By Sheriff Bojang Jr
The Daily Observer has been in the news for the past two weeks for all the wrong reasons. The Gambia’s leading daily was closed by the national revenue authority for tax arrears totalling at least D17 million only to be reopened wednesday. 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. We pick up from where we left off from last Friday.
Sheriff Bojang: After you were deported, what happened to your family? You left them in Banjul.
Kenneth Y Best: The Good Lord has always been with us. The following week, a few days later, I got an invitation to make a speech at Duke University and they wanted me to talk about journalists under siege. They sent me a ticket and within a week I was out of here [Liberia]. My life was still in danger here. After the speech at Duke University, I came back to New York. I got all my friends there – Liberian, African including my classmate at Columbia University who worked at the United Nations.
They all told me, Kenneth, you’ve done your duty to Africa, we are not sending you back there right now. Stay in this country, educate your children. You owe it to them. And that’s what I did. This is November. By January all my family was out. It was easy. As soon as that coup took place in The Gambia, as soon as things settled down, a week later, we were the ones who told the story of Jammeh and his four lieutenants to the world. The coup took place Friday morning. Saturday and Sunday, we sent people to the State House and got all the pictures of all the lieutenants and got interviews with them and wrote the story. Headline: ARMY COUP IN GAMBIA.
That night I told the printers, print 10,000 copies. We were 2,000, 3,000. When we started our paper, we went to the government printer and said we wanted 3,000 copies. The manager shouted: “Government has never ordered 3000 copies of anything in this printing press! [This time] I told him, print 10,000 copies. Luckily for us, Good Lord again, we didn’t have a hitch at the press that day. The paper came out 7 o’clock in the morning and 10,000 copies disappeared in 15 minutes!
If you were given an opportunity to stop being critical of the regime in The Gambia or even write positive things in exchange for you to remain in the country, would you have taken that offer?
No, why take it? You cannot compromise with evil and terror. You cannot…you cannot.
How difficult was it for you to leave not only Daily Observer the institution you put in place but your lovely staff who saw you as a fatherly figure?
After I got to the States, I sent back to them and told them this paper is not yours, it belongs to The Gambia. Try to do your best to hold it up and keep it going because the Gambians have embraced it. It’s yours so you do your best. And they did their best until even though they were Gambians; they started harassing them as well.
And from the United States you returned to Liberia to relaunch Daily Observer, Mr Best what is it about the Daily Observer you can’t let go of? You seem to be very obsessed with it.
I am not obsessed. The Good Lord led me to do this thing, why should I let it go? When He got ready, I had no money but He made it possible for me to come back here and restart. When I came back, we already had this building here but it was in total shambles. There were no glass windows, no doors…nothing! But we fixed this building, the ground floor first, then I had to recruit staff… It took us three weeks. I arrived first week in June and by June 21 we published our first issue. It took us three weeks after 15 years in exile. That’s not Kenneth Best. I had nothing to do with it; it is the Hand of God!
Daily Observer remained the biggest newspaper even after your deportation, but then came the bombshell, you sold it. Why?
It’s very sad. People I left in charge tried to take the paper from under me. No. 1 they stopped taking my instructions. No. 2 they would not give me any reports. And No. 3 I sensed they were using my absence to take the paper unto themselves. It happens. People do that. It’s most unfortunate that you trust people and as soon as you turn your back they turn against you.
So it wasn’t because of political pressure because some were saying you were threatened into selling it by the authorities?
No. My best friend in The Gambia (David Able-Thomas) who died now, he was a banker. He called me one day and said to me, sell this paper. If you don’t, the people who are in charge will run it to the ground and you may lose everything and he said I already have a buyer for you. Of course the price was small, but at least, thanks be to God, we lost everything in Liberia but we didn’t lose everything in The Gambia. Same circumstance but different country. And believe it or not, there is a hymn in the hymnbook that says God moves in a mysterious way. His wonders to perform. [With] that same money I got from The Gambia, we were able to buy a house of our own in America. And it is that house on which we got a home equity loan and that is what brought us back here [in Liberia].
Can you tell me how much you sold the Observer for?
Well we sold it at a loss. The brand name alone was worth a million dollars. Just the brand name! You see they are vexed with Mr Best but they didn’t change the name of the paper. Have they changed the name?
The format is still the same. The man whose name came up, as the buyer is Amadou Samba, a businessman with very close ties to President Yahya Jammeh. Why Amadou Samba and not someone else?
I don’t know. I was not there. But I knew Amadou Samba and he knew me. He and my friend David Thomas concluded the deal and David just informed me and I said okay.
Some said it was Jammeh who bought it from you and not Amadou Samba.
I don’t know anything about that. I wasn’t there. All I know was I received the money through David Thomas. Whose money it was I don’t know. I have no idea. I could make no claims.
Observer today is the mouthpiece for both the President and his ruling party [APRC]. How do you feel about that?
Everything has time. There’s a time for everything. That’s all I can say. I feel sad about it because one day Jammeh himself will come to realise that it is better to have press freedom than to control the press. You cannot. It’s only a matter of time. We’ve seen these tyrants come and go. You’ve ever heard of Adolf Hitler? Where is he today? He had the most powerful army in Europe. The German army. Oh yeah. Adolf Hitler, where is he today? Mussolini, Hirohito, the Japanese emperor. What happened?
And if you had the opportunity to redo the Observer sale, is there anything that you would do differently?
It’s no longer mine, so I can’t sell it. I have to be honest and fair to the Gambian people.
Mr Best, despite your long absence from The Gambia, you are still very much in the hearts of the Gambian people. No one talks about journalism without making reference to you. Would you love to go back to The Gambia one day, even for vacation?
It’s an African country and I belong to Africa. I’d be glad to go back one day.
And at over-76, you are still busy with work every day. You are still very much in control of the Daily Observer. When are you finally going into retirement, stay at home, do some gardening and maybe play with the grandchildren?
I’m already doing gardening. Gardening does not affect my newspaper preoccupation. All my children are grown up and I don’t think you can play with them anymore. I thank the Good Lord for giving me good health. I have never been a sickly person. The other day I had cataract removed from my eyes, so I can still read the Bible, the prayer book and the newspaper without glasses, I thank God for that too. And I still can work till 10, 11 o’clock at night and return to the office at 7 o’clock in the morning. I know one day I’d have to turn it over to the children and other people to run the paper but until then I will do the best I can to make sure that the Observer is functioning well and training people. That’s what I do every night.
Mr Best, thank you for talking to me.
Thank you Sheriff. It’s good to see you again and stay well. I guess you stay in Dakar for the time being. I hope the time will come when all Gambians return home to see their families and make their contributions to the development of the country. Ends