The Daily Observer has been in the news for the past ten days for all the wrong reasons. The Gambia’s leading daily was closed by the national revenue authority for tax arrears totaling at least D17 million. But that is not all that is wrong with this paper generally seen as a national institution. Even its ownership is shrouded in mystery. To shine a light on some of these issues, we present excerpts from a transcript of an interview West Africa Democracy Radio’s Sheriff Bojang Jnr had with the founder of the Daily Observer in The Gambia, Kenneth Y Best in Monrovia, Liberia two years ago.
Sheriff Bojang Jnr: You were based and working in Kenya before returning to Liberia to set up the Daily Observer in 1981, what prompted you to take this path?
My wife [Mae Gene] and I came to Liberia in 1979 to test the pulse of the nation to find out whether they were ready for an independent daily newspaper. At that time there was no daily in town so I decided that the country was ready. So I returned to Liberia on 25th January 1980 and on 15th February my wife and I resigned our respective jobs. But between my resignation on February 15th and May 15th , April 12th happened in Liberia – the coup- killing [President] Tolbert, most of his top officials and hundreds of other people. I was undeterred but my bosses called me and said, we didn’t fire you, you resigned, you see what is happening in your country? Stay here for six to eight months, watch the situation before going back. I told them, my country needs me now more than ever before… My people here [in Liberia] called me and told me don’t come now but I was undeterred. We left Kenya with two of our children to come back to Liberia. We arrived that same night and the following day, I sat under the rain selling shares for the paper and making contacts with various advertisers. Then on 17th July 1980, on our wedding anniversary, we presented to the Liberia Bank for Development & Investment, our loan application. On 16th February 1981, we started the paper…
And it wasn’t long before you landed into trouble. [President] Samuel Doe’s Justice minister threatened you with death.
Yes. That was only two-and-a-half months after we started. We did a story on him because he put people in jail without charge for over two months. One of my reporters sneaked into the jail, interviewed them, came out and wrote a story. The minister was not in the country at the time. When he came back and read the story, he sent for me and blasted me before TV cameras for one-and-a-half hours. He was a very erratic young man. He said next time you write a story like that about me, I’ll hunt you down from door to door and shoot you.
Did you take those threats seriously?
I just sat before the TV cameras and smiled. I didn’t say a mumbling word. [They] say, never argue with a fool, people might not know the difference.
Two months after that threat, President Doe ordered the closure of your paper. You, your wife and the entire staff were arrested, what happened?
Doe had banned the head of the Liberian national students union. He and Doe fell out over some issue. That was the first time we heard the word banned in Liberia. He was held incommunicado. Three students wrote letters to the editor appealing to the president to lift the ban on their leader. We published the letters and in the morning, [Doe’s men] went to the office and arrested everybody. I was on my way to the printing press when a Jeep came on my side: “Are you Mr Best?” I said yes. “Follow us.” They took me straight to the police station and there I met several of my people. They took us first to the National Security Agency, a feared agency, the equivalent of your NIA. And after a day or so they took us to the maximum-security prison in the barracks. And we stayed there for 10 days eating just rice and salt.
And you were not tried or charged with any crime?
Of course not. So on the tenth day, we were summoned to the capitol by the vice head of state, a ruthless fellow. He told us, the next time you publish letters to the editor, put the pictures of the people in there. We knew he was talking foolishness because it has not been done anywhere. And he told us, go and sin no more. So we left.
Apart from the closures, you experienced arson attacks?
Yes, 1986 was our first arson attack. Because after they closed us down for that long while from 1985, ’86 we had a new Constitution. When Doe took his oath of office in January 1986, we gave them three months to make good their pledge to protect, defend and honour the Constitution. The Constitution talked about freedom of expression. So we decided to open the paper the next day… We closed our office 5 o’clock that evening and went home to return the next morning when somebody came to us and said: ‘Mr Best, I heard on the police radio last night that your office was burnt.’ After dropping the children at school, we met firemen there. There was water everywhere. It was a government job and on July 26th that year on Independence day, Samuel Doe lifted the ban on Observer.
A year after Doe was captured and killed Observer facilities were still attacked and burnt?
We stopped the paper at the end of June because it became impossible to do any business in Liberia at that point. I went into exile, first in Ghana. We stayed there for two months and on 1st August 1990, we entered The Gambia.
There was no daily newspaper in The Gambia. Gambian journalism was even almost non-existent. How were you able to do what you did with the Daily Observer?
The first people I approached were seven journalists I met in the country. Deyda Hydara, Pap Saine, Nana Grey-Johnson, his nephew Peter Dacosta and another fellow I can’t remember. I told them my plans. They immediately told me, Gambia was not ready for this. They gave me four reasons: 1. the country is small and there is no news here; 2. people are poor, who will buy a newspaper every day? 3. people are illiterate, who will read it?; and 4. because the country is small, each Gambian is related to the next one, so who will give you news on the next man? There is no news!
But you didn’t take those four points seriously, did you?
I certainly did not because I am a citizen of a small country, a little bigger than The Gambia, so I knew better. I took those four points as challenges and I continued to plan. The other problem was I couldn’t find a single investor in The Gambia. Nobody wanted to give me one cent. I could understand. No 1. They didn’t know me. Who is this upstart saying we should give our money to start a newspaper? No. 2. They didn’t know the animal called newspaper. Nobody had done a serious investment in media. I saw a few radio stations there. Gambia Radio and Radio Syd. But Radio Syd didn’t touch news, only music. The only place Gambians got their news was in the ‘vouz’, so and so happened! Luckily I had some savings from Liberia and that is what I used to go to the States, buy equipment, camera equipment and six months supplies and I came back. I contacted Thompson Foundation in London and they sent a man to train our people for three weeks. Because none of the journalists wanted to join me, I had to start with people green from Brikama. Three fellows [Abdoulie Jammeh, current Director General of GCAA; Ebou Joh now based in the US; Diday Sawaneh of GIA]. We also said we should bring people from the high schools. On 11th May 1992, our first issue came out. We started three times a week.
What did it mean to you after all these obstacles…the paper finally came out?
It taught me the importance of being determined and focused because in life you see many distractions…
And your first problem in The Gambia came on 2 October 1994, three months after the military took over. You were arrested and interrogated.
The international community had been calling on the Gambian military to give a timetable for a return to civilian democratic rule and we began to reflect this in the paper. They got angry with me for that because they had no intention of handing over. I heard he had done some good things but Jammeh was running the country as tyrant.
Nine days later on October 30th you were deported from The Gambia. How did it happen?
It was Sunday, I woke up early that morning ready for church. I was walking around the house waiting for time, for the other people to get ready. My sister Thelma was visiting Banjul at the time from the United Nations in New York. She happened to be there. She was leaving that Sunday afternoon. The UN Jeep was supposed to pick her up. Then this Immigration man showed up and says, ‘I am taking you to my office so that we can see all those foreigners working there’. Following my first arrest, they had stopped my wife and everybody from going to the office. He said, “Only you should go to that office, no other foreigner”. He said let’s go, I’ll bring you right back. He lied to me. He took me at breakneck speed to the airport to the Immigration cell and held me there for several hours. And around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, they took me and escorted me to the VIP lounge. I sat there. Around some minutes to 2, the Immigration Commissioner [Nai] Ceesay came. They had taken my passport while in detention. He took it from his pocket and said, ‘Mr Best, here is your passport’, but put it back in his pocket. Then he gave me some documents. He says, you are being declared persona non grata, we are sending you back home. We are deporting you from The Gambia today. Sign this paper.’ Then he gave me a pen. I said thank you. I signed it. He said I’ll come back. He came back a few minutes later and escorted me up the plane. But while I was on my way to that VIP lounge, guess what happened? My sister and my wife were on the tarmac. They had passed through. They had a UN Jeep an had diplomatic access. And they saw me walking in my tee shirt. Then my wife called out, ‘Could you let Mr Best have his jacket?’ They said, ‘Yeah, bring it’. I put it on. That’s how I managed to arrive in Liberia with a shirt on, otherwise I’d have arrived in a tee shirt.
So they deported just you. Your family stayed?
The Immigration Commissioner returned and said, ‘Let’s go’. When he took me up the plane, the Nigerian pilot was dressed in his uniform. [Ceesay] took my passport and gave it to pilot and said, ‘Here’s Mr Best’s passport, when you land him back in Liberia, give him back his passport’. The pilot saluted him and said: ‘Yes sir!’ The plane stopped in Freetown but I couldn’t get down. They wouldn’t have allowed me to get down. Because if they had done anything otherwise, they’d have had problem landing back in Banjul again. They couldn’t disobey the Gambian government. So they took me back straight to Liberia. By the time I landed at the airport, you know who was on the BBC talking about me and the Observer? Ebrima Ceesay! one of my senior reporters and he was talking a lot of things about me – what Kenneth Best had done for The Gambia and what Observer had done to open the eyes of the people and teach them how to read because before, nobody read anything. TIME, Newsweek, New African Magazine… they were all there, sold in supermarkets and bookstores and nobody bought them. They collected dust. The first time my wife saw that, she said: ‘Kenneth, we are not going to sell our newspaper in the bookstore. They’ll collect dust.’
Before we started the newspaper we’d to go to the schools to recruit the people to train as newsboys.
Did they tell you why they deported you because after they deported you they said it was because of tax evasion?
False! We paid our taxes. They charged us high but we paid our taxes. It had nothing to do with tax evasion. It was politics…and tyranny. Deyda Hydara [of The Point] who paid the supreme sacrifice owed taxes before he was killed. Did they kill him because he owed taxes? NO! They killed him because of tyranny.
And this is what they do not understand. Every rope in the bush has an end. Everyone. Those leaders who don’t listen, who refuse to listen. Why? Because they think they are laws unto themselves. Are you? You’re not. There’s a Lord up in heaven and He’s everywhere. He’s watching. You’ve got to do the right thing. And I say to the leaders of The Gambia, start doing the right thing by the people because God is watching everything and all of us without exception and we will face a day of reckoning!
Read Bantaba on the Friday 30 June edition for the concluding part of the interview.
By Sheriff Bojang Jnr