I. A. S. Burang John: Journalist, Politician and Cleric

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By Nana Grey-Johnson

The sudden death in 1968 of Lenrie Ingram Peters, the then-74-years old editor of The Gambia Echo newspaper was a jolt to press and political life in The Gambia. Indeed, Peters had been the editor since 1947 but in many instances had only managed the paper’s outing in the early years of independence thanks to the dogged resilience and loyal assistance of a young Wolof man, already a gangling six-footer named, Ibrahima Ahmad Salih John.

With his trade mark alias, Burang John, who, by his own choosing frequented the print shop at 2 Russell Street, soon convinced Peters that though he laid no claim to any education higher than primary, was ready to learn press work. He became an enthusiastic reporter who also loved politics and Peters had been there always to nurse his ambitions. He was awestruck by the brilliance and charisma of one P. S. Njie, a barrister returned from Lincolns’ Inn, London, and who had replaced the Echo’s legal adviser, the Oxford-trained Wilfred Davidson Carrol, who had died suddenly in the prime of a brilliant legal and legislative career way back in October 1941.

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Just as he had mastered the Qu’ran at his father’s feet as a boy, so cast he himself at Peters’ feet and learned everything he could in newspaper journalism, and, before long, Burang John was fully occupied as a pressman. P. S. Njie had always had ambitions beyond the courtroom, and when he formed the United Party to climb the ladder to leadership in his country, it was Open Sesame for Burang John who went straight to launching and editing the party’s news organ The UP Newsletter. Then Peters died suddenly that fateful night after a hectic day covering the counting of votes in municipal elections. Burang John had history thrust upon him — one editor with two newspapers. It was time to showcase everything he knew of Peters’ style and political and social attitudes, faced as he was with the daunting challenge of standing in the out-sized shoes of his late mentor.

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His early exposure to union and labour affairs aided him within the ranks of the United Party and, while he concentrated on self-development, his circumstances drew him constantly into full-time politics where, by the mid-1960s, he was already paving the path to becoming the General Secretary of the party. The political climate was in flux; P. S. Njie had blazed the trail in government in 1961 to become Chief Minister of The Gambia. Thereon, the waters flowed so intensely under the bridge that by 1965 the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) had swept the country into euphoria under Prime Minister D. K. Jawara. The restless new government sued for sovereignty immediately and only nine months after independence from Britain the country was voting in November 1965 in a referendum asking for a republican status for The Gambia.

Burang John, under the guidance of P. S. Njie from the leader’s castle headquarters at 19, Buckle Street, led a countrywide campaign to say NO to Republicanism! The plebiscite voted resoundingly and the ruling party and government lost the bid. Burang John had become a number to reckon with in the political annals of the day. However, in 1970, now out front and leading by several lengths, the PPP was not forgetful of the humbling defeat. In five years, it had learned a great deal about itself and power and was able to use the experience to advantage.

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To an outsider looking in, the Echo would seem to have gone into deep recession in discussing national issues. In what seemed like a deliberate ‘blackout’ on the political developments under the PPP, Burang John explained the Echo’s silence as coming from disaffection within the hierarchy of the UP. While the editor published copious writings from P. S. Njie opposed to republicanism, his editorials only quite gingerly warned against a constitution that vested executive powers in a president and an attorney general.

While the PPP was preparing for the second referendum, Burang John chose to publish columns of virulent attacks in articles written by party members levelled against the Prime Minister. As if to compensate and enforce his own personal disagreement with his party members, the editor reproduced speeches by Jawara defending republicanism and other government matters. Or was it his way of demonstrating balanced reporting? The truth could no longer be hidden that at 19, Buckle Street, the tectonic plates carrying P. S. Njie and Burang John had shifted and a tsunami was raging towards the hapless beaches of the UP.

The party went against Burang John’s advice that the UP no longer had the national muscle to win another referendum. He told the UP committee that his reason for asking the party not to oppose the second referendum was because of the changes he realised on both banks of the river and so did not think the ground was there in the provinces for the UP to pull off a second No-vote, declaring in addition that the party’s position had not been quite clearly thought out. P. S. Njie was not having any of it and insisted on opposing the Bill which, when it returned to Parliament in December of 1969, Burang John would not oppose. This was to split the UP irreparably.

On April 21, 1970, the eve of the second referendum, Burang John tendered his resignation from the UP and, by doing so, relinquished the post of editor of the UP Newsletter as well as that of The Gambia Echo. On April 22, 1970, the Gambian electorate cast a landslide vote: 84,968 Yes-votes against 35,638 No-votes. The Gambia became a sovereign republic and David Kwesi Jawara, now the apostatised Dawda Kairaba Jawara, was sworn in on April 25, 1970 as President. Although Burang John claimed to have left on April 21, 1970, the Echo continued to post his signature on the back pages until June 29, 1970, eleven issues after (Nos. 17 to 27.)

Now with no substantive editor to guide it, the Echo was turned over to an undisclosed person holding the fort. Deliberately, maybe not, the paper stopped reporting on the PPP which blackout only increased the paper’s isolation, interpreted as it was by the establishment as further proof of the journal’s opposition and lack of interest in the new government and national development. At this time, a new Gambia was going through momentous political and social change along with the entertainment landscape of an emergent country was crowning Miss Princess Davies ‘Miss Gambia’, the most beautiful woman in the new republic.

The editorials that should have driven the paper’s policy remained mute to home news but instead was celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of V. I. Lenin with the portrait of the Bolshevik leader and dedicating whole tracts to the praise of the 1917 Revolution in Russia with an editorial on “V. I. Lenin: Symbol of Socialism and Progress.”  The most the paper could muster to report on about the nation as newsworthy were the results of the republican referendum, the appointment of Sheriff Mustapha Dibba as vice president (Echo, May 4, 1970), the marriage of Sir Dawda K. Jawara to his twenty-one-year-old cousin, Njaimeh Mboge on Friday, May 8, 1970, at a mosque in Dankunku (Echo May 8, 1970) and the visit of Prime Minister Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone (Echo, May 18, 1970). Meanwhile, the paper filled in the rest of the available space with more and even longer pieces and editorials on other far-removed subjects sent from the syndicated agencies.

At this time, there was no one alive among the original six-man Echo Syndicate, and those still in it were more politicians than investors; they functioned only on paper. What was more evident, however, was that the paper urgently needed help if it were to survive another season. And as if to the rescue, in July 1970, John Robert Forster took office as editor. This prominent figure was a legislator holding one of two seats for the United Party in the House of Parliament. The engagement of the honourable gentleman resulted from the cry from ordinary citizens to save the soul of the floundering institution. He was equipped for the pressroom, having gathered experience his days as a boy reading proofs for John Finden Dailey in his print shop at the Gambia Weekly News.

Time has tendency to let such mighty pioneering spirit fall through the cracks of history and we soon forget that once in our lifetime an unassuming youth took on the mantle of a giant such as Lenrie Peters, and stood in the gap to keep an institution such as the Echo going, and left it to a succeeding political giant such as the Hon. John Robert Forster. Half a century ago, Burang John stood in the gap and edited two newspapers at the same time, headed a national party secretariat, and postponed the date of The Gambia’s attainment to a Republic from November 1965 to April 1970, a feat our slothful youth today would complain they could not find in their power to accomplish.

Even in later life, some ten years after Burang John had become a full card-carrying member of the PPP, he would be drawn to the newsroom of The Gambia Times, the news organ the PPP had launched to propagate its manifesto and raison d’étre. More years passed, and as evening shadows crept over, the hurly-burly of politics done, and after all the battles, lost as won, Burang John retraced the footsteps of his late father in Qur’anic scholarship and ultimately attained the venerable rank of one of the two Naib deputies to the Imam Ratib of Banjul. Yet, while he preached, one wondered how many faithful in his congregations realised the contribution and service of a man who, in his youth, once stood in such gigantic shoes in journalism and politics. He passed away on February 19, 2012, aged 88.