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Yahya Jammeh has nine lives!

By  | 14 January 2015 at 04:49 | 3908 views


The leader of the tiny and poverty -stricken West African State of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh who has become an enigma to his people, has been perceived by many as a man with nine lives, which is a mythical attribute allocated to the cat.

Jammeh has survived so many coup d’้tats real or imaginary to the extent that he is now perceived to be a man with mystical powers, especially for those who know his home town which is famous for its perceived mystical and herbalistic prowess.

The recent coup in which it was alleged that just ten men manifested what looks like foolhardiness by attacking the presidential palace in an attempt to overthrow the Gambian mystic man while he was on medical treatment in France, has only caused more mystery to revolve around the existence of the Gambian dictator.

Husseini Dabo is one man who is a strong critic of Jammeh and accuses him of stage-managing events. He says it is unbelievable that only ten men could be so reckless and naive as to take up arms and approach the presidential palace to attack it.

He says Jammeh has survived so many coups which are all stage-managed and he adds that he believes that all those so-called coup d’้tats were a subterfuge to crack down on perceived enemies real or imaginary by using all sorts of ploys that involves torture, kidnapping and detention without trial.

He also points at the unexplained killings of journalists and other personalities as evidence of the Machiavellian nature of Jammeh. There are still uncertainties surrounding the recent coup that involved only ten men who did not take control of any radio station but went to the state palace which they knew was vacant, in the sense that Jammeh was of the country at the time.

But like all African dictators, Yahya Jammeh has pointed accusing fingers at the West because, according to him, the guns that were found with the alleged coup plotters were M16 brands manufactured in the US. But why accuse the US? How did Jammeh himself overthrow Dauda Jawara the dictator who transformed Gambia into a Banana Republic? These are questions that need some shedding of light on his past if there was need to establish connectivity between the West and Gambian politics.

I was in neighbouring Senegal for a short course in Journalism when Jammeh took over. We were in a restaurant when a journalist from Zambia expressed suspicion on what he observed.

He said he was suspicious of a white man who had an American accent but claimed to be a Zambian. According to him , he interviewed him and he claimed to be the head of the labour Union of Zambia, but surprisingly, the journalist said, he discovered that he could not even speak Swahili which was not only the lingua franca of Zambia but of Central and East Africa.

“It is very strange” the journalist said. He was suspicious that the man used his meeting with us as a pretext to fulfill a clandestine mission. He then vowed to watch his movement. Two days later, he told us again that the man had bid farewell and left for The Gambia.

The journalist speculated that something was about to happen in the Gambia. Indeed two days later, we were in the restaurant again when the BBC Focus on Africa programme blared and came out with a headline that The Gambia’s benevolent dictator Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who had ruled Gambia since independence, had been overthrown.

It further added that the country’s airport had been declared closed to the international community. The issue became a topic for discussion among us and fortunately it was related to the topic of Democracy and the Media which was the topic of the course we were doing.

As we were hotly discussing the issue, the Zambian journalist nodded his head and tried to establish connectivity between his suspicion of the American and what had happened in The Gambia.

He said, “I told you there was suspicion about that man. He claimed to be a Zambian but he could not speak Swahili or any language in that country and worst of all he claims to be the head of the country’s labour union but does not know the most important places in the capital, Lusaka. His accent is typically American”.

I became perturbed because I had to transit in The Gambia on my way to Freetown. As I sat pondering over the issue , a Liberian journalist Douglas Fanagolo came to me and suggested that we fly to The Gambia the next day and find out how the coup took place. I was astonished. “For what?” I asked. “As journalists we need to dig out the unknown and unseen and show them to the world. It involves risks but that is what makes you a journalist”, he said with excitement.

However, we were advised not to take the risk of travelling to The Gambia. But that did not sway Douglas’ thoughts for he kept on trying to convince me. By the next day I had made up my mind. I stuffed my paraphernalia into my bag and was ready to take off. Some of my Senegalese friends advised me to wait and one of them even suggested that I took up a job in The Soleil newspaper which is one of the country’s largest newspapers.

I pondered over it but the journalistic inclinations in me surged and spurred me towards something that looked like mythical Greek bravado.

Douglas and left for the Leopold Senghor airport. The Senegalese journalist who accompanied us told me that if I did not succeed to travel, I should call him to collect me again from the airport. On our arrival, we were disappointed by the Air Gambia crew who told us that they would not be flying to The Gambia because their only airport was closed to the outside world.

I slumped into a seat and bowed my head. Douglas tried to console me. He went to another pilot who was sitting in the lounge and talked to him. He then called me with excitement to come over and explained that the pilot of Air Senegal had agreed to carry all passengers of Air Gambia on condition that the pilot of the latter agreed to sign an agreement to reimburse him with our fares later.

Douglas was very instrumental in enhancing the agreement. He went to the Air Gambia pilot, explained the deal to him and brought the two parties together. They then made and signed an agreement. Douglas jumped up with joy and he was so loud in the airport.

A few minutes later, we boarded Air Senegal and took off for an unknown fate awaiting us. As I sat in the plane I pondered over many issues that ranged from from arrest to execution. The name that was continuously on the radio was Yahya Yammeh. Who is Yahya Jammeh?

We were hovering over Yundum Airport in the Gambia which at the time looked like a helipad. The plane was about to land on the runway when it surged upwards again and that evoked sensations within us.

“The meh wanna fire the plane”, Douglas said in his typical Liberian accent. And that sent me and many passengers jerking from our seats. We heard nothing from the crew or pilot. The plane came down again towards the runway but surged upwards again, this time at a faster speed.

There was wailing from the passengers especially the women. One Senegalese man in Muslim attire got up and knelt down on the passage and started praying. “Get up!” Douglas shouted. “You think God will hear you? We have been on this flight for hours on end and you never thought of God. It is only now that death has come that you know that there is a God. He will not listen to you”

I cautioned Douglas to leave him alone but he was adamant and very flippant with the man. He even called him a hypocrite but it was then I noticed that Douglas was drunk as the alcohol odour from him suffocated me. As the plane hovered, Douglas said he heard a missile coming towards it. My stomach rumbled and I became dizzy.

In order not to expose my fright, I told him it could not be a missile, but he insisted saying that he was familiar with the sound of missiles which he had experienced in war- torn Liberia. I made an attempt to dissuade him from further discussing the issue, I told him that Gambia as poor as Job during his illness could not afford missiles.

Few minutes later, the plane landed on the runway and came to a halt. We heaved a sigh of relief. The Muslims were praising Allah and Christians were thanking Jesus. The crew that had been so silent while all the panic had prevailed on the flight spoke for the first time, announcing that we had arrived at Yundum Airport and advised us to take our luggages and disembark.

It was then they explained that the pilot had experienced fog twice and that was responsible for hovering over the airport as he had difficulty landing on the runway. But all of a sudden, Douglas shouted saying that we should not disembark because we might be fired at by the soldiers at the airport. He suggested that the pilot and his crew should disembark first and walk towards the airport building.

He said when they were a few feet from the soldiers, if no gun shot was heard, then we could disembark. The passengers including myself timidly obeyed Douglas rather than the pilot who tried in vain to persuade us to disembark. The pilot and his crew as if under the command of Douglas disembarked and walked towards the airport building. We stood at the entrance and watched them. When they were few feet from the soldiers who were armed with AK 47s and a few Anti- Air craft guns, we disembarked and walked like chameleons expecting anything to happen.

I watched the buildings and saw some snipers at the top wearing balaclavas, making themselves very formidable like our former military junta boys in the National Provisional Ruling Council. There was one who was armed with a machine gun exhibiting fierceness as we passed very close to him.

But my assessment of all of them at the airport was that they could be the whole army that The Gambia could boast of then, which could be equated to just about a battalion in the Sierra Leone Army. My information at the time was that the whole army of The Gambia was not more than a thousand. However, they tried to give a formidable impression of how they could fight back if there was any foreign aggression against their country.

We went through the checks at the airport but were intercepted mid way by some security officials. They told me that I could go but Douglas would not enter the country. He enquired and was told that he needed an Entry Visa even though as an Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) citizen he did not need an Entry Visa.

But Douglas himself being a wary man foresaw that something would happen. He had acquired an Entry Visa in Senegal which he displayed to the security officials. They looked at it coldly and said they had to contact the Secretary of State for Home Affairs to which Douglas retorted that they were liars.

It provoked an argument and confrontation. Douglas was insistent that they need no confirmation from the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and that they did not have the privilege of talking to him, implying that they were merely trying to put up a bluff.

The argument became so heated that I had to intervene and pleaded that we were traveling together, but they dismissed me and told me to journey without Douglas. After a heated argument, he then went to the extreme; he snatched his bag and attempted to go [through the exit.

The security officials grabbed the bag and tried to subdue him but met with stiff resistance. The situation became dangerous. Douglas insisted that he would only accede to their demands if they gave him convincing reasons not to enter the country.

A senior official came at this juncture and both sides gave their explanations. Being a pacifist he advised that they should let him go. They grudgingly obeyed but warned him not to be in the streets up to twelve midnight. “You don’t need to tell me when I should go to bed”, he said flippantly.

We boarded a taxi within the perimeter of the airport. On our way we tried to extract information from the taxi driver pertaining to the coup but he was reluctant instead he angrily asked us; Are you going to Bakao?

We arrived at Bakao at night and from diplomatic sources we were able to gather bits of information about Jammeh, the coup and the factors that contributed to the success of the coup.

Jammeh took over at a time when coups have become a political fashion in West Africa after the first coup in Nigeria January 1966 led by Major-General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi who was later followed by a gallery of Nigerian military thugs and killers. A month later in next door Ghana, on February 1966, Brigadier Akwasi Afrifa overthrew Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah while the latter was out of the country.

In 1979 in Ghana soldiers led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings grabbed power and called their regime Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and that was followed by the Samuel Doe coup in Liberia (1980). Then Captain Thomas Sankara and his men rose to power in Burkina Faso (1983).

Sierra Leonean soldiers led by 27-year-old Captain Valentine Essegrabo Melvin Strasser, who hailed from Four Mile, 24 miles from the capital Freetown, but claimed to be a Freetonian Krio, in their turn overthrew President Joseph Momoh in 1992.

They called their regime the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) that copied the National Reformation Council (NRC) of Brigadier Andrew Juxton Smith of 1967 (who replaced Sierra Leone’s first coup leader Brigadier David Lansana to the extent that even the NRC’s mistakes were copied fervently and NPRC, like NRC fell down. Apparently, influenced by our soldiers’ braggadocio, the Gambian soldiers tried their luck and succeeded. They called themselves the Armed Forces People’s Revolutionary Council (AFPRC) .

Our sources in The Gambia revealed to us that Yahya Jammeh had served in ECOMOG in Liberia and while there he and his colleagues were able to acquire arms and ammunitions that were used in the coup. It was a story similar to what accounts for what is happening in the Delta region of Nigeria which could also be connected to ECOMOG operations in Sierra Leone and Liberia, because the initial cache of arms were transported from these countries.

Our sources further revealed to us that Dawda Jawara had gone to visit an American warship that had anchored at the Gambian port and while on board there was an announcement that Jawara had been overthrown . Jawara could not leave the ship and so was taken away from the country. He later died peacefully in his village after reconciling with Jammeh through the help of the international community.

After listening to various sources, Douglas and I tried to draw a line of equipollence between the American we encountered in Senegal, the American war ship and the Jammeh coup in 1994. Paradoxically, after almost seventeen so -called coups in the Gambia that led to the revolution eating its own kind, kicking out all those who initiated the Gambian revolution from Singateh to the latest suspects, Jammeh now points accusing fingers at the West.

It is not strange but one Gambian in Sierra Leone who prefers anonymity says, “What goes around must surely come around one day”.

I left The Gambia for Sierra Leone only to discover from intelligence sources that the NPRC’s National Security Agency had ordered my arrest at the airport when I arrived but fortunately I landed earlier than expected so by the time they were looking for Alpha Rashid Jalloh at the Lungi Airport I was comfortably back in my home in Freetown. Those were the days when the late NPRC Information Minister Hindolo Trye had bones to pick with The Afro Times newspaper in which I was working in Freetown.

As I sat in my home in Freetown, I pondered over Africa’s armies’ penchant to taste the national cake at the time. Indeed before the coups in Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia and Sierra Leone, soldiers in other West African States have also eyed the national cake and staged coups so as to have their own bite.

In the late 80s soldiers in neighbouring Guinea had grabbed power when they were dared by late Sekou Toure’s successor Lansana Beavogui who was slapped and molested by the deceased Sekou Toure’s power thirsty and murderous brothers .

Throughout Sekou Toure’s rule, Guinea was an Animal Farm terrorized and subjected to political slavery by Sekou Toure’s two brothers; Ishmail Toure and Isiaga Toure. They were de facto rulers in Sekou Toure’s regime. They ordered arrests, kidnappings, torture, murders and indefinite detentions in notorious prisons like Camp Boaro and Alpha Yahya.

When one of them slapped Beavogui in a meeting immediately after Sekou Toure’s death, Beavogui immediately called the soldiers on guard and urged them to go into action since they had witnessed what had happened. The two brothers had intended to use Beavogui as a screw driver for their dangerous political ambitions but he stoutly protected his integrity.

The soldiers immediately went into action and both Isiaga and Ishmail were crushed to death and buried in an unknown place. General Lansana Conte was in the interior of the country and was called to head the junta in1984 but ended ruling like any benevolent African dictator. The international media reported this event but portrayed it as if it was the army that merely wished to overthrow Beavogui. It was while on a journalistic assignment in Guinea for a news agency in the United States that I met some insiders who revealed this angle of the event to me.

Since that event others have followed and the khaki boys always vaguely promise democracy, constitutional rule and the people’s will when they take power in an African state. After some time when their colleagues attempt to have a turn to bite the cake, they cry foul and divert people’s attention.

They sometimes point at the West which was even a suspect when they first came to the stage. But like what the Gambian in Sierra Leone says in relation to what is happening in his home country, “Whatever goes around must surely come around”.

Editor’s Note: Here is President Yahya Jammeh commenting on the attempted coup in his country in the video clip below:

The author, Alpha Jalloh (foreground) at a media conference in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2013.

Editor’s note: Here is a video clip on Yahya Jammeh: