In today’s edition, we feature excerpts from the book Detained at His Excellency’s Pleasure by Papa Jeng who was assistant commissioner of Western Division then. He was arrested, detained, and charged with treason for alleged participation.
From ‘Drums’ to Central Prison
As if by dint of good luck, I was moved to another cell, called “DRUMS”. It had got its name because it was the local where the field force band used to store their drums.
Here were shelves that previously were used to arrange the drums. These shelves were converted by us to “monkey beds”. I was lucky in the sense that I was one of the first inmates, which secured me one of the upper shelves. The guy who occupied the bottom shelf was not so lucky, though, because the inmate who had the shelf between us, (above him), urinated on him during sleep.
After several quarrels and fights, we managed to convince him to move down. Unfortunately, this meant that he had to sleep on the cement floor.
The man might have been psychologically affected by the detention. In normal life he does not urinate during sleep, I was later told.
This cell was also better in that respect that it was far from the brutalising entrance. In Cell No 2, one was unlucky because it was less than a minute from the front desk and the watchful eyes of the commanders.
Being in ‘Drums’ made it possible to manipulate some of the corrupt guards to be more lenient with us. It was also located at the end of the fence of the Depot, where we could see our friends and relatives.
During the first week in detention, I thought that this was all a big joke, and I was unable to understand how I could stay an additional week.
I was getting bitter and desperate, because in my briefcase back in Brikama, I had a kilo of gold, which was deposited with me by a Ghanaian friend for safekeeping. I also had about US$5,000 plus some CFA francs and Gambian dalasis there. I was afraid to mention this to anyone, for fear that it should be stolen.
I wish I had told the commander, because the whole briefcase had vanished when I returned, anyway. I did not tell anyone, because I believed my innocence would soon be proven. This did not happen. I lingered on in detention another 200 days.
I also had an orchard, in which I had invested more than US$100,000 over a five year period-both physically and materially. I had two cars and some other properties, which were all lost or damaged by the time I came out.
‘Drums’ had its drawbacks, like everything else in life. There were three times more inmates there than in No.2. Also we were more exposed to the mosquitoes, because of the thick grasses that surrounded the Depot. As more and more inmates were brought in, the cell became tighter and the air even more polluted.
It began to smell, because at night it was so unbearably hot. As we had not had a shower for two to three weeks, the cell was lice infested. Most of us had rashes and skin diseases.
After three weeks, my daughter came to visit me. She was smuggled in by the same commander, because we were not allowed visitors.
When we saw each other, we both burst into tears. At least the two of us were sure that we had survived the bloodbath and mayhem. She went home again, and I was very depressed because I did not know whether I would ever see her again.
We were also beginning to get frustrated over our uncertain future and getting on each others nerves. To leave together in an artificially created society for three weeks, is the most nerve wrecking experience you can imagine.
The situation was especially frustrating since all of us had homes, where we decided all of our activities by ourselves. Now, even if we wanted to go to the toilet, we were asked to go one after the other, with a heavily armed guard as an escort.
In the night, a serious fight broke out between two inmates over a piece of carton. Each one was claiming that the carton was his!
I had never imagined in my life, that such a useless piece of paper could start a fight. Then I realised that everything in life was useful. It all depends on where one is!
We finally managed to stop the dispute over the carton and normality was restored.
The next day it was as if nothing had happened the night before. This is how it used to be – one minute you quarrel and fight, the next you joke and laugh. One had no alternative – we were the only people around. Everyone else was different and was regarded to us as an enemy. We were the only ones naked; everyone else was dressed in uniforms.
In spite of the depressions, there were very funny inmates around. All of us began to tell his story and why he was supposedly detained.
There was a man who came to be called ‘Winston Churchill’. H e spoke over the radio during the disturbance, quoting the war speeches of the British statesman.
Most of us had nicknames. I was called ‘Jengisco’ because a young Gambian of Lebanese parentage added “isco” to my surname.
The greatest and at the same time the most difficult period of my life, was in the political detention. I came to identify myself more with the realities, wishes and aspirations of ordinary Gambians, whom I would never had cause to share a meal together with in normal cases.
I thought that I had been to the best “University of Life”. It was much better than the two previous universities that I had attended.
Here was the University of Life, without books and teachers. You learned from events as they arise. There were no set syllabuses.
Your daily encounters may entail physics and chemistry one day and theology and morality the next.
I believed that if our presidents and ministers were also sent to political detention, they would come out better leaders – with more understanding of human life and value.
Three-and-a-half weeks after my detention in the Depot, I was moved to the officers’ mess. It was right on the entrance of the Depot. Here was the centre of the Depot’s gravity. It was here that news came in, got analysed and transmitted to the rest of the cells. This was possible because the most ‘influential’ detainees were kept here. The inmates also had close contacts with all grades of servicemen. That was why it was the entrepot of all sorts of information, ‘cooked’ and/or well-founded.
Detention and prison is quicker and more efficient in the dissemination of information than the media itself. This may sound ridiculous, but when we were in detention, we had information of a national character much earlier than the general public. Most of the news coming from town was usually stale by the time they reached the prisons. When I was in the officers’ mess, many incidents took place. One day, in the afternoon, a detainee was brought in. He was suspected to have had an active role in the insurrection. In order to force him to talk, he was severely tortured, but he refused to give the commanders any valuable information.
Consequently, he was electrocuted with a wire attached to a car battery. I saw him foaming from his mouth before he finally died. In the night he was transported in a Land Rover for burial. This turned into a very serious situation by his executioners, because the man’s lawyer had gotten permission from the courts to meet him the following day. This was unknown to the officer. His lawyer turned up the next day, but his client was nowhere to be seen. It was suggested to him that he may be in the hangar – the most populous of the cells. It was originally the hangar for the field force vehicles, now filled with no less than 500 detainees. A search was made everywhere, to no avail. It was a ‘hot’ matter for the officers to handle, but afterwards it died a natural death, like many things that were unjust in our society.
Another incident was one involving the wife of the highest Gambian commander. She came with her car to collect her husband after work and was stopped by the guard at the sentry. When she stopped, she was asked to reverse and park outside. She refused and it turned into a bitter war of words. The soldier threatened to shoot her, if she did not obey his order. Unfortunately, for the soldier, the woman had a loaded hand gun in the car, belonging to her husband. Had it not been resolved by both Senegalese and Gambian commanders, it would have been an ugly situation. However, it ended very peacefully without a single shot being fired.
One day, when I had been in the Depot for two months, one incident I saw made me very angry. A week earlier, two young men were sent to jail for looting and theft. On this day, I saw a Senegalese helicopter taking off with refrigerators, other materials and a lot of properties belonging to private people and businesses in The Gambia. The helicopter was so heavily loaded, that it was a little bit difficult for the pilot to take off. A soldier that had resigned from the army and settled down in The Gambia, informed me that it was not only goods that were being transported, but also a lot of French and foreign currency. What made me even angrier was that whereas law-abiding citizens were forbidden to go out after 6pm, because of the dusk-to-dawn curfew, most – if not all – of the soldiers were breaking the law. They were bringing in and out Gambian girls throughout the night. For some people – the men – there was curfew, but for the women it was freedom as usual.
Consequently, two years later, it became evident how the presence of the Senegalese soldiers had given rise to the birth of so many Sene-Gambian children. After spending a month-and-a-half in the officers’ mess, I was moved to Bakau Primary School. Here we were treated like monkeys. People came to look at us, as if we were something that the cat just dragged in. All the time I was in detention, I had tried to avoid doing anything that would diminish the chances of my early release. I had thought of every reason why I was in detention. I began to blame myself unconsciously, thinking it was my own entire fault. I thought that I must have acted like a fool, instead of keeping quiet about what I was thinking. Maybe I should have joined the thievery and played big, like everyone else? Doing that, however, would have been betraying my conscience and the Gambian people. It would actually not be me!
By nature, I hate injustice and I cannot see myself partaking in the destruction and looting of my country. My resolution to struggle hard for justice and the development of my country, as a responsible citizen, became even stronger. This resolution was strengthened by an incident. This was the day I saw my mother being pushed by a young officer outside the fence of the school compound. I had had very strong telepathic contacts with her earlier, in the course of the morning, even though I had not seen her for four months.
Suddenly, I found myself leaping for joy and anger. Joy because I saw her – I have a strong and very close tie with my mother – anger, because of the way she was being treated. All she did, was exercising her right to see her biological son. This right is fundamental and constitutional, even if I had committed a crime. As it was, though, – on mere allegation – both my right as a citizen and that of my mother, were being trampled on. I was so furious that I forgot that I was surrounded by half-drunk soldiers. I rushed to the fence and shouted at the soldier at the top of my voice. As if the soldier heard the rage in my voice, he left my mother. This is the incident that made me more determined than ever to – at any cost – survive the ordeal intact. I spoke to my mother and consoled her. She cried but I asked her to go home, because everything was all right with me. I did not cry, since I wanted her to believe that all was fine. She agreed to travel back, stopped a taxi and went back to Banjul.
A few days later, I was transferred back to the officers’ mess, the same place I came from. I found all those whom I left there plus one new arrival. This newcomer was a ‘dangerous element.’ He was ‘dangerous’ because he was a ‘cabinet minister’ of the insurrection of junta Kukoi Sanyang. He was brought there for a purpose. The army officers treated him well, because he was promised immunity if he acted as principal witness for the state against us. When the inmates were introduced to him, everybody was avoiding him like a plague, lest he says that he recognises you. Anyone, whom he pointed out, was deemed to be deeply involved, and therefore likely to be charged with treason. Treason automatically carries the death penalty.
Since I knew he did not know me and had never seen me in his entire existence, I befriended him. Everyone thought I was stupid for coming so close to him, but the fellow was harmless and innocent. His name was used only because he was promised to be a driver by the junta and later given a taxi of his own. He was a taxi driver by profession. When the commander asked him if he knew me, he said that he had never seen me before. That was welcome news for me, and I actually told him my name. That made me the first person in the Depot to that he knew by name. The other inmates were not telling him their names, in case he mistook them for someone else.
When Commander Ndow Njie became overall commander, he thought I was having too close and friendly relationship with the Senegalese personnel. Consequently, he transferred me to the central prison in Mile 2. The central prison was like a prison in a prison. We were put in the same area as regular prisoners, serving terms for crimes. When I came, the inmates were peeping to see who had been brought in. I could hear my name being called from all directions. The security was very tight and rigid. One had no chance of seeing anything that was going on outside the confines of the high walls. At least in all the previous places, I could see cars and people on the streets. Here there was no possibility to do that, even if one had a giraffe neck of double length. I was sent to the infirmary, where I was welcomed by fellow inmates. I was very sad and shocked by this unceremonious and unilateral transfer. Two days after my arrival, Mustapha Danso (the soldier who assassinated Commander Eku Mahoney) was brought in, bound in chains like an American on Death Row. We all peeped and saw heavy chains around his feet and hands. When it was dark, we were woken up by series of bullet shots. We did not sleep the whole night, because no one knew why the shooting occurred.
The next morning, a commander who was very drunk, came to our window and inform us that Danso was executed. He also told us that gradually it would be our turn! As soon as he had said this, he left. Most of the inmates were so frightened, they went directly to bed. Funnily enough, I was not afraid at all, because I had decided to come out of this ordeal intact. At this stage, my only problem was the fact that I had neither read a newspaper, nor listened to the radio since my detention. This was very disturbing to me, because I am a ‘news maniac’ by nature.
While in Mile 2, an incident occurred in the country, which we knew about even before it was announced over Radio Gambia! The president, his former foreign minister (Alieu Badara Njie) and close friend, the secretary general to the government and several of his party and cabinet ministers, were involved in a helicopter crash. They were on their way to a political meeting in the provinces. Unfortunately, the foreign minister lost his life in the crash. I was very sad because of this great loss for the nation, and also because the victim was a very close friend of my father. My sadness was also due to the loss of human life in general, so I hoped and prayed that the loss would be minimal. Even though I do not share most of our president’s policies, I did not want him to perish personally. If he had, he would have left a huge political vacuum and perhaps our country would have been plunged into a deep political crisis.
I never dislike persons; I only sometimes dislike their policies. To play politics is to address issues, never personalities. The general reaction and mood in Mile 2 was one of ‘wait-and-see.’ Many people had hoped that the president after the incident would be sobre enough to see that the intermezzo had a direct relationship to the thousands of people being detained, but no, their hopes were dashed! Gambia is predominantly a Muslim country and a highly superstitious society, at that. Everything that happens in everyday life has a mystical and supernatural explanation for the great majority of our people – Christians and Muslims alike. That is why marabouts have such great authority and influence on the daily life of each of us. The great majority of the people consult them, paying huge sums of money. They are believed to acquire, or to be endowed with, supernatural abilities and powers. These powers are used to pray in order to cure illnesses, provide good fortune, foretell the future of someone and everything else related to human life and activity. The influence of these marabouts touches the very fabric of our existence as a society.
In the evening, the officer responsible for the infirmary had to come to work on an emergency case, and brought his pocket size transistor radio with him. When it was six o’clock news, he rushed into our cell to tell us the news about how the president and his entourage had been involved in a helicopter crash. But according to the news bulletin, there were no casualties, he said. We looked astonished and he thought he had done us a great favour by sharing the news with us. What he did not know, was that we got the news as soon as the accident happened and we also knew that someone had already died! We went to bed, having a real subject to discuss and analyse. Every probable theory had been put forward, explaining why it happened.
The infirmary – by all accounts – was the dirtiest cell I had ever been into. It was about 20 square metres and had an inmate population of about 30. There was a tiny store, which we improvised as a bathroom-cum-toilet. There was no fresh air, because the atmosphere in there was a combination of fume from urine, faeces and sweat, which we were forced to inhale in order to stay alive. Sometimes there were arguments, quarrels and fighting over who was to go first into the toilet.
The following morning I was on my way to talk to one of the government prosecutors in the main office. The entire structure of the central prison’s entrance was frightening. For me, just to see it, was a heart-rending experience. It was built in this way, because the colonialists wanted to deter a second offence by prisoners. On my way out, I bumped into a leader of the opposition (the National Convention Party) – Sherriff Mustapha Dibba. He was on his way to answer to charges of treason. The last time I saw him was at the Depot; we used to meet in the main yard when he was on his way to the toilet and I was going to the dispensary. We exchanged greetings and wished each other well. I had, however, thought he had been released a long time ago. Why I thought so, I really do not know; perhaps because I had the feeling that he was not supposed to be there, in the first instance? All the same, we said hello and expressed our surprise to meet once again in Mile 2 under these circumstances. I had known Sheriff Dibba personally since 1975. He was the Minister for Economic Planning and Industrial Development when I was assistant secretary there. I worked very closely with him thereafter also, when I was clerk of the House of Parliament. He was then a member of parliament. He had previously served the PPP government as a vice president, minister of finance and as an ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the EEC (now EU), based in Brussels, Belgium. Why he was treated the way he was, after such a distinguished career and service to his party and the nation, is something I still try to understand. I think he is feared for his stern belief in justice and his ‘no-nonsense’ character. There is no Gambian politician shrouded in controversy as Sherriff Dibba. Many people express their fear with negative attacks on his personality. Especially two things are being said about him; he is a tribalist and he is vindictive. To say these things about him, it takes that one does not know him at all! How can a tribalist be married to a woman outside his tribe? For him to talk to his children in Mandingo is quite normal, because that is his mother-tongue! A Fula talks to his children in Fula, naturally enough.
Three days later, I met another prominent Gambian; lawyer Cheyassin Secka. He too, had been detained and charged with treason. I have known Cheyassin since we were both young. He was a nice young man and highly intelligent. He went abroad to study law at an early age and I did not see him for several years – perhaps two years before 1981 events. I have never had any close working relationship with him, as I did with Sherriff Dibba. I began to settle down in the central prison, trying to rationalise and understand my present situation and how to deal with it. While I lay in the dark cell at night, hearing the different sounds and rhythms of the snoring all around me from my fellow inmates, I thought of many things. Before I fell asleep, I came over the idea of the strengthening of my survival instinct. This was what I had to accomplish, if my dream of coming out intact, ever would become a reality!
Detained At His Excellency’s Pleasure was first published by Uhuru publishing in May 1994 and is available for sale. Papa Jeng works and lives in Sweden.