike the American Army, ours is made up of career soldiers—and maintain the discipline of the aptly named guardians of the peace. One does not arrest a writer for revealing the Nation’s weaknesses. The primary weakness of our thirsty people is beer. Offering a beer to a Cameroonian, whether a soldier or not, is a sign of politeness where we come from, not of corruption. But saying so isn’t lying, for writing is truth filtered by a temperament.
Your Honor, my temperament requires me to feel indignation when faced with a soldier who sits and drinks by the side of the road. How can one not be indignant at the failings of these military men, the very same who ask strangers for tchoko, and whom I have seen sitting along the road between Foumbot and Bamendjing, alone in the middle of the forest, with a beer by their feet, covered in the dust of motorcycle taxis we call bend-skin, their rifle lying on the ground, even as the official press informs us that soldiers are “assassinated”, “poisoned” by the people? By now you have understood the mother of my text is indignation. For how can one not be indignant at the fate of the long-suffering people who are pushed to assassinate the soldiers sent by the State into their villages to protect them, peasants who—by virtue of their poverty—for just where could they find the money for the continuous flow of tchoko?—are turned into the soldiers’ enemies? Were the president of this country to exist he would know that young, thirty-year old peasants from Tombel look as though they’re fifty, because their health has been ruined by the cocoa plantations and finished off by the kitoko. He would know that the women, already weakened by successive pregnancies, still carry four bunches of bananas in baskets suspended by a cord around their forehead, just as they did in the 15th century, yes, he would know that. And also that it takes two days to go from Kumba to Nyasoso, which are a mere 45 minutes apart, because you have to go through Bonaberi, Mbanga, and Loum! Were he to exist he would have known that the Anglophone public school in Nlohe, a collection of dilapidated shacks with sheet-metal roofs, built on pilons, houses 450 students, or 70 per class! Saying these things that I saw and experienced is just telling the truth, and no true citizen would remain indifferent in the face of such systematically planned misery inflicted on a region where the black earth attests to the wealth of its topsoil and the layers below.
But again, let’s move on. [Article 267]
The third point concerns violence, for it is obvious that saying what I saw with my own two eyes can be neither defamatory nor insulting, and that one cannot threaten that which does not exist. Violence is a means, a way of doing things. The soldier is violent because his rifle lends itself to violence; but the writer is non-violent because the alphabet requires him to be so. That a text describing real historic situations—the end of Khadhafi’s regime, the end of Mugabe’s, the end of Saddam Hussein’s—could be seen to excuse “murder”, as the prosecutor claims, still baffles me. Especially since it is impossible to both excuse the Armed Forces and at the same time commit an affront against them. Its illogical. An affront is a lie, an insult, a threat; whereas an excuse is a defense. The armies in question in my text are American, Zimbabwean, French. They are, then, both Western and African. It is impossible to excuse their means of ridding themselves of a tyrant and bringing a regime to an end—to justify violence—and at the same time commit an affront against the Armed Forces as the prosecutor claims I have done. For my text respects well both the State’s exclusive monopoly on violence and its violent right arm, which is to say, the Armed Forces. I have thought long and hard, your Honor; I have called on the wisdom of those I teach and those who have taught me; and I always come to the same conclusion: never did I suggest in my text that any person besides a soldier make use of violence or its instruments, rifles. Is the soldiers’ violence murder? Are soldiers murderers? Does the prosecutor mean that the Armed Forces are murderers? Does he mean that the Cameroonian Armed Forces should be charged with murder for the deaths that took place in the Anglophone regions on September 22 and the October 1, 2017, under Article 275 of the Penal Code? That makes no sense to me, because the clearest defense I have articulated, my greatest excuse, then, was made for the Armed Forces; what I ultimately did was describe an absurd situation, something that in the practice of writing, in literature, we call fiction. Press a rifle against the skull of a Fam, of something that does not exist. I do not see how that constitutes a crime, because one cannot kill something that does not exist, especially since the instrument I used to say this is the very alphabet that the State requires that we teach our children, and what’s more, I do not know how to use a rifle!
Your Honor, my trial makes no sense. It is absurd and I understand it all the less because in 2012 I had a proposal for a law submitted to the National Assembly by the SDF, specifically by the Deputy Jean-Michel Nintcheu, calling for the immunity of the President of the Republic be lifted, in order that he be prosecuted for the deaths of the victims of the infamous “Commandement oppérationnel”, for the deaths that took place in 2008, and others, and that he find himself in the 11th Section of Kondengui Prison where I preceded him and where I am currently being held. The goal was to abolish Article 53, which affords him absolute immunity, the likes of which exists in no other country on this planet. And well, this legislative proposal was not even discussed, even though it had been duly and properly submitted. The members of our Parliament had then deemed it absurd. In 2013, I again submitted, by the intermediary of lawyers and jurists, but with my own notarized signature, an accusation of High Treason against the President of the Republic. And for that the penalty would have been a death sentence for him, just as it was in 1984 for Ahidjo. And yet the federal prosecutor did not then press charges against me for “threats to whomsoever”, nor did he have me arrested for “affronts”, even though all of my activities were featured on the front page of the daily papers. Just as with the legislative proposal, I had come in person to present my accusation to the Supreme Court, delivering it myself to the court’s mail room, where it was received and duly stamped by the staff member on duty, who stood and removed his hat when he did so. “Courage, my son,” he said. That accusation was certainly also deemed absurd since nothing ever came of it. Why does the Cameroonian State that declared absurd these two cases, although they were in line with juridical norms and procedures, now press charges against me for what is clearly fictional? Why does it press charges against me when I tell the truth about what I experienced, about the experiences of soldiers and, I might add, of peasants, teachers, students and other government entities? Why does the State press charges against me, a citizen?
The answer is clear.
It’s because of the Anglophone crisis. That’s what is making the Cameroonian state lose its mind. And the photo that illustrates my contested text speaks volumes about this because it was taken in the Buea Social Club at the end of my Anglophone tour; it shows me with Agbor Nkongho, the Anglophone leader who later stood up for my defense. So, it’s because my indignation was born of the several weeks I spent in the villages and cities of the South-West and North-West that I now stand here before the court in Yaoundé, as have hundreds of the Anglophones whose experiences I described, your Honor. Those who gave me a standing ovation when I arrived in prison, and who visit me each day of my incarceration are not mistaken. Unlike the Secretaries General of the Commonwealth, of the Francophone Community, and of the European Union, I went to Bamenda, where I danced in a club until curfew; to the military hospital in Kumba, where I saw wounded soldiers; to schools in Mamfé and Kumba—all closed now—where I spoke with the administrators; to the market in Buéa where I got a haircut. I ate with families in Tombel and had lunch with the people of Nyasoso, including their chief. I went everywhere, everywhere, really, to speak with my compatriots, even as far as Kupe-Tombel, yes, in order to understand them. That’s why I am here, your Honor; that’s why I am in prison. Because I wrote about what I saw, experienced, and understood.
To conclude on a positive note, let me say this: one day the Cameroonian Nation will have as its foundation the will of the Cameroonian people who, by a great majority, oppose this war against the Anglophones and who vote by sending their children—the majority of Francophone children—to Anglophone schools. One day, then, this country will be Anglophone, according to the will of each parent who sends their Francophone child to an Anglophone school.
One day, yes, the Cameroonian State will stop taking the tax money of the peasants of Ngomedzap, who have no roads, and using it to kill those of Santa, who don’t have any either.
One day we will be Anglophones.
All of us.
And from that day on, the President of the Republic will need to speak annually to both Chambers of our Parliament, the Senate and the National Assembly, as part of the on-going dialog with the people that the State of the Union will become. This will replace the current speech given on December 31, which is drowned in the festive ambiance that only partially conceals that it commemorates January 1, 1960, date of the independence of Eastern Cameroon, of Francophone Cameroon. Then, at last, the State of the Union will sanctify the federation that our grandparents bequeathed us when they formed one State, stipulating that this state, a federation, not be called into question. The State of the Union will be given in order to reassure each member of the large family we comprise, and to remind us that we are all brothers and sisters. Because the shedding of blood to prevent the celebrations of October 1, which mark the independence of Western Cameroon, cannot reasonably be justified given the celebrations that mark January 1, and which culminate in the speech we all know, the State of the Union will emerge as a moment of consensus, the palaver of a people joined voluntarily in a federation of equals. May 18, the date when the Fumban Accords were signed, will be the best date for the new commemoration. Once the people are in charge of their own affairs, and able to hold accountable the governors, prefects, sub-prefects, judges, and all other leaders responsible for their misfortunes, they will be less likely to fall into the generalized misery I have seen in our villages, especially in the South-West and North-West, which now also suffer from the curfew, the internet shut-down, and the closing of the Nigerian border, which is their economic lifeline. After all, people who govern themselves cultivate their prosperity.
Your honor, you certainly have now understood that I am entirely innocent of the three charges brought against me, and that, on the contrary, it is out of my love for my country and to make amends, so that no writer, no Cameroonian citizen, will ever be persecuted because he or she spoke the truth, that I respectfully submit to you a logical and constructive suggestion for our collective, federal and Anglophone future, and that I commit myself, once freed, to work for its realization, in the framework of a Consortium for Civil Society, founded here today.
I give you my word as Concierge of the Republic.
Trans. Amy B. Reid (Jan 27, 2018)