CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Equatorial Guinean graphic novelist Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé, aka Jamón y Queso, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2017 and currently one of our Regional Representatives with responsibility for Central Africa.
Ramón describes the very specific conditions for satirists in E.Guinea and the circumstances that lead to his arrest, trial and imprisonment on wholly bogus charges of counterfeiting.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Ramón, our award is often given to editorial cartoonists but you are a graphic novelist producing long-form satirical work. Can you tell us a little about your career?
My passion was always drawing in all its various formats and means of presentation. So when I started to leave behind drawing simply to have fun and entertain myself, I began to understand that drawing can serve to communicate with people. I began to seek out such work and among those people that seemed best at communicating were cartoonists and comic book artists. Comics are what I like most because they can tell stories with a fuller and more pleasing narration. But cartoons came first, and began with an invitation to publish in the national newspaper LA VERDAD del CPDS. The success of these early cartoons encouraged me to continue, and others were then looking for me as a cartoonist. A Spanish comrade was protesting our dictatorial regime and founded the LOCOStv blog. That blog became a conduit for my “eschatological cartoons”. It already existed before I stated work on the “OBI’S NIGHTMARE” comic. That comic, I believe, is why I eventually went to prison. The Equatorial Guinean regime certainly managed to censor LOCOStv after five years of daily coverage.
Describe the circumstances in Equatorial Guinea under President Obiang, Africa’s longest-serving head of state.
Corruption and tribal ethnic control, enabled by world powers, that does not hesitate to prop up a political garbage pile. The current circumstances are difficult to explain. There are too many lobbying on behalf of the regime to outsiders and supranational bodies like OAU. Many critics only want the same power as Obiang, and would use it to the same ends. Which means that the voices of true resistance can only achieve breathers [temporary relief], not lasting change, even after fifty years.
Rather than any particular cartoon, you were jailed on charges of counterfeiting. What happened?
“Rather” is an interesting word. You see, they did show me cartoons while I was held in “Guantanamo de MALABO”. These LOCOStv cartoons were very demeaning and dismissive of the dictator. And they triggered strong reactions when put out to the public over the blog. I have all the originals, still. But eventually they accused me of money laundering and counterfeiting, even while they continued to ask me about the LOCOStv drawings. The accusation of counterfeiting and laundering was gross and clumsy. But it served its purpose, to keep me in the penal system and then on to Black Beach Prison for six months followed by three months of waiting for my documents back. Nine months of curtailed freedom in total, and all simply for making LOCOStv popular.
You won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award while still a prisoner. Your wife and daughter received it on your behalf and Eloisa spoke very movingly of you, deprived of pen and paper and unable to draw but still committed to freedom, democracy and justice. What did this recognition mean to you?
My life revolved for years around a huge family made up of my mother, my father and my seven brothers and sisters. I am from a home where ten people needed to have their space, their freedom and assume their responsibilities to the welfare of the whole. This family model, plus my father’s education in social issues, helped me understand that I’ve been luckier than others. And therefore I must not enjoy it all myself. I think that democracy in its most basic concept is clear: humanity. If I’m with one other person, half of everything is theirs, and that’s justice. In prison they started breaking me down by forbidding me to draw. But those people didn’t know me. I am free as long as I am healthy and have access to other people. So when I started finding opportunities to draw and others saw how I did it, I ended up teaching some to draw. And the military personnel that had previously prohibited drawing then brought me paper and pens. Suddenly I wasn’t the counterfeiter Obiang had shamed before the country on TV. People in EG know me for my drawing. So the award was received by my family. And I was excited to see the photo.
CRNI collaborated with other organisations led by EG Justice to campaign for your acquittal. Do you think international attention had an affect on your release?
I think that situations like Equatorial Guinea’s deserve more involvement from an artistic point of view than a political one. The aid that I get from EGJustice, for example, or the collaborations that I make with them, are based on the fact that I believe that they should invest in a model that supports culture and art. But they must take good care of the details or it will fail. When you helped me, you must have noticed that I was the focus of a unified effort by cartoonists in the USA and the world [as seen at left]. I think that for cases like those of EG, an artist collective is good for us. There are too many politicians in the square. What I would like to point out with is that “aid” made to Equatorial Guinean activists in trouble with the dictatorial regime must be couched more as a humanitarian – or more to the point humanist – mission than a political one. If Equatorial Guineans learn about an activist illegally detained by the dictatorship, they read it as a political act instead of a humane reading based on laws and rights.
Obiang has spent years “educating” us that politics is inherently bad (in EG nobody talks about politics out of fear) using dictatorial methods. When the dictatorship detains an activist, society will not be roused in opposition because they apprehend being “political”. But activists are often detained for issues far removed from politics, at least politics in that sense. And my case is an example. I was detained for drawing. But the regime knew that it would not reflect on them well, to be seen arresting people for drawing.
So when [CRNI or other orgs] intervene, you do so as an important group of activists dedicated to the world of cartoons, not on my behalf as expert legal activists or politicians. Artists defending an artist. Equatorial Guinean society did not “know” then that I was a cartoonist detained for his drawings, it was not transmitted that way. And with your campaigning you helped redress that. So, for example, when we help an NGO like Greenpeace, we do it thinking of ecology first, we do not think they are primarily political or artistic activists. It was important to me that it is stated that I am/was a detained cartoonist, not the “usual” story in EG where a detainee – a political prisoner – is one of the taboo topics that Guineans fear.
In a letter written after your release you said you were haunted by the cries of others tortured in Black Beach Prison. Have you recovered from your experiences?
I am a person who came out of prison after a brief time and with a measure of fame; I always say that my testimony about it has to be seen through a magnifying glass. But no-one can say that this issue I describe, of torture in EG prisons, is a lie. But before I became an activist, I was already torturing myself, and in or out of prison I continue to torture myself. Torture has been normalized in society, I suppose. I have a platform and can transmit the reality of what happened to the world. But it continues as lived experience for many who will not have a microphone in front of them. Who feel abandoned. And meanwhile it becomes normal to hear people scream in pain.
It is VERY NORMAL in EG to be beaten. We begin to be physically punished as children for doing childish things like playing or breaking a glass. They are the admonishments of a loving father or mother. You get used to the fact that a slap is “sometimes good to learn”. And so later, when we see another person tortured, we believe that it’s done to make them a better person. We “allow” torture because we do not yet understand that it is not “good to hit people.” Boys and girls. You can’t educate by hitting.
Where does your career go from here? Until recently you were making regular live video posts on Facebook. What’s been on your mind and what messages are you sending your audience?
I’m still the same. I maybe act the fool because it is difficult for a cartoonist in a country like mine to be taken seriously (although neither are writers and scientists). But it’s in these follies, amusing others, that I hope they retain the messages I’m sending. The general message is one of freedom. And I take responsibility. I would very much like to see a gallery dedicated to satirical drawing in Malabo, with or without Obiang.
The luck for me is that I am with my wife and my daughter [in El Salvador]. And so far my son in Spain is fine. The closure for a cartoonist is “profitable.” But we are getting restless. It would be good to get away from home for a couple of days. The videos correspond to an attempt to sensitize the population. I always try to approach the country’s socio-political problems with a humorous approach, some madness and quite a few doses of plain speech as a normal Equatorial Guinean would have it (the military man, the street vendor, the interior official, the people in public service, each has a particular way of speaking). With those same videos I promote the project of the civil platform SOMOS +. At the same time, my friends and acquaintances are supporting me in my virtual exhibitions, since it is very important that I continue to reach as many as I can with the core message, that we live under a tremendous dictatorship. So I suppose I have taken to communicating in a style copied from my own main audience (the nationals) that behaves like this sometimes. I want them to identify with me; we’re part of the same social, political and even spiritual reality.