By Dibussi Tande
“What this award commemorates is not Bibi Ngota the person, with numerous professional and personal flaws, but the Bibi Ngota, who became, in spite of himself and at the cost of his life, the symbol of the arbitrary detention, harassment and physical abuse of journalists in Cameroon.”
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire to protest harassment by the police who had confiscated his vegetable cart. He died a few weeks later on January 4, 2011. Mohamed Bouazizi was neither a politician nor an activist; his was a personal protest against harassment with made it difficult for him to take care of his family. Bouazizi never set out to save Tunisia. In fact, all he dreamed of, according to a Time magazine profile, was to save enough money to be able to rent or buy a pickup truck. As Larbi Sadiki writes:
Theoretically, Bouazizi lacked the kind of pedigree that qualifies one entry into history books. He had no wider horizon beyond being a street vendor. He was not elite - his family was modest in every sense - and his town was on the margins of Tunisia both politically and economically. In fact, Tunisians living in the coastal areas and the north knew very little of the central and southern regions.
Nonetheless, Tunisians across the board quickly grasped the significance of Bouazizi’s lone and desperate action, which encapsulated the widespread discontent with the repressive and authoritarian Ben Ali regime. It mattered little whether or not Bouazizi ever considered his immolation a political act; whether or not he ever militated in, or supported a political party; and whether or not he was “one crazy dude.” What mattered was the symbolism of his action. From this perspective, Bouazizi's "act of lunacy" was seen as a call of "resistance and disobedience," and Tunisians fully exploited this event to unleash a political Tsunami which toppled the 23-year dictatorship of Ben Ali.
If Bouazizi had been Cameroonian…
I can't help but wonder how Cameroonians would have reacted if Bouazizi had been a Cameroonian Sauveteur (street vendor/peddler) who had set himself ablaze in front of the city hall of some Godforsaken town in the Eastern Province…. I am certain that nary a ripple would have been felt. Instead, we would have been fed with self-serving statements such as « Il est cinglé !” (he is nuts !); « ce n'est pas une affaire politique » (it is not a political issue); « il defendait ses intérêts personnels » (he was defending he personal interests); « n'en faisont pas une affaire d'État!” (Let’s not make this a state matter!); “evitons toute récupération politique” (let’s avoid all political exploitation of the issue) – and this would have been coming from political parties, political activists, journalists, etc., who claim to be ardent defenders of the downtrodden.
And activists who would have tried to create a movement around the immolation would have been chided for using the event to “régler leurs comptes avec le pouvoir en place (settle scores with the regime in power).” In short, if Mohamed Bouazizi had been Cameroonian, he would have died in vain. His story would simply have been reported in newspapers as a “fait divers,” and there would never have been a Jasmine Revolution.
Once Upon a Time … Bibi Ngota
I have been thinking a lot about Mohamed Bouazizi in recent days because of the controversy currently brewing within Cameroonian media circles over a new award to reward investigative journalism in Africa in general, and Cameroon in particular. The award, known as the Bibi Ngota Award for Journalism against Impunity in Africa, is named after Ngota Ngota Germain Cyrille, a Cameroonian journalist who died in April 2010 while in pre-trial detention in the Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde.
According to the government’s version of events that led to his detention and death, Ngota, along with two other journalists, were jailed for being in possession of a falsified document that incriminated Laurent Esso, then Secretary General at the Presidency and Board Chair of the state-run National Hydrocarbons Corporation (SNH), and now Minister of Justice. The document claimed that Laurent Esso had ordered SNH to disburse secret payouts of as much as $2.5 million to company managers for the planned purchase of a luxury yacht. When one of the journalists, Harris Robert Mintya Meka, sent the document to Laurent Esso while requesting an interview, Esso ordered his arrest along with that his “accomplices” Simon Nko’o Mvondo and Cyrille Ngota Ngota.
A few days after his arrest, Bibi Ngota died in jail. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
Ngota, editor of the private bimonthly Cameroon Express, died from “abandonment, improper care” and “failure to render assistance,” according to a prison death certificate that his family shared with journalists. Ngota, known by his nickname Bibi, suffered from high blood pressure and a hernia. Daily Le Jour quoted Ngota’s father as saying that his son’s medical conditions were diagnosed by a prison doctor identified as Dr. Ndi.
As the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has pointed out, Ngota's death "was a needless, tragic death – and one that sent a chilling message to the Cameroonian media community."
Ngota’s death sparked off a flurry of condemnations across the world, particularly from press watchdog groups such as CPJ, which directly accused the government of killing Ngota. Western governments, including the Director General of UNESCO, also expressed their concern, and called for an inquiry into his death. No one was ever prosecuted for Bibi Ngota’s death. Instead, the government called him common law criminal who died in jail from “opportunistic infections due to HIV/AIDS.”
The Bib Ngota Award and the Ensuing Backlash
It is in this context that the Bibi Ngota Award for Journalism Against Impunity in Africa was established. According to the initiators of the $1000.00 award, it is named after the fallen journalist because:
“The name of Cameroonian journalist Ngota Ngota Germain Cyrille … is connected to the issue of impunity mainly because of the conditions of his death … His death unified journalists around his plight in an unprecedented gesture of professional solidarity that this award intends to perpetuate.”
Unfortunately, rather than becoming a rallying point for Cameroonian journalists, particularly those interested in issues of state impunity, human rights, rule of law, accountability etc., the award has now come under scathing and vitriolic criticism from prominent Cameroonian journalists of the private press, who have launched a major campaign to scuttle and discredit the award. According to these journalists, Ngota was, among other things, not a very good journalist, in fact, some say he was a “lazy” journalist; others say his career was “too unremarkable” to have an award named after him; some say he drank too much; others insist that an award in Ngota’s name is “an insult to the profession” because he was not a journalist – he did not have a journalism degree; and some claim that the questionnaire which he used at the beginning of the investigation in the Luxury Yacht scandal not up to standard.
"Investigative Journalism is subjective Journalism..."
As an aside one of the weirdest criticisms of the Ngota award is that it does not promote journalistic “objectivity” because it rewards journalists who “denounce” the government rather than those who report on issues. As a reminder, the Bibi Ngota award specifically “celebrates a work of investigative journalism or analysis published in any format, which covers topics related to impunity in its economic, judicial, political, social aspects, and to human rights on the African continent.”
Apparently, some Cameroonian journalists are not aware that investigative journalism is one of the oldest and most reputable forms of journalism, which seeks to expose and reform, rather than to witch-hunt. In fact, one of the most prestigious journalism awards in the world is the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, which rewards "a distinguished example of investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series, using any available journalistic tool..."
Another major award, similar to the Bibi Ngota award, is the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, presented by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, which "honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served," and which " may cover actual violations of the law, rule or code; lax or ineffective administration or enforcement; or activities which create conflicts of interest, entail excessive secrecy or otherwise raise questions of propriety."
The Symbol Rather than the Person
Back to Bibi Ngota, even if we accept every word that his critics have written about him, these critics still fail to understand that what this award commemorates is not Bibi Ngota the person, with numerous professional and personal flaws, but the Bibi Ngota who became, in spite of himself and at the cost of his life, the symbol of the arbitrary detention, harassment and physical abuse of journalists in Cameroon; the symbol of the acute lack of legal protection of Cameroonian journalists; the symbol of the absence of rule of law and due process in Cameroon; and the symbol of a pervading culture of impunity which allows high ranking officials to use their political clout to throw any journalist in jail who writes what they don’t like or ask questions which they find irreverent or embarrassing.
As Mohammed Keita of the CPJ has stated, the Ngota affair was about:
"Calling on [the government of Cameroon] to enact urgent press reforms to ensure that the management of public affairs is not such a sensitive topic that journalists who cover these issues or raise questions about, say, the management of public finances get prosecuted or get thrown into prison or even die in the custody of the government.”
The late Pius Njawe, arguably Cameroon’s most revered journalist, understood and spoke about the significance of Ngota’s arrest and death in an interview with Jeune Afrique and described it as another example of the government’s use of the justice system as a tool to cow journalists into silence, and threats to force journalists to toe the line: “Soldiers no longer ransack our offices. But they create fear in us,” he concluded.
Conclusion: There is No Knight in Shining Armor!
Even if Bibi Ngota was not everyone’s ideal journalist, the Ngota award remains a great opportunity for Cameroonian journalists to celebrate and honor the best and brightest amongst them, while drawing attention to the much-needed reforms in the media industry, and reminding the government that “no journalist is subjected to detention, harassment or physical abuse for conducting their work.” Unfortunately, some journalists who consider themselves the "pillars" of the private media in Cameroon are instead focusing on questionable issues of character which border on slander, and issueing veiled threats to those journalists who are interested in the award. And in the process, they are playing the game of the regime in power which is determined to completely erase Ngota's name from our collective memory. In any case,this should really not come as a surprise; even if this award had been called the “Pius Njawe” award, there would still have been journalists to explain away why Pius did not deserve an award in his name because of one failing or the other in his personal life or professional career.
In the end, the hand-wringing over the Ngota award is merely a reflection of a much larger problem. Cameroonians are yet to achieve the change that they’ve been chasing after in the last two decades largely because of a debilitating obsession with the “perfect savior,” that untarnished knight in shining armor who will ride into town on his white horse to save the day. Unfortunately, that perfect being does not exist and never will. And, as long as Cameroonians keep looking or waiting for one, they will continue to miss out on all those imperfect individuals – and symbols – right under their noses who could very well be, in spite of their flaws, catalysts for the kind of change that many of them wish for.
There are no perfect heroes and there is no Deus Ex Machina in the horizon... Bibi Ngota was a flawed and even tragic figure, but he remains, in spite of his real and imagined flaws, a potent rallying symbol of the once soaring Cameroonian media whose wings are constantly being clipped by the state's unrelenting steamroller policies.