When Equatoguinean cartoonist Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé returned to his home country this September to renew his passport, he was arrested. Since then, he has been kept in detention in a notorious prison in the capital Malabo, and Equatoguinean authorities might be preparing a criminal defamation case against Esono. Public Radio International (PRI) writes: “Moore Gerety [see below] says Esono is not likely to see a courtroom. It’s a political case.“ Human Rights Watch reports that it had documented an increase of incidents “in which the government has retaliated against artists and cultural groups”, and that art has been used for independent voices to provoke public debate on social issues in Equatorial Guinea where political dissent is met with little tolerance. “Dictators aren’t known for their sense of humor. At least when the jokes are about them” commented PRI. This reminds us of the power of humor in nonviolent struggle.

What initially brought us to the cartoons of Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé alias “Jamón y Queso” (Ham and Cheese), was this in-depth article about Esono’s work in criticism of (political) life in Equatorial Guinea and especially its longstanding President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. In his article “Comics without Captions: Can a cartoonist help unseat a dictator?”, Rowan Moore Gerety recounts how Esono came to draw cartoons, how he started his “career” when such was not really possible from within Equatorial Guinea, and what the cartoonist had to tell about his work. But Gerety also includes accounts from other African countries, such as Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he describes as “the closest thing there is to a continental comic book hub”, with the exception of South Africa, mainly owing its legacy to the famous Tintin au Congo comic and the former colonial power Belgium.

Esono told Gerety, that he got his first comic book from his father, who worked as a civil servant for many years returning from travels to Spain on government business. After discovering his own talent, what brought him to go beyond the Superheroes he had been drawing before and to become more political himself, was an encounter with political cartoonist Pahé in Gabon. Since then, he has been using “his drawings to expose the gross inequality in Equatorial Guinea”, focusing mostly on the country’s president and his repressive leadership, and in his style, Esono is “often crude and outrageous”, as PRI describes it.

In 2014, Esono illustrated the book La Pesadilla de Obi (Obi’s nightmare), written by an anonymous collaborator. It sets President Obiang who has tightly ruled Equatorial Guinea as Africa’s longest-serving dictator since independence in 1979, waking up to be just a ‘regular’ citizen as the piece’s main character. The cartoonist had distributed copies at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014, “hoping to push conversations about authoritarianism and human-rights abuses above the din of billion-dollar investment initiatives and strategic partnerships”, wrote Gerety. It was Esono’s plan to clandestinely distribute several thousand copies within his home country as well. Until 2011, he had produced his cartoons from within Equatorial Guinea. But as his work became more dangerous, increasingly receiving international attention, he took the chance to go to Paraguay where he has been living in exile.

What happens to Esono after his detention, remains to be seen. Human rights organizations and activists have urged for the cartoonist to be released, have created the hashtag #FreeNseRamon and are collecting signatures for a petition to President Obiang.

To learn more about Esono, his stories about his work and life in and beyond Equatorial Guinea, as well as some background information on the role of comics on the African continent and the situation in Equatorial Guinea, read Rowan Moore Gerety’s 2016 article for the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) online.

For more information about the detention, consult these Human Rights Watch and PRI articles.

Photo: Cartoon by Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé featured in the VQR article