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Snippets Of My Time With O’Sam 

By George Ngwa

Today, the fraternity of English speaking journalists join the family of Michael Sam-Nuvala Fonkem (aka O’Sam) in paying tribute to this legendary journalist and news anchor, whose level of career achievement was matched only by his passion for living life to its fullest. I join my little mumble to that loud chorus of recognition. As his friends and family gather to celebrate O’Sam’s remarkable life, I ask all of my colleagues to join with me in saluting this outstanding citizen and model reporter.To all of us who worked with him, he was our hero.

I first met O’Sam in September 1975, when I was admitted as part of the sixth batch of the Yaounde International Advanced School of Journalism (ESIJY). He was our senior. Three years later, after graduation in 1978, my classmate Prof. Benn Bongang and I were posted to Radio Cameroon. O’Sam took us under his wings and showed us the professional ropes. He subjected us to three months of dry runs before he could let us go on the air. He brooked no excuses for shabby work or laziness; his hallmark was excellence.He often told us that the goal of all journalists should be to leave a legacy of commitment to quality and values.

Sam-Nuvala Fonkem became an institution in Radio Cameroon, as thousands of Cameroonians (Anglophones and Francophones) tuned into his hard-hitting commentaries in Cameroon Report, a Sunday morning  news review programme produced by the English Section of the News Service of Radio Cameroon. He also produced, with the late Professor Bernard Fonlon, a weekly classical music programme, as well as a jazz programme with the assistance of the American Cultural Centre. He was a hard-working, talented and meticulous journalist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things political in particular. His memorable, stentorian, and booming voice made him a role model for those aspiring for a career in broadcast journalism.

His tenacity as a commentator landed him in trouble countless times. In the Ahidjo days, English speaking journalists had few illusions about the danger of their work, and O’ Sam was no exception, especially given his outspokenness on the high-handed emasculation of Anglophone values in the so-called United Republic, the hasty contraption that Ahidjo and his French masters set up to snuff out the remnants of English Culture in West Cameroon.

By 1981, when I became Editor-in-Chief of the English desk and anchor of Cameroon Report, Ni Sam was a producer’s dream, a very careful, meticulous editor. A highly valued team player, he could craft a punchy and coherent comment within minutes. That was how reliable he was. His work was recognized for its consistent brilliance. But it was also the source of headache for me, as the producer of Cameroon Report. I was served a quasi-permanent summons every Monday morning by Koko a Messe, the then Director of Radio Cameroon to help him explain to the then Minister of Information and Culture and up the ladder to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the US ambassador, why we had said this or that in Cameroon Report the previous Sunday. O’Sam was responsible for a huge chunk of the summons. He took pleasure in needling me about this. His write-ups, exposing the hypocrisy of the United States, its Western allies, vis-a-vis the fight for freedom in Southern Africa were very acerbic.

When Ahidjo resigned abruptly in November 1982, as Editor-in-Chief and presidential reporter, I was asked to produce a review, highlighting the achievements of Ahidjo’s tenure and the peaceful transition to Biya. As far as hierarchy was concerned, the programme was supposed to mimic its French counterpart – mostly praise singing. However, O’Sam, Victor Epie Ngome and I agreed to conduct a critical post-mortem of the Ahidjo years. Thus, “A Tribute to Ahidjo” was conceived. Use of the word “tribute” was a disingenuous ploy to throw off censorship and the political police. We also agreed to let Anglophone leaders (Foncha, Muna, Edge-Tabi, Fonlon, Nzoh-Ekah-Ngaky) do the critique/criticism, by getting them to answer a set of pointed questions. The initial planned panel discussion was soon jettisoned in favour of individual interviews due to disagreements among the guest panellists and the withdrawal of Nzoh-Ekah-Ngaky, who was replaced by Chief Victor Mukete.

Ni Sam’s support was very instrumental in boosting my morale as graduated sanctions (indefinite suspension, “blame avec inscription au dossier”) were meted on me soon after the explosive programme was broadcast. O’Sam even confronted the Minister of Information and Culture Bwele Guillaume, daring him to refer me to the State Security Court if he believed that I was guilty of treason. The charge was “organisation d’une emission a caractere politique mettant en cause toutes les institutions de la republique”.  Following that encounter, he encouraged me to leave the country. And I did, for 7 years!

Fast forward to the 1990’s. A politically timorous bunch of lapdog administrators fought Prof. Enoh Tanjong and I for daring to invite Sam Nuvula-Fonkem to share his rich professional skills as an adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. They considered O’Sam a radical, whose “unorthodox/revolutionary” ideas may take root among a growing restive student body and upset their cushy politically incestuous relationship with Yaounde. The combined presence of Sam-Nuvala-Fonkem and ideological sidekick, Bate Bisong (RIP), gave the UB administration nightmares. They pulled a fast one on us and imposed a minimum Master’s degree requirement on any prospective adjunct Lecturer. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to O’Sam. But he was not daunted and even sought to enrol in any Master’s programme to meet the requirement.

O’Sam was a humble person, but with strong opinions and passions. And he was always great company when we could find our way to the pub for a break. He was always a pleasure to work with and will be sorely missed by all of us who knew and worked with him.

You were a talented, old-school journalist with a conscience. Your ideological and professional integrity, morals and enthusiasm for your job were inspirations to young reporters everywhere.

Ni Sam-Nuvala-Fonkem, you will be sorely missed.


George A. Ngwa, Ph.D.

United Nations Secretariat, New York