Observer Company, the publisher of one of the country’s leading newspapers, Daily Observer, has been confronting problems galore since the beginning of the second quarter of this year.
Amidst allegations of financial malfeasance, staff salaries have been paid late and many creditors have served pay-up notes. Then on June 14, the national tax authority (GRA) closed the paper for two weeks and demanded the payment of D17 million arrears.
After the statutory 14 days passed, the paper resumed publication but the head of GRA earlier this week told the press they are suing the newspaper company for a final determination on the recovery of the tax liabilities.
This same week, the Gambia Press Union, which has been brokering negotiations between the GRA and Observer Company, issued a public statement condemning the “incorrigible behaviour” of the Observer management and demanding a public clarification about the ownership of the company.
The managing director of Observer, Pa Modou Mbowe had publicly stated when asked at the beginning of Observer’s current travails in June that he does not know who owns the company he heads.
Yesterday, the Justice minister announced that government will be seeking a court order this morning to add the company to an ever-expanding list of assets belonging to the former President Jammeh.
The ownership of Observer has been a vexed question for many Gambians and media watchers.
The general perception has been that it was owned by the former president, Yahya Jammeh. However, when the list of his assets which were frozen was earlier released, Observer Company was conspicuously missing.
Investigations by this paper revealed that according to documents lodged at the office of the attorney general’s chambers in Banjul, the Observer Company is owned by Baba Jobe and his cousin Modou Sula Jobe, both now deceased.
Official documents state that on 21 October 2002, Buba Baldeh (also now deceased) serving as company secretary, filed a memorandum and articles of association for Observer Co. Ltd in which Baba K Jobe of Jarra Karantaba and Momodou Sula Jobe, were indicated as owning 990 shares and 10 shares of the 1,000 shares listed for the company.
An earlier file, dated 25 March 1999, showed an affidavit filed by Mr Amadou Samba stating him to be the owner of the business.
But sources close to the businessman who was a friend to Baba Jobe confirmed that Mr Samba had transferred ownership to Mr Jobe and demanded the removal of his name as proprietor printed on the bottom back of the paper.
Mr Samba, a former close associate of President Jammeh, originally bought the company from its founder Kenneth Y Best, a Liberian, who was deported by President Jammeh in October 1994.
Contacted for further clarification on June 18, Lamin AK Touray, the registrar of companies, told The Standard: “We have conducted a due diligence search on the said company [Observer] but realised that it is not incorporated and registered on the Single Window Business Registry system. There is no information under our historical records as well, which means it is neither incorporated nor registered with us [as a company].”
A former government official who requested anonymity, told The Standard: “The Observer was part of the collateral damage that Baba [Jobe] suffered when he fell out with Yahya Jammeh and was detained and jailed and later died in prison.”
The source alleged that President Jammeh appropriated Baba Jobe’s assets including compounds, lands, businesses, interests in the hospitality sector and even bank accounts.
Asked whether these “appropriated assets” were not in fact President’s Jammeh’s and held by Baba Jobe in proxy, he said: “What I know is that they were Baba’s properties. He owned them.”
Meanwhile, The Standard has learnt that the family of Mr Jobe led by his widow and brother had engaged the services of a lawyer to advise on their claim for retrieval of the Observer Company.
Another source told this paper that while the Observer Company may belong to Baba Jobe, the building housing the company “definitely belongs to Yahya Jammeh”.
It is interesting to note that since its establishment in 1992, the Observer Company has had 15 managing directors and all of them have been hired [except for Mr Best] and fired by President Jammeh or at his behest.