UNITED NATIONS — A Stony Brook University professor has been detained in Cameroon after the publication of an essay he wrote criticized the reponse of President Paul Biya to demonstrations and pleas by the country’s English-speaking minority population for self-determination, according to media reports.
Patrice Nganang, 47, an author who teaches in the university’s cultural studies and comparative literature department, was taken into custody by Cameroon authorities Wednesday while boarding a plane at the airport in Douala, said an online report in Vanguard, a Nigerian media outlet. He was headed for Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, media reports said.
Reuters reported that his attorney, Emmanuel Simh, and wife, Nyasha Bakare, said he was taken to the capital, Yaounde, and may be charged with “insulting the president” for his writing in a magazine and possibly a Facebook posting.
U.S. officials said they are looking into the issue.
“We are aware of reports of the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Cameroon,” said a State Department official. “The Department of State takes its obligation to assist U.S. citizens abroad seriously. When we are notified of the arrest of a U.S. citizen, we immediately seek to visit him or her.”
They declined to comment further, citing privacy concerns.
Cameroonian officials in New York and Washington could not be reached for comment but Stony Brook officials also said they were monitoring the reports.
“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,” Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said in a statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in Manhattan, said Cameroon in 2014 enacted an ”anti-terror” law that has been used to censor journalists reporting on unrest in the English-speaking regions, as Nganang did. The committee said 1,265 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992, including one in Cameroon in 2010.
“The detention of Patrice Nganang is an outrage and Cameroonian authorities must immediately release him without charge and allow him to travel,” said CPJ Africa program coordinator Angela Quintal from South Africa. “Cameroon seems intent on violating the right to freedom of expression to silence critical voices, including in the press.”
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said Thursday that he hoped Nganang is safe but did not say whether the UN itself was aware of the detention or whether it would intervene.
“Obviously everyone who is in Cameroon or traveling to Cameroon, if there are any problems that occur during their travels, that needs to be investigated thoroughly by the local authorities,” he said. “We certainly hope and expect that this particular person will be found, and we’re hopeful that nothing untoward has happened.”
The publication Vanguard said that Nganang, a native of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, had published an opinion piece in French on the Jeune Afrique news website on Tuesday criticizing Biya, who has been in power since 1982.
Nganang, according to both media reports, wrote unfavorably of Biya’s handling of a yearlong crisis in the country’s English-speaking regions, where residents have said they want autonomy from the rest of the mostly French-speaking country of 25 million to escape decades of unfair treatment.
The unrest has caused waves of deadly violence, and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed into neighboring Nigeria amid government crackdowns on strikes and demonstrations by residents who feel they are victims of discrimination by the French-speaking population.
In his essay, Nganang said the problem would be solved only by a change in the country’s leadership.
“It will probably take another political regime to make the state understand that the machine gun cannot stem a movement,” he wrote, according to Vanguard. “Only change at the head of the state can settle the anglophone conflict in Cameroon.”
Guterres in October, condemned an outbreak of violence in the English-speaking areas and urged all sides to show restraint. The secretary-general “remains deeply concerned about the situation in Cameroon and strongly condemns the acts of violence reported in the South-West and North-West regions of the country on 1 October, including reported loss of life,” read a statement from Guterres’ spokesman.
“He calls on the Cameroonian authorities to investigate these incidents and urges political leaders on both sides to appeal to their followers to refrain from any further acts of violence, and to unequivocally condemn all actions that undermine the peace, stability and unity of the country,” the statement continued.
Nganang has taught Topics in Contemporary African Cinema and Cultural Studies and Introduction to Cinema and Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University.
He was promoted to the rank of professor last year, according to a biography published by the university, which notes that Nganang is a scholar of literary and cultural theory and the author of 12 books.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of journalists killed in Cameroon. The Committee to Protect Journalists said 1,265 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992, including one in Cameroon in 2010.