Pa Ousman Darboe was a senior reporter at the Daily Observer. He claimed to have been an eyewitness to the arrest and subsequent disappearance of journalist colleague Ebrima ‘Chief’ Manneh on 7th July 2006. In this edition of Bantaba, Mr Darboe who has since relocated to the US with his family and was on a recent holiday in Banjul, talks with Standard editor Talibeh Hydara about the fate of ‘Chief’ Manneh and related matters.
Talibeh Hydara: How close were you to Chief Manneh?
We were very very close. We started working at Daily Observer in 1998 as freelance reporters. From there, we were promoted as staff reporters and Chief Manneh was one of our investigative reporters. He was always at the police headquarters getting information. We spent weekends together. Later, I was promoted as news editor while Chief became sub-editor. We had a very cordial relationship.
The circumstances surrounding his arrest and eventual disappearance were not known to the public. What really led to his arrest?
It was a publication that we got from the BBC website. The story was about the democratisation process that was supposed to be discussed during a meeting by Foreign ministers and West African leaders in Banjul. So at the time of this conference, the Gambia Government under President Jammeh was known as a government that doesn’t respect the basic fundamental rights of the people and the media has been a target. So Chief downloaded this article and it made mention of Jammeh, who was the host of this meeting and came to power through a coup. This story was printed in the Observer but it was never made public because we knew the article would not go down well with the then managing director, Dr Saja Taal. We took this printed copy and kept it in the store so nobody would access it. One day, I was here [the former Observer now Standard offices] when Dr Taal confronted me, saying he was fired three times by Jammeh and he wouldn’t allow it to happen again. He showed me the printed copy of that story we kept in the store and he said [reporter] Pa Malick Faye told him it was Chief Manneh who downloaded it. Saja said Jammeh is the owner of Observer and that the paper should only promote the Jammeh government. Saja called Lamin Saine, who was one of the directors at NIA and [later Nominated National Assembly Member], we were sitting here on July 7, when two plainclothes officers came. One was Corporal Sey who used to work at the Major Crimes Unit at the police headquarters. I asked him what they wanted and he told me they came for Chief Manneh. I asked for what, they said for questioning at Bakau Police Station. We advised Chief to go with somebody but he said he would be fine because he also knows Sey. We told him to keep his phone on because we would be calling to check on him but the moment he reached Bakau Police Station, his phone went off. We tried calling him the whole day but we couldn’t reach him. His bag was even here.
Did you go to Bakau Police Station to try to see him?
Yes, we went straight to the Bakau Police Station but they told us Chief was taken to the NIA in Banjul. We tried to talk to the NIA but they refused to give us any clear information about his whereabouts. They denied he was with them because that was the routine then. When they arrest journalists, they would always say they didn’t. We then returned and wrote an article about his arrest but Saja Taal refused to publish it.
You wrote an article about the disappearance of your colleague and your MD refused to publish it?
Yes, he refused to publish it so we sent it to Foroyaa and The Point who broke the news.
What happened afterwards?
Three months later, a senior officer, who is still in service [name withheld], informed me that Chief was at Sibanor Police Station. The OC at the station admitted that Chief was there for three days but was transferred to Gunjur. We went to Gunjur and fortunately I found there a police officer who was a friend of mine before he joined the service. He told me he was there but they took him away. I asked him to where but he said he had no idea. So I called the prosecution officer at the time and he said probably they might have taken him to the Mile 2 or the NIA.
What did you know about his family’s efforts in the wake of his disappearance?
Chief’s dad and his brother came to the Observer to find out about him. I took them to Dr Taal and he was very upset. He started screaming, hitting the table and asked them to leave. They refused to leave and demanded to know the whereabouts of Chief because he was working under him. It was a big argument but Dr Taal called the security to send them away.
What other efforts did they make to locate him?
They returned a few days later for the same issue but no clear information was given to them. So the father decided to try and see the vice president about it but again, nothing happened about it. He even went to the police headquarters.
How long did it take for you to hear about him again?
It was after 7 months, when Yaya Dampha, a Foroyaa reporter, was on a tour with the Amnesty International staff when they spotted Chief in Fatoto around 2:30pm to 3:00pm. They asked about him but the police denied he was there. They told the police that indeed they saw him and insisted on accessing him but they were arrested and detained for three days.
What other efforts were you aware of?
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) headed by Professor Kwame Karikari sued The Gambia government at the Ecowas court in Nigeria.
That was seven months after he was picked up?
Yes after seven months but the case was going on and off. The Gambia government was served but because it is an international court, sittings were not like regular courts; it takes some years. It was not until 2007, when I received a call from a colleague of mine in Dakar [Sheriff Bojang Jnr] about Media Foundation’s interest in having me testify because I was the only witness who was ready to talk. Prior to that, I spoke about Chief’s arrest at a symposium which was reported on the BBC and the following day Dr Taal confronted me about it. I told him I spoke there in my personal capacity not a representative of Observer. I feel that a colleague was taken and tomorrow it could be me. So we need to stand to defend him to make sure that the government is accountable.
Was there any effort by Observer management itself to locate Chief Manneh?
No, nothing absolutely. I was the only one trying to make sure that Chief was located. But whenever I get any information, I would go to Dr Taal because he later told me he couldn’t sleep at night when he thinks about Chief’s fate.
Okay what did you do when Media Foundation contacted you?
They were ready to make arrangements for me to go. I was reluctant at first but on second thought, I said if I didn’t stand for Chief Manneh who would. I knew it would be hard for me to leave this country because I was working under the President’s Office. [MFWA] used a strategy to sneak me out and we discussed the case. I told them I was concerned about my wife and my twins and I could not leave them behind. Then they were taken to Dakar while I headed for Nigeria. I testified but there was no cross-examination because the [Gambia] government refused to send a representative.
When you stood in that witness stand, what did you tell the court and how relevant was your testimony?
I gave them the name of one person who arrested Chief Manneh and I also went with the printed copy of the said article which was tendered.
But the government was still in denial. In fact, some top officials claimed that Chief was America. What is your take on that?
The then justice minister Edu Gomez said Chief Manneh was not dead. The IGP also said he was believed to be somewhere in the US. This is a lie. It was Lamin Manneh, his brother, who was in the United States. They misunderstood everything. Yaya Dampha too, the Foroyaa reporter, also testified.
So when you testified, did you return to The Gambia?
No. I did not return because they already declared me wanted after my testimony. I went to Ghana and I worked for Media Foundation for West Africa. Then my family was in Dakar. After four months, they joined me in Ghana. I went through the International Foundation for Migration and my family and I were relocated to US.
So what was the Ecowas judgement?
The Ecowas Court fined The Gambia government one hundred thousand US dollars as compensation to Chief Manneh’s family. Jammeh refused to pay the money and didn’t even appeal the case.
Do you believe Chief Manneh he is dead?
Well some years ago, Bai Lowe, who was one of the ‘Junglers’ came out publicly to say that they killed Ebrima ‘Chief’ Manneh.
What exactly did he say?
Well, if I got it right, he said he was killed and his remains thrown into a well. You know he was arrested at the same time with Rambo Jatta and Kanyiba Kanyi. The three of them were being moved from one place to another.
While in US, did you continue to search for him?
Yes, I did not rest the case. I discussed the matter with the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Chief Manneh’s issue was even mentioned at the US senate for his immediate and unconditional release but the Gambia government was all the time refuting.
Do you believe the Gambian media, especially the Gambia Press Union, have pushed Chief Manneh’s case enough?
Yes they did. The GPU did very well. Every year, they organise a symposium in the memory of Chief Manneh. They would invite the US Ambassador, NGOs, opposition parties and government officials to talk and see how best to improve the relationship between the media and the government because at the time, there were a lot of arrests and torture of journalists. Others were even forced to leave the country.
Has Chief’s family accepted his reported death?
Yes. Chief Ebrima Manneh’s family have now accepted that he is dead. At one time, the Gambia Press Union members in the US would normally send monthly allowance to his family but eventually we could not do it because there were a lot of other cases. So we felt that if we are doing it for Chief, we should do it for everyone else and there were not enough resources.
You are very prominent in this case because you are one of the people who claimed to have seen him last. On this visit from the US, Did you collaborate with the GPU on his case?
I spoke to the GPU president, Emil Touray and I even spoke to my family. I told them I am here for two reasons. One of these reasons is to reopen Chief Manneh’s case. I went to the police headquarters five times and I am still trying to meet with authorities to discuss this issue. I have an appointment with [Interior Minister] Mai Fatty. I am making all efforts to make sure that at least even if they are not going to reopen the case, the new government should pay the fine or at least compensate the family. I am trying my best to make sure that justice is served in Chief Manneh’s case.
Thank you for speaking to The Standard.
You are welcome.