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A man painted in the colours of Malian flag gestures at Independance square as protesters gather to demand that Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leaves office in Bamako on June 19, 2020. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer, against Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Cameroonian prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute speaks during an interview with AFP in Yaoundé on October 3, 2019. (AFP)

Efforts by Cameroonian president Paul Biya to grant further autonomy to the Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, along with other measures allegedly designed to increase local power, have been put on pause due to the ongoing health crisis posed by COVID-19. These measures were originally proposed during a “Major National Dialogue” held between September 30 and October 6, 2019.

Among the various proposals, one of the more symbolic ones was a suggestion to formally change the country’s name to the United Republic of Cameroon, acknowledging the different histories between the country’s Francophone and Anglophone regions, which were unified on October 1, 1961.

The Cameroonian parliament also introduced laws to formalize bilingualism; establish “super mayors” for the country’s fourteen largest cities, to be elected by popular vote, who would act as delegates to the national government; create regional assemblies composed of a house of representatives and a chamber of traditional chiefs; and provide greater financial assistance to the regions.


Anglophone separatists boycotted last year’s peace talks


While emblematic of the Biya administration’s sincerity in granting further autonomy to Cameroon’s provinces, the government has taken a hard stance against any sort of federal system, creating an intractable deadlock between Biya and Anglophone separatists, who boycotted last year’s peace talks in protest.

Complicating matters is the distrust among Cameroon’s opposition politicians, who view the National Dialogue as a public farce and doubt the legitimacy of the country’s current ruling party, which won the legislative elections earlier this year despite a high rate of voter abstention, potentially as high as 70 percent.


Cameroonian Youth
Cameroonians show their support for President Paul Biya in front of the French embassy in Yaoundé on February 24, 2020, in reaction to remarks French president Emmanuel Macron had made two days earlier. Macron had said intolerable human rights violations were taking place in Cameroon, after an attack on a village by armed insurgents that left twenty-two people dead. (AFP)

During a state visit by Cameroonian president Paul Biya to Switzerland in June 2019, Cameroonian exiles protested outside the InterContinental Hotel in Geneva where he and his wife were staying, venting their anger at the eighty-six-year-old’s management of the Anglophone Crisis, among other grievances. Biya’s presidency began in 1982 and will continue at least until 2025 following his 2018 re-election, making him one of the longest serving presidents still alive on the African continent.

These protesters had been mobilized from across Europe through the use of social media, which compelled the Biya administration to form a social media “cyber brigade” in August 2019 to combat anti-Biya sentiments online and in the streets.


Members disseminate pro-Biya messages and challenge anti-Biya commenters


Using a network of false accounts, members of this officially unacknowledged group disseminate pro-Biya messages and challenge anti-Biya commenters. In itself, this demonstrates a worrying manipulation of social media services by state actors, jeopardizing Cameroon’s already precarious internet freedoms. Targeted internet blackouts occurred in 2017 and 2018 in the English-speaking regions of the country to silence dissent and calls for secession. Tit-for-tat accusations have broken out between pro- and anti-Biya internet posters over the use of ethnically charged rhetoric to sow division.

The existence of this group alone demonstrates a disappointing prioritization of government resources. Instead of addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction in Biya’s presidency and the ongoing tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions of Cameroon, the government has instead chosen to allocate funds to suppress and shape online discourse as a distraction.


Cameroonian troops deployed in response to the Anglophone uprising, with a billboard featuring President Paul Biya in the background. (AFP)

Reports started to circulate on June 3 that Cameroonian television presenter Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, better known by his screen name Samuel Wazizi, had died while in military detention. Lawyer Christopher Ndong said he had died in a military hospital in Yaoundé of wounds inflicted during brutal torture, but no one knew when this had happened, and there was no immediate comment from the authorities.

It had been ten months since police took Wazizi in for questioning and handed him to the military a few days later. He worked for Chillen Muzic Television (CMTV) as a presenter of a popular pidgin English news program Halla Ya Matta (Shout Out Your Problem) in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region.

Both the Southwest and Northwest English-speaking regions have been in the grip of violence since the Anglophone separatist revolt began in October 2017. Reporters Without Borders said Wazizi was accused of criticizing the authorities’ handling of the conflict on air and for allegedly supporting the separatists. Since then, his family and lawyers had had no news of him. Journalists who tried to see him in late September were told he had been transferred to Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé.

The first official acknowledgement of Wazizi’s death came on June 5, when the defense ministry issued a statement saying he had died of “severe sepsis” shortly after his arrest in August 2019, but denying he had been tortured.


“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable”


The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement in response. “The Cameroonian government’s cruel treatment of journalist Samuel Wazizi is truly shocking,” said Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the CPJ. “It is unbelievable that authorities covered up his death in custody for ten months despite repeated inquiries from press freedom advocates and his family, colleagues, friends, and lawyers. An independent autopsy should be conducted immediately, and Cameroon must also launch an independent commission of inquiry so that those responsible for Wazizi’s death are held accountable.”

“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable,” Quintal told New Africa Daily. “We cannot have another case of impunity in the death of a journalist in Cameroon, as we saw with Bibi Ngota’s death in Kondengui Prison over ten years ago.”

Indeed, Wazizi’s death marks the second death of a Cameroonian journalist in detention since the CPJ began keeping records in 1992. Ngota had been investigating corruption involving a politician when he was detained.

“We repeat our call for the remaining seven journalists in jail to be released,” Quintal says. “Several have been in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods—Wawa Jackson Nfor for more than two years and Paul Chouta for more than a year.”


Samuel Wazizi was the presenter of a radio program broadcast from Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest Region. (AFP)


The Anglophone Crisis

Wazizi’s death has attracted international attention to a conflict that has raged largely in the shadows. Known as the Anglophone Crisis, it is rooted in the perception that the English-speaking minority—about 20 percent of the population—are marginalized by the Francophone-dominated government in the political, cultural and economic spheres.

On October 1, 2017, separatists in the anglophone Southwest and Northwest regions declared the independence of Ambazonia. The government of President Paul Biya responded to initial peaceful protests with excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and torture, sparking radicalization. Rather than an organized front, the struggle is being waged largely by semi-independent guerrilla groups that the government likens to bandits. About 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting and more than half a million have been displaced.


The imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence


Journalists have suffered abuse at the hands of not only government forces but also rebels, who have kidnapped and tortured people accused of insufficiently supporting the separatist cause. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries.

Quintal says in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence. Crowded detention centers are at particular risk of outbreaks, now that the official tally of cases has reached 8,000. In April, Biya announced steps to release thousands of prisoners, but those would not include separatists, political opponents, and journalists critical of his rule.

One separatist group has heeded the appeal to declare a ceasefire to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but none of the other groups—estimated to number fifteen—have done so, nor has the government.


Viola Llewellyn
Viola Llewellyn

New Africa Daily spoke to Viola Llewellyn, president and co-founder of Ovamba Solutions, about her company’s approach to some of Africa’s challenges. Ovamba creates technologies for banks so they can serve small and medium-sized enterprises with sharia-compliant trade finance products.

New Africa Daily: Ovamba started in Cameroon. Could you tell us a little about your model and how Ovamba has transitioned from a classic fintech company to a tradetech company?

Viola Llewellyn: We started in 2013 as a platform for the African diaspora to take what would ordinarily be remittances and use that capital for investment in home communities. This was not a viable model back then and it failed before it even started. Our pivots since then took us through the journey of our actual customers. By going through bank account opening, loan application, trying to get services, importing, and looking at how risk works and who would be a reliable customer, we were able to shift effectively to our current model, namely a tradetech solution with additional services. It is comprised of a suite of services available on a mobile app and connected to a risk-measuring and transaction-authorization back office, from e-commerce to logistics services.


NAD: Do you think lending is a healthy option for development of prosperity in Africa?

VL: Lending requires a steep list of criteria to qualify, which inevitably excludes businesses and people who are a good risk but their best aspects cannot be measured by traditional credit processes. Credit that can be secured or not secured has a punitive consequence in the face of non-performance and can create a cycle of poverty, especially amongst sub-prime candidates. Africa requires capital and services together. It has been shown that focusing on inventory and business performance not only produces better transaction and capital deployment outcomes, but also trains businesses for better performance.


NAD: What has Ovamba learned regarding the formulation of risk models?

VL: We have learned that risk models that are formulated correctly open a wider catchment of customers. We formulate our risk models to look for ways to mitigate, not prevent, exposure to risk. We have noticed that in the African market, banks approach risk from the standpoint of total prevention of any exposure to risk, which shuts out customers who may just need an adjustment to the conditions of a transaction.

Case in point: It is common practice that if you want a loan of US$10,000, your bank will require that you have $10,000 “blocked” in your bank account. So lending is secured by your own capital, and you may be required to bring collateral to the table on top of that. This is not how risk management should be done.

Ovamba believes sharia finance can play an important role in providing financial services to people in the informal sector.


NAD: What can sharia finance offer in terms of providing financial services to the informal economy?

VL: Sharia finance offers an ethical fee-based “risk-sharing” approach to finance. It puts inventory at the heart of the transaction, and not the client’s past or future financial performance. It removes the need to have a perfect track record from the main criteria for approval. After all, you can have perfect credit but absolutely poor choice in suppliers or business timing. That makes the transaction a failure. Or you could have great business acumen and mediocre cash flow or reserves, but if the financier has legal and physical control of the asset, there is a balance in the sharing of business outcomes. It works remarkably well for Africa, where wholesale and retail trade drive whole economies.


NAD: What does Ovamba’s description as a tradetech company mean to you?

VL: It means designing innovations to support and drive trade, while simultaneously impacting the business ecosystem through performance and capital. It involves customer selection and onboarding, and having deep knowledge of assets, inventory, logistics, market sector dynamics, value chain, and supply chains, all rolled into easily accessible innovations, apps, and processing algorithms. It is a suite of digital solutions for traditional problems.


NAD: What has Ovamba learned from working with African central banks? How can they be more efficient?

VL: We have learnt that central banks are not technology innovators. We also understand that policy development and response times cannot keep up with innovation. Central banks fully understand what is at stake. The general wariness of fintech and tradetech solutions is slowly giving way to collaboration in the form of sandboxes. Central banks are concerned about financial inclusion and the poor track record of banks who cannot control non-performing loans. We have had the opportunity to speak to quite a few central banks, which all agree that tradetech is a bona fide solution to financial inclusion and better portfolio performance from lending to the informal sector, but that it has to be at scale. Having a digital platform that has the security and bandwidth is the perfect tool to achieve this while also being mindful of data protection.


Viola Llewellyn is a member of the Africa Professional Services Group, the European Women’s Payment Network, and the African Women in Fintech & Payments. In October 2019, she was appointed to the board of advisors of Lobbying Africa. She was born in the United Kingdom to a Cameroonian family and currently lives in the United States.



Collective Action is Necessary for Lake Chad Basin Countries to Beat Terrorism
<em>A soldier of the Chadian army sits on top of a tank that is transported on a truck in N’Djamena, Chad, on January 3, 2020, upon their return after a months-long mission fighting Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. (AFP)</em>



Chad’s recent offensive into the Lake Chad Basin disrupted Boko Haram’s control of the area. Yet without sustained engagement in the region the terrorist group could easily return.

On 23 March, Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS) attacked an army position in Boma, a Chadian peninsula on the Lake Chad Basin. Ninety-eight Chadian soldiers were killed, the most ever in an attack. About forty were wounded and military equipment was captured. Chad’s retaliation was as unprecedented as the JAS attack. The Wrath of Boma military campaign spans three countries: Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.

The Boma attack confirms that JAS remains as formidable a foe to the Lake Chad Basin countries as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). More than eight hours of fighting on a swampy semi-island with heavy casualties for Chad demonstrates JAS’s combat capacity, which included significant amphibious equipment, diligent planning and meticulous intelligence work.

It also shows that the JAS and ISWAP operational sectors often intersect and overlap. The sub-faction of JAS led by Ibrahim Bakura, operating around the northern part of the lake, has since 2019 allowed JAS leader Abubakar Shekau to extend his area of operation beyond Southern Borno in Nigeria, into Niger and Chad.


Collective Action is Necessary for Lake Chad Basin Countries to Beat Terrorism

Lake Chad Basin countries
(Click on the map for the full-size image.)


On the same day as the Boma attack, a Nigerian army unit was ambushed by ISWAP in the Konduga area in Borno State, resulting in around 100 casualties. A Nigerien military reconnaissance outpost in Chetima Wangou, Diffa Region, was attacked two weeks earlier, resulting in eight deaths.

Attacks for resupply and hostage-taking for ransom have persisted across the Lake Chad Basin, but assaults on military positions have intensified across the region since March 2020. These events are part of a trend since the last quarter of 2018 that show the resilience of Boko Haram factions, particularly ISWAP.

Recent attacks on civilians and humanitarian actors in the region have raised concerns about JAS’s enduring capacity to execute large-scale assaults. Since Boko Haram splintered in August 2016 and its strategic camp in the Sambisa Forest was dismantled in December that year, JAS was thought to have been diminished, disorganized and confined to Southern Borno.

Persistent attacks have also raised questions about the effectiveness of the Lake Chad Basin states’ responses to eradicate Boko Haram. The ability of governments in the region to enhance their legitimacy and deliver much-needed services to their communities has also come under scrutiny.


Assaults on military positions have intensified across the Lake Chad Basin region since March 2020


In March this year, before engaging in Lake Chad’s swamps and islands, Chad obtained agreement from Niger and Nigeria for its troops to deploy on their territory. Niger and Nigeria also agreed to block their respective territorial lake shores to prevent JAS fighters from fleeing. This large-scale military response has Shekau’s troops on the run, as is clear in his audio message from 11 April urging his troops to stand firm.

The intensity of Chadian combat operations could open a new chapter in counter-terrorism efforts in the Lake Chad Basin. But there are fears of history repeating itself. Military operations after the deployment of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 2015 rolled back Boko Haram’s territorial gains considerably. But a failure to hold these spaces and win the hearts and minds of the communities meant the groups were never totally eradicated.

A state of emergency has been declared in the departments of Kaya and Fouli in Lac Province, Chad. People living in these border areas – which were declared a war zone from 27 March to 16 April – have been asked to move further inland to avoid being mistaken for Boko Haram combatants.

Lac has a total of 169 000 internally displaced people, 13 000 refugees and 47 000 Chadian returnees resulting from Boko Haram-related emergencies. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs adds about 20 000 to the above number of internally displaced people since the end of March.


Humanitarian consequences will worsen given that COVID-19 responses restrict inter-city movements


The humanitarian consequences will considerably worsen given that COVID-19 responses are restricting inter-city movements. These vulnerable communities are already the double victims of Boko Haram abuses and states’ security-based responses. There is currently no clear strategy to provide shelter or food for these new internally displaced people, exposing them to further health risks and deepening their vulnerabilities.

Beyond the strategic aim of degrading Boko Haram, operational priorities should also focus on helping vulnerable communities. On 4 April, Chad’s President Idriss Déby discussed the MNJTF’s control of the Lake Chad islands with force commander Major General Ibrahim Manu Yusuf. Yusuf has prioritized reconquering these islands by integrating the police and civil society. While this is happening, the Lake Chad Basin states must ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to help manage additional displacements.

The complex mix of actors trapped in Boko Haram’s operational areas must also be considered. Ongoing Institute for Security Studies research shows that large-scale military operations often trigger the return of voluntary and involuntary associates of Boko Haram in all four of the Lake Chad Basin countries. It’s important to differentiate between ex-combatants, abductees and detainees of Boko Haram in order to propose responses suited to each category.

The collaboration between Chad, Niger and Nigeria on the Wrath of Boma military operation should be extended to diplomatic, developmental and peacebuilding efforts. Cameroon should also be part of this partnership.


Beyond destroying Boko Haram, operational priorities should include helping vulnerable communities


Lake Chad Basin countries should use this opportunity to strengthen and sustain the regional cooperation required to both outlast Boko Haram and launch effective peacebuilding in the area. The MNJTF can enhance this coordination and ensure that liberated areas are held by civil defense forces that are able to protect citizens.

The countries of the Lake Chad Basin have missed some important opportunities to eradicate violent extremism and stabilize the area. Better communication and a coordinated response, both in the military and development fields, will help bring down Boko Haram.


Remadji Hoinathy is the scientific director of the Centre de Recherches en Anthropologie et Sciences Humaines (CRASH) in N’Djaména, Chad, and a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at the University of N’Djamena.

This article was originally published on ISS Today under the heading “Is counter-terrorism history repeating itself in Lake Chad Basin?”


There are two sub-species of the African elephant, the African savanna elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. The latter is native to the tropical forests of Central and West Africa. Threatened by poaching and habitat loss, the African forest elephant population of Central Africa has fallen by more than 30 percent in the past seven years.


Forest elephant populations had declined by about 66 percent over eight years.


Declining Numbers

In 2010, Cameroon’s elephant population was 21,000, but that number has fallen drastically in the past decade due to poaching for the international ivory trade. In 2014, research funded by Save the Elephants revealed that the price of ivory in China, the world’s biggest market, almost tripled in the previous four years.

In 2017, wildlife censuses carried out in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Gabon revealed that forest elephant populations had declined by about 66 percent over eight years.


In this photograph taken on April 11, 2019, a wild forest elephant and calves bathe in the marshes of in Bayanga Equatorial Forest, part of the Dzanga Sangha Reserve, the last refuge of forest elephants and Central African gorillas, in south-western Central African Republic. Due to the increase in poaching amid an ongoing internal conflict, the number of large mammals in the Central African Republic has decreased by 94% in thirty years, according to a 2018 Ecofaune report. In the north of the country, all rhinos, giraffes and savanna elephants have disappeared. FLORENT VERGNES / AFP
Forest elephants bathe in Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve in the southwest of the Central African Republic. (Florent Vergnes/AFP)


The Demand for Ivory and Wood

Elephant poaching is rife in Cameroon’s Deng Deng National Park and Nja Biosphere Reserve, for example, and the area is known as a hub for the illegal ivory trade. But poaching is not the only threat facing these elephants. The logging industry has played an outsize role in decimating elephant habitats, not only by felling trees but also by setting up logging camps, thus bringing people deeper into the forest. This coincides with smaller-scale illegal logging, as people burn wood for fuel. As logging roads push deeper into the forest, new routes open up for poachers hunting for human consumption, as the trade in bushmeat is a full-time source of income for some, and for others a matter of survival in times of hardship.

What is happening in the Central African rainforests poses a dilemma for governments, which must weigh their obligations to protect the environment with the need to develop infrastructure and manufacturing capacities.



Paul Biya
The Octogeneration President Paul Biya is the longest serving president in the world. (Ludovic MARIN/AFP)


On April 11, Cameroon had 820 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, making it the country with the second-highest infection rate in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa. With tensions still running high in the anglophone regions and a growing Boko Haram threat in the Far North Region, the pandemic piles on yet another crisis for President Paul Biya’s administration.

Well before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Africa, Cameroonians and opposition figures had been criticizing President Biya’s “hands-off” governing style, characterized by long absences without issuing public statements, delegating government functions to his prime minister, and taking extended private trips overseas. The last time the Cameroonian public saw the president was at a meeting with US ambassador to Cameroon Peter Balerin on March 11, during which Biya posed for press photos but did not speak to journalists. On March 28, opposition leader Maurice Kamto issued an ultimatum to President Biya demanding that he publicly announce an economic stimulus package within seven days. Five days later, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute revealed the creation of a US$16.67 million solidarity fund. During this period, the only other time President Biya addressed the public was through social media, urging Cameroonians to abide by public health guidelines.

Kamto’s ultimatum puts the Biya administration in an awkward position. The opposition leader capped off his statement with a clear warning, “I reserve the right to call on the Cameroonian people to draw all the consequences from his serious failure, which could then lead to ascertainment of his inability to govern.” Responses from Biya’s governing coalition were swift, condemning Kamto for politicizing the pandemic and calling it “shameful”. Though the country has closed schools and its national borders, banned political rallies, and instituted curfews for markets and businesses, this is still not enough, argues Agora Consulting associate director Stephane M’Bafou: “We must quickly declare a curfew, isolate the cities where cases are confirmed, and move toward a general containment regardless of the socio-economic cost.”

While minister of health Malachie Manaouda has taken point on the country’s COVID-19 response alongside the prime minister, President Biya’s habit of consulting ministers in private meetings at the presidential palace is unlikely to instill confidence in his leadership. With the median age of Cameroonians less than half the 38 years that Biya has been president, public confidence in him and his RDPC party is likely to deteriorate should conditions worsen and he were to remain out of sight.

With ninety-one known cases of COVID-19 and two deaths as of March 28, Cameroon is the Central African country that is the most affected by COVID-19. As restrictions are put in place to slow the spread of the virus, one area of Cameroonian society coming under greater scrutiny is its prison system. Across the country, 31,000 Cameroonians are imprisoned, overseen by 4,600 prison employees.

Enforcing social distancing is difficult under prison conditions, and Cameroon’s continued incarceration of new prisoners risks exposing prison populations to the deadly pandemic. Medical facilities and equipment are sorely lacking in Cameroonian prisons. On average, these prisons have only one doctor per 1,383 detainees.

Human rights advocates are urging the government to empty the prisons before an outbreak occurs in the country’s crowded prisons. A group of Cameroonian lawyers sent a letter to the Minister of Justice, Laurent Esso, on Thursday, March 26, to make their demands known publicly.


Why It Matters

Releasing prisoners may seem to be an extraordinary step to prevent the spread of a viral pandemic, but in fact the concept of releasing non-violent offenders has long been the position of prison abolitionists and other activists seeking criminal justice reform. Punitive detention facilities rarely rehabilitate inmates, leaving them to reoffend once they are released. Cameroon’s prison population has steadily grown over the past decade, which calls into question the efficacy of the country’s criminal justice system. Whether the Minister of Justice accedes to these demands or not, the Cameroonian prison system needs an overhaul.


Manu Dibango in Abidjan
In this file photo taken on June 29, 2018, Manu Dibango performs during a concert at the Ivory Hotel in Abidjan. (Sia Kambou/AFP)


"It is bleakly fitting that, of all the ways Dibango’s life could have ended, he was brought down by a pandemic of historic proportions." 


Manu Dibango, the legendary Cameroonian saxophonist, composer and jazz-fusion innovator whose music career spanned more than six decades, died on March 24 in a Paris hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus. He was eighty-six years old.

It is bleakly fitting that, of all the ways Dibango’s life could have ended, he was brought down by a pandemic of historic proportions. 

His formative years in France during the 1950s exposed him to other African musicians and thinkers, all of whom were already formulating the concept of pan-Africanism, an ideal that Dibango would eventually embody. This was a man who performed with Le Grand Kallé et l’African Jazz, a pioneering orchestra who helped define the Congolese rumba sound, in the very nightclubs where bureaucrats and diplomats were discussing the future of post-independence Congo. He became the first foreign musician to perform in Côte d’Ivoire after the country gained independence from France.

Manu Dibango was a man of history, influenced by it as much as he helped to define it. His life unfolded as the continent of his birth rapidly changed in only a few short decades, and the many decades since made him witness to a defining era of human history. Yet, for Dibango, all this was secondary to the music. In October 2019, in an interview with Radio France Internationale’s Claudy Siar, Dibango put it succinctly: “‘Somewhere,’ he begins, vaguely gesturing around his head, ‘it’s music that keeps pushing me, keeps pushing me, keeps pushing me.’”


The Magical Virus of Music

Emmanuel (Manu) N’Djoké Dibango was born in 1934 in the port city of Douala to Protestant parents. His earliest memories take him back to primary school where he studied Duala, the indigenous language of his mother’s ethnicity. “Makossa”, from his first international hit, 1972’s “Soul Makossa”, is a Duala word meaning “I dance”. After school, the young Dibango would visit his local temple, where his mother led the women’s choir. It’s here, he explained in a 1991 UNESCO interview, that he first caught the “magical virus” of music.


Listen to “Soul Makossa” from the album Soul Makossa (1972)


At age fifteen, Dibango was sent to boarding school in France. His music education began with classical piano at age seventeen. He would pick up the saxophone a few years later, partly as a joke between him and his classmates, but he also credits the jazz greats Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong among others for inspiring him to master the saxophone.

Not long after, Dibango joined a jazz band led by Francis Bebey, a Cameroonian guitarist. The two of them maintained a lifelong friendship, with Dibango referring to Bebey as his hero. Bebey married one of Dibango’s cousins, a fact Dibango loved to share with anyone who would listen.


The Road to Stardom

It was the heady days of 1960 that laid the path for Dibango’s transformation into a global musical icon. By this point, he had already been living in Brussels, Belgium, for several years. He began to perform at a nightclub called Anges Noirs, which became famous for bringing in notable black artists from the African diaspora. The club, which was open to all, brought together an eclectic mix of white Belgians, black Europeans, Latin-Americans, and Caribbeans, and with them a confluence of various musical genres. Tango, samba, the cha-cha, and jazz, all of which built upon a sturdy rhythmic base, planted the seed of musical experimentation in Dibango’s mind.

Of the many African performers who walked through the doors of Anges Noirs, it was the arrival of Joseph Kabasélé, the titular “Grand Kallé” of African Jazz, that would leave the biggest impression on Dibango’s life. It was Kabasélé who wrote “Independence Cha-Cha”, independent Congo’s liberation anthem. As the patrons of Anges Noirs danced to this tune, Dibango realized the potential of fusing traditional African musical norms with those of jazz.

Impressed with Dibango’s musical acumen, Kabasélé invited him to perform with African Jazz as they toured post-independence Congo, marking Dibango’s first return to Africa since he had left in 1949. In 1961, he returned to his birth country of Cameroon, though the visit was bittersweet. Having spent so many years in Europe, he realized that his life had been split between two cultures. The contradictions between the social mores of Cameroon versus those of France and Belgium made it hard for Dibango to feel truly “at home”, a reality he touched upon in that same UNESCO interview.

The contradiction Dibango felt is one experienced by almost anyone within a diaspora. At the same time, this liminal space in between rigidly defined cultures afforded Dibango an ability to think more creatively. As much as he incorporated his African heritage and European upbringing into his identity, so too did he express that through his music. Upon returning to Paris, he set up a studio where he collaborated with various artists from Africa and the African diaspora. In this way, he embodied the spirit of pan-Africanism: celebrating the universality of the African people through the language of music.

Once “Soul Makossa” took off as an international hit, Dibango’s stardom saw a meteoric rise. A year after its release, he toured with the American salsa band Fania All Stars. Jersey City funk collective Kool and the Gang’s 1974 hit “Jungle Boogie” took inspiration from Dibango, going on to influence the American funk and disco scene as well as hip-hop.


Manu Dibango
Manu Dibango pictured in Paris. (Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP)


A Prolific Musical Output


"His generosity in life earned him the UNESCO Artist for Peace award in 2004 for his efforts in using the arts to promote peace and dialogue."


During the 1980s, Dibango greatly expanded his creative output, and branched out into numerous genres. In 1980 and 1981, he collaborated with some of Jamaica's biggest reggae performers, such as Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, Ansell Collins, and Mikey Chung on the records Gone Clear and Ambassador


Listen to “Reggae Makossa” from the album Gone Clear (1980)


In 1985, Dibango recorded Electric Africa with, among others, the innovative jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who himself helped to pioneer the sounds of techno and hip-hop. Afrijazzy, released in 1986, brought the seminal South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela on board.


Listen to “Echos Beti”, feat. Herbie Hancock, from the album Electric Africa (1985)


The early 1990s saw a slew of releases that featured African performers more prominently. Wakafrika, released in 1994, may as well be labeled the African supergroup with the musicians featured on it. Among them were Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Mali’s Salif Keita, Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti, and the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


Listen to “Emma”, feat. Salif Keita, from the album Wakafrika (1994)


It is strange in some respect to talk of Manu Dibango in the past. While watching his October RFI interview, he appears so vivacious and engaged. He may have been eighty-five at the time, but he showed no sign of slowing down. He was even talking of a new project he intended to start working on before COVID-19 struck. His generosity in life earned him the UNESCO Artist for Peace award in 2004 for his efforts in using the arts to promote peace and dialogue.

Though his body has left this world, his soul lives on in his extensive discography and the countless musicians he has influenced over decades. His enthusiastic inclusion of musical stylings and willingness to collaborate with artists from all over the world is a testament to his creative genius. More than that, he proved in his life and in his legacy that music really is a universal language that unites us, even when we live in chaotic times, like the end of colonization or a viral pandemic.


Listen to “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” on CubAfrica, and album by Cuarteto Patria & Manu Dibango (2018) 


The Republic of the Congo’s president Denis Sassou N’Guesso inaugurated the Sembé–Souanké–Ntam road on Friday, March 6, the second phase of the 503 kilometer-long Ketta–Djoum road project, a link between the Congolese capital Brazzaville and the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. The African Development Bank funded the joint project between the two countries, and the Chinese engineering firm Sinohydro Tianjin built it. 


Why It Matters

Large public infrastructure projects like this reflect China’s continuing relevance to African development and the growing importance of regional integration efforts. The movement of people and goods across national borders remains a major obstacle to intra-African trade and economic growth, so a project like this is key to overcoming such metaphorical roadblocks. Ahead of the formal implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area in July, transnational public infrastructure will be a critical investment for African nations looking to reap the benefits of the free trade.

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Jul 11, 2020