Celestin Monga is an economist in Douala, Cameroon who for several years has written articles, especially criticisms of Cameroonian politics, for various publications in Cameroon and elsewhere. Through this work he has become regarded as one of the nation's leading intellectuals. He became a sort of popular hero in January 1991, when he was arrested for criticizing the President as the result of a piece he wrote for Le Messager. His arrest sparked protests throughout the country.
The interview excerpted here, which took place at Monga's home in Douala on May 2, 1991 and is translated from the French, was the first he had given since his arrest.
Q: Briefly, what's the history behind the events of January?
A: I came back to Cameroon from Europe in 1986, and taught a little. Fame Ndongo at ESSTIC [the state journalism school] asked me to. And then I joined BCCI [the international bank], where they opened an economic studies department in November 1986. They asked me to be head of this department. I came back to Cameroon mostly for familial reasons, but I wanted to continue some intellectual activity, so I wrote some articles from time to time for various newspapers where I had friends, where I knew people.
I had previously refused to write in the Cameroonian press, because I knew that what I wrote could not be published [due to censorship]. But since last year, since 1990, I began to write occasional opinion pieces for Le Messager in the form of open letters to [President] Paul Biya. The one in January was not at all the first. Last year I wrote two such letters, which were just as critical as the others... But they went by unnoticed because the censor and the police let them go, so it was mostly the intellectuals who saw them.
Q: Why did you start writing for Le Messager?
A: Because in the past year, I got the feeling that Le Messager was coming closer to my point of view. At the start, I didn't like their political line at all. They said that, okay, we have to write that Biya is very good, that his ideas are very good, and that it is the system that's flawed. I think just the opposite, that Biya is very bad, and that he has no ideas, and thus his system is bad. And in the past year, I have the impression that Le Messager has improved a little, and has begun to criticize the larger political actions taken by the President. I thought they were taking an interesting position, so I decided to give them a hand.
Q: Were you close to the editors of Le Messager?
A: On a friendship basis, yes. They are my friends. I have known [Director of Publication Pius] Njawe for two years, because he is a courageous friend, even if I did not always agree with his strategy. I realize today that he was undoubtedly right, that it was the right strategy, because if they had said what I would have liked them to, the paper would have gone out of existence. If they had attacked Biya from the beginning, the paper would undoubtedly not exist.
So in January I heard Biya address the National Assembly on television, and he said a number of ridiculous things. I waited a few days for opposition politicians to react, but nobody did. I called my friends Njawe and [Messager editor] Noumbissie to say that I had I piece to send them. They published the article, and then you know the rest. The edition was seized, and I was arrested and put on trial.
Q: How long were you in prison?
A: Three days, the first being January third.
Q: Why do editors sometimes choose to print their edition before showing it to the censor, as happened in this case?
A: It's psychology in a way. If he sees that the paper is already printed, he might not tell you, "Burn them all because there are three lines I don't like." So what the paper did in the case of edition 209 of December 27, the one with my article, is that they printed it and then gave it to the censor. Then, because the censor had it for more than six hours without responding, they put the paper on sale. And afterwards, the paper was seized, and the police took it off all the newsstands.
Q: When you wrote the letter, did you think that it was extraordinarily critical? More than the others?
A: No, because I had already been arrested several times for things I wrote here. So I thought that, yes, it's possible that I could be arrested, but since Biya had announced that from now on he wouldn't arrest anyone, I thought he wouldn't... I told myself that this time they would only hurt themselves if they arrested me, because on December 31st the President had said in his end-of-year message, "No, no! Nobody has to go hide in the forest anymore to express their opinions," and the next morning at 6, they came to get me!
Q: Someone told me that at times Le Messager puts confrontational items in the paper that they know will be censored, just to provoke the censor. Did you do that with this letter?
A: No, not with this letter. But it is true that sometimes at Le Messager and in the private press, they decide to take a certain number of risks. For example, with the interview I will give next week to Challenge Hebdo, they're not going to show it to the censor, before or after printing. Because if they show it to the censor, it's certain that it will be seized. So what they're going to do is print the interview and put a few copies on sale, the police will seize them, and the rest they will sell underground.
Q: And that is possible?
A: You can do it but it's more complicated, and costs a lot to organize, because you have to utilize other channels of distribution, people you can count on, and so on. But it's the only way to beat the censor, because if we wait for the day when they let us print what we want to print, we will wait our whole lives. One of the reasons that I haven't given interviews since the trial is because I knew that what I was going to say would not be published.
Q: Do papers do this often?
A: Not often, just for some important issues. For example, three weeks ago Le Messager printed a list of political prisoners from North Cameroon. Last month they had this list and they tried to print it, but the censor took it out. The President says every day that there are no more political prisoners, that he let them go, and here they have a list of names of people who haven't even been tried and are in prison, people who were sentenced and served their time but are still in prison for no reason.
So the editors said, OK, we're going to confront them. That's the tendency now. They've chosen confrontation. The risks are great, of course, but it's the only way to get things moving, because the discussions, the negotiations get nowhere. While all the newspapers are censored in Cameroon, Mr. Biya says in Paris that censorship is symbolic. He takes us for imbeciles.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a journalist?
A: No, my job is being a banker at BCCI.
Q: So why write?
A: Because I have the impression that the journalists, the politicians, and the intellectuals don't do their job in this country. The things I wrote in my letter are normally the work of politicians, heads of opposition parties. I don't know what they do or where they were, but they didn't listen. Since my trial they've started to take points of view from time to time.
I think that the heads of opposition parties don't do their job. The intellectuals that normally should express themselves publicly don't express themselves. There are men like Fame Ndongo who are there to amplify the official point of view. When the government does something, they applaud, and they call themselves intellectuals. And unfortunately the journalists don't really do their jobs either, although that's beginning to get better, but when I read the private press it's still very bad. If I involve myself it's because I have the impression that the people who should do it are occupied with other things.
Q: How has the private press improved?
A: You have to take the papers from December and compare them to those of April, and you will see that the subjects that are treated, their tone, is totally different. There has been a fundamental change.
Q: What other changes would you like to see?
A: There are still too occupied with petty politics. The true problems of Cameroon don't get discussed. I have told this to my friends at Le Messager many times. Problems like urbanization-- In a city like Douala, 90 percent of the people live in slums. Nobody has ever done an article on the problem of urbanization in Douala. They don't talk about education, health, the problems of the daily lives of the people. They talk about politics because it's more glamorous. But that's going to change, because it's all just beginning. It's the first time that they've had the right to talk about politics. But I think in a couple of months people will be tired of politics and politicians, so the papers that want to keep their audience have to start posing the problems that affect the daily lives of people.
Q: In your letter you challenged Biya's statement, "I have led you to democracy." Why?
A: That's what bothered me the most. On June 29, 1987, he goes in front of the National Assembly and makes a big speech and says, "We are a great country," and everyone applauds. He says, "We will not go to the International Monetary Fund [for economic aid]," and everybody says, "Bravo!" And then in February, they announce that Cameroon has signed an accord with the IMF. On April 9, 1990 he goes on television to announce that Cameroonians have told him they don't want multi-party politics, and says, "I have understood you. Cameroon has only one problem. It's not multi-party politics, it's the economic crisis." On June 30, at his party's congress, he says, "Okay, maybe we have to think about eventual political competition."
This man truly believes we're imbeciles. When he says, "I have led you to democracy," he takes us to be sheep. One of his ministers said one day on television, "We are the sheep and the President is our shepherd." Incredible. Incredible. These are men who in my opinion do not even know the meaning of the words used in political debate. Evidently, they are not used to being criticized, so they say whatever they want. I hope that now they will start to think before they speak. That shocked me profoundly when I heard that, because not only was he mocking us, he was telling us that he was mocking us. So that's what made me write my famous letter.
Q: And now Biya says proudly that Mitterand told him he is one of the best students of democracy.
A: A head of state, at his age, a student. We don't want students. These are people who entered into politics with no preparation, and they sense that they can treat us like sheep, so they can do whatever they want and they will get by. They have gotten by for 10 years, but now it's starting to change.
Q: The thing about your letter which most enraged the government was the insolent tone you used to address the President. I think that comes out of the traditional chief mentality, where there are certain established ways of addressing a ruler.
A: Yes. During my trial, the attorney for the President of the Republic who was prosecuting me said, "What is shocking in the Monga affair is that Monga is a Bamiléké. And Bamilékés respect their chief. When the chief speaks, you listen. When the chief says walk on your knees, you walk on your knees." I was there, but I couldn't say anything because I had decided not to speak during the trial, to not even respond. But if I had spoken I would have said this: It's true that in the African mentality, one respects the chief, one doesn't touch him. But the chief, Mr. Biya, does not have that African mentality.
A chief is supposed to respect his people. Mr. Biya does not respect his people. The chief is there to concern himself with the community. There are councils of elders, what are called secret societies, which play the role of the National Assembly in the Western system. They are there to transmit to the President what the people are thinking, and the chief listens. The chief does not decide alone.
In my village, when you go see the chief, you say, "I have a problem and I would like a solution." The chief doesn't say, "Okay, here's the solution." The chief says, "I understand, come back tomorrow." And in the night he will meet with the council of elders, he will meet with the secret society, he will pose the problem, and they will offer solutions, and the next day he will give you an answer. So I agree that you don't talk to an African chief in a certain way, but that chief has to be truly an African chief.
Q: So if the chief acts like a chief, he gets respect.
A: Right, not like a little bandit who wants money. Biya is not an African chief and he cannot be an African chief.
Q: So you didn't feel that you were using injurious language?
A: If I want to talk about Biya, there are plenty of other words in the dictionary I could use.
Q: I read this, your most recent letter to the President.
A: Yes, that's the second 'famous' one. That was after the trial.[*]
Q: You didn't publish this one?
A: No. At the trial they gave me a suspended sentence. They took away my passport, and the attorney said that I could not leave Douala without authorization. I said to myself, they want to scare me, they want me to apologize, and then they will give me my passport, and they will leave me alone. I wanted to show them that I was not at all scared, so I wrote this second letter, and gave it to some journalists at three or four newspapers. They all tried to print it, even clandestinely, without showing it to the censor. Impossible. So, it gets photocopied and circulated and ends up all over.
Q: If something like this happened again, do you think the government would persecute you?
A: I know that as long as Mr. Biya and his men are in power, I will not be safe. That's certain, for a simple reason. That is, I have no intention of apologizing, and I have every intention of continuing to annoy them. We will have a permanent confrontation. So they will persecute me, and that's normal, because I persecute them. Now the thing is to see who's stronger. Six months ago they were stronger, now we don't really know.
When I was judged in January I was sentenced to six months in prison, with a suspended sentence. So I appealed it, as I was not satisfied with the decision. According to law, they have to retry me within four months. That was the 18 of January, so they have to do it before May 18, and they can't do it, for a simple reason. If they announce that they're having another Monga trial, Mr. Biya risks losing his position, because all of Cameroon will be out in the streets.
Q: Do you think the government regrets starting all this?
A: Of course. I hope for their sake that they regret it. If they don't they are even less intelligent than I thought. If they haven't judged my case again by May 18, in two or three weeks, the law says that the first trial is invalid. So that wipes out the sentence I got in January. And if that happens, I will take Biya to court. I will bring him to trial for abuse of power. To take me to court, to take me away from my job, to take up my time for six months, only to find that it was a mistake, that's a serious error. I will talk to Pius Njawe and some lawyers and we will have a good little trial. We will call Mr. Biya to come and tell us how he could allow himself to arrest two honest citizens who have done nothing wrong and make them the object of a trial.
Q: And you hope to see Mr. Biya in the courtroom?
A: He is a citizen like anyone else.
Q: Do you think there was an aspect of tribalism to the trial?
A: At one point when they didn't know what else to say, they said, "Look, Monga is Bamiléké, Njawe is Bamiléké, it's a Bamiléké affair." They even distributed tracts to that effect in the city. Unfortunately it didn't work. They even wrote a song about me that was on television, which said that I was manipulated by the Bamiléké tribe, by foreign powers, by Americans. They took out the judge and the magistrate who were going to handle the case and put only Bamilékés in. So the president of the tribunal was Bamiléké, there was a Bamiléké attorney, everyone, because they thought that if they put in someone from another tribe, people would say it was a tribal decision.
A friend asked me, "Aren't the Bamiléké backing you up?" I asked why he thought this, and he said it was because there was a Bamiléké businessman who gave 500,000 CFA [$2,000] to my liberation fund. That was the proof. And I said yes, that's true, but there are men in the North who gave 2 million, 3 million, people who don't even know me, who don't even want to know me, but who gave simply for the principle of the thing. Maybe it's the men in the North who are manipulating me... We live in a country where whenever there's a problem people ask, "What's his tribe? What's his origin?" It's a problem we shouldn't exaggerate.
Q: Is censorship getting better or worse?
A: The officials responsible for it want to be more strict. But they can't anymore, because there are too many papers to read, and the law gives them only four hours to go through a paper. If you have ten papers that you have to get through by noon, you can't read everything. You'll read the headlines and look over it quickly. They want to be stricter because they have instructions to that effect, but exactly the opposite happens, because many journalists have become more courageous. They have realized that they can express a point of view without going to prison.
So the longer the censor exists, the more it will become ineffective. As I said, next week they won't show the paper to the censor, and they will wait for the police. And they will do that once, twice, and if it works they will do it systematically.
Q: Sometimes I see things in the paper and say, "Why did they let that through?"
A: Exactly. Challenge Hebdo last week did an article on the problem of hunger in North Cameroon. Because of the Sahel and the bad agricultural policies there, many people are dying of hunger. So the headline was, "The Government is Starving North Cameroon." As soon as the censor saw that, he said, "No, you're crazy, if I let that go by I'll be dead," and he cut out that article and left all the others. And there was an article just after in which someone said that if there is one cancer in Cameroon's society today, it's not the people who do acts of violence in the streets, it's Paul Biya, who's stealing money. It was harsher than the other article. So I think that even if they want to be stricter, they cannot.
Q: What do you think of Cameroon Tribune?
A: I think it is a party-affiliated paper. Here is a party paper of the UPC, which is just as bad as Cameroon Tribune. It's the same thing: "Everything they do is bad, everything we do is very good." All the party papers in my opinion are useless, because they don't try for any objectivity in information, they simply try to justify a position. I can't say I don't like it. I'm completely indifferent.
Q: Do you think it's possible for state-owned media to be objective?
A: It's impossible. In large countries that are more further along than us on the level of this debate, it's a problem that cannot be solved. Biya was somewhat right when he said every regime has its journalists, because in France it's like that. When the President changes, the director of television changes, and so on. It's more pronounced here because it's familial administration. The director of television is not only the friend of the President, he considers him as his brother.
So Biya can try [to make television objective], but it won't work without a neutral structure to control it. And Biya will not accept a neutral structure. So he will undoubtedly set up something symbolic, and they will show three hours on the CPDM and then five minutes on the UPC, and say "Voila! We've opened it up." And it's not only in Cameroon. In all the countries in the world I am sure that those in power would like to control the media, especially television, which has an incredible impact. So it's normal, this tendency. But to think that we could arrive at a guarantee of pluralism organized by one person is impossible.
Q: People say that the private press lacks professionalism, because anyone can be a journalist and criticize things.
A: As if at Cameroon Tribune, where there are only high-level university graduates, there is professionalism.
Q: Is this a real problem?
A: It's true and false. It's true that when I open up Challenge Hebdo I often say, that headline is bad, there are mistakes in the French. I tell them that to be a serious newspaper, you have to rigorously check every comma. But they don't listen, because they just want to sell, to be widely known. It's true that since they recruit from the streets, the quality of what they publish, the form of what they publish, is not always the best. But at Cameroon Tribune, all the journalists are university graduates, and the paper is just as bad as the private press. So it's a problem, but in my opinion it's not fundamental. Le Messager publishes 50,000 copies now, and I think on their staff there are maybe two people with college degrees.
Q: In your second letter, you said that innocent persons lost their lives as a result of your trial.
A: During my trial there were confrontations between the crowd and the police in Douala, and in Garoua especially. There were seven deaths at Garoua.
Q: Were you surprised at the public support you received?
A: That's the thing that most surprised me, because as I said, I was here since 1986, and I wrote regularly, and I had the impression that I always wrote the same things. And they arrested me many times, even in my office at BCCI. So I never, never counted on the popular mobilization. But this time, when I saw the people who were demonstrating, I understood that I would not stay in jail very long.
I have to say that the work my friends did meant a lot, friends like Lapiro de Mbanga, one of the most popular musicians in Cameroon, who led a big campaign for me, distributed tracts everywhere in the city saying that anyone who was on my side should demonstrate at the Palais de Justice. I have never seen that in this country, that people would get up to go demonstrate in favor of someone who is persecuted by the state of Cameroon, by the President of the Republic, by the National Assembly. It's more than I could hope for that someone would take the risk to defend me because he agrees with my ideas.
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