Dr Paul NYEMB NTOOGUE
It is 4:43 am. I wake up to go to the bathroom. Returning to the bedroom, less than a minute later, I realise that my phone is lit up. I see I have half a dozen missed calls. They are all from my older brother, NYEMB Popoli, to whom I owe the start of my career in journalism in 1989. With a fearful mind, I nonetheless call back, fearing possible family misfortune. He picks up and he is visibly annoyed by the fact that I switch my phone to silent every time I go to bed. I can hear he is nervous and then he hits me with: “So, Pius is dead!”. It is July 12, 2010.
I admit to being a bit confused at the time, even though I was no longer sleepy. I wanted to know who he is talking about. Especially since I do not imagine that it is “Pius”, Pius Njawe, the founder and managing director of Le Messager newspaper, our former boss for more than 10 years! The very one who, on July 2, 2010, was supposed to fly with me to South Africa, where the first World Cup on African soil was then taking place. Two weeks before our planned departure, on June 22, he had come to the then offices of the daily LE POPOLI, located Rue Prince Bell in Bali, a district of Douala, to tell me, as I was accompanying him to the bottom of the building, that he will no longer be able to travel. Because, he said, he had an important invitation to the United States. I opened the door of the waiting Carina, after having ‘taken ownership’ of the single 10,000 FCFA note that he has in his wallet. I jokingly promised him his money back when I get back from South Africa. We separated with bursts of laughter. This is the last time I would touch, see, hear … Pius!
Since the painful split between LE MESSAGER and LE POPOLI in 2003 and therefore our separation, much has been said and written about the issue. An understandable tension also set in between those involved. We no longer saw each other, or rarely. And then only in the presence of our lawyers. Yet in 2018 NYEMB Popoli, the founder of the newspaper that bears his name, started seeing Pius again. I did as well, not as executive director of the LE POPOLI Group, but really like one of the children of the boss of the newspaper LE MESSAGER. The person whom he now affectionately calls ‘the rebel’, was once his deputy editor-in-chief.
Indeed, I was at the origin, or at least, at the center of this split, which has been discussed at length in professional and academic circles and evoked in narratives on the history of the private press in Cameroon. But lately the bond between Pius and myself had improved a lot.
Meetings with this freedom fighter had become a regular occurrence. I could not imagine then that the one who likes to repeat to anyone who will listen that he has entrusted his life to the Lord, could go away like this, without saying goodbye to us. So I simply couldn’t believe the news of his death.
But on that morning, NYEMB Popoli invited me to turn on the TV to convince me. The media was already talking about it. I called Agnes, his cousin and secretary who confirmed what I didn’t want to understand. But eventually the reality sunk in. Pius did die in Virginia, USA, ‘as a result of a traffic accident.’ This was the official version. Given the man’s generally tense relationship with the Cameroonian authorities, some however started asking whether his death could have been orchestrated from Yaoundé, especially since Pius was in the US for a meeting of the opposition forces that are advocating for political change.
True or false, the following days, marked by the arrival of the remains of the Miaffeu in Douala, followed by the mourning in Babouantou, nevertheless confirmed the disappearance for eternity, of the icon of the freedom of the press in Cameroon.
I got to know him well. Our very first meeting was in Edéa. It was 1990. I was then a student finishing at CETIC in this small town between the Cameroonian capital and Douala. I find Pius Njawe at the newsstand, run by our friend Tchieliebou. The director of Le Messager is accompanied by a cameraman and a journalist from a French channel for a report about him. I greet him, without introducing myself or revealing that I am flirting with the media. However, it is from here that I leave every week to go and do my freelance work for the newspaper LE COMBATTANT of his friend Joseph Benyimbe, where my older brother, NYEMB Popoli is one of the most important contributors. In fact, he was already considered in the media sector as the best cartoonist in the country. It is, moreover, on the strength of this referent that Pius Njawe organizes the poaching of NYEMB Popoli for the newspaper Le Messager. Joseph Benyimbe, the boss of the newspaper Le Combattant was a friend of Pius Njawe and although this could have been an obstacle, interests had the upper hand.
Pius then embarks on the conquest of the greatest cartoonist in Cameroon to strengthen his newspaper. The negotiations started with the economist Célestin Monga, then a young executive at BICIC, who knew the two media men well. At times I followed these talks about the the poaching of NYEMB Popoli from the newspaper Le Combattant. It was in the Agip district, where the latter resides, that Pius would disembark at night, aboard his Cressida, for further negotiations. NYEMB Popoli’s reluctance was because of our older brothers who found it “risky” to leave a newspaper we knew for another one that was unknown. Jane, the wife of Pius (who passed away in 2002), was then called upon to persuade NYEMB Popoli of the relevance of the offer made to him. The cartoonist would eventually join the Journal LE MESSAGER, creating an enmity between Pius Njawe and his friend Benyimbe (also deceased after Pius).
I stayed on at the newspaper Le Combattant for a while. But the star was gone, destabilizing the morale of the entire editorial staff: “Pius stabbed his best friend in the back by kidnapping NYEMB Popoli”, we heard people say. Sure enough, Le Combattant would start to falter and finally take a nose dive. Meanwhile, Le Messager takes flight, asserts itself and achieves record sales. Pius travels the world and receives prizes. We are in 1991, a glorious year for Le Messager. It receives accolades from Reporters Without Borders, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the IFJ, etc.
We are at the start of democracy, with all that it entails. On the opposing side, the regime is strengthening its repression. In addition to censorship, there are incursions by law enforcement officials, arrests, beatings, trials, suspensions of newspapers, various threats, etc. Pius ends up fleeing Cameroon in the following years for Benin, where NYEMB Popoli will follow him some time later. This was after the suspension of La Messagère, another title created after the banning of Le Messager by the authorities. Back in Cameroon, NYEMB Popoli launches La Chauve-Souris, the country’s very first satirical newspaper. I am on the editorial team like some journalists at Le Messager who had been unemployed for long periods.
The end of the suspension of Pius Njawe’s two titles brings him home and leads La Chauve-Souris to make an unexpected change. In 1993, NYEMB Popoli informed me, after several days of discussion and reflection on the subject, of his desire to strengthen the central pages of La Chauve-Souris, to make it a regular title, totally made up of cartoons. The print-ready document in hand and with no printing money, he rushes into Pius’s office to ask him for support in printing the new newspaper. Pius finds the idea rather crazy, but NYEMB Popoli’s insistence leads Pius to ask him to pledge his salary, which the latter accepts. On May 6, 1993, the very first issue of Le Messager Popoli hit the newsstands. Pius is the publishing director and NYEMB Popoli is the editor-in-chief.
This first issue sold like hot cakes: before 2 p.m. there was nothing left on the newsstands. A real success which leads Pius to ask for a reprint of this edition. The following weeks and years will be defined by Le Messager Popoli, of which I became editorial secretary, then deputy chief editor after NYEMB Popoli left for exile (in South Africa) in 1998.
This was the year Pius was arrested and jailed in New Bell prison for taking an interest in the health of the head of state. From his cell, I offered him a painting exhibition on the freedom of the press. Some of the canvases made on the occasion adorned his office but also the walls of my house, after a major exhibition that year at the Doual’Art gallery by Didier Schaub, also of late memory.
Pius was finally released through presidential pardon. Returning from a trip to the United States which he made after his release, he gave me a shirt, a sweater and a tie in his office, followed by a deep hug. My “thank you” came at the same time as his! We burst out laughing and separated. Our ties seem to be strengthening. Over the next few days and years, he invited me to accompany him from time to time to a meetings with certain personalities who were close to him.
The death of Jane, his wife, also following a traffic accident, however had diminished Pius. He lost a lot of his strength. His tears and occasional crying attested to this. The one who knew how to find a solution to any problem through her calm negotiation and prayers was no longer there.
Then the crisis broke out between the editorial staff of Le Messager Popoli and Pius Njawe, involving premises and air conditioning. During this period the advice given to the two parties reinforced the differences between him and NYEMB Popoli, who left the company with all its editorial staff to launch LE POPOLI. It was May 27, 2003.
Five years later, the divorce was consummated and still we found each other again. Rather regularly in fact. Seems it was the right time for Pius, who claimed to be born again, to go to the Almighty.