Oslo Journal, Part VI

Lapiro de Mbanga


Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of his journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V.

Lapiro de Mbanga is maybe the most colorfully dressed person here. He is — let me quote from his bio — “a Cameroonian musician and pro-democracy activist.” Let me keep quoting (for this is very interesting):

In 2008, Mbanga composed a song, titled “Constipated Constitution,” which was highly critical of Cameroonian president Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982. The song became an anthem at opposition rallies and protests, and Mbanga was subsequently charged with “complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings.”

Mbanga was thrown into prison for three years. He was released in 2011. He now lives in America, where he was granted political asylum.

At the rostrum in Norway, he thanks those who “worked for my liberation.” He also thanks “all the religious communities in Cameroon that never ceased to pray for me.”

He describes Cameroon as a “volcano,” which, unless someone does something to relieve the pressure of tyranny, will “explode” soon.

Mbanga makes me think of the revolution in Estonia, at the end of the USSR, a revolution known as “the Singing Revolution.” I wrote a piece about it two years ago: “Songs and Tanks.”

The revolution in Syria started out with some singing too (as I say in the above-linked piece). That has not worked out so well as Estonia.

Natalia Kaliada brings something onstage with her: a garment rack, with a suit on it — a suit belonging to a man. It just hangs there. She is a woman of the theater, the co-founder and artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group. She and her husband have been forced into exile. They live in the U.K.

She shows us pictures of Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko — “Europe’s last dictator,” as he is known. He is pictured with Hugo Chávez, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the gang’s all there. Les beaux esprits se rencontrent.

“Belarus is not sexy,” Kaliada says. It has no oil, gas, coast, or mountains. “No one comes to Belarus, even our closest neighbors.” Belarus may be Europe’s last dictatorship — but she would like it to be known, very soon, as the world’s youngest democracy.

In December 2010, Belarus had an election. Lukashenko stole it, and cracked down viciously. I wrote a piece called “Belarus, Assaulted.”

About that suit that Kaliada has brought out: If I have heard correctly, it belongs, or belonged, to a young man who was executed. It was to be his wedding suit. His mother gave it to Kaliada. His family is still waiting for the corpse, or what’s left of it.

Ali Ferzat is the Syrian cartoonist who displeased the regime and was attacked by goons. They broke both of his hands and left him basically to bleed to death. But Ferzat survived, and is with us here at the forum. I have interviewed him — and expect to write about him in a forthcoming National Review.

But let me mention just a few things here . . .

In his speech to the forum, Ferzat makes clear that he objects to the idea that Syria is engaged in a civil war. It is not a civil war, he says: On one side are the regime and its foreign allies — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. — and on the other side are the Syrian people.

He says that, 50 years ago, women had the right to vote, and to run for parliament. The country has gone backward. It reminds me of the famous pictures of the graduating classes at Cairo University. There came a point, relatively recently, when all the women were covered in scarves.

Ferzat notes that Bashar Assad has a lot of support throughout the world. Diplomats, including U.S. diplomats, have said nice things about him. “If you like him so much, why don’t you import him? You are perfectly free to have him!” (I have paraphrased, but closely.)

More about Ferzat in due course.

Mario Vargas Llosa is here — one of the outstanding men of letters, and of politics, of our time. He has composed a paper: “Literature, Freedom, and Power.” I’m not sure I agree with what he says, but when Vargas Llosa talks, you listen.

(I realize I have made him sound like E. F. Hutton.)

Vargas Llosa mentions a string of writers. The order, I believe, is Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy. I love that Cervantes — the Spanish-speaker — is first. (And the order is not strictly chronological, as you see.)