Ramón Esono Ebalé, Equatoguinean artist and activist who today celebrates his 40th birthday, believes in the political power of laughter.
It's why he risks his life by using his art to encourage people to laugh at and critique the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
It's also why he is spending this birthday inside one of Africa's worst prisons. He has been held there without charges for 67 days. But people around the world are counting. We are watching. We are drawing.
Ramón was arrested by police in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on September 16, after returning from exile to renew his passport. In detention he was asked to make a statement explaining his drawings of and blog posts about President Obiang. He was then told he faced possible charges of counterfeiting and money laundering, but an open letter to the president of Equatorial Guinea from a global coalition of international human rights groups suggests that his prolonged detention without charge indicates such threats are nothing more than "a pretext to justify [his] ongoing arbitrary deprivation of liberty."
Art as humour, art as critique
Ramón, whose award-winning work has been exhibited across Europe and the Americas alongside the likes of Ai WeiWei, has for years used art and humor to critique Obiang and his regime. He has drawn Obiang as an emperor, a jester, a petroleum engineer, and a gangster. On his blogs Las Locuras de Jamón y Queso and LocosTV, his daily sketches often depicted Obiang and his family/government ministers (one and the same) partially dressed or engaged in lude acts.
In 2014 he co-authored the graphic novel Obi's Nightmare (La Pesadilla de Obi) along with the pseudonymous Chino and Tenso Tenso and the human rights organization EG Justice. Obi's Nightmare hilariously depicts Obiang's life when he awakes one day as a common man in Malabo, becoming "the protagonist of a nightmare where his worst fears [come] true, ...the protagonist of his own abusive policies... [with] tire flip-flops and a dirty, ill-fitting shirt, sitting on a poor man's stool."*
Ramón and his co-authors have noted that "Equatoguineans [are] not used to joking much about Obiang, if at all, but that they really [need] to." After all, "Obiang [has] laughed at them and at all their Equatoguinean countrymen for too long." What would happen if the people got a laugh at Obiang, and in so doing, began to see him not as invincible but as fallible and human?
Obi's Nightmare, carried into Equatorial Guinea clandestinely and designed to be hidden under clothing and passed from hand to hand, seeks to achieve just this. "Now that you have it you just have to read it and laugh at it and share it with your friends," the introduction explains to the reader. "That way you'll become the protagonist of this story, too. You'll be a part of history."
Africa's strong men are falling
Obiang is rightfully worried about critique. Last December the people of the Gambia voted Yahya Jammeh out of office after 23 years at the helm of his country. He fled to Equatorial Guinea, where his ally Obiang protects him in exile.
Then, just yesterday, Obiang's good friend Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe saw himself forced to resignfollowing 37 years in power. Given that the countries still ruled by strong men from the African independence era are few, we shouldn't be surprised to see Mugabe also seek refuge in Equatorial Guinea in the coming weeks.
With 38 years as president of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang has held onto power longer than any ruling non-royal head of state, and he knows his days as are numbered. This helps to explain his 2016 appointment of his son, "Teodorin" Nguema Obiang as the nation's Vice President. It also helps contextualize his brutal retaliation against all who dare to express political dissent. Whereas President Obiang used to allow two percent of parliamentary seats to be held by opposition parties as "evidence" of the country's democracy, in a show of excessive force his ruling party swept last week's parliamentary elections, which opposition figures reported were marred by fraud and irregularities, by over 99%.
But Obiang sees the writing on the wall. The tide is turning across Africa, and, despite Obiang's best efforts to limit access to international news, the people of Equatorial Guinea are watching.
With 38 years as president, Obiang has held onto power longer than any ruling non-royal head of state, and he knows his days as are numbered. This helps to explain his 2016 appointment of his son, "Teodorin," as the nation's vice president. It also helps contextualize his brutal retaliation against all who dare to express political dissent. Whereas Obiang used to allow two percent of parliamentary seats to be held by opposition parties as "evidence" of the country's democracy, in a show of excessive force his ruling party swept last week's elections, which opposition figures reported were marred by fraud and irregularities, by over 99.5 percent.
But Obiang sees the writing on the wall. The tide is turning across Africa, and despite Obiang's best efforts to limit access to international news, his people are watching.
Campaign to #FreeNSERamon
"Those who are threatened by your work have tried to silence you, and instead they have amplified your voice. We are with you in your struggle for freedom. And we will continue to stand with you until you are free to carry out your work without fear."
The international community is also paying close attention to Obiang's next steps, denouncing Ramón's unjust imprisonment, and demanding his freedom. On November 6, Cartoonists Rights Network International granted Ramón the 2017 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning, elevating his story and initiating a global campaign to #FreeNseRamón.
Since then, dozens of cartoonists from around the world have taken to social media with political art calling for his release. And their enthusiasm and concern is contagious. Budding young artists around the world have also begun to post art demanding that Obiang #FreeEsono.
Theirs join a swell of calls for Ramón's freedom that flooded social media today in honor of his birthday. In Madrid, the Asociación Profesional de Ilustradores de Madrid (APIM) led a protest in which dozens of Spanish artists and activists gathered to ask their government to intervene on Ramón's behalf.
Meanwhile, a petition demanding his liberation has collected nearly 7,000 signatures and is aiming to reach 10,000 before it is delivered to the Equatoguinean Ambassador in Madrid on International Human Rights Day on December 10.
Obiang can no longer disappear intellectuals, artists, and freedom fighters in the dark. Ramón's unjust imprisonment has helped to elevate Equatorial Guinea's authoritarianism and repression to the world stage.
As award-winning English author Neil Gaiman wrote in an open letter to Ramón last week in observance of PEN International's Day of the Imprisoned Writer, "Those who are threatened by your work have tried to silence you, and instead they have amplified your voice. We are with you in your struggle for freedom. And we will continue to stand with you until you are free to carry out your work without fear."
I have little doubt that Ramón is making use of his time in Equatorial Guinea's prisons by teaching his fellow prisoners to draw, to laugh, to critique.
*This and other quotes by Ramón Esono Ebalé and co-authors, from Obi's Nightmare, can be found in the graphic novel's introduction.