March 17, 2015 By Lans Gberie
Lansana Fofana, who died on 12 March 2014, was an early mentor and friend. I had first met him in 1994 – he, already a famous journalist reporting for the BBC as well as other international news outlets; and I, just down from university and recently employed as Features Editor at the Concord Times. Lans Fofy, as we called him, was a frequent contributor to the paper. In time, knowing that I had written an honours history thesis on the press and politics in colonial Sierra Leone, Lans asked me to assist him research a book he planned to write about the media in the country. He had been inspired to do this by the British-Nigerian writer Adewale Maja-Pearce, who had written a comprehensive and insightful report on the media in West Africa for the journal Index on Censorship. Lans had met Maja-Pearce in the course of Maja-Pearce’s research in Sierra Leone; he had displayed in his room Maja-Pearce’s report as well as two of the writer’s books.
I soon found, however, that Lans was less interested in researching a book than in his daily reporting, which was onerous – for he worked for many publications. I became something of a part time assistant to him, unpaid but enthusiastic all the same. In time – this was in 1995 – Lans traveled to the United States for about a year. Before he did, he introduced me to the editors of the Inter Press Service, a news agency, and I became the agency’s correspondent. I later, in 1996, left to pursue graduate studies in Canada. Lans was still at the time in the United States. He would return, at the height of the civil war, to provide some of the most insightful and courageous reporting of the war, particularly during the terrible days of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) regime and, more memorably still, during the invasion of Freetown by the defeated and regrouped forces of the AFRC in January 1999.
I kept in touch with Lans during much of this period. Later, our contact was intermittent, though we would meet for a drink any time I was in Freetown.
I last spoke to him in March 2014. I had arrived in Freetown from Monrovia and was heading to Bo the following day. I phoned him to catch up. There was excitement in his voice; he wanted us to meet. He had back-copies of Freetown’s The New Storm newspaper which was carrying a satirical column he was now dedicated to, and he wanted me to read them. He was convinced that I would like them. It was moving, that excitement. It suggested a purity and innocence about his dedication to his column. I wasn’t convinced about the satire business. I didn’t see Lans Fofy as a satirist. He was an excellent reporter, with a direct unaffected style, which I deeply admired. I thought that to be truly effective, satire requires a prosperous and confident and educated society: the type that can fully appreciate self-parody, irony, a mockery of its mores. I thought that our desperate country would be better served by the careful, direct and courageous reporter I had known Lans to be.
Since I was traveling that day I didn’t get to meet with Lans. I sent someone to collect the papers for me, however, and took them to Bo. I read all of them. I liked the columns: in them Lans didn’t really create a new voice; he merely modified the old one I knew. It was still the acute reporter, not a new satirist, writing – though now the reports were condensed and attenuated, the essence somewhat obscured. My instincts had not been wrong.
I mention this in a more-in-sorrow mood: one rues the fact our contracted or degraded society did not allow Lans to completely fulfill his immense early promise.
When he left university in 1986, Lans found a home at The Chronicle newspaper under its charismatic and roguish founder-editor, Kawigokor Roy Stevens. Soon enough, Stevens was jailed by the notoriously corrupt one-party state. At 23 or 24 Lans became the country’s youngest editor as a result. In prison, Stevens authored an editorial critical of the court that had jailed him; Lans ran it in the paper. He was in turn arrested for contempt of court and a judge – such creatures were a staple of the state then – opining that “a drastic disease needs drastic treatment” summarily sentenced Lans to Pademba Road prison for nine months. He came out something of a celebrity, and with great energy and drive. He thrived as a journalist.
His death at the age of 50 is a tremendous loss to journalism and to the nation. He will be greatly missed. Adieu my friend and mentor; may you find bliss at last.