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Sam-Nuvala Fonkem: One of Cameroon’s Foremost Incisive Journalists 

By Francis B. Nyamnjoh

Michael Sam-NuvalaFonkem was born January 28, 1953. He passed away on Thursday, October 8, 2015. Fonkem was an accomplished journalist who had practiced uninterrupted, since graduating in 1976 from the International School of Journalism, Yaoundé (EcoleSupérieure de Journalisme de Yaoundé – ESSIJY). His professional career which kicked off as a news anchor and commentator at the National Station of Radio Cameroon, Yaoundé brought him face to face with the grim reality of the consequences of refusing to play the role of ‘His Master’s Voice’. Interrogations with the ‘political police’, intimidations, arrests and a 5-month spell of incarceration at the Nkondengui maximum security prison, Yaoundé was the price he had to pay for being a free thinker. During his journey through the wilderness, marked by a lay-off from the Cameroon Civil Service in 1998, Sam-Nuvala Fonkem wrote for a number of news publications until he joined the United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) as Public Information Officer in 2010.

Fonkem was an inspiration, a friend, a brother, and in many ways a dreamer and a dream. The moments we shared together in Buea every now and again, mostly at his GRA home, were filled with conversations that kept me rushing to pen and paper, so his insights and wisdom may not be lost to me. He was a man who believed in the power of the past. In the case of Cameroon, a particular past – one in which Anglophone Cameroonians knew and cherished what it meant to be free and to aspire. Those who did not know this of him might conclude that he lived in the past. He believed in continuities, especially of the values and achievements of the various communities to which he belonged. In this regard, his present and future were firmly in his past. I am pleased to have encouraged him to publish two books recently – Incisive Journalism in Cameroon. The Best of “Cameroon Report” (1978 – 1986), an edited volume, and Snapshots: An X-ray of Cameroon’s Democracy, Governance and Unification, a singled authored collection of his reflections in the pages of The Post newspaper. He was working on another edited book when he died. Let’s hope that one of his collaborators would step up to keep alive his dream of documenting what he loved to call the golden age of Anglophone Cameroon journalism. As you would see from the following introduction I contributed to his Incisive Journalism in Cameroon, we understand why he was so proud of the Radio Cameroon programme, Cameroon Report.

May his soul rest in perfect peace, and may each and every one of us – family, friends and professional colleagues – who knew him and admired his contributions to making a difference, ensure that his ideas live on and his dreams come to fruition.

Cameroon Report: An Example of the Incisive Journalism Cherished by Sam-Nuvala Fonkem

It is more than an academic privilege to be called upon to contribute an introduction to a book on ‘‘Cameroon Report’’, a land mark in investigative journalism and a source of hope and inspiration for many a voiceless Cameroonian over the years. Although for long a fan of ‘‘Cameroon Report’’, my first meeting ever with its crew was in 1988 during a fieldwork exercise on the role of the broadcast media in nation-building in Cameroon. I remember suggesting to George Tanni, producer of the programme before its suspension in June 1986, to seriously consider the publication of past contributions to ‘‘Cameroon Report’’. The present collection by Sam-Nuvala Fonkem, long-time member of the “Cameroon Report” team, can only be saluted as a step in that direction.

“Cameroon Report” hardly needs introducing any longer, especially to well-informed Cameroonians of English expression. Started in 1972, “Cameroon Report” rapidly gained in reputation as a mirror of social ills, an inspector-general of public life, and the custodian of national ideals and aspirations. It was hypercritical of Government action; never hesitating to point the finger at any one in high office for apparent inefficiency. This inevitably led to its being considered by those in high office as a nuisance, a thorn in their flesh. But for a decade Ahidjo tolerated “Cameroon Report” despite his conformist exigencies on the media. He had come to tolerate “Cameroon Report” as a relevant nuisance, and to use it as a defence against accusations of repression and the lack of freedom of expression.

The spirit of “Cameron Report” was in stark contrast with that of its French equivalent, “Dimanche Midi”. The difference in style and approach was unmistakable. “Cameroon Report” journalists claimed to be “Anglo-Saxon” in style, and to be inspired by “investigative reporting”. Their interest was and remains to present the facts without comment and let the audience make their own opinions. To them, the public has the right to know the facts, undiluted and unmitigated. The “Dimanche Midi” journalists on the other hand believe in the “Latin” style. Accordingly, they tend to wait for events, they present themselves most of the time as the mouthpiece of the Government; all they do is propagate “la bonne parole officielle” by receiving directives from the presidency and the ministries.

It is an irony that “Cameroon Report” survived Ahidjo’s dictatorship but could not survive Biya’s democracy. For it was at a time of alleged democracy and tolerance, a period when Cameroonians did not have to flee their country or go underground to express their opinions, that “Cameroon Report”, a programme much loved and cherished, a nuisance that even Ahidjo had dared to consider relevant, met its denouement. Just how did this happen?

On Friday, June 20, 1986, “Cameroon Report” was suspended indefinitely for being a constant embarrassment to the authorities of the New Deal Government. The Minister of Information and Culture at the time, Professor Georges Ngango, was questioned in parliament why he allowed “his journalists” to use the airwaves to attack parliamentarians. Angered, he came back and gave instructions for the programme to be suspended. “Cameroon Report” was later substituted by a less critical and more conformist programme “News Panorama”; a substitute which Sam-Nuvala Fonkem described as “a fake… a counterfeit. The “Cameroon Report” team did not like the indefinite suspension of their programme; most of them refused to have anything to do with the “News Panorama”.

Meanwhile on June 26 1986, following an event that was not unconnected, three newscasters namely Sam- Nuvala Fonkem, EbssiyNgum and Johnny MacViban were arrested and detained for nearly four months in connection with a news talk presented by Sam-Nuvala Fonkem in the English-language evening newscast on Tuesday 24 June 1986, titled “Enemies of Democracy”; a talk which was seen to be critical of certain members of parliament. Finally released, none of the journalists was sent back to broadcasting; instead, Ebbsiy Ngum and Johnny MacViban were transferred to Cameroon Tribune to work as print journalists, while Sam-Nuvala Fonkem was sent to teach in the Advanced School of Mass Communication (ASMAC/ESSTI).

Neither in the transfers of the three broadcasters nor in the suspension and subsequent replacement of “Cameroon Report” was the opinion of the Cameroonian public sought, let alone that of the broadcasters involved. It is not common for the authorities to seek the opinion of civil servants before transferring them; nor do they sample public opinion of civil servants before transferring them, nor do they sample public opinion often enough. Not surprising therefore, as Sam-Nuvala Fonkem explained, round about 1980/81 Bwele Guillaume, in his capacity as Information and Culture Minister, wanted the schedule of “Cameroon Report” to be changed, not because the public wanted it that way, but because he was used to going jogging on Sunday mornings and therefore did not always have time to monitor the programme. There is no doubt that ‘‘Cameroon Report’’, right from inception, has always been an embarrassment to those in power. Its poignant honesty did not leave any one in government indifferent. Ahidjo tolerated it more as a fangless bulldog than anything else. Each time the dog threatened to come out with any surprises, it was contained. There were well elaborated administrative control mechanisms for that. These ranged from the overt suppression of information to such sanctions on failure to conform as transfers, interrogations by the police and suspensions.

Thus for example, in 1981 the Government, increasingly embarrassed by this self-elected watchdog of the commonwealth in the name of “Cameroon Report”, transferred the programme’s key members from Yaounde, the National Station, to the provincial stations. In the same transfer decree Julius Wamey was transferred to Radio Bamenda, Victor Epie Ngome to Radio Douala, Asonglefac Nkemleke to Buea, and Akwanka Joe Ndifor to Bafoussam. However, this particular transfer failed to “kill” the programme, because “the authorities made the error of dealing with individuals” rather than with “the spirit”, with the result that George Tanni and the other broadcasters who were brought to replace transferred colleagues, continued in the same vein, even receiving contributions from them in the provinces. In the words of Sam-Nuvala Fonkem, “you can kill a man, but you don’t kill ideas”.

“Cameroon Report” was silenced but the spirit lived on. Elsewhere on television, a programme, “Minute by Minute” was started and conducted very much along the lines of “Cameroon Report”. Akwanka Joe Ndifor, its producer, agrees that his idea was to deliver on screen what had been stifled on radio. Naturally, “Minute by Minute” made many a member of Government see Akwanka as a veritable thorn in their hypersensitive flesh. It too was killed eventually, but not before some historic experiences of its own.

Akwanka Joe Ndifor recounted how the former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Edouard Nomo Ongolo, threatened him for repeatedly showing a programme in which the Minister had blundered immensely. Interviewed for the programme “Minute by Minute”, the Minister had defended the importation of rice with the claim that foreign rice was four times easier to cook than Cameroonian rice. Seeing this as a grave misjudgment from a member of a Government with a policy of self-reliance development, Akwanka criticised the Minister on TV; a thing the latter was not ready to stomach. He threatened “to kill” Akwanka, but lost his post before he could do so. Earlier, in 1985, still at the time of “Cameroon Report”, Sam-Nuvala Fonkem had been threatened with dismissal, imprisonment and death, because of a contribution he made to the programme, 18/8/1989, titled “Harmonising Our Two Legal Systems”. A drama which ended in the dismissal of the Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals, Ngongang Ouandji and the Minister of Information and Culture, François Sengat Kuo. The struggle of “Cameroon Report” and the media as a whole over the years to establish a fourth estate was met with undue and unreasonable resistance on the part of the central authorities. This notwithstanding, the tested persistence of the spirit of “Cameroon Report” ought to serve as an inspiration to every media practitioner in an oppressed system.

This was an ideal Michael Sam-Nuvala Fonkem died struggling to enshrine, in his own modest way. We must not allow his ambition for a better society through incisive journalism to die with him.