Treatise remembering Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon on the occasion of his 96th birthday 0

This treatise is dedicated to Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, M.A., Ph.D., (Nui) Dip. Ed. (Oxon), who was born 96 years ago, on 19 November 1924 in Nso, North West Region of Cameroon, died 26 August 1986. He was a government minister and leading intellectual of Cameroon. A man of diverse abilities, Fonlon was characterized as the Cameroonian Socrates. He was a major promoter of bilingualism, as reflected in the Journal Abbia: Cameroon Cultural Review that he founded in the early 1960s.

Dr. Prof. Bernard Nsokika Fonlon is the first English speaking Cameroonian to earn a Doctorate Degree in 1961 at the University of Ireland. The first French Cameroonian to earn a Doctorate Degree was Reverend Father Jean Zoa in 1953 in Biblical Studies at the Pontificia Universitas Urbaniana, in Rome, Italy. Prof. Dr. Fonlon did his secondary school education at Christ the King College, Onitsha Nigeria from 1942 to 1945. Later, he studied in Bigard Memorial Senior Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria from 1948 to 1953. He was among the pioneer seminarians at Bigard Memorial Senior Seminary in 1948, together with Monsignor Alphonsus Aghaizu, who happens to be the oldest living Monsignors in South-East Nigeria. He is presently 95 years old and is retired at St. Paul’s parish, Owerri. Fonlon’s one and only desire was to become a Catholic priest. Just before the sub-diaconate, Bernard experienced the greatest crisis of his life. He was informed that he would not be admitted to Major Orders, and that there was no likehood of that decision being changed in the future. This happened in November 1953 at Enugu, in Nigeria. In the midst of the darkness of that crisis, with his hopes for ordination completely shattered. Msgr. Aghaizu describes the scene on August 20, 2020 in his humble contribution to the cause for the beatification of his close friend Dr. Fonlon:“I was due for sub-diaconate ordination with Fonlon 1953 but he was dropped the morning of the ordination, but he maintained his cool, and went with me as previously arranged for a month’s holiday to Msgr. P. Meze’s parish at Maku. The authorities arranged for him to teach at C.K.C his alma mater (1942 to 1945). At my ordination at Uli 1954, Fonlon and three of his friends came from C.K.C to Uli despite the fact that there was ordination same day at Onitsha….After my month’s tour of the stations at Uli Parish, I was due to return to Bigard to obtain my faculties; and I decided to touch C.K.C enroute. I did not go to the Fathers House upstairs but to the teacher’s quarters to stay with Fonlon. Next morning, he followed me to the fathers Chapel and served my mass! The authorities were so impressed at this gesture that they gave him scholarship to study in Cork, Ireland”.

Thus, thanks to his exceptional gesture, between 1954-1961, Fonlon got a Scholarship [from a disappointment to a blessing], and studied at the National University of Ireland, Cork: studied under Professor E. Byrne Costigan, Prof. Drs O’Flaherty, Prof. Servais, Prof. Forgatton at Sorbonne, Paris; Fonlon also studied under Professor Georges Balandier Oxford University and under professor Halls. Had he become a priest, he would not have had the opportunity to serve his country as a Christian and intellectual in politicians as he did for Cameroon. God had other plans for him.

 Academic Qualifications of Fonlon

Fonlon earned the following Academic Qualifications: 1939: Primary School leaving Certificate; 1945: Senior Cambridge Grade One; 1946: The Nigerian Teacher’s Higher Elementary Certificate; 1957: B.A. Honurs, NUI Cork (2.1, Latin and French); 1958: M.A., NUI Cork (First, Thesis: Flaubert Ecrivain, a study of Flaubert’s style, written in French); 1960: Diploma in Education, Oxford University; Ph.D., NUI Cork (Thesis: Bernard Nsokika. La poesie et le reveil de l’homme noir / par Bernard Fonlon, published by Presses Universitaires du Zaire), an investigation into Negro African protest literature in English and in French (inclusing North America, the Caribbean, Africa and Madagascar. This was the the first Ph. D thesis in this field and was written in French under the auspices of professor W. McCausland Stewart (Bristol), Dr. Green (Oxford) and Professor E. Byrne Costigan (NUI Cork). This Ph. D was the first doctorate awarded to a Cameroonian in Ireland; 1986: D. Litt. (Honoris Causa), University of Guelph, Canada. With this extensive study, Fonlon earned three Academic Honours: 1). Nigeria – Patron of the Philosophical Fraternity of the University of Nigeria; 2). USA: Member of the National Geographic Society; 3). USSR: Awarded the Pushkin Medal in Moscow on the 170th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated Russo-African Writer.

 A Genuine and True Christian cum Intellectual in Politics

As far as his political life is concerned, Fonlon served as an interpreter to Amadou Ahidjo, the first Cameroonian President, and later was a Minister, in which he distinguished himself in politics with his moral, spiritual and intellectual life on returning to Cameroon. He held the following post in the Cameroon government: In 1961, he was assistant Secretary to the Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons; 1961-1964: Charge de Mission (Presidential Aide) at the Presidency, Yaounde, Cameroon; 1964-1968: Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; 1968-1970. Minister of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications; 1970-1971: Minister of Public Health and Social Welfare; 1962-: Founder and Director of Abbia, the bilingual Cameroon Cultural Review; 1971: Associate Professor in the University of Yaounde.

Prof. Daniel Noni Lantum, “the right hand man” of Fonlon, who is said to have known Fonlon more than anybody else in Cameroon observes in his book titled: “Dr. Bernard Nsokika Fonlon: An Intellectual in Politics” that Fonlon was an indefatigable, relentless father of Cameroon Bilingualism at work, that Africanist intellectual and learned philosopher of the Presence Africaine up-bringing, that tireless professor of Negro-African Literature of the University of Yaounde from 1978 to 1984, that revolutionary Cameroonian Educationist of the 1960s, that inspiring and unquenching source of Liberty and Democracy even in the Ahidjo Regime (1958 – 1982), that Christian intellectual and politician who was physically present but spiritually absent from the materialism of the political environment of his time.

One of the circles in which Dr. Fonlon left an indelible mark was in politics. His involvement with Cameroon politics was natural as it was inevitable. He was motivated by a genuine desire to bring to the politics of his country the very best intellectual and moral qualities that he possessed, having passed through Bigard Memorial Senior Seminary, with a holistic formation: Intellectual, Spiritual, Pastoral and Human formation which equipped him for politics. It should be noted that Cameroon and indeed Africa was emerging from colonial enslavement to independence and such a critical period needed the best type of leadership that each country could provide. Dr. Fonlon who had foreseen this need and had prepared himself accordingly, believed that those who governed – and politics is to do ultimately with good government – should have the intellectual and moral preparation for such an important and sacred task. He believed with Socrates that “kings should be philosophers” or that those who govern should have the intellectual and moral qualities which true philosophy inculcates. With these principles which Fonlon learnt from Bigard, he distinguished himself in politics and earned eleven Political Honours: 1). Canada: The Canadian Medal; 2). Vatican: A Papal Medal, the Medal of the Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum 1 and 2; 3). France: The Medal Trois Siecles de Cartographie Francais; 4). USA: Medal of the African-American Dialogues; OAU: Medal Issued to the Participants of the First Congres of the OAU, 1963; 5). Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Valeur, Officier de l’Ordre de la Valeur; 6). Tunisia: The Order of the Tunisian Star; 7). Nigeria: The C.O.N. for Distinguished Public Service; 8). India: The Jawaharlal Nehru Medal; 9). Africa: Madale de Vermeil d’Union Africaine et Malgache des Postes et Telecommunications; 10). West Germany: Grosses Verdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband; 11). Nso: Chieftaincy title, Shufai-wu-Ntu-Ndzev, conferred by the Fon of Nso, for having brought water to Kumbo, where he was born.

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze states inter alia: “I hold Dr. Bernard Nsokika FONLON in very high regard. I first got to know him in Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria, in the years 1953 and 1954.  He was in his second year theology when I entered that Major Seminary in September 1953.  When he and his classmates were due to be ordained subdeacons in December 1954, the Seminary authorities and his Bishop decided not to admit him to major orders. As a seminarian, I saw Bernard as a learned seminarian.  I still remember how with lustre he sang “Audi Benigne Conditor” during Vespers in Lent.  He took no breakfast.  When other seminarians were at breakfast, he was studying, we believed he was at Latin and Greek! During holidays and in the years after he had to leave Bigard Memorial Seminary, he used to visit one of the Nigerian priests, Monsignor Peter Meze-Idigo who was very kind to him, as he also was to seminarians in general.  Once during those visits by Fonlon to Monsignor Meze at Dunukofia, my parish, I took Bernard to visit my parents at Eziowelle and my father, a good wine tapper, gave him good palm wine which he took gladly.  I still remember that my mother tried to converse with him in Igbo and was surprised that Fonlon did not speak Igbo.  I had to inform my innocent mother that Igbo is not the only language spoken in Africa!I lost track of Fonlon in the years when he worked for a Doctorate in Ireland and another Doctorate in France.  The next time I met him was during the Nigeria-Biafra war, probably in 1968 or 1969.  It was a quick meeting because we were both passengers in Air France flying to Paris from Douala.  At that time, Dr Fonlon was Minister of Communications in the Camerun and I was Archbishop of Onitsha. After that Nigerian civil war, I visited Dr Fonlon in Yaoundé.  It may have been around the year 1972.  I first visited Archbishop Paul Verdzekov in Bamenda.  Then I flew from Buea to Yaoundé.  Fonlon met me at the airport.  I stayed about two days with hm.  I then learned that he was no longer Minister in the Government because President Ahidjo called him and explained:  Bernard, I regret that we can no longer retain you in the cabinet because you put the rest of us ministers to shame, because you are your own driver and you drive an old car. My unforgettable memory of my stay with Fonlon in his flat was that one day his sister prepared a fou-fou lunch for both of us.  During lunch, Dr. Fonlon was so absorbed in our conversation (which was more me listening to his wisdom) that I finished my lunch; he then put together his fork and knife, put his plate aside and continued his learned discourse.   He forgot that he had not eaten anything yet!  I have never in my life of 87 years reached that level of detachment from creatures. On 16 Sept. 1973 he wrote a 28-page booklet:  “An Open Letter to the Bishops of Buea and Bamenda” on the training of future priests.  Excellent piece. Dr Bernard Nsokika Fonlon was a man of high ideals.  He prayed.  He said the Latin Breviary daily.  He loved the Church.  He was not bitter that he was not ordained priest.  In my view, it was an administrative mistake of his superiors that he was not ordained.  It seems to me that they did not understand him enough.  He was the type of professorial intellectual who may seem not the routine parish priest.  As a university priest, he could have answered many needs of the Church.  However, as a lay person, he also did much good. The Camerounians are the best placed to make a judgment on this.  He lived a celibate life.  When I visited him in 1972, I saw that he loved the Breviary. In my view, the Cause of Beatification of Dr. Bernard Nsokika Fonlon could be introduced.  I am happy to be writing these lines on this anniversary of his death. May he rest in the peace of Christ”.  + Francis Card. Arinze. Vatican City, 26 August, 2020.

Prof. Fonlon: Socrates in Cameroon

Fonlon is referred to as the Socrates in Cameroon. However, unlike Socrates, he wrote countless of articles. Although Professor Fonlon died in 1986 at the age of 62, he still lives on, and will do so for very many years to come in his writings, his goals, his noble deeds, and the shining example that he has left us. Dr. Fonlon was indeed a phenomenon so great that it will require many writers and many generations to fathom the depth of his profundity. His literary, intellectual and moral qualities made him a giant among Cameroonians, Nigerians and worldwide. He was a giant who was so much at ease and at home with the peasant villagers and the poor of slum “quartiers” of Yaoundé as he was among university dons of the greatest universities of Europe, North America and Canada. He was as comfortable among Archbishops, Cardinals and priests as he was among students. He knew personally and was friendly with several presidents and political figures of Post-independence Africa among whom one could cite Osagefor Kwame Nkruma of Ghana and Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Pierre E. Truddeau, Prime Minister of Canada, was a personal friend of Dr. Fonlon. In each of the many social circles or groups that Dr. Fonlon touched, he left an indelible mark and was admired, respected, and loved because he remained true to himself, sincere, generous, friendly, humble and simple.

 Message of Dr. Prof. Fonlon

Philosopher Dr. Tanju Fidel Kottoh, PhD, who happened to have been born on the day Dr. Fonlon died: August 26, 1986, writes: “What was the message of Professor Fonlon? Professor Fonlon’s message – and he was the very incarnation of the message – was the supremacy of a genuine intellectual life. This is what informed his heroic detachment from material fixations. In step with the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Professor Fonlon so believed in the primacy of the intellect that he saw genuine intellectual life as the surest panacea to the moral degradation that so potently lured the contemporary African youth. He described the ideal youth, whom he called the ‘genuine intellectual’ in the following words: ‘As Truth’s votary, ever faithful, ever sure, he is committed to wage lifelong warfare against falsehood. And as goodness and beauty are inherent in truth, it follows that he must be a constant seeker of the good and right and an inexorable and implacable of evil and wrong; and a devoted worshipper at the shrine of the beautiful and the sublime”. (Bernard Fonlon, The Genuine Intellectual, Buma Kor, Yaoundé 1978, 114). The Professor’s message was: virtue, knowledge and truth. He preached it vehemently in and out of season. But most importantly, he lived it. He himself was a paradigmatic expression of the heroic virtues he incessantly preached. His writing, teachings, encounters all attest to his desire to ‘walk the talk. ’ Above all, he was thoroughly humble. He said “it is my ambition to live the life of a simple man. The Professor’s humility was overwhelmingly evident”.

Fonlon’s cool and total dependence on Divine Providence is an attitude that ex-seminarians can emulate when they are asked to withdraw from Seminary formation. Fonlon left the Seminary without bearing any grudges. His maturity and attitude when he was dismissed is distinguished and should be emulated by ex-seminarians. Cardinal Christian Tumi, a former student of Bigard also notes in a recent interview conducted on Sunday, October 25 that Fonlon is a Saint because he did good and avoided evil. He also added that the fact that seminarians are in the seminary does not necessarily mean they must become priests, because in the course of the discernment, God might be calling them to other vocations. He challenged the seminarians never to withdraw from the Seminary on their own, but to allow the formators to ask them to withdraw. In addition, Dr. Fonlon lived the Heroic Virtues: Cardinal and theological virtues which are perquisites for the introduction of a cause of beatification. He lived the virtues of Justice in government, Prudence, Temperance and distinguished himself with the virtue of fortitude, include faith, hope and charity.

Fonlon is also an example of a lay person who took part completely in the Church. One reference to the Christian principle of life that was dear to him concerned the spirit of poverty, that is, detachment from whatever is not God. Writing to the Bishops of Buea and Bamenda in his Open Letter of 16th September 1973, on the occasion of the inauguration of the St.  Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary, Bambui, Fonlon said, inter alia: “In a world that is rank and rotten with materialism, where hedonism is the principle philosophy, where luxury is the summum bonum; there is the crying need for dedicated souls who would go to the other extreme and espouse the spirit of genuine religion, the spirit of poverty, the spirit of austere abstemiousness, in order to wage war against the onslaught of materialist godlessness”. Dr. Fonlon was buried as a priest. He lived a celibate life and lived the life of a priest, despite the fact that he was a lay person. He was buried very close to his friend: Fr. Aloysius Wankuy. The bishop who celebrated his funeral: Bishop Cornelius Fontem Esua stated: “Dr. Fonlon was an illustrious Christian, a man of great devotion and a priest at heart. He was a saintly man, and on account of this, regardless of who he was, I have decided to lay his mortal remains next to those of his closest friend, late Father Aloysius Wankuy…as a sign of our gratitude for his affection and deep attachment to the Church”. 

Dr. Tanju Fidel Kottoh, PhD, Philosopher observes: “Professor Fonlon was a vir probatus – a man whose unflinching devotion to virtue, knowledge and truth was evident and proven by an iconic lifestyle. His death, an event that eclipsed the ‘African intelligentsia and the entire elite of the Negro World’ is a reality that we must face up to. In the words of Professor Bongasu Tanla Kishani “we need to accommodate ourselves to the fait accompli and open our minds more than ever before to their messages”; referring to two legends: Professor Fonlon and Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal. In the same way, he adds that “the world is in desperate need and arguably enthusiastically yearning for the manifestation of the Fonlons of our time; for the citizens of the world marked by an unrepentant commitment to virtue, knowledge and truth. As you continue reading this masterpiece, remember ‘talk is cheap. ’ Only a firm decision to emulate the heroic virtues you are about to discover/rediscover make your time worth its while. Relish every moment even as it energizes you into active participation in The Bernard Fonlon Revolution.” May his soul continue to rest in peace on the occasion of his 96th birthday celebration.

Written by Nchumbonga George Lekelefac