A Tribute to a Journalist Friend and a Freedom Fighter
By Boh Herbert
Washington, DC, 30 July 2010
- A fortnight of memorial services to celebrate the life and to salute
the work of veteran Cameroonian journalist Pius Njawe culminates this
weekend and early next week in Washington, DC, with church services and the departure of his remains for its final resting place in Cameroon.
I learned of Njawe’s passing in Kinshasa (DR Congo), where I was on mission. An email from my World Bank colleague Francois Gouahinga to Eric Chinje (then in South Africa) and I informed us of the accident. Francois said he feared the worst.
As I write these lines, I am still in disbelief that “Grand Frère et Beau- Frère Pius”, as I called him (he was my professional senior and my spouse is his “sister” from Cameroon’s Haut Nkam Division) is, indeed, gone from us. Disbelief is the mood to be in, because Njawe is not dead. You don’t die when you are Njawe. Not from where I come. As with the kings in most parts of Grassland Cameroon from which we hail, Njawe has gone missing. Like royalty, he is not only to be mourned. He is to be found and replaced.
We should mourn for one reason, though. Njawe died before he had the chance to write the series of articles that should have been published had his trip to the USA not also been his last. For someone who, in the absence of pen and ink, could have used his own blood and – in the absence of paper – could have used even wasted toilet paper - to complete his article, not writing those articles has to be one of Njawe’s unfinished business. Leaving work for generations of journalists unborn is a masterly act in passing the baton on a life of service to peers, friends, colleagues, family and country.
In the last agonizing and painful moments on that highway to Norfolk just before he died, we can imagine Njawe asking God for one opportunity to do one thing: write one last article. The scene of his accident should carry a memorial plaque that reads: “Here, once lay the remains of a man who endured everything: Soviet-like newspaper censorship; the barbarism of one-party dictatorship and oppression; the mockery of some colleagues who felt you needed university-issued diplomas not self-education in journalism”. Hard work, focus, and iron discipline made Njawe successful, and developed his insatiable appetite for improving Cameroon’s ghettoized journalism.
Njawe endured and survived a lot more: numerous arrests; solitary confinement; jail; the savage beating of his pregnant wife and the loss of their unborn baby. He suffered the scorn of those in power who claimed they can democratize Cameroon without democrats; who rigged elections for breakfast; and mocked those like him who sought change by claiming they were already the change our country seeks. Almost with the same energy with which he was celebrated, Njawe was bashed by many in opposition who promised plenty, delivered little and grew furious as his newspaper – true to its mission - decried their inconsistency; their scheming and endless sell-out deals.
With anti-democratic forces apparently scoring so many wins, the question to ask is: did Njawe’s life make a difference? My answer to that is “hell, yes!” Njawe and Le Messsager did not stop Ahidjo’s and Biya’s misrule of Cameroon, but they called it out for history. Thanks in large part to his work, the sins of corruption, anti-democratic practices, violations of human rights, civil liberties and freedoms committed by those regimes are well documented. As numerous editorials and obituary columns in newspapers as renowned as the Washington Post and the New York Times have made clear since his passing, Njawe was an eminent and fearless journalist of world class status. I am thankful that freedom, as we will ultimately know it in Cameroon, will be a product of Njawe’s tireless energy, obsession with democracy, justice and human rights.
Njawe and I were not only “grand frère, petit frère”; not only “beau frère -beau frère”, but also friends. After quitting state-owned radio and television, I did a short stint at the rival newspaper to Njawe’s… at La Nouvelle Expression, and had a chance, from a front row seat, to witness the healthy competition that exists between the Douala newspapers. As reporters, we jokingly demonized each other. We teased Njawe’s newspaper with a play on its name, calling it “Le Mensonger” (literally the bearer of lies). They pulled our leg about our working for “La Nouvelle Repression” (the new repression). Together, we made fun of CRTV, citing Charly Ndi Chia’s grandiose intro of anchorman Eric Chinje as, in fact being “… and now ‘lies’ from CRTV…” Deep down in our heart of hearts, though, all of us – public and private media journalists - we knew the business of seeking out and telling the truth united us. When Dikalo newspaper was born out of one of the ugliest breakaways from Le Messager, the founders of the new newspaper left half of their hearts and souls at Le Messager.
Njawe took his trail-blazing championing of journalism to another level when he launched the English language version of Le Messager. Rivals soon followed his lead. There was no stopping Njawe. The creativity of Le Messager Popoli not only brought us news with a healthy dose of humor and satire. It has coined words meriting a place in any revised French dictionary. Imagine French without the word “nyagalement” (meaning with style, and coined from the pidgin word ‘nyanga’ and the French adjective forming suffix). Take the expression “ecraser le pistache” (the masked wording for love making) which the paper found to protect the innocence of its youthful readership. The outstanding brilliance of Njawe’s work and the success of his newspaper made it easy to speak up on his behalf within the Union of Cameroon Journalists. Even haughty, diploma-holding colleagues admitted Njawe was one of Cameroon’s finest journalists. His likes are, alas, few.
As much as he loved the trade, journalism was only Njawe’s part time job. It gave him the funding, platform, and channel from which to do his full time job: clamor for democracy, equal opportunity, liberties, human rights, justice, and freedom. As journalists who stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches fighting for those ideals, I must admit few of us ever matched his bravery and sense of sacrifice. Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments, coming as close to an Obama moment for Cameroon, was when several journalists, Njawe along with them, showed Ni John Fru Ndi to the people of Cameroon from outside the Bepanda Omnisport Stadium, as the man of change. The truth, though, is that change turned out to be a mirage and some of us moved on to other jobs… you would say, to greener pasture. Njawe stayed put, tending to the unfinished business of unseating dictatorship, waiting to enthrone democracy and fighting relentlessly to bring about a free and fair Cameroon.
Thanks to his persistence, few of Cameroon’s high and powerful have not felt the anger and justice-seeking pen of Njawe, clawing away at their conscience, reminding them of broken promises; of stolen elections; of swindled wealth; of the misrule of our country; and of a Cameroonian people “trampled to death at bullet point”. All the way to death, he stood in sharp contrast to his so-called co-fighters for democracy, who have become indifferent to human rights; who have turned megalomaniacs, with all power revolving around them. That leaves journalists, like Njawe, as the only real opposition to a relentless consolidation of economic and political power by a selfish elite in Cameroon.
Lies and a total rejection of democracy are the only clothes a “naked” regime in Yaounde is now clad in and uses to fight against collapse. Njawe was seen as a threat to the state when he stood trial alongside Celestin Monga, for criminal libel. I remember the judge in that case being so horrified by the details the BBC was providing on the proceedings that the judge singled out and pointedly threatened the BBC correspondent with contempt of court. Njawe and Monga have remained unimpressed by the intimidation. Threats did not change my reporting on the BBC. Throwing Njawe into jail, as the regime did on a number of occasions, only helped to create a spicy, gossipy column out of New Bell Prison, adding to what may be Cameroon’s best-written column, pen-named Daniel Rim.
Le Messager has also survived persecution by its first printers, the state-owned SOPECAM. It survived the “financial starvation” imposed by lack of access to advertisements from state-owned corporations, and even private companies, too afraid to be perceived as doing business with a person and newspaper seen as a symbol of opposition. Le Messager has outlived makeshift printing arrangements at an outfit ran by fellow journalist, Benjamin Zebaze, in Bonaberi and expeditions to Nigeria to print and smuggle in the newspaper.
Njawe can pound his chest and accept victory for surviving censorship; for overcoming the chains of detention cells; for surviving the wet floors, giant mosquitoes, and monster rats of New Bell Prison. After years of trying, and failing, in every way possible to break him, Njawe stood alone on that highway to Norfolk, looking into his destiny. He stood solid against the fierce fatal force of a truck on an American highway… killed but not death; gone from and missing to us, but with us forever… his body crushed, but his spirit alive… crying out in every one of us to follow his example.
How fitting that Njawe came to the Washington, DC, Metro Area - the city with the most journalists per square kilometer - to die! How fitting that he came to the land of freedom to be freed from the shackles of sin and flesh, but how sad that God’s time means we must suffer such loss even if it also reminds us that some, like Njawe, will never ever die.
Njawe is death. Long live Njawe!