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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Kenneth Best on the Daily Observer newspaper and its 40-year journey

The first thing I would like to do in this brief statement on the 40-year history of Liberia’s Daily Observer newspaper is to give thanks to Almighty God for giving Mae Gene and me, in January 1977, as we were coming to the close of our careers in Nairobi, Kenya, the idea of returning home to start Liberia’s first independent daily newspaper.

I remember vividly when we first started dating in 1970 that we conceived the idea of publishing a magazine in Liberia. We were not sure as to whether it would be one on politics or fashion – or both. God blessed our relationship with consummation in marriage on July 17th, 1971. July 17th this year will make us 50 years married. To God be the glory! And thank you, Mae Gene!

We recall with grateful thanks to the involvement of our parents – the Rev Byron Zolu Traub, his wife Mrs Margaret Stewart Traub, our uncle, Frank James Stewart – all of whom gave Mae Gene to me – and my beloved mother, Mrs Lilian Best, in the successful planning and execution of that great and longlasting event– our marriage, held at St Peter’s Lutheran Church at 14th Street and Tubman Boulevard, Sinkor, Monrovia and the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel. Let me remember and thank also my big brother, the Rev Canon Burgess Carr, who served as best man in our wedding – a role I played in his when in 1962 he married Ms Francisca Verdier Carr. Burgess has always given us support in our newspaper endeavours, and, from his post as a senior executive of The Episcopal Church, New York, visited us both in Monrovia and in Banjul, The Gambia.

I can never forget my dear friend, the distinguished British journalist, John C Gordon, who became one of my best friends when he served as Reuters correspondent in Monrovia in the 1960s. John became our chief agent in London, and became our chief source for all the printing materials and equipment we needed both for the Liberian and the Gambian Observer newspapers.

Before he died in London in 2005 John called me from his home at Prince Edward Mansions, London, to inform me of his impending death – which made me cry and Mae Gene was there to comfort me. John informed me at the time that he was willing to me all the Liberian papers he had collected over many decades– a most valuable collection – which his family dutifully sent to me in Silver Spring, Maryland.

We thank God for blessing our marriage with many children and grandchildren and two great newspapers in two countries – the Daily Observer in our own dear Liberia, launched February 16th, 1981 and the Daily Observer in another country, the Republic of The Gambia, May 11, 1992.

It is appropriate, I think, to mention the Liberian Daily Observer’s two grandchildren – The Inquirer newspaper in Liberia and the Daily Observer in The Gambia. I also should mention the Liberian Daily Observer’s two great-grandchildren, FrontPageAfrica in Monrovia, Liberia and The Standard newspaper in Banjul, The Gambia.

But before getting into the matter of offspring, we can never forget the challenging, critical and costly pains we endured during our formative years -pains, yea crises we suffered beginning with the very second month of our founding – March 1981, when the erratic, powerful and tyrannical Justice Minister, Chea Cheapoo, summoned me to his office one Monday morning and with loaded guns pointed at me from every direction and blasted me for one-and-a-half hours because we had published a story about him to which he did not like. He also threatened to “hunt [me] down from door to door and shoot [me].” He sent for me the following Wednesday and demanded that I bring to his office “all those foreigners [I] got working for [me]”. He immediately imprisoned them, without due process of law, demanded that I feed them three meals a day for the two weeks he held them in prison; that I pay the fines of US$500 each for working without work permits (which I told the minister were in process); and that I buy airline tickets for them to be deported to their countries – two to Ghana and one to Nigeria.

Cheapoo was determined that I, too, would sleep in jail that weekend. He sent immigration officers to the Daily Observer office at around six o’clock that Friday evening, when all the banks were closed, demanding that I pay the US$1,500 fines immediately or go to jail.

But if you see us standing here today celebrating 40 years of publishing this newspaper, started during the brutal and cruel regime of military dictator Samuel K Doe, then you can guess that Kenneth and Mae Gene Best must truly have been blessed by God Almighty Himself, with all His divine love and protection! Just as those immigration officers were eagerly about to whisk me off to jail, my brother-in-law, J Mamadee Dorbor, husband of my younger sister Genevieve Best-Dorbor, suddenly showed up! He had that same afternoon withdrawn nearly US$3,000 from the bank to buy building materials to continue work the following day, Saturday, on the home he and his wife were building. Mamadee accompanied me to the immigration office and paid the US$1,500 fines they demanded cash down! Cheapoo was still in his office at the Justice Ministry at 6:30 that Friday evening, waiting to order me imprisoned for the weekend in the event I did not pay the fines.

I remain eternally grateful to Mamadee for that miraculous rescue.

Believe it or not, that was only the beginning of our troubles. Three months later, on June 29th, 1981, most of the staff, including my wife Mae Gene, my secretary, Mrs Frances Crusoe, our female reporter, Ms Cynthia Greaves, and our advertising lady, Ms Bindu Fahnbulleh, were whisked off to jail! Also imprisoned were seven of our reporters and editors, including the Daily Observer publisher himself, Kenneth Y Best. What had happened? Those imprisoned along with me were Sando Moore, Kloh Hinneh, T Max Teah, Sam Van Kesselly, Isaac Thompson and. . .

That morning we had published three Letters to the Editor from elementary students of the Monrovia Central High, appealing to Liberia’s military dictator, Head of State Master Sergeant Samuel K Doe, to lift the ban he had imposed on Conmany Wesseh, president of the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU). Very early that same morning the head of state and his delegation had departed the country Nairobi, Kenya to attend the summit conference of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, now African Union).

We were in prison for 10 days. But guess what! Head of State Doe did not know that Kenneth Y Best and his wife Mae Gene had worked in Nairobi for six-and-a-half years – from 1973 to 1980 – and were very well known and respected in Kenya. Thanks to the British Broadcasting Corporation and other world media, the news of our imprisonment had spread throughout the world. We later learned that Head of State Doe and his delegation could go nowhere in the conference building, the Kenyatta Conference Centre, or anywhere else in Nairobi without being confronted every hour by the press and by OAU officials with the issue of the Daily Observer people’s imprisonment, most especially Kenneth Y Best and his wife. The Bests had worked in Nairobi for six-and-a-half years as Information Director of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the powerful pan-African church body headquarted there. The Bests were, therefore, well known and respected in Kenya. But Samuel Doe did not know that.

The issue of the imprisonment of the Daily Observer staff, therefore, soon became, from the time the Liberian delegation landed in Nairobi, the chief preoccupation of Head of State Doe and his delegation at the OAU summit. Everywhere they went they were hounded with the issue of our imprisonment. Head of State Doe had no choice but to order our release.

A few days later, the Vice Head of State, Thomas Weh Syen, sent for us and released us from the Post Stockade.

In November of that same year, 1981, we published a story on a teacher from the neighbouring Republic of Guinea, Sheik Mohammed Koné, calling on President Sekou Touré to release all of the hundreds of political prisoners he had jailed and open up the country to democracy so that the thousands of Guinean intellectuals and technocrats all over the world could return and help develop their country.

We had withheld this story from publication because we needed to contact the Guinean envoy to Liberia, Ambassador Cissé, for his government’s reaction, which I did in person. But I warned this Guinean teacher that he would get into big trouble with President Touré if the story were published. After several such warnings and withholding the story from publication for nearly two months, the teacher told me one day, “Mr Best, there comes a time in the life of a man when he should be prepared to die for his country. If my time has come, I am ready to go.”

I had no reason any longer to hold to hold the story. The following day we carried it on the front page. On the back page of that same edition our chief photographer, Sando Moore, carried a composite photograph showing the worst dumpsites in Monrovia under the caption, “Monrovia Stinks”.

At 20 minutes past eight that morning the Minister of Justice, Isaac Nyeplu, called me. “What kind of major embarrassment have you caused our government today? he asked.

“What embarrassment?” I enquired.

“Don’t you see today’s headline? Anyway, you will hear from me.”

Ten minutes later, a busload of red capped, strapping police entered our office. “Get out, get out!” they shouted. “We are closing this damned place down.” I, too, was arrested and taken to the office of the Justice Minister.

There I met the Guinean Ambassador, Mr Cissé, seated in Minister Nyeplu’s office. But as I explained myself, how I had first contacted the Guinean ambassador and given him two weeks to contact his government in Conakry for its reaction to the teacher’s letter, Ambassador Cisseé told Justice Minister Nyeplu that he, the ambassador, “had never seen this man [Mr Best] before!”

I was immediately imprisoned at the Post Stockade, the maximum security prison at the Barclay Training Centre and later at the National Security Agency (NSA). The Daily Observer newspaper was again closed down.

One evening while seated at NSA a car brought in the Guinean teacher. They sat him next to me. As soon as he saw me, Teacher Konneh came over and hugged me apologising profusely “for all this trouble I have caused you and your newspaper”. I told him not to worry about us, for we felt we had done our professional duty by telling his story to the world. I was now more concerned about him, but was satisfied that I had forewarned him about the grave danger of getting into trouble with his president, Ahmed Sekou Touré.

While at the NSA Head of State Doe sent me a three-page letter calling me a “counter-revolutionary”. On the back page caption story headlined “Monrovia Stinks,” Head of State Doe told me I was “unpatriotic”. I replied the letter the following day, saying we thought we were doing President Touré a favour by letting him know what his people were thinking of him and his government. On the back page caption, I told Master Sergeant Doe it was intended to alert the Ministries of Health and of Public Works to do something urgently to clean up the capital city and save the population from an epidemic.

In all we were closed down five times, the fifth time for nearly two years. And once Head of State Doe and his Defense Minister, Gray D Allison, who also held the other powerful position of Chairman of the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), ordered the electricity at our newspaper office and printing press disconnected! Our lights were restored three weeks later, in time for the Daily Observer to cover the state visit of the Nigerian Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, to Liberia.

After the presidential election of 1985 when Doe was declared the winner by the notoriously corrupt Elections Commissioner, Emmet Harmon, we gave the new democratic government two months to make good their pledge to “uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia.”

But the government did not reopen the newspaper, despite the democratic constitution that had brought them to power. So in mid-March 1986 the board of directors of the Liberian Observer Corporation decided that in the exercise of our constitutional rights, we would reopen the Daily Observer newspaper, since the new constitution said nothing about closing down newspapers.

We reopened the office on Friday morning, March 16th and held a press conference in which we told the world why we had reopened our newspaper. Our statement was drafted by our legal counsel, Counselor Phillip AZ Banks. At around five o’clock p.m. we closed the office and went home, hoping to return for work the following morning.

But early the next day we got news that the Daily Observer office had been set afire the night before! Our office suffered two more arson attacks perpetrated by the Samuel Doe government and several other imprisonments of the publisher, Mr Best. The last vicious attack on our premises occurred in September 1990, when forces loyal to Samuel Doe, now deceased, threw hand grenades into our building and this time completely destroyed it. We lost everything. By that time the Best family had departed for Banjul,

The Gambia to plan the launch that country’s first modern and first daily newspaper.

The Gambian Daily Observer newspaper was launched on May 11th, 1992. Despite the fact that all of the journalists in that country told us The Gambia was not ready for a daily newspaper, our newspaper became an instant success! The United States’ new ambassador to The Gambia, Andrew Winter, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, invited me to his office one morning and thanked me for the good work we were doing in The Gambia. He said most of his colleagues in the West Africa sub-region were jealous of him because his reports to the State Department in Washington, DC were full and rich, in contrast to theirs because there was a scarcity of information in the countries where they were serving.

There were hardly any independent and professional newspapers in most of those countries. Ambassador Winter stood behind his desk and leafed through some of his reports to the State Department, demonstrating how rich and comprehensive his reports were. And then Ambassador Winter told me, “Mr. Best, most of my reports are based on stories from the Daily Observer newspaper!”

Not long thereafter a military coup d’etat occurred in The Gambia, overthrowing the 29-year rule of President Sir Dawda Jawara. Our story the following morning was full and comprehensive, with interviews with the new Head of State, Yahya Jammeh, and several of his fellow lieutenants who had joined him in staging the coup. The Daily Observer sold nearly 30,000 copies of that single issue, which appeared on Monday, July 25th, 1994.

We enjoyed a two-month honeymoon with the new military regime; but when we started producing critical and forthright reports on the performance of the regime, we immediately got into trouble. This culminated in several arrests of Mr Best and his reporters, and eventually with something far more dramatic, the deportation, on October 30th, 1994, of Kenneth Y Best back to war-torn Liberia!

Observer grand and great grandchildren

By the grace of God, several other new newspapers appeared on the Liberian and Gambian markets, published by various former staff of the Daily Observer. Upon the departure of the Kenneth Y and Mae Gene Best family to Banjul, The Gambia in 1990, following the outbreak of the Liberia Civil War on December 24th, 1989, the Daily Observer’s first grandchild appeared. Several former Liberian Daily Observer reporters and editors in 1990 started The Inquirer newspaper in Monrovia. Last week that newspaper, The Inquirer, edited and published by the Observer’s former News Editor, Phillip N Wesseh, marked its 30th anniversary.

The second grandchild of the Liberian Daily Observer was that which the Best family launched in Banjul, The Gambia on May 11th, 1992. They called it the Gambian Daily Observer.

The Daily Observer’s first great grandchild, FrontPage Africa, was started in the early 2000s by our nephew, Rodney Sieh, who had accompanied his ailing mother, our elder sister, Mrs Sybil Best Sieh, to us in The Gambia. We empowered Rodney to bring our Sister Sybil, his mom, out of war-torn Liberia in 1992 to join the Best family who had sought exile in Banjul, The Gambia. Her son and our nephew Rodney, immediately upon arrival in Banjul, started working for our new newspaper, the Gambian Daily Observer and soon became one of our leading members of staff. He also became, upon my recommendation, one of the BBC’s leading international correspondents, covering The Gambia and other parts of Africa. Rodney later started FrontPage as an online newspaper and later the printed edition in Monrovia.

The Standard newspaper, the Liberian Daily Observer’s second grandchild, was started in Banjul, The Gambia in 2010 by a young man named Sheriff Bojang, whose father had brought him to Mr Best in Banjul, following the launching of the Gambian Daily Observer on May 11th, 1992. The father told Mr Best, “My son says he wants to become a journalist like you; so I came to ask you to please make my son a journalist.”

I welcomed young Sheriff Bojang as a cub reporter, and soon the serious young fellow started producing stories, on a freelance and later a full time basis.

Following the deportation of Mr Best from The Gambia back to Liberia by President Yahya Jammeh on October 30th, 1994, President Jammeh took over the Gambian Daily Observer, made a lot of money from it, enabling the company even to build their own office complex. The company soon bought cars for senior staff. But following his overthrow in early 2017, due to his tyrannical rule, Jammeh was forced into exile, and the fiscal assets of the Gambian Daily Observer went with him. And having not paid Gambian taxes for several years, the Gambian Daily Observer immediately became a target of the new government, which seized the newspaper and closed it down for taxes.

While the Gambian Daily Observer remained closed, the old Gambian Observer reporter, Sheriff Bojang, continued his own daily, which he named The Standard. That became the Liberian Daily Observer’s second grandchild. That newspaper is still being published in Banjul, The Gambia, and has become a new daily in the Gambian capital.

Today, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Liberian Daily Observer, we strongly believe that we have a lot to be grateful for. First and foremost are the many, many young people whom we have touched, some of whom have remained in and faithful to the journalism profession, and gone on to establish their own newspapers. Among these, even before Sheriff Bojang and Rodney Sieh, is Phillip Wesseh, the second graduate of the New Kru Town, Monrovia’s D Twe High School, who came to us immediately following his graduation. Phillip grew to become News Editor of the Daily Observer.

Few years ago the Liberian Daily Observer became the oldest surviving newspaper in Liberian history. The first was Liberia’s very first newspaper, The Liberia Herald, started in 1826 by JJ Russwurm, a Methodist missionary, shortly following his arrival in Liberia. It lasted until 1862 when it folded.

The first D Twe High graduate to join the Daily Observer staff was Gabriel Williams, whose class sponsor, Ms Sally Grabb, a Ghanaian teacher, brought him to me in 1982 and told me her student wanted to be a journalist. We immediately took on Gabriel, and not long thereafter the Minister of Defence, Gray D Allison, became enraged by a story Gabriel had written on the Defence Ministry. Minister Allison called Gabriel to his office, blasted him and told him, “If I carry you into the open street and give you a hundred lashes, no one would say anything!”

Following that alarming and frightening threat, Gabriel soon left the country and became a senior reporter at the Sacramento Observer newspaper in California. Gabriel later returned to Liberia and became Deputy Minister of Information and later Press Attaché at Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC.

The first young fellow whose father brought him to Mr Best in the mid-1980s and told me, “My son says he wants to become a journalist. I came to ask you to please make my son a journalist” was John F Lloyd, son of the Rev Edwin Lloyd, a prominent Liberian Baptist prelate. We took on young John and soon he started producing front page lead stories. Today John, who and his wife are parents of several children, most of whom hold Master’s degrees in America, is a senior employee of a major US Information agency.

Two of our Gambian Observer staff, Baba Galleh Jallow and Ebrima Ceesay, now hold doctorate degrees, Baba from University of California at Irving, and Ebrima from Birmingham University in Britain. Upon receiving his doctorate in the early 2000s, Ebrima traveled all the way from Britain to Silver Spring, Maryland, USA to present his doctorate to me. He told me all of his friends in England, African, English and others, had told him this degree did not belong to him, but to Mr Kenneth Y Best because, they told him, “If Mr Best had not found you in Banjul, The Gambia and trained you in journalism, you would not have been able to find your way to UK to earn this degree. “I agreed with them, Mr Best, and that is why I have come to present this degree to you. It is yours, not mine.”

I quickly reassured Dr Ceesay that the degree is every bit his, definitely not mine, because it is he, not I, who had worked for it. I thanked him for coming all the way from UK to America to show me his doctorate degree and congratulated him on this major achievement. Dr Ebrima Ceesay shortly thereafter returned to UK, where he is gainfully employed.

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