With Alagie Manneh
You came into prominence as a radio presenter. Tell us about your experience as a young journalist working in a hostile media environment
Working in The Gambia generally during the dictatorship was quite challenging for everyone, especially for anyone who held a different view from the status quo. But journalists and media workers had an extraordinarily difficult time, and in some cases fatalistic. Due to the nature of our job of representing every view, holding people in power to account, and educating and informing the masses of current happenings in their communities, it was obvious that people who were up to no good wouldn’t like our job. Family concern for your safety was quite pressing as well. I wasn’t personally persecuted or subjected to torture or arrested, but my radio station, Taranga FM, was closed down several times, and reportedly due to the critical, well I would say independent nature of my radio program. On one occasion, state intelligence agents summoned our Manager and told him that, ”the Mandinka news was a threat to national security”, seemingly because of its popularity. Additionally, reports of colleagues’ ordeal with state agents were enough to scare anyone. Was I intimidated? No! But I used to feel that I was under surveillance and I had to quickly learn to prepare my mind for the worse. However, despite the hardship that came with the job, I was motivated to stay on and risks it all because of the impact that the news programme had on the ordinary man and woman who rely on it as their window to the world around them. One of the most profound testimonies I had was from a Gambian Army Sergeant who told me he would load news editions of the week in a memory card and send it to his family in the provinces to keep them abreast with happenings of the world. This and many more testimonies that I received made me want to stay on.
You hailed from Jokadu and you often speak of fun memories of the place. How does your upbringing shape you up?
I am a proud descendent of Jokadu where my parents hailed from, and I often visit. It was always joyous going back and connecting with distant relatives and enjoying the awesome experience of village life. However, I was raised in Wellingara, Kombo North by my wonderful grandparents and uncles. I went to public schools throughout, from Sinchu Baliya Primary School, Banjulnding Upper, and Saint Augustine’s Senior School, and then the University of The Gambia. Coming from a not-so-affluent family, I knew from a very early age that education was the only way out of deprivation and hardship for me. So I took my education very seriously and worked hard throughout. I never had a private tutor, and even acquiring textbooks was a really tough one. But I persevered through it all and study my way up. With no family connections in high places or educated parents, I knew I had to work twice hard to make it. These and similar experiences significantly shape my approach to life and work, to this day. I endeavor to be the best I can be at everything I do. That’s the attitude I handled the Mandinka News with plus all the other works I have done in the past.
Why did you choose to study communication policy and political science at the University of Westminster?
When I finished high school, I knew that I wanted to work in the media as a career. I was inspired by the voices and faces I saw on the screen and radio growing up. Let me quickly add that I used to be, and still are, a very ardent follower of the BBC. But at that time, the University of The Gambia had no journalism programme. In my considered view, I thought political science as a programme of study was the closest to journalism. So I went in straight for it. And interestingly, I found the course to be extremely helpful in my line of work. It helped me a lot to put news items and the events I reported on into proper context. In considering a course for postgraduate studies, I was interested in a course that lies at the intersection of my career as media personnel and educational background as a political science student. I knew that I wanted to be more than just a newscaster as a career. I knew that in the long term that I wanted to be among the highest actors, decision-makers, and policymakers in the media and communication sector of the country. And I thought the course provided me the foundation I needed to grow both as a professional and a person. I went to one of the leading media and communication schools in London courtesy of the Chevening scholarship. Overall, so much to be thankful for. From humble beginnings to where I am now, I can only thank God!
Following the completion of your studies in the UK, you decided to come down and work as public relations officer of the UTG. Despite your seeming brilliance, some people said you did not leave any indelible mark there, is that true?
I enjoyed my time at the University of The Gambia administration. Having spent almost four years working there as an administrative staff in the office of the Vice-Chancellor, and under the tutelage of seasoned academics and administrators, I consider it to be one of my most formidable professional experiences. I worked there for approximately two and half years before going for my masters, and when I came back, I got promoted to the position of head of the University Relations Department. I was in the process of formulating a strategic plan and rolling out some programs, when I got offered the job of Senior Communication Officer at the Office of the President. In the two months that I have been in the UTG Relations Office, I started working on improving the digital footprint of the University because digital technology is fast becoming the new public sphere. I started working on revamping the website, creating a social media presence, a promotional video about what was on offer, among others. But yes, there wasn’t much to accomplish in such a short period but I believe I bequeathed something that any successor could build on.
Upon your return from studies, you’ve left journalism for public relations work. Why? Don’t you think that is where your expertise and influence is needed the most?
Having spent about seven years as a field journalist, I thought it was time to try my hands in something different, but not entirely different from my background a media personality. I am excited by the intrigues and maneuvers of strategic communication and media operatives. I believe the workings of communications can be a force for good or evil, either to maintain peace or start a war. And I want to be remembered for using the power of media and communication for development and progress of my society.
What motivated you to work for the Office of the President?
Like I said earlier, communications can break or make communities and nations alike. My coming back home from studies coincided with a seminal period in the socio-economic and political history of the country. We were transitioning from a very close society to one of good governance and democracy, and I thought communication will be quite instrumental in inculcating and nurturing those fundamental values in our society. Working for the president’s office offered me the chance to partake in that process and an opportunity to give back to my country. I left a higher paying job at the university as the head of the university relations department because I value duty, honour, and service to the country. Working for such a high-level office and the experiences I accrued are one of the greatest honors of my life.
State House is a place of utmost interest. Tell us how a day is like there?
As you may know, the State House is a huge place with different specialized units like protocol, security, policy gurus, admin etc. Each has its own unique modus operandi and experiences. As the SCO, I was chief of operations in the communications department sort to speak because I supervise all the staff in the department and report daily to the Director of Press and Public Relations. It was an exciting but challenging experience. You got to do something different each day and that shapes you into a well-rounded professional. Our daily work routine was tied to the daily schedule and work routine of the president. Our job involves covering and giving maximum publicity to the programmes and policies of the president. So, in a normal day work, we would either be attending events involving him or strategizing how to ensure optimum visibility to the office.
Your unit has come under heavy criticism for many errors, including spelling errors, factual errors, etc. How do you explain those issues?
I just want to state that the State House is a very busy and fast paced work environment. In places like that, such type of oversight issues are commonplace. And I can guarantee you that I am not trying to excuse anything but even in the White House such things happen. Frankly, when I was there, the core team was really small. So it wasn’t always easy to keep up but we tried our utmost to represent the office in the best possible manner. I’m sure you’d agree with me that it is not a matter of competence because the least experience person in the core team had a minimum of 7 years of relevant work experience. With that said, I think structurally the office set up could have been better in terms of workflow. But I would attribute that to the lack of institutional foundation or history in respect of media and communication to build on. The team tried its best to build the unit up from the ground. Thankfully, with guidance from the DPPR, we manage to transform the office into a fully-fledged, functional, and dependable unit. I think we have succeeded a lot in bringing the presidency closer to the people with robust social media engagement and media management.
Many people who know you said you should not have accepted to work for an unpopular president like Barrow, who they accused of flouting the rule of law and reluctant to fight corruption.
Whether or not the president was popular at the time, that is not for me to say. The most important thing for me then was the opportunity the job presented to make a difference and contribute to the growth of the country. My work at the State House was not about individuals rather an opportunity to serve my country. There’s nothing more rewarding than honoring the call of duty.
When Barrow came to power, his government made a policy promise to hold face-to-face interviews between Barrow and the press corp, why was that abandoned after a year?
At the beginning, the presidency was making good on that promise, holding regular press engagements including the DPPR’s weekly briefings and the president’s quarterly meet-the-media activities. As time went by, the office determined that the media engagements, as they were, weren’t working as we had anticipated. Thus, we changed the course. Frankly, the comportment and quality of some of the journalists that attend those presidential press events was a huge part of that decision.
Is it not because President Barrow has deviated so much from his promises that he can no longer face reminders from the press?
I do not think so. Although, the presidency ceased face-to-face press briefings, the president was making himself available to media houses for scrutiny often, including international media outfits like the BBC.
You eventually left, did you jump or were you pushed?
I am still in the employment of the government. I am simply serving my country in a different capacity. I have to say that I enjoyed my time at the State House and I left on very good terms. My decision to go to the OICGambia, where I work now, was motivated purely by career considerations and nothing else.
Even after you left, critics of the administration, and there are a lot of them, said the PR team has no clue what it is they are doing at the presidency, is that a fair observation?
I think the men and women in that office are doing an incredible job under difficult circumstances. The civil service of the country is still getting used to operating in an open society as opposed to Jammeh’s time when it had more protection from the media. The Civil Service is still not very confident opening up to media scrutiny, and that makes the job of media and communication officers across the government quite challenging, including the State House. As a way forward, I think the earlier the state embraces the reality of the times, especially the agency or ability social media has given the masses to express themselves and hold power to account, the better. There’s a great need to adapt quickly because we cannot escape it. The civil service needs to master the art of communication, especially digital communications, in order to focus on state-building.
Doing PR for President Barrow is a challenge, considering his questionable understanding of issues. And the PR team is often blamed for not preparing him enough. How do you respond to that?
The president is a well-informed individual. The president said it from the onset that he’s a political newcomer but I think it is fair to say that he has covered a lot of grounds since coming to power. It would do this country good if we focus less on individual personalities and more on issues.
You now work at the OIC Gambia. Tell us what’s going on there
As you may have heard from the robust multi-dimensional public engagement underway on TV, radio, and online, we are set up by the State to prepare the country ahead of the OIC Heads of State Summit in The Gambia in 2022. We have identified key projects that lie at the center of social and economic progress and prosperity for everyone in The Gambia, including the improvement of water and electricity as well as the construction of new roads in the country. We remain resolute and committed to our objective of organizing a successful Summit that every Gambian would be proud of in 2022.
You apparently are one of the most sought after media and public relations professionals in the country. What next for you after OIC?
My main preoccupation at the moment is to ensure greater public support and optimum visibility for the brand and activities of the OIC Gambia Secretariat. After the summit, I wish to see myself doing bigger and better for the people of this country.