Aced Cameroon media practitioner Zac Angafor
Veteran Journalist and one the pioneers of Cameroon Television, Zac Angafor, has taken exception to those he qualified as a few quacks and charlatans soiling the image of the journalism profession in Cameroon. He registered his disapproval in an exclusive interview with The Post in Yaounde recently. Going by him, most of the quacks are people with very low qualification and low professional experience, who dabbled in the profession as a last resort. Read On:
The Post: You are one of those who pioneered journalism on television in this country; Cameroonians do not know your whereabouts since you disappeared from television more than two decades ago. Where have you been for all these years, Mr. Angafor?
Zac Angafor: First of all, I appreciate the fact that we are having this conversation and I also appreciate the fact that you have some concern and maybe the Cameroonian public also has concerns about my whereabouts after I quit active journalism over two decades ago. Before we continue the conversation, allow me to state in passing that, once a journalist, you will always remain a journalist irrespective of other professional callings you may pick up along the way. I’m by nature a very discrete and low profile person, notwithstanding the exposure I had working for national TV and Radio. This partly explains the reason why I’ve not been in the public eye for a very long time after quitting Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV).
Where did you go to?
Firstly, I left CRTV to set up and manage a palm oil project which I had created with the help of a German organisation in the Northwest Region of the country. The project was basically involved in the mechanisation of palm oil production in some villages where farmers used rudimentary tools and methods to produce the oil. The project also stocked and sold palm oil in bulk to retailers. The second face of the project was to nurse and promote the cultivation of high yielding palm oil seedlings. Unfortunately, this face didn’t take off because I left the project prematurely.
I worked on the project for about nine years before relocating with my family to the US after I won the American Diversity Visa Lottery.
Did you seek to go there for greener pastures or you had some problems working at CRTV?
No, I had no administrative problems with CRTV at the time I decided to resign and concentrate on the palm oil project. However, CRTV, like every other institution, had its own administrative shortcomings and the work environment was sometimes very toxic. Reason why I worked hard to create the palm oil project which I resigned to manage.
While I was working on the project, I played the American Diversity Lottery and won. After winning the lottery, I was faced with the difficult choice of relocating with my family to the US and continuing with the management of the project. Honestly, it was a very difficult choice for me to make, but after several months of reflection and consultation with family and close friends, I decided to relocate with my family to the US. Please let me hasten to say that I’ve never regretted the decision especially with the current socio-political situation in the region.
Did you continue practicing journalism in the US?
I left active journalism before relocating to the US. I went back to college shortly after my arrival in the US. I went in for a second Masters Degree at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of The John’s Hopkins University. My area of studies was International Public Policy with a focus on African Studies and Conflict Management. Before SAIS, I studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) of the University of London and subsequently at the University of Lancaster where I obtained my first Master’s degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies.
I’m certain that these academic qualifications in addition to my experience working with media outlets in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Britain helped me to pick up a job as a Cultural Adviser/Developer at the US Army TRADOC Culture Centre of the Department of Defence (DoD) shortly after my graduation from Johns Hopkins. I worked on the Africa desk at the Centre; notably with institutions like AFRICOM (Africa Command of the US Army) and with other US military as well as some DoD civilian personnel deploying/relocating to Africa. My position was purely civilian.
What exactly was your job as a Cultural Adviser/Developer with the US Army?
I must say that my job with the US Army was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. Firstly, it involved a lot of traveling, which is my passion. Secondly, it involved an area of the world which I don’t only come from but also master very well. Lastly, it involved group as well as one-on-one interactions with top level US military personnel as well as those at the threshold of their career.
You know, cultural awareness and competency is a very important part of training and counselling in the US Army. It is even more important and mandatory when Soldiers and/or Department of Defence civilians are preparing for deployment to a country or a region. It is important because experience has proven that many military personnel who parachute themselves into a country or region without a rudimentary idea and understanding of the culture of the people either end up not achieving the goals of their mission or they develop post-traumatic stress (PTS) because of their exposure to strange cultural behaviours and mannerisms. My job therefore was to instruct, to advise and provide, through practical exercises, behavioural strategies necessary for Army personnel to improve on their interactions in an African operational environment. As an adviser/developer, I researched, packaged and provided instructions on African cross-cultural competency, zeroing in on individual countries and sub-regions whenever necessary. My job was very important in helping Soldiers deploying to Africa to avoid cultural shocks and to better interact with locals in order to achieve the goal or goals of their mission.
Are you on leave here in Cameroon at the moment?
No, I’m retired so I often come visiting.
You are one of those who started Cameroon TV in 1985. What was your experience at the time?
Let me first of all start by saying how I joined Cameroon television. I was in Britain in 1985 when Cameroon TV was about to be created. Since it was a new experiment, there was a big demand for trained personnel. Consequently, the government sent out announcements to Cameroon embassies around the world requesting Cameroonians who had studied journalism and notably broadcast journalism to return home for the project. Following the announcement as well as another announcement for the recruitment of 1,500 Civil Servants, I contacted the Cameroon Embassy in London and it made arrangements for me to return home. On arrival back home, I applied for the 1,500 recruitment and was selected for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While I was putting together my paper work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a second recruitment list was published assigning me to the Ministry of Communication and specifically to the TV project. I suspect that my wide experience working at home and abroad as a journalist after studying journalism in Nigeria influenced the second decision. That is how I came to join the first crop of journalists who started Cameroon television in 1985. If you can recall, Cameroon Television (CTV) was born in Bamenda in March 1985 during the first CPDM congress.
Concerning my experience, I met at CTV a group of highly motivated and professionally astute journalists in the likes of the late Akwanka Joe Ndifor, Eric Chinje, Julius Wamey, etc. Other equally astute journalists such as Ntemfac Ofege, Emmanuel Wongibe, Charlie Ndichia, etc, joined those of us on the English language desk much later. As a pioneering team, we worked hard to make a mark and to leave our foot prints on the sands of CTV. We leveraged our diverse educational backgrounds and Anglophones to create and produce engaging audience with captivating programmes like “Minute by Minute” which was anchored by Akwanka; and Franc View which was anchored by me. Our evening newscasts which were variously anchored by Eric Chinje, Julius Wamey and Adamu Musa were equally a big audience attraction. The one thing that spurred us the most was a covert internecine competition between our English language programs and those of our Francophone colleagues on TV. Without going into the details, you might want to say that it was a war of the titans. The “warlords” used subterfuge methods and blackmail in their attempts to achieve their missions.
Following the amalgamation of the then Radio Cameroon with CTV to form Cameroon Radio and Television, some of us including me were later redeployed to Radio. At radio, we replaced Cameroon Report, one of the oldest English language programmes on radio with the flagship programme, Cameroon Calling. I must say that our proscription of Cameroon Report and the birth of Cameroon Calling took CRTV management off guard. It took CRTV management off guard because we ignored official rules, regulations and channels when we created and aired Cameroon Calling. The main reason for our audacity and defiance was the feeling that Cameroon Report was too government-centric whereas our new baby was going to embark on an editorial course which might be unpleasant to CRTV management in particular and the government in general. The first edition of Cameroon Calling hit the airwaves in 1990, and not long after, it became the hottest potato in the hands of CRTV management.
You are part of the crew that anchored the May 6, 1990 edition of Cameroon Calling. After broadcast, all of you were arrested and taken to Kondengui. Am I right?
Yes, you are very right. We were ten Anglophone journalists, I think, and four University Professors. The university professors were Tata Mentah, Sam Nuvala Fonkem and Eyoh Ndumbe. There was intense politicking against political pluralism in Cameroon at the time we aired the program. As the protests were building and rising to an uncontrollable crescendo, we, the crew members of Cameroon Calling, decided to produce a programme on the pros and cons of multiparty politics. CRTV management was not informed about our topic in the May 6, 1990 edition of the programme. Anyway, management was not always informed about the content of our news magazine programs before they were aired.
I must say that the May 6 edition was bold and defiant on why we felt that Cameroon was “ripe” for multiparty politics. Our position as state employees, working for a state-owned institution was therefore at variance with that of the government. Accordingly, our action was seen as an act of impudence by some members of government for which we must pay a price.
Four days after, that is on May 10,1990 after we broadcast the program, all ten of us who participated in the program and the four university dons were picked up and slammed behind the high and barbed wire walls of the Kondegui maximum security prison. It was a baptism of fire for most of us, but which lasted barely over a week because the international media and students of the University of Yaounde helped in rescuing us. Students of the University of Yaounde began rioting shortly after they learnt that their lecturers and ten of us were detained in Kondengui. Human rights groups and the international media, notably the BBC, RFI, VOA, etc, also picked up the story and that is how we regained our freedom.
Furthermore, the detention of ten of us had a big impact on the English language desk of CRTV, resulting in our apparently quick release.
It may interest you to know that, shortly after our detention and in the heart of mounting protests against multiparty politics, the SDF party was born in Bamenda against the backdrop of a crisis almost spiralling into a war. Before the SDF, Yondo Black, a Douala-based lawyer, had launched a party to challenge President Paul Biya’s rule. In the midst of all the political “bickering,” President Paul Biya surprised the entire nation and more especially his CPDM militants by declaring multiparty politics in the country. To be fair therefore, our May 6, 1990 edition of Cameroon Calling was a harbinger of things to come. As I look back nostalgically, I feel vindicated and happy for the small role we, the crew members of Cameroon Calling, played in the democratisation process in Cameroon.
What were you accused of?
Up and until the time we left Kondengui, we were never informed of the crime we had committed. I don’t know if our detention was borne out of panic in some government circles or out of the feeling that we had been engineered by an individual or a political party to produce the programme. In short, I can’t say with all certainty if we were prisoners with or without a crime.
How did you feel when you were arrested? Did you feel like it was your worst day in journalism?
Like all human beings, I wasn’t happy to lose my freedom. For me in particular, I was picked and locked up shortly after my wife had given birth to our daughter. Consequently, as I left Broadcast House to Kondengui, the one thing that worried me the most was the welfare of my wife and daughter if I was detained indefinitely. As we were having the free ride to Kondengui, we knew that we were political prisoners and that our fate was at the mercy of God and the powers-that be in Yaounde at the time. Thank God our detention was short lived even though we experienced first-hand, the rigours and challenges of life in an overcrowded maximum security prison like Kondengui.
You studied at the prestigious London School of Economics, how did you dabble into journalism?
It is a very long story which started after I finished college. Shortly after college, I joined the Cameroon Times newspaper in former Victoria now Limbe as a cub reporter. I worked as a cub reporter for about two years and left for Nigeria where I studied journalism. On completion of my studies, I had a stint with the Nigerian Tribune for about six months. The late Lateef Jakande who eventually became the Governor of Lagos State in Nigeria was the owner and publisher of the Nigerian Tribune. After my stint with the Tribune, I returned home to re-join Cameroon Times.
Upon re-joining the Times, I was appointed deputy to the late Jerome Fultang Gwellem who was the Editor-in-Chief at the time. Founded in 1960, the Cameroon Times was the pioneer newspaper in West Cameroon. As a frontline newspaper, it played a key role in the campaigns and in the build up to West Cameroon’s independence. It was a big institution with independent management for the newspaper and the printing press. The group was founded by the late Dr. Vincent Nchami, the late Honorable Chief Victor Mukete, Mr. Njikam of Njikam Estates in Kumba and some other business and political heavy weights in West Cameroon at the time.
Cameroon Times had an exchange programme with a Ghanaian newspaper, The Palaver Tribune which was being published in Accra Ghana. Under the exchange programme agreement, Cameroon Times staff as well as those of The Palaver Tribune were given the opportunity to join the editorial staff of either newspapers for more on-the-job training and insights into journalistic practice in both countries. I was a beneficiary of the program. On completion of my tour at The Palaver, I stayed on and was appointed News and Stone Editor of the paper. The extremely ebullient but enigmatic Chris Asher was the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the paper. I worked in this position for about two years before leaving for further studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). This is how I “dabbled” into journalism as you questioned.
Which is your worst day in journalism and why?
You know, journalism changes as the news we deal in. Today, it can be a good day and tomorrow it can be a bad day and vice-versa. As a journalist, you must be ready to accommodate the good, the bad and the ugly. If you can’t, then journalism isn’t your calling. My worst day working for the Cameroon Times, for example, was when the paper couldn’t be published because of censorship laws that were in place at the time. You know, since 1966 and until recently, there was a censorship law in the country which obliged all newspaper publishers to deposit the manuscripts of all their news stories for vetting at the office of the Senior Divisional Officer (SDO) before publication. Following the law, SDOs were virtually the Editor-in-Chiefs of all newspapers in the country. They determined what should be published and when and how it should be published. It was a nauseating experience because some SDOs used the law to clamp down on some newspapers and journalists. The Cameroon Times for which I worked suffered this experience again and again when I introduced a column in the paper called Glimpses. Glimpses focused on revealing some of the socio-political and economic malpractices in our society and especially in government circles. As expected, the column stepped on the toes of some of the rich and powerful in the country. It sold the paper just as it created problems for it. Reason why the paper was often suspended or banned from circulation whenever the SDO in Victoria at the time found a story or comment that was suspect.
When you look back after having gone through the scruples of journalistic practice in Cameroon and abroad, how would you describe the kind of journalism that is practiced in Cameroon today?
Firstly, the media landscape in Cameroon has changed drastically. There are more media outlets in the country today than they were before. The official censorship laws have been proscribed, even though institutions like the National Communications Council have been put in place to regulate journalistic practice in the country. Technological changes have also taken place, facilitating the speed and frequency with which news is published. All told, journalistic practice in the country is improving. However, and as it is the case in all professions, there are a few quacks or charlatans and adventurers who are soiling the profession. Many of the adventurers are those who have taken up journalism as a last resort. Many of them either do not have formal journalistic training or have very low academic qualifications. Others are those who in search for a source of income, create and publish newspapers which appear on the newsstands today and disappear the next day. Another group are those who practice what is commonly known in the profession as check-book journalism or “gombo” journalism in French.
Partisanship and inaccuracy in news reporting are other shortcomings that are eating deep into the fabric of the Cameroon media landscape. The acquisition of newsworthy information and its publication requires truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, and fairness. This, by and large, isn’t the case in many media outlets in the country. The situation has been made worse by social media. Because of a shortage of means and/or staff, some newspaper publishers simply rely on copying and pasting information which they haven’t verified for accuracy and objectivity, thereby putting their credibility and that of their newspapers into question. Playing by the rules and ethics therefore remains a big challenge in the Cameroon media.
People say journalism is not a very lucrative job, when you were working with Cameroon Times, CRTV, etc, did you have a handsome pay package?
If you are going into journalism in Africa because you want a handsome pay package, I’ll advice you to look for another job. I entered journalism because I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless and the downtrodden. Unlike in Europe and the US, most African journalists are comparatively not well paid. The situation varies, however, from one media house to another as well as from one country to another. Globally speaking, I received pay packages that were good enough to meet my needs and those of my family.
You said many people had a paradise image of West Cameroon in those days… that it was a country with a lot of democratic freedom but you are telling me that you were muzzled. How was that?
I earlier made mention of the 1966 censorship law which was applied in both West and East Cameroon. The law empowered local administrators to muzzle journalists and the press. Let me take the Cameroon Times for which I worked as an example. A day before the newspaper went to press, we did a complete layout of the paper into what is professionally referred to as dummies. Cameroon Times often published sixteen or twenty four pages. Following the 1966 law, we were obligated to deposit all the sixteen or twenty four pages or dummies at the SDO’s office for vetting before going to press. That is the atmosphere in which newspapers operated in the country in those days. The censorship notwithstanding, some of us circumvented the administration by changing some news stories at the last minute that is at the printing press and a few minutes before the paper is printed.
Whenever the local administration considered an uncensored story as one that could incite public disorder or defame a public official, it ordered for the paper to be seized from the newsstands. The Cameroon Times and Cameroon Outlook which were both published in Victoria suffered the seizures many times over and for several years. The Cameroon Outlook for especially its column called AkoAya which was often penned by it’s publisher, the late Tata Obenson and the Cameroon Times for Glimpses.
What can you say about the press now in Cameroon in comparative terms?
The press is much freer today than it was in my days. Also, there are a multiplicity of newspapers and radio and TV stations today than they were before. In fact, apart from Radio Cameroon at the time, there was no other radio station, let alone a TV station in the country in those days. As you know, TV is a very recent outlet in this country, dating back to just 1985 when CRTV was created. The birth and multiplication of these news organs is a clear indication that there is a sea change in media laws and political tolerance in the country today. I hope the changes keep improving.
Mr. Zac Angafor thank you for talking to The Post and if there is any area that we did not handle, ask a question to yourself and answer.
Oh waoh, ask a question to myself and answer? Okay, let me give it a shot. What are my thoughts about Cameroon’s media now and in the future?
Our social media obsession is destroying Cameroon. In fact, it is polarising and destroying Cameroon. Some of our journalists scour social media essentially finding support for a preconceived position from a source with little or no credibility and promote that position. In fact, we are experiencing extreme partisanship at every level in the country and the media and us media practitioners have a big role to play in moderating the extreme political and ideological divide.
Interviewed By Yerima Kini Nsom & Nformi Sonde Kinsai