Why did the Cameroon govt refuse to pay Bernard Fonlon’s pension?

Professor Lantum, one of the closest friends of Dr. Fonlon described that he was utterly shocked, with troubled emotion when he met Minister Dr Fonlon swaying and staggering like most of the old and abandoned pensioners in Cameroon, which Mr. Paul Biya has claimed to be a country of great ambition (Le pays des grandes ambitions), one of whom he was, one morning in the Finance Ministry at Yaoundé, Cameroon, knocking from door to door in pursuit of his pension. This was more than one year after Dr. Fonlons’s retirement which had since taken place in 1984.

Prof. Lantum observed that his almost proverbial courage in despair and his disciplined refusal to be surprised in surprising circumstances were no longer holding out. Clad in a yellow T-shirt carelessly overlapping his outmoded khaki trousers (which barely covered his white (ungreased) harmattan-beaten ankles and feet partially hidden in a pair of well-worn out dusty leather slippers), this determined and resolute Dr. Fonlon, with his spiky and sparse hair roughly combed and artless, bumped into him. Prof. Lantum greeted him first with due deference: “Woo-nto-Ndzev! What are you doing here, now!” Prof. Lantum  asked? Doctor Fonlon responded: “Taadom! You are also here!” He retorted. “It has been like this for six months. Not a mite coming forth. Nothing coming out of these fellows – these so-called administrators. They don’t seem to bother one hoot about one’s presence and human suffering. Not even an exception. Papers, papers buried in papers. Even if I cannot eat, let the kids have a bit” he continued and ended!. This was September 1985. Although Fonlon was an ascetic, now at 61 years of age, he had never looked so haggard. Poverty, an involuntary force had evidently crept in to worsen his features – a poor miserable pensioner, deprived of his rights.

Dr. Bernard Fonlon

Consequences of the refusal of his pension by the Cameroon Government

Prof. Dr. Lantum lamented terribly that he vividly recalled another scenario of poverty associated with Bernard Fonlon during the last six months of his life. Bernard Nsokika, as his mother often called – traditionally avoided calling him: Fonlon, the adoptive name form his father, was so attached to his mother that each time she was  reported to present a new symptom in her ailing old age, he would rush home instantly to see her and comfort her. That was when he was minister in the tenure of Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo (born August 1924, Garoua, Cameroon—died November 30, 1989, Dakar, Senegal), and the going was good and minimal resources were available. Then finally, Doctor Fonlon’s Mother: Agatha Naa died during the time when his pension as minister of Cameroon was refused to be given by the government of Cameroon. This was in March 1986, when Bernard Fonlon was already a resource-less pensioner. The telephone call from Kumbo announcing Mama Agatha Naa’s death also stated that the Fonlon extended family had decided that the body would be kept for that day (against customary practice) and through the night, in order to permit Dr. Fonlon to come and see it before burial next day at 10 a.m.

By some strange intuition (or telepathy) Prof. Lantum just came in at this sorrowful moment to pay him my respects and to report his presence in town since he had been away on foreign mission for some time. There, Dr. Fonlon was, sunk in an armchair in his parlour alone. Mr Innocent Futcha, a close faculty associate had just left retired Minister Fonlon and was returning home. Prof. Lantum had met him at the frontage of the house and had just exchanged greetings. It was Mr Innocent who had announced to Prof. Lantum the news of Fonlon’s mother’s passing on. “What a surprise! What a sad news! What a shock for Fonlon, our friend!”, Prof. Lantum exclaimed.

Prof. Lantum rushed into the salon to see Fonlon and to express his anger for his failing to send someone to alert him in his residence in Bastos, as would be expected by dint of their intimate relationship and custom. Dr. Fonlon apologized for having forgotten to do so and attributed this lapse of memory to the sudden confusion and profound sadness into which he was flung by the heart breaking news. Prof. Lantum understood and forgave him.

Then they went into conversation. Dr. Fonlon began by recounting to Prof. Lantum the long story of his mama’s protected illness as usual, in the minutest detail much of which he had heard times over before, and with strict chronological order of events and the same vacillations of mood and sentiment. Finally, the most recent part of the story came: “The telephone rang that she died this morning and that they are waiting for me.”

Prof. Lantum then cut in. How soon are you leaving for home for the funeral ceremonies? He asked Dr. Fonlon. Dr. Fonlon replied: “Doc. I must be frank with you. I can’t foot the cost of the expected long ceremonies. I know crowds are there already waiting for me. And more will come as the news spreads far and wide. I won’t reach home today as they expect me. I have just telephoned the Parish priest of Bafoussam Cathedral parish to host me in his guest house tonight, so that I leave by 8.a.m tomorrow, and reach Kumbo at 10 a.m. just for the burial. That is if I can get there, at all, today.”

Prof. Lantum was astonished at such a non-conforming plan. He was talking and sweating profusely, showing a kind of strange indifference to a serious situation of which he was the central figure, and, indeed, undoubtedly the principal host, by dint of his birth, sex and social standing and responsibility. So Prof. Lantum cut in again:“Woo-nto-ndzev, you mean that you will be absent from your mother’s funeral! Your mother for whom you have been showing so much love, care and concern for her health in recent times! And you are the only son! And family head! No! Our people will never forgive you for this. You must be there. You must get home tonight, no matter how late, and receive the mourners. Your presence is the event. That is our custom. That is our tradition.”

Dr Fonlon retorted, insisting, to Prof. Lantum’s utter astonishment: “I have a papal assignment in Libreville, and so must be there, come what may, during the next two days. After burial tomorrow, I plan to leave Kumbo direct for Bamenda, as soon as possible, for a rest over at my sisters – Emerentia’s house. The day after, I should be in Douala by midday to board the Air Afrique evening flight to Gabon.” The principal factor contributing to this puzzling indifference to this important occasion was the emptiness of his pocket. Prof. Lantum knew Dr Fonlon very well to be a man who was afraid of entering into debts. Such occasions as the death of one’s mother often cause people to go borrowing to face the situation.

Prof. Lantum quickly sensed Dr. Fonlon’s poor financial situation and requested that they go into the room for a while and chat. Dr. Fonlon consented, and in that privacy, Prof. Lantum gave Dr. Fonlon 50,000 frs to defray his petrol bills and to let palm wine flow according to custom. Dr. Fonlon smiled and brightened up. That was what he needed and did not know how to go about it.  In a moment, Dr. Fonlon was a different person. Smiling beamingly, he confessed: “Woo Bastos, Ndze na! You have cured my illness.” Dr. Fonlon continued with a boasting expression in Lamnso: “Bong wir a ker wan ve, a liy kijung. A la wo ben len, bo kiwiy la I mow wun?” (It is good that when a man has his child he should tend him well and raise him. If not of you, who else could have come to me (in this way) at this needy and crucial moment?”

When Dr. Fonlon and Prof. Lantum returned to the sitting room, Dr. Fonlon immediately summoned his driver, Fred, and ordered him to check and prepare his car, the famous Volkswagen (beetle type). It was soon declared to be in good condition for a long voyage. Within one hour, Dr. Fonlon and his driver were on their way home. Within this short period, another friend who had come in (after Prof. Lantum) and was sympathizing but without understanding the added cause of the depression, observed the sudden change. Prof. Lantum called her out and hinted her of his psychotheraphy. She pulled out her wallet, dipped her hand into it and offered Dr Fonlon 20,000 frs to help in meeting the cost of funeral celebrations. More smiles and warm gratitude! Dr Fonlon was now sure he could make the journey and face to the event, even though not so lavishly. He was strong again. His poverty had found a remedy.

Nevertheless, Dr Fonlon being a better assessor of his own event still respected the Bafoussam rendez-vous. He only left for Kumbo next morning at 8 a.m and reached there by 10 a.m and burial began at 11 a.m. Dr. Fonlon left for Bamenda, soon after, as he had planned, and took a full night’s rest at his ssiters – Emerentia’s. The day after, he was at Douala on his way to Gabon. Could this apparent odd behavior be considered as neglect of responsibly and disrespect for his mother? To others, this could seem to be the case, but to Prof. Lantum, it was simply a matter of being unable to cope with the economic demands of the event, and he saw no need for robbing Peter to pay Paul. He was very fragile and was probably afraid to be broken. Perhaps more pertinent and complementary questions suggest themselves here. Was his papal mission not motivated by the escapism from poverty and misery, albeit temporary, and the sure stipend it would provide? Did Fonlon not prefer to do his heavenly Father’s business rather than the cost cause of mourning his mother!

As Dr. Fonlon had never saved for the rainy days when he was a Minister of State and Professor, the non-payment of his pension had reduced him to abject poverty which he learned to accept and adjust himself to without any pretentions irrespective of customary expectations. We do not know why the Cameroon Government was so ungrateful to a Cameroonian like Dr. Fonlon who loved and cherised his fatherland.

Martin Jumbam commenting on this tragedy lamented profusely that “Professor Fonlon served his country, Cameroon for many years as a government minister and university professor. You would think that a man who had been so loyal to his country would equally receive the gratitude of his country. Not in Fonlon’s case where he died a poor man, without receiving even a dime of his pension.” He added that “Only an enigma, like Fonlon, could have turned down such an opportunity to further his education abroad because he wanted to come back and serve his country; a country that, at the end of his life, showed him its ingratitude by refusing to pay him his pension, and he died a virtual pauper.” Why did the Cameroon Government refuse to pay Bernard Fonlon’s pension? This is terribly sad and I pray fervently that the Cameroon Government does not repeat this attitude of ingratitude to any Cameroonian civil servant.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect The SUN’s editorial stance.

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