With Alagie Manneh
Demba Ali Jawo had a stellar career as a journalist becoming head of the Gambia Press Union as well as editor at the Daily Observer and APA news agency. He also co-authored a book on the slain editor of The Point, Deyda Hydara. A roundly respected critic and commentator, he was chosen by President Barrow as his first Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure. Jawo was relieved of his post on 29 June in a major cabinet reshuffle. In this edition of Bantaba, he talks to anchor Alagie Manneh about his pastoral childhood in Niamina, his work as a journalist and minister and related matters.
Tell us about your life growing up in Niamina
Growing up in the village of Choya in Niamina was just like any other village child at that time. I used to follow my brothers to accompany the cattle to the bush for grazing at a very early age and even when I started going to school, I was still herding the cattle on weekends and during holidays. Therefore, my life growing up in the village was just as ordinary as any child of my age.
How did you come to the Kombos?
I came to the Kombos in 1966 after passing my Common Entrance Exams but because I had already passed the maximum age limit for entrance to a senior secondary school, which was 12 years then, I went to Crab Island Junior Secondary School instead. However, after completing form four, I sat for the final exams and obtained a pass to St Augustine’s Senior Secondary School, but my parents did not have the money to pay for my school fees and I decided to leave school. I however had to pursue private studies and went on to obtain some credits in both the GCE O and A Levels.
How did you start your life as a journalist?
From very early on in life, I had the passion for asking questions and writing. However, it was in the 1970s that I actually had the opportunity to start writing letters to the editor and short articles to some of the few existing newspapers in Banjul then. I first started submitting my articles to African Unity, an irregular newssheet which was published by the National Liberation Party of the late Pap Cheyassin Secka. I was also getting some of my articles published by The Gambia Outlook of the late MB Jones. However, the article that first got me into trouble was the one published on the front page of The Nation of William Dixon Colley in which I was critical of the police and which did not go down well with the Inspector General of Police, Sulayman Mboob. The following day I was picked up from my house in Haddington Street and detained the whole day at the Banjul Police Station. I was then asked to be reporting every day for almost two weeks until I got fed up and decided not to go back and that was the end.
I read somewhere that you were a member of the then proscribed Movement of Justice in Africa (MoJA) which was seen to be subversive by the Jawara government. Why did you join the movement?
No, I was never a member of MoJA, although I almost became one. I can remember in 1981, I was invited by Koro Sallah, one of the leaders of MoJA to his house somewhere in Half-Die. I went and we had a lengthy discussion about the work of MoJA and how he wanted me to become a member. He gave me some materials and I was supposed to get back to him later, but unfortunately, just before the date I was supposed to get back to him, there was the Kukoi “Revolution” in which Koro Sallah was implicated and he had to run out of the country. That somehow put a definitive halt to whatever ideas I had of becoming a member of MoJA. However, I used to receive a lot of MoJA materials delivered to me by anonymous couriers. Most of the time, I used to find packages of reading material at my door when I open it in the morning.
Why were you opposed to PPP and Jawara?
No I was never opposed to the PPP or President Jawara, I was just a critic of some policies of the government, just like I had been doing during the Yahya Jammeh regime, and I assure you I will be doing with this regime as well.
There was a popular column in William Dixon Colley’s The Nation which was very critical ‘As I See It’, many believe you were the writer.
Yes, I was the initiator of the “As I See It’ column in The Nation, but it did not necessarily mean that I was the only one writing on it. It was just an opinion column of the paper and anyone of us was free to contribute to it.
You were a storekeeper at Gambia Utilities Corporation (GUC) now renamed Nawec, how did you join the Daily Observer?
I began working for the GUC in 1974 as a stores clerk until when GUC was taken over by the Utilities Holding Company (UHC) in 1993 when I was among those retrenched. However, even while I was with the GUC, I was doing some freelance journalism, mostly with The Nation, and therefore, when I left the GUC, I saw that as an opportunity to do full time journalism, which had always been my passion. However, I made a decision to join the Daily Observer instead of continuing with The Nation simply because I saw the Daily Observer as having much better opportunities for me to develop my journalism career than remaining at The Nation.
What was the Daily Observer like under Kenneth Best?
I have definitely never regretted joining the Daily Observer after I left the GUC because I had learnt quite a lot during my six years stint there, particularly through the hands of experienced editors like the late AA Njie. The Daily Observer was indeed like the first journalism school in this country, churning out reporters for virtually all the other media houses in the country. I can also recall editors like the late AA Barry, Ellicott Seade, Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, Dr Ebrima Ceesay, Sheriff Bojang and Paschal Eze, among many others who contributed quite a lot in setting the agenda of Gambian journalism as we know it today.
DA Jawo, are you an atheist, people say you are?
I wonder why those people have concluded that I am an atheist when I am sure they hardly know me enough to assess my religious beliefs. I agree that I have very liberal views about religion but as it is a private matter, I hardly entertain its discussion. I am a firm believer in people being allowed to practice their religion without any undue interference, which I believe will help lessen any potential religious friction.
How did you escape Jammeh’s jaws since journalists got killed, tortured and imprisoned for writing things which are less critical than yours?
I am not sure I escaped the Jammeh regime because like many journalists, I have also had my fair share of the intimidation and harassment that many of my colleagues had gone through. Of course the others like Deyda Hydara and Chief Manneh paid the ultimate price, but I have also been detained and may be not physically tortured but being detained for two nights at the NIA head office at the mercy of the mosquitoes certainly tantamount to torture.
Even after leaving the Daily Observer and working in Dakar, you continued to write critical articles about the Jammeh regime, and while other journalists fled and sought asylum elsewhere in Africa, Europe and America you always came home whenever you wanted. Did you have a death wish?
No I did not have a death wish, but I was of the view that running away from the Jammeh regime was like doing exactly what he wanted. The regime’s main objective was for all critical journalists to leave the country so that the regime would receive less criticism. I was definitely not prepared to give in to them so easily. Indeed every time I was coming to The Gambia from my base in Dakar, my wife and friends would be quite worried and they never wanted me to come here. I however I did not see any reason why anything should stop me from coming home to my own country whenever I had the chance because I did not commit any crime.
After the fall of Jammeh, how did you come to be appointed Minister?
While I may not be privy to the criteria used by President Barrow to pick me out of many people who submitted their CVs to the Coalition for consideration, one thing quite clear to me was that many of those people had much more impressive academic qualifications than me. Therefore, it is only President Barrow who can say why he chose me among the lot, and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to serve my country at that level.
Many observers felt that you lost your job because you were too open and plain, and as such, you would not be able to spin. Is that what happened?
I think that is an unfair assessment of the situation and quite speculative. President Barrow has the prerogative to hire and fire ministers and I feel that was the very prerogative he exercised in removing me. Therefore, it is not for me to speculate what the reason was to take that decision, especially when he did not indicate it on the letter and he never discussed it with me. Of course I am not good at spinning and if anyone were to expect me to do it well, then it would just be a matter of time before he gets disappointed with me.
What political party do you support?
I have tried as much as possible and even made it categorically clear to my former colleagues in government that I was not a politician and that I was not identified with any political party or group. Of course like everyone else, I have my political views but I try as much as possible not to bring my political views on the job.
People close to you say you support PDOIS.
Like I said, I have my own political views and I sympathise quite a lot with some of the views held by PDOIS but I am neither a member nor a supporter of the party.
Do you think Barrow is good for The Gambia?
Yes, I have seen no reason why I should think that President Barrow is not good for The Gambia. Of course under the kind of circumstances that he assumed office, he certainly needs quite a lot of time to deal with the numerous challenges his administration is being confronted with. It is not for nothing that some people refer to him as an “accidental president”, apparently because he was virtually tossed up there when he had very little mental preparation for it. Not only that he had never held public office before, but he had also not been in active politics prior to becoming the Coalition candidate. Therefore, he needs to be given time to overcome such challenges.
What were your biggest challenges as minister?
Indeed there were quite a lot of challenges as a minister, especially considering the fact that most of us were quite new in public office and even the very fact that there was no proper handing over from the former regime to the new one, meant that we all had to grope in the dark to get things done. My main challenge in the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure was mainly in the ICT sector, particularly in the management of the international gateway in which everyone seems to have been interested. It is a well-known fact that the gateway was the milking [sic] cow of the Jammeh regime with many people both in and out of the government making millions from it, as had been ascertained by the evidence before the Janneh Commission of Inquiry. It was not an easy situation to handle, especially when everyone had their own idea about what needs to be done and some of those ideas seem to conflict with the laid-down policies and programmes of the government.
What would you say were your achievements as minister?
May be I am not the one to assess my own achievements as a minister but I would like to leave that to the general public to say. However, I am proud of the government’s achievements in the area of freedom of information and media reform. While things were not moving as fast as I had wanted, I can proudly say that quite a lot of progress was registered during my brief period in office. Even the very fact that one of the world’s leading media freedom advocates; Reporters Without Borders, gave quite a positive assessment of the progress made by The Gambia in their World Press Freedom Index for 2017, jumping 21 points on the ladder, which was indicative of the progress we have made in that area.
DA, certainly you must have had at least a haunch why you were removed as minister?
As I said earlier, it is the prerogative of the president to hire and fire ministers without giving any reasons for his actions, and that was what President Barrow did in my case. He never indicated in the letter he wrote to me as to why he took that decision and he never discussed it with me. Therefore, I am not in a position to guess as to why he removed me.
What advice did you give to your successor?
In my handing over notes to my successor, Ebrima Sillah, I gave him quite a comprehensive assessment of the situation as I left it and also gave him some advice as to what I thought needed to be done. I also gave him an undertaking that I was always ready to share the little experience I had gained during my brief stint as minister. I received such cooperation from my immediate predecessor, Sheriff Bojang and it is therefore incumbent on me to do the same with Minister Sillah. I see it as a question of continuity as we all have the same objective, which is to move this country forward.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank all those who reached out after my removal as minister and for all the kind sentiments expressed. I also wish to thank President Barrow for giving me the opportunity to serve The Gambia as cabinet minister, as well as my former cabinet colleagues and all those in the various agencies of the government for their collaboration. I thank in particular the permanent secretary, the entire staff of the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure and its line agencies for their full support and cooperation during my tenure in office. Of course I also wish to thank my colleagues in the media, particularly the GPU, who had given me all the necessary support to carry out my job as minister.