For Patrice Nganang, returning home to Hopewell, New Jersey after spending nearly a month in a Cameroonian prison was a thrill he could barely put into words.
“I am simply happy, and filled with love and gratitude,” he said. “I would have been in jail today, and now I’m seeing my daughter play. I can’t believe it.”
The 37-year-old professor of the Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies program at Stony Brook was released from prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon by a court order on Wednesday, Dec. 27, after being detained by judiciary police since Dec. 6.
The official government account states that Nganang was detained for insulting Cameroonian President Paul Biya and issuing a death threat in a Facebook post. But the professor said he believes he was arrested for speaking out against Biya’s treatment of the country’s English-speaking minority in an article he published the day before.
“I was actually incarcerated because of my support for the English-speaking minority,” Nganang said. “I spent three weeks in the Anglophone region and published a report. My interrogation was only about that report, what I did, who I met and what I talked about. That is the single thing I was interrogated about.”
The split between Cameroon’s English-speaking and French-speaking populations dates back to the country’s founding. Before its independence, Cameroon’s territory was split between two colonies, one French and one English. Cameroon’s Francophone majority has held sway over the nation since the end of colonialism, but state-sponsored discrimination against the country’s Anglophones only began with the 1982 election of Biya.
English-speaking Cameroonians feel they are treated as second-class citizens by their government, which has not hesitated to use the country’s largely Francophone military to maintain order, often with violent results. In turn, Anglophone political resistance has occasionally led to deadly attacks against military and police officials in English-speaking areas. Nganang said it was Biya’s response to a string of police killings in the region, and his orders for 15 villages to evacuate or be seen as accomplices of terrorism, that prompted him to write the article.
“It is so outrageous,” he said. “The government inherited a country where this conflict did not exist at all and has manufactured a conflict over 30 years. To see the state waging a war against English-speaking Cameroonians, arresting them, that is really amazing. It simply doesn’t make sense.”
After spending several weeks with marginalized Anglophones, Nganang said he was prompted to write the impassioned Facebook post that supposedly landed him in hot water with Biya’s administration.
“It was an emotionally charged piece from traveling three weeks in a region that is really under assault,” Nganang said. “You see the military everywhere, it is a totally occupied zone. I see the total misery of people in that region. The article I wrote for the French magazine was a normal report, but I had so much emotion from what I saw that I needed to write something to express that.”
The professor’s arrest kicked off a global protest campaign. An open letter from Princeton University calling for Nganang’s release garnered signatures from hundreds of American professors, including Robert Harvey, the former chair of Stony Brook’s Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature program. A GoFundMe page organized by Nganang’s wife, Nyasha Bakare, to help cover his legal fees raised $4,635 in 19 days. The professor’s eight-year-old daughter Nomsa even wrote a letter that went viral about how her father might miss her birthday.
Amid the growing backlash against his arrest, Nganang remained oblivious to the attention he was receiving back home. In a prison cell roughly 6,000 miles away, the professor was afforded little contact with the outside world and spent his days reading once he convinced the guards to let him have books.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” Nganang said. “I was kept away from communication for very long. And after a while, I simply decided not to follow it so much… It was when I came out that I was briefed, and I saw all the headline and all the articles. I was really surprised.”
Nganang was jubilant when thanking the people who lobbied for his release, giving the protesters total credit for his ability to return home.
“It made such a huge difference,” he said. “Thank you so much, that I would like to say to teachers, to students, to lawyers, journalists, to friends across the globe. Today I would have been in jail in Cameroon, literally. And now I am in the U.S. with my family. That is because of that campaign.”
Emmanuel Simh, Nganang’s lawyer, told reporters the professor had his passport confiscated while in Cameroon, and has officially been exiled from the country of his birth. Even so, the professor doubts the ban will last very long, and predicts the Biya administration will go the way of recently deposed Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.
“I consider it to be my exile, because I’m a writer anyway and exile is part of what writers endure,” Nganang said. “The current government in Cameroon is going to fall anyway, so it is a matter of time and then I’ll go back to Cameroon after there is changed there.”