“Times Were Hard, But There Was No Giving Up”

A Tribute In His Own Words To Fo S. A. N Angwafo III of Mankon, 1925-2022

By Francis B. Nyamnjoh*

Fo Solomon Anyeghamotü Angwafo III has left us to join his ancestors with a message to share on the state of things in Mankon and the world he leaves behind. He started his journey of reunion with his ancestors on May 21, 2022, the same day he was born 97 years ago, and from the same place he was born. He was named Anyeghamotü at birth and adopted Solomon along the way. He was enthroned and titled Fo Angwafo III on April 4, 1959, following the passing of his father, Fo Ndefru III. His mother was Theresa Mankah, the daughter of Akenji and Swiri, both from Munki (Asongkah), one of the quarters of Mankon. His brother having passed away at the age of 12, he became the only surviving son of his mother.

Fo Angwafo III demonstrated a lifelong commitment to cultivation. To him, living was not just about tilling the soil for sustenance, it was also about tending the mind and the soul. He valued agriculture and culture. In both fields, he would like to be remembered as an innovator who facilitated productive conversations between change and continuity, tradition and modernity, Mankon and elsewhere. Be it in agriculture or culture or education, he has always argued:

“To me, education is the key to any meaningful achievement. I have known this since the day I first set foot in school. I have encouraged my children to get as much of it as possible, and have prioritized it despite the many other challenges demanding a share of our meagre resources. Although education necessarily comes with new values, I believe that a thorough grounding in our own ways best prepares us to adapt the values we adopt through education.” (p. 52)

His childhood was royal in name only. He had to toil and sweat for almost everything. As the only child to his mother and without an uncle to support him in a palace where the practice was to outsource certain parental responsibilities to maternal uncles and aunties, Fo Angwafo III learnt to fend for himself from a very tender age. In Royalty and Politics: The Story of My Life, he recollects:

“My mother had an only brother who was not financially able to help her or even to extend the help to me. And so, imagine that in such a large family, though our father was interested in education, the number of wives, the number of children, the number of extended family overpowered him and so he couldn’t support our school. One of his principles to us his children was for our uncles to support our schooling. I had no uncle to go to.” (p. 1)

He may have been lucky to have been allowed by his father to go to school – something not common for princes in his day –, but paying his fees and maintenance while at school was a challenge. However, he was not someone who yielded easily to obstacles: because “I had no viable uncles to help me, I turned to helping myself.” (p. 4)

He elaborates on what he did to mitigate the challenges. To provide for himself at school, he “used to keep a tomato garden and to grow cabbages as well” (p. 11) In addition:

“I had to go to the Fon’s farm to fetch firewood to sell at Ntambag. We also caught fish, mud fish, with hooks to sell to civil servants, the elites, the rich people in town, and with the money thus earned, I was able to buy a few things to maintain myself in school. Sometimes we had to draw water for the settlers at Ntambag, to make a little cash to buy pencil and exercise books. And so we lived on like that.” (p. 4)

His financial problems were only compounded when he travelled to Nigeria for further education. As he recounts, “Although my father had given me his blessings to enrol at the Aggrey Memorial College, he could not pay my fees because his contract with the government to supply food to prisoners was abruptly terminated.” (p. 9)

Once again, his creative ingenuity around gardening and farming came to his rescue:

“I was very popular there, and was appointed the Janitor of the college experimental farm and library, which meant that I stayed in the dormitory. During holidays, I couldn’t go home. There was no transport money again, and there was the Nigerian Railway strike. The small money sent to me from home was missing. I explained my situation to the Vice Principal, so the yams I grew all went back to the school when I harvested, and from this I earned a little money to keep going. Times were hard, but there was no giving up.” (p. 9)

“The hard work and determination paid off. I took four instead of the statutory five years to obtain the Cambridge School Certificate and a certificate in Agriculture. On graduation, I received a testimonial from the principal and proprietor of the college, Mr Alvan Ikoku, dated 31 December 1950 that read:

“‘This is to certify that Solomon Ndefru was a student here from 1946 to 1950. He passed secondary class five in 1949 and studied a further year (1950) in class six. He was elected College prefect in 1950 by both staff and students and has revealed great qualities of leadership and responsibility in bearing what is regarded as the highest honour of the school. Solomon is loyal without losing his right of criticism, sensible and honest. His courtesy and sense of humour make him a great winner through. I expect great things of him in the wider life beyond the College campus.’” (p. 9)

The college principal’s great expectations of Solomon in the wider life beyond came to pass abundantly. The Fon’s achievements, even his critics would agree, have been phenomenal. He has succeeded as a pacesetter in agriculture. As a father and leader of Mankon, he has taught by example, insisting on traditionalizing modernity and modernizing tradition in a careful and delicately balanced articulation of change and continuity.

As a traditional leader, he succeeded more than most in challenging party politics to recognize and represent chieftaincy as integral to democracy and statecraft in which chiefs or kings are not merely relegated to the whims and caprices of elite politicians acting under the canopy of political parties. He demonstrated that it is possible to straddle both the hereditary and elected offices with fascinating ambiguity that challenges scholars to rethink conventional categories and concepts. This is what he means when he affirms that, “As far as I can remember, our traditions have always been modern, our modernities traditional.” (p.70)

The place of traditional authority in a modern state

As the most educated Fon in the region when he inherited the throne from his father, Fo Angwafo III became the first chief/king to be elected MP in 1961 in a keenly contested multiparty election in which he ran as an independent. He ignored calls for his resignation as either MP or chief by those who thought it was improper for a chief (whose position is ascribed or by might) to hold an elected office (achieved or by right). From his defiance it was clear that he did not subscribe to the dichotomy between ascription and achievement, might and right, traditional and modern. Upon the reunification of the English and French Cameroons in 1961, Fon Angwafo III became a member of the sole party, which he served as president of the Bamenda section. He stayed on as MP until his retirement from active politics in 1988. However, the launching of the SDF in Mankon and the dramatic resignation from the ruling CDPM in 1990 of John Ngu Foncha brought Fo Angwafo III back to the centre of local and national politics. He was appointed to replace Foncha as the national vice-president of the CDPM. Fo Angwafo III has been described as “a shining example of a pragmatist” and a man of many faces who skilfully married two different political cultures. He failed to see why chiefs and kings should be treated as apolitical animals or placed above party politics, when they are citizens just like anyone else. He has repeatedly defended himself in interviews with the press and with researchers, by asking: “How can you deprive a citizen of involvement in politics simply because he holds a traditional title of fon?”

This is a central theme in Royalty and Politics, as the following excerpts show:

“Some people say being a Fon and participating in politics are incompatible roles. They are entitled to their opinion, but I see things differently. I have a different understanding of my role as Fo Mankon and my role as a politician. I think a politician is one who rules people and Fo Mankon is the one who guides and keeps the traditions and customs of the Mankon people as a ruler. So, as far as politics is concerned, whether I am a politician or not, the sphere of activities include politics – all in one.” (p. 29)

“I cannot see how the Fo is supposed to rule if he is forbidden active participation in politics. The Fo of Mankon was a ruler before partisan politics, and being Fo has always been a political office. I can’t see how a good political arrangement could succeed in any set up where the Fo is excluded.” (p. 40)

“I don’t see what the Fo is supposed to do and what not to do. I feel that the Fo as a leader, as a legislator – traditional one – can continue to do that. It is up to government to clearly define the powers of the Fo, be these active or residual, but without ambiguity, so the Fo could continue with the business of administration. The struggle to abolish this and introduce that, based more on the sentiments of the moment than on any clear long term strategic plan, has done more harm than provided solutions to the burning question of the place of traditional authority in a modern state.” (p. 40)

“The easiest thing, I believe, is to rush into condemning our traditional systems of government. The real challenge is thinking things through in as cold headed manner, to ensure that we do not throw the baby of tradition out with the bathwater, in our desperate haste to embrace modern systems of power. We should study our traditional institutions side-by-side with the imported system we are trying to implement. We should see what is good in it, retain it, and support it to grow” (p. 40)

 Dancing to the tunes of changing times

“We have stayed relevant largely by taking things into our hands to mobilize and organize ourselves around matters of common interest to us Fons.” (pp. 40-41)

“To maintain ourselves as embodiments of the particular cultural communities we head, we have had to dance to the tunes of changing times, constantly having to negotiate our positions within the contradictions between state and our communities on the one hand, and in relation to competing expectations within the communities on the other. Was it not Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist whose books are well oiled by Igbo proverbs, who made a bird say, ‘since men have learnt to shoot without missing, I have learnt to fly without perching’? Changing times for me and my colleagues have meant the ability to evaluate constantly and negotiate various innovations on the landscape of our politics and societies. We cannot afford to perch or rest on our laurels, lest we are swept away by the tides of change.” (p. 41)

“It strikes me as hypocritical for more and more of the same people, who are so highly critical of Fons in modern politics, not to be satisfied with their achievements within the modern sector and bureaucratic state power. Increasingly, they come to us Fons seeking traditional titles of notability, with some ready to fight and kill for these titles. If chieftaincy was that incompatible with modern politics and bureaucratic state power, why then should they so desperately need recognition through traditional titles?” (p. 41)

“As more and more Fons and chiefs elsewhere have discovered their game, we have sought to beat them at it through mobilisation and organisation to defend our common interests. We don’t always succeed, given the ability of the modern political elite to manipulate and divide in order to rule, but the fact that we can count some successes at all is a good sign that united we can indeed conquer. It was precisely to draw attention to ourselves as a group of leaders, with an important role to play in modern Cameroon, that we decided to honour President Paul Biya with the title of ‘Fon of Fons’ when he took over as head of state from Ahidjo in 1982. If the ritual meant that the President could benefit from our support as fellow Fons, it was also a message to him that he must do all in his powers to make us actively relevant to modern political processes.” (p. 41)

“The benefits to Mankon of my active participation in politics have not only been increased political recognition and representation, but also greater socio-economic development. The developments are there for all to see, from the number of schools to medical services through businesses, pipe borne water projects and road infrastructure. There is the Congress Hall, the Airport, the motor parks, the Mankon Main Market, the Urban Council, the Mankon Museum, and many other development initiatives as testimony of my active involvement in politics in the interest of Mankon. It might not be as much as we would wish, but I have, since my childhood days, learnt to dream with my feet firmly on the ground. A bird at hand is worth two in the bush, was something I learnt as a school boy.” (p. 32)

Attracting opportunities for Mankon

Angwafo III’s prescience and nose for opportunities with Mankon in mind is equally evidenced in his attitude towards Christianity and the churches as vectors of a type of modernity that had come with encounters with Europe. The attitude was and remains one of generosity to all the churches. “Not only have we welcomed the various missions to set up schools and build churches, we have embraced all of them within the community and even in the palace.” (p. 48) His thinking is well incapsulated in the following paragraph from Royalty and Politics:

“As a child growing up in the palace, we were exposed to all the religions, because there was not a Christian denomination that did not visit my father, talking to him, seeking to convert him and so on. But it was the Catholics who really wanted to have a second school in addition  to Sasse, up here. I seized that opportunity. I didn’t specially want a Catholic school. All I wanted was a secondary school near enough to accommodate the Mankon children…. Nigeria was too far away. I had had the experience of schooling in Nigeria and didn’t see any Mankon man who could pay transport and keep his children far away in Nigeria. Throughout my stay in Nigeria, I didn’t see anything, any Bamenda man there. So, I knew it would be very good if I had a secondary school, so poor parents could afford to send their children to school. I thus saw the approach by the Catholics to open a college as an opportunity for me to attract the school to my own land. I didn’t propose the idea. Same for the Basel Mission!” (p. 48)

“Not only have I allowed my wives and children to go to the churches of their choice and attend mission and government schools indiscriminately, I have even allowed my children to wed in church.” (p. 48)

“As I’m saying, since1960 I have all these struggles worrying me and God has still preserved my life. I’m sure that after my death, those who compile my balance sheet shall note that I never wavered from my agriculture. That I had had the advantage of going to parliament, making laws, debating laws, understanding the law and being able to sift what traditionally is wrong, and applying my decisions with the knowledge of the law.” (p. 45)

As chiefs and kings become more literate, they are going to see the wisdom in his insistence on representation and participation beyond tokenism. Already, many are following in his footsteps. Pertaining to agency, certain chiefs, mostly those that have gone to school, have succeeded more than others in negotiating conviviality between modern and customary bases of power, and between the interests of the state and those of their chiefdoms. The talents, abilities, education, networks, connections and creativity of individual chiefs and kings determine who succeeds with whom, where, how and with what effects. Some have become part of the new elite at the centre of national and regional power. Through their individual capacities or via networks and various associations, these chiefs and kings stake claims on national power and resources for their region, chiefdoms or kingdoms over and above the pursuit of a common good for all.

The influence of the women of the palace

Judging from how he defended chieftaincy and the right to active participation by chiefs or kings in politics, one might be led to think that becoming Fo Mankon was something he had always aspired to in his youth. Nothing could be further from the truth. He hated being made Fon and vigorously resisted until he was eventually convinced otherwise by the women of the palace during the interregnum. In Royalty and Politics, he insists he never had any ambition of becoming Fon. He describes being made Fo Mankon “the greatest surprise in my life” (p. 15), adding:

“Although my mother had, in my upbringing, taken time to school me in the ways and values of the land, and had made sure that the traditions, customs and etiquette of the palace were well internalized by me, I didn’t want to be Fo Mankon.” (p. 16)

He thought he didn’t have what it took to be Fon, something he believed his brothers had more of:

“I was also ignorant of what the whole thing was about. I believed my brothers were more qualified and was ready to concede the title to any of my junior brothers who was interested. I was promising to pay half of my salary or part salary to help which ever brother would take the throne. Had any of my brothers shown interest, I would certainly have done all to pass onto him the challenge of stepping into our father’s shoes.” (p. 16)

Just like his principal at college, the kingmakers of Mankon had seen leadership in him and would not yield to his attempts to wiggle himself out of the calling. So, when the women of the palace urged him to stop resisting and embrace his destiny, he finally succumbed:

“So I told myself, ‘let me take up courage and see whether I can do this thing.’ At thirty-four years of age, I was confirmed Fo Mankon.” (p. 17)

This made of him the 20th Fo Mankon.

Continuing a tradition of welcoming and integrating strangers

A legacy of his, inherited from his father and enhanced, and which he would like his successor to continue, is the solidarity Mankon as a kingdom has shown strangers. This is a theme abundantly explored in Royalty and Politics. He is proud of the kingdom’s “open door policy of encouraging strangers to settle in Mankon, initiated since the reign of Fon Angwafo II, my grandfather” (p. 25)

“It was this open door policy and the influx of Hausas from Nigeria that attracted people from various origins, who engaged themselves mainly in commerce, construction and manufacturing.” (p. 25)

“Francophone Cameroonians, mostly Bamileke, who came seeking refuge or opportunity, were easily accommodated by my father, especially following the partition of Cameroon after World War I. Even when an attempt was made to repatriate the Francophones who had sought refuge in his Kingdom, Ndefru III objected, arguing that he was entitled, as a Fon, to offer protection to these people. The fact that the rest of Mankon was still largely inhabited by Mankon people earning their living mostly from farming, hunting and fishing by no means meant that Fo Mankon should be indifferent to strangers.” (p. 26)

Thanks to the hospitality and solidarity shown towards strangers, “Ntambag became the eye and ear of Mankon in the modern urban world, meant to link the rural and the urban in continuous dialogue and interdependence.” (p. 26)

Fo S. A. N Angwafo III will be missed, and we will continue to learn from him in forging the way forward.

*Francis B. Nyamnjoh is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at nyamnjoh@gmail.com

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