With Omar Wally
Amadou Scattred Janneh was born in Gunjur, Kombo South. He attended St Augustine’s High School before working in Mansa Konko as a clerk. In June 1981, aged 17, he signed up as a trainee reporter for Radio Gambia and later travelled to the US.
He gained a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Knoxville College in 1986 coming second in his class after Baba Trawally, now the amir of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in The Gambia. He went on to earn a Master of Arts and a PhD in Political Science with concentration in international relations, comparative politics and American governmental politics from the University of Tennessee.
He was hired to teach Political Science at his alma mater for ten years until 2000 when he moved to Savannah, Georgia, and established an export and import business.
In 2003, he returned to The Gambia to work as a political/economic assistant at the US Embassy. Six months later, in April 2004, President Jammeh appointed him Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure and dismissed him in July 2005 while he was attending a conference in Nigeria.
Janneh started Communication and Information Technology Enterprise (CommIT) in April 2005 to supply computers to companies in the private sector and later moved into real estate. Together with other journalists living abroad, they set up the Coalition for Change–The Gambia (CGG) in April 2011 to bring together organisations involved in human rights activities to oppose Jammeh’s government.
In May 2011, he purchased 100 T-shirts produced by CCG and distributed them and was arrested on 5 June 2011 by the NIA for distributing them alongside Modou Keita and Ebrima Jallow and a Nigerian, Michael Uche Thomas. They were detained at Mile 2 Prison.
On 18 January 2012, a Special Criminal Court found Janneh guilty of treason and conspiracy to commit a felony and slammed him with a life sentence. The judge, Emmanuel Nkea stated that he would have preferred to give Janneh a death sentence had it been permitted under Gambian law. Janneh, Keita, Jallow, and Thomas were each sentenced to three years with hard labour for sedition. Thomas, the Nigerian, died in prison of pneumonia in March 2012. Janneh was released in September 2012 following an appeal on his behalf by US statesman Jesse Jackson and Janneh returned to the US.
In this edition of Bantaba anchor Omar Wally, talks to him about his life, work and beliefs.
You were a prominent critic of Jammeh in the early years, why?
The fact that freedom of expression was almost extinguished and Jammeh became too powerful. He gradually assumed executive powers and he embarked on hiring and firing. Some of those were major concerns to us, so we were trying to find a way to end his dictatorship before he became too powerful.
Despite this, Jammeh later appointed you minister and you accepted, how and why?
Manlafi Jarju who was very influential in the government at the time was a friend in Atlanta. Of course we had differences in political views. He was the one that contacted me to say Jammeh was interested in getting me to work as communications minister, because he saw what we were saying about the media landscape and the National Media Commission. Jammeh wanted to see if I ccould come help change government – media relations and also to address the issue of the commission. I sought advice from US ambassador at the time and he thought it was a good idea and that I would have their backing.
It was your time as minister when The Point publisher, Deyda Hydara was killed, tell us about it.
I had dinner with him the night before he was assassinated. We met at Senegambia Hotel during an exhibition organised by Shyben Madi. We discussed government – media relations. When he was assassinated, George Christensen called me and said ‘You won’t believe what happened. Deyda is killed!’ It coincided with an event at the July 22 Square. I informed Manlafi Jarju and he suggested that I tell the vice president and she told me the president was coming soon and that I should go tell him. She accompanied me to the president when he entered the square and I informed him that Deyda has been killed.
What was his response?
I can’t recollect his exact words but he told me [something like] ‘This media, press freedom thing, if you continue pushing this stuff, these are the things that could happen…’ I was amazed by his quick response. He did not ask who killed him or how he was killed but straight away blamed the drive for press freedom. At the end of the event, Jammeh took out D10,000 and delegated Sheikh Tijan Hydara, then Justice Minister, to meet the family. I went with him.
At the time who did you think killed Mr Hydara?
I had no idea. As far as I was concerned Deyda was not doing anything that warranted his assassination. I had no idea who may be behind the killing because it was very early [days]. But Jammeh’s quick response and further discussions with George Christensen made me to believe that the government may have had a hand in it.
Someone close to you quoted you saying Mr Hydara was killed because he was having an affair with someone’s wife?
No, Me? There is nowhere in the world that any one will be able to provide that statement. Perhaps they were referring to the president. I was close to Deyda and his family. So that is not something that could come from me. I have never ever [said such a thing].
But a day after the incident, you told the BBC, The Gambia Government was not involved in his assassination.
I don’t think I will make that type of categorical statement. I was not involved in the investigation and that would have been a false statement to say there was no government involvement. The same way I would not have said the government did it because I had no information.
Why do you think Deyda was killed?
When I was making a case for press freedom, I would tell Jammeh that many of the [local] newspapers did not have wide circulation and the literacy rate in the country was very low. So the best thing was to empower The Gambia Daily and to train government reporters so that they would write rejoinders and present government’s point of view. I don’t think it was best approach even to arrest not to talk of kill journalists.
Jammeh once said he is accused of being undemocratic but that there was opposition to him even in his cabinet, like you and others.
During cabinet meetings Jammeh will say well, they say Gambia is undemocratic but even in my cabinet, I do have opposition. He will make some moves and everyone will look in my direction. I tried to emulate how Momodou ‘Sillah Bai’ Sallah used to operate in cabinet. Jammeh cabinet’s was such that everyone was reduced to nodding their heads like Edward Singhatey but Sallah was the one who stood his ground to the point that I used to think he was going to be locked up.
Now why were you dismissed?
The official reason given on GRTS was providing sensitive information to a foreign embassy.
The US Embassy?
That was the speculation because I’m a US citizen and I worked at the embassy and the ambassador at the time graduated from the University of Tennessee, so we had a very close relationship. In fact in many cases when they are responding to government they would check with me to see what kind of statement to put up. In many instances, I will say the media and opposition are looking up to US so you need to say this and that. The reason given had nothing to do with my firing. [I think it was because of] my role in the media commission and that I was close to the ambassador, who was effectively banned from visiting Jammeh.
Tell us what motivated you to print anti-Jammeh T-shirts and distribute them?
The action coincided with the Arab Spring. Tyrants who are seen as invincible were losing power as a result of citizens actions. Together with colleagues who were largely overseas like Ndey Tapha Sosseh, we decided to set up CCG. We reached out to other civil societies in the diaspora, [like those of] Banka Manneh, Mathew Jallow and decided we have to do something to ignite some civil disobedience to bring about change. We put out an elaborate plan leading to demonstrations, setting up radio stations across the border. We actually bought the equipment. We decided that we were going to print 10,000 T-shirts. I went to Senegal and got contract to do that.
We held meetings with Dudu Wade, President Abdoulaye Wade’s uncle and Alioune Tine to see how they were going to support us. On African Liberation Day, I was invited to speak at University of The Gambia. During the panel discussion most of the comments were about the situation in South Africa. When I got there, I decided to talk about repression in The Gambia and why voter turnout has been low, the fact that the opposition was divided and many other things. I got carried away from there and decided instead of following our timetable I would print 100 T-shirts while waiting for the ten thousand. I wore them for eleven days and nobody arrested me except for family members and George Christensen who were warning me. On June 6th, 2011, some plainclothes officers visited me. That was when my troubles began.
(o be continued)