By Rita J. Egan
A Stony Brook University professor discovered firsthand the difference between freedom of speech in the United States and in the country of Cameroon in Central Africa.
On Dec. 6, Cameroon police detained writer, poet and professor Patrice Nganang as he was leaving the country for Zimbabwe at Douala International Airport, according to a press release from PEN America, an advocacy group that fights for writers’ rights to freedom of expression. The detainment came after the Cameroonian-native and U.S. citizen published an article on the website Jeune Afrique. In the piece in question, the professor was critical of Cameroon President Paul Biya’s administration’s approach to the ongoing instability in Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
Stony Brook University administration officials were notified of the detainment immediately, according to the university.
“Stony Brook University is aware of the situation, and we are working around the clock with the appropriate authorities and elected U.S. representatives to help facilitate the safe return of Professor Nganang,” university president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said in a statement.
Nganang is one of a number of writers who recently have been questioned, detained or imprisoned by police in Cameroon after commenting unfavorably on political or human rights issues, according to PEN America.
“Detaining an important independent voice like Patrice Nganang, who has used his writing to investigate the consequences of violence, is indicative of a movement by the government to silence all political criticism and dismantle the right to free expression,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “We condemn Nganang’s detention and call on the Cameroonian authorities to release him unharmed immediately.”
According to writer Dibussi Tande, one of the administrators of the Facebook page, Free Patrice Nganang, on Dec. 11 a prosecutor postponed the decision to determine if there was enough evidence to proceed to trial until Dec. 13. On the same day, Nganang’s lawyer Emmanuel Simh was notified that the charge of contempt for the president was dropped. Tande said as of Dec. 11 the three remaining charges are for making a death threat against the president; forgery and use of forgery due to the professor having a Cameroonian passport despite being a U.S. citizen as the country does not recognize dual citizenship; and illegal immigration due to not having the proper papers as a U.S. citizen.
Tande said Nganang has been in isolation in the offices of the judicial police in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé. A representative of the U.S. Embassy visited Nganang Dec. 11.
“This is essentially a political witch hunt by folks in government who want to punish him for his decade-long activism on behalf of democracy and the downtrodden in Cameroon,” Tande said. “However, with negative international attention that his arrest has brought on Cameroon, some elements in government think it would be better to simply expel him from Cameroon on grounds that he entered Cameroon illegally.”
Robert Harvey, a distinguished professor at SBU, said it was a relief when the contempt charge was dropped, and he remains hopeful. The embassy representative contacted him with a message from Nganang. He wanted his former students to know that he hasn’t forgotten about their letters of recommendation. Harvey said Nganang was on a leave of absence this semester to attend to family business in Zimbabwe.
“He’s a popular teacher,” Harvey said. “He’s impassioned; he’s effective.”
On his SBU profile page, the professor wrote that his intellectual work covers scholarly activities, writing and essayistic interventions.
“I investigate the diverse ramifications of violence, and I am particularly interested in what is commonly referred to as the ‘colonial archive’ (pictures, books, instruments),” Nganang’s profile said. “I have published and lectured extensively on this topic. I have also published on numerous topics related to postcolonial African literature, theaters and cultures.”
This article was updated Dec. 12 to include quotes from Free Patrice Nganang Facebook administrator Dibussi Tande and Dec. 13 to included quotes from SBU distinguished professor Robert Harvey.