Mgr Jean Marie Benoit Bala, Bishop of Bafia has been declared missing. According to a communiqué from Mgr Samuel Kleda, Archbishop of Douala and President of the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon, dated May 31, 2017, the Bishop of Bafia has been missing since the morning of Wednesday May 31, 2017. The same communiqué indicates that the car of the missing Bishop was found on the Ebebda bridge over the Sanaga, (some 80 kilometres from Yaounde). Since then, the search has been on.
Herbert Niba & Nsaikila W. E. Njong take a look! Thursday June 1, 2017, 12:30 p.m. local time
The past 24 hours have seen an extraordinary amount of communication traffic, both over social and official media, as well as over the Epebda bridge and the underlying Sanaga River, a location some 80km from Yaoundé, in the Centre region of Cameroon. According to some reports, road users and fishermen noticed since the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 31st May, a white Land Cruiser Prado parked on the bridge, in the direction facing Bafia. Not until about midday did some curious onlookers step down to verify why the vehicle had been in that position since morning.
A Close inspection revealed the registration number CE 9503V, as well as personal and car documents on the front passenger’s seat confirming the owner of the car as Mgr Jean Marie Benoit Bala, Bishop of Bafia since 2003. In addition was a note, written in a handwriting judged to be that of the Bishop himself, which said in French “Je suis dans l’eau” – (I am inside the water).
According to Maurice Tchoffo, the Senior Divisional Officer of Mbam and Inoubou in the Centre Region, upon receiving a call about 1pm from the Parish Priest of Mbalamba in the neighbourhood, he immediately put together a team, who visited the scene. They were joined by the Governor of the Centre Region, and other Church and administrative personnel and citizens, whose faces made the rounds in the photos that have been circulated of the ‘crime scene’. But these photos have circulated with conflicting headlines, and in some cases, the reports have gone further than what those on the spot could see.
First to Inform or Deform?
In the wave of the shock, disbelief, and suppositions, the stories from the media have been the most contradictory at best and alarming at worst. Of course, social media outlets were the fastest to break the news accompanied by photos. 237online.com was blunt: “L’évêque de Bafia s’est suicidé sur le Pont d’Ebebda.” The veracity of their story was put to question, when their source supposedly reached on phone, (being the S.D.O for Mbam & Inoubou) did not make a statement on national radio attesting to suicide.
Next was an unidentified reporter interrupting a programme in his media house admitted to have been on the scene where traffic was by then severe. But the confusion about the identity of the victim even made his testimony clouded. It took the CRTV 7pm radio news broadcast, re-echoed and updated at 10pm, midnight and 5am on Thursday June 1, 2017 to guarantee us that the search team comprising local fishermen and fire brigade, had suspended their work late at night and effectively resumed on the morning of Thursday. This makes it difficult to accept the claim of BBC’s Randy Joe Sa’ah over Focus on Africa Wednesday 6 p.m. local time, that the body had been discovered and transported to the Bafia mortuary.
Such was the disagreement in the radio reporters… But the newspapers had long transcended the stage of “What happened” to “Why it (?) happened.” While the Guardian Post, for example, mused over the controversy surrounding the “death” of Bafia Bishop, the Post Online, summoning a list of previous circumstances (Ndongmo, Plumy, Wouking etc) inquired who was after Catholic Bishops!
As if these contradictions and unproven allegations were not sufficient betrayal of the craze to be first to tell, Cameroon Concord went ahead to draw a conclusion: If a Bishop can commit suicide, an offence the writer reckoned unforgivable, then no other signature is needed to mark the end to confessions to priests, who have proven to lack the morale or fortitude to withstand unjust politicians or personal frustrations.
Here we are: news, history, crime detection, archaeology, popular theology, and political brouhaha occasioned by a parked vehicle, an unaccounted-for prelate, and a puzzling note. No eyewitness, no driver. Never before have we seen not only the danger of a single story, but also the danger of the quickest story!
Of course, there is a myriad of possibilities in a matter like this. And there is a need to broaden the perspective, and not to lose sight of any of them. It can serve the purpose in this case, but also widen and tailor our approach to similar things, even in minor scale in our communities and other aspects of life. It will prevent the unjustified and unjustifiable convergence on options that seem to satisfy personal wishes and serve ulterior motives, as we are tempted to think is the case in the Mgr Bala affair.
The first option here could be ABDUCTION. It is possible that the scenario by the River Sanaga is staged, so that the Bishop has been taken elsewhere, and is alive. It must be noted that no one actually saw him drive himself out of his house last Tuesday night. Well, why is the car facing the direction of Bafia, from where he is supposed to have rather been coming? Could he have responded to a phone call, went somewhere and was stopped on his way back as part of a scheme? Was the note in the car actually written by the prelate? Many would wish that this option is true. But this possibility still leaves room for the others.
Another option is that of SUICIDE. In a matter like this, piety and respect for the Church leadership can create a negative bias towards some options. It is a possibility. Many factors could account for it, beginning from personal life to mental health, from administration to social connections. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions such conditioning elements as psychological disturbances, anguish and grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture (Cfr n.2282). A study of the person of the Bishop in question would seem to take away this possibility, but would it be completely removed on the sole grounds of his Episcopal office? However, no one has actually been reported to have seen the Bishop dive into the river and even if his body were retrieved from the river lifeless, it still won’t be sufficient grounds to declare a suicide.
A third option, (and the last we mention here, without intending to be exhaustive) is that the Bishop may have been ‘suicided’. This would mean that the River Sanaga scene would be a murder, given the look of a suicide. This possibility is lent some weight by the many questions surrounding the disappearance of the Bishop, whose answers are hard to find. Nevertheless, this cannot, without clear evidence, completely overshadow the others.
Another Catholic Clergyman on the Line?
If this saga of Mgr Jean Marie Benoit Bala ends in his demise (God forbid!), and if it is clear that he is not responsible for his own return to Our Father, then the lips on faces with already rising eyebrows will cry foul. He will not be the first Catholic Clergyman to depart in strange and questionable circumstances.
We can quickly think of the circumstances of the death of Mgr Jean Kounou, Vicar General of Mbalmayo as well as Fr Materne Bikoa in the 1980s with reportedly pierced eyes. It is reported that on March 24, 1984 Fr Barnabé Zambo died in unexplained circumstances East of Cameroon. On October 25, 1988 Fr Joseph Mbassi, Editor-in-Chief of the Catholic newspaper L’EFFORT CAMEROUNAIS is said to have been found in his room completely mutilated, no theft reported. What about Monsignor Yves Plumey, found strangled in his Ngoundere residence on September 3, 1991, no theft reported; Fr Engelbert Mveng, scholar of international renown, found straggled on his bed with an open skull on April 21, 1995; Fr Amougou of Sangmelima in 1992 in unexplained circumstances?
During the night of April 20, 2001, Fr Apollinaire Claude Ndi, Parish Priest of Nkol-Tob was savagely killed in a room in Yaounde. What about Sr Germaine Marie Husband and Sr Marie Leonne Bordy, the two French religious women in Djoum, found dead on August 2, 1992, and bodies battered? The list cannot leave out Fr Anthony Fontegh found in his own blood in Kumbo on May 24, 1990. And What about the others? Fr Joseph Yamb? Br Yves Marie-Dominique Lescanne, Br Anton Probst…
The questions raised about the death of Barrister Ngongo Ottou, an associate of some Catholic Clergy, (October 30, 1988), that of Fr Patrick Adeso, priest of Kumbo found dead in his room in Yaounde (July 29, 2006), that of other prelates such as Mgr Andre Wouking and Mgr Jean Zoa are not because people must be killed before they die. The questions are not raised because people cannot simply die. They are raised because the circumstances of their death have been questionable, and not only have they remained unexplained, but in the cases where investigations were carried out, the findings have scarcely ever been known. Therefore, many minds are in anguish in the wake of the Mgr Bala story…
What to do?
In the face of this, what does one learn?
1) Need for integrity of the accident scene. Police personnel have a standard protocol at the arrival of any crime or accident scene – the establishment of a cordon that prevents the loss of vital material for investigation. The photos circulated on media and the reports of people flooding to the scene Wednesday May 31, 2017 suggest the possibility of compromise of the following data: footprints around the car, finger prints on door handle, even the position of the documents & d integrity of the note.
2) TRUST BUT VERIFY. The first outlet to break news is not necessarily the best information. The impulse to “forward as received” often has the danger of circulating a partial story, which even if not wrong, could become amplified along its journey, when more details fail to arrive soon enough.
3) “Happening Now”? In issues of reporting, the time factor not only situates, but can also authenticate. Meaning, it is expected that information posted at 8pm, should go further than that received at 5pm, even if it contradicts the latter. So what happens when someone goes to Facebook and takes information posted ‘yesterday’ and reports it as if it were “happening now”? The result is obvious: We keep discovering anew the “body” of the bishop every top of the hour…and that body keeps on going to a mortuary it has never arrived!
4) There is the need for an independent investigation, whose results would be later available to the legitimate authority, and the knowledge of the said availability of the information given to the concerned public. This would demand much: crime investigation specialists, forensic experts, balanced prosecutors…! But will that too much to do for a dear and Catholic Bishop and for the future? Certainly, the competence of handling such a matter does not fall within the Sacrament of Orders!
5) Pray and hope. In the wake of a visitation like this one, many believers forget the other side of events. They forget that in-between our efforts and eventual results lies a real entirely dependent on God alone. It is striking that at such news, Catholics in particular, and Christians/believers in general would tend to be keen on getting more information or ‘forwarding as recieved’, than on raising their minds and hearts to God for a missing Bishop and for the search team.
These lessons can be learnt, as we keep praying for Mgr Jean Marie Benoît Bala. He was born May 1959 in Oweng – Mbalmayo. He is originally from Mbankomo in the Mefou-Akono Division (Centre Region of Cameroon). In addition to studies in Philosophy and Theology at the Major Seminary at Nkolbisson, he holds a diploma in Social Sciences and Management from the Catholic Institute of Yaoundé. He was ordained priest in 1987 by Mgr Jean Zoa, Archbishop of Yaounde at the time.
This article was first published on Facebook on the aforementioned date. Bishop Bala’s body was later found and buried. An autopsy was done with much controversy.