With Alagie Manneh
Survived a plane crash and Jammeh’s brutality, Ramzia Diab takes us through an intriguing story of her life as an air hostess, a lawmaker, a victim of dictatorship, and, finally, as The Gambia’s chief diplomat to Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries:
Your grandparents hailed from Lebanon and settled in The Gambia, tell us a little bit about your origins and early childhood in George Town
Ramzia Diab: My grandparents were the ones who came to the Gambia from Lebanon, stayed here, settled here. My father and all the Diab clan were born and brought up in The Gambia, so, they are all Gambian citizens. I was born in Janjanbureh. I went to school in Janjanbureh and, when I was in primary four, the family moved to the capital and I lived in Serekunda and went to Serekunda Primary School. In a nutshell, I am Gambian, my mother is Gambian and my father is Gambian of Lebanese origin.
In 1992 you survived a plane crash near Cap Skirring in Casamance, how were you able to put your life back together both physically and emotionally?
I have always been an air hostess. That’s what I studied. I was the chief hostess for Gambia Air Shuttle. I worked also for Gambia International Airline. When Gambia Air Shuttle shut down, I worked for Gam Crest, a private chartered company chartered by Club Mediterranean from France to pick up their passengers from Dakar and drop them in the Island of Cap Skirring, a tourism resort. When Air France lands in Dakar we pick up their passengers and take them. We were on that flight one fateful night when the crash happened at around 4am. We started our descent and I got up, standing at the back, I gave a speech to the passengers that please fasten their seat belts, that we have just started our descent into Cap Skirring airport. As I was doing that, I heard a very loud bang and that was the last I knew of what happened. We had a crash and I passed out for a while. We crashed in the bush, in the middle of nowhere. It was in February 1992. When I opened my eyes, I started looking for people and realised that the captain had died, the co-pilot died, the engineer died. I was the only surviving crew member. I tried to see who and who else I could save. I had a dislocated jaw. My face was a bit disjointed and my lip was cut right through. I had a dislocated shoulder and a broken leg, yet I was still walking in the rubles without realising it. Fishermen by the sea had the loud bang and decided to pass by. When I saw them, I started shouting in Wolof. The rescue helicopters arrived the next day and we were airlifted to Senegal. At the hospital there, I saw this hefty white French surgeon and he said to me ‘I am going to make your face back normal’, with an accent. They operated on me and returned all my bones together and when I came out, I was in the intensive care unit. I was there for months but later got discharged and I returned home.
Were you able to find out what brought the plane down?
What I discovered through the investigations is that we were shot by rebels in Casamance. There was a war. And were probably mistaken for a French fighter plane.
You became quite famous from that traumatic experience and later got involved with Millennium Airlines which was close to former president Jammeh…
[Cuts in] Millennium Airlines… when Millennium first started, I wasn’t working for them. I was then the chief hostess and instructor for Gambia International Airlines. President Jammeh is somebody I had known for so many years before he became president. He was living opposite my house. Everybody knew him as a brother to me, but I wasn’t working for a millennium. It was one day when we took Kumba Ialá [former president of Guinea Bissau] to Cameroon for a meeting. When we came back that night, my MD called me and said tomorrow we are being chartered by the president, that he is traveling to Morocco. So, I was asked to get my crew ready. I alerted my crew and as soon as we took off, Yahya Jammeh called me and said ‘oh, so you refused to fly my airplane’. I said no, that’s not true. I said to him later I am surprised that you have girls who are not trained to be air hostesses. I asked ‘have they done any practical training? Any fire drills? Any evacuation? Nothing. He said well, I have sacked all of them. He said I must come work for him since Millennium does not travel all the time. He said he needs ten girls and asked me to recruit and interview them. He said ‘you go talk to Baba Jobe, he is in charge of the aircraft’. That’s how Baba called me. I did the recruiting and the training for the girls.
The airliner was accused of trafficking small arms for the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, was this true?
That wasn’t true. According to what I know, that airplane belonged to a group before, and I think those people were transporting arms for the RUF which they did not know here. When they were not paid, the pilot because it’s a Russian plane, flew back to Russia. They then put the aircraft on sale and it was bought by The Gambia government. It was then that all these rumors came that this plane used to take arms for rebels. But that was never true.
You famously wept in court and was very emotional the day Baba Jobe got convicted. Many people believe that’s why Jammeh sacked you as a NAM
[Cuts in] I have known these two people very well. When Jammeh was going to introduce me to Baba Jobe, the first thing I told him is that I am afraid of that man, the fact that he was coming from Libya. Jammeh said no, no, this man cannot even kill a fly, he is a very nice person. I started working with Baba Jobe and I saw the kind of person he was. His interest was development and youth empowerment. I came to National Assembly. I was close to Jammeh. Whiles I was at the National Assembly, most of these stories were coming out at the time about Jammeh arresting people…I never believed any, even about women being tortured at the NIA. The name Junglers wasn’t even around. And I denied it, flat. I said this cannot be true because I know Jammeh very well. I go to Kanilai for weekends, I sit with him, we eat, we chat, we do everything together. When I was nominated as National Assembly member, it was a surprise. I just got a letter I was nominated. I accepted it, but I also said once you are a National Assembly member, you have to do what the people put you there to do. Although I was nominated, but I am there for every Gambian. My first fall out with Jammeh actually, was not about Baba Jobe. I had started getting rumors of what had been happening. I was a bit scared but didn’t say anything. Once, we went to collect the Cuban doctors who came back and I saw that I was in a newspaper and nominated as deputy chairperson for the media commission bill that they wanted to pass. But I saw that most of the laws that Jammeh wanted us to pass were very draconian. When they nominated me as the deputy chair, Deyda Hydara, Pap Saine, DA Jawo, all of them journalists came to my house and said when we heard that Jammeh appointed you, we were very happy because we know how liberal minded you are and want to urge you to make sure that justice prevails because most of these laws are draconian laws. Once I went to Ghana and got a copy of their media commission act. I went to Bakary Njie who was the minister of information and showed him a copy. I said let’s try and talk to the president and see what we can do about this. I went to the office after I had had an argument in one of our media commission meetings because I argued that most of these provisions should be scrapped because the media is the fourth arm of government. I went to Jammeh and had a meeting with him and what I feel about all these laws. He started screaming. He didn’t take it lightly which shocked me completely.
I was shocked because I didn’t expect him to react that way. The way I saw him that day, I was scared.
Because he was angry for telling him that the laws are draconian and shouldn’t be passed. He said I was becoming too much and even at the parliament, he understands that I am part of those who say ‘no’. so, you be very careful, he warned.
Shortly after, you left the media commission, did you jump or were you pushed?
No, I decided to resign from the media commission. I left the commission.
When Baba Jobe was arrested, you reportedly were part of a group of ministers and other senior government officials who prevailed on Jammeh to release him, why did that fail?
I was called one day from the National Assembly to go and immediately as part of caucus, meet the ministers, Speaker of the National Assembly and vice president because they have arrested Baba Jobe. We went to the various ministries and to the vice president, Isatou Njie Saidy who we found crying. She said we will all try because these two people were very close. The process did not go anywhere because everything had already happened, and you know how Jammeh’s government was being run; everyone was afraid to say anything. We went there but Jammeh refused to see us. I used to visit Baba all the time and used to attend the court sessions. I then discovered that most of the National Assembly Members wanted to go but were afraid. And me being stubborn as I am, used to attend the court cases. On D-day, he was sentenced to nine years and obviously I would be very emotional. I felt sorry for him because I know Baba Jobe was the most loyal person to Yahya Jammeh. Baba was not interested in becoming president but this is what they had told Jammeh. When Jammeh wants to get you, he pushes you and makes you become notorious, then people start hating you…. I felt sad, and I felt sorry because the APRC was disintegrating. A conspiracy by unscrupulous elements put Baba Jobe in prison.
When Jammeh sacked you as National Assembly Member, you claimed he was informed about your intentions to resign after the fate of Baba Jobe, who informed him?
I didn’t know that person was also one of Jammeh’s informants at the National Assembly. He went to Jammeh and said if you don’t sack this woman she’s about to resign. No. I won’t tell you who the person is, but was a colleague of mine.
You later got arrested and detained, was it because you got closer to the opposition, or did it have something to do with the 2006 coup attempt?
I don’t know what Jammeh was thinking at the time but I know that he as very angry that I was still close to Baba Jobe who I used to visit every Friday. People were telling me to be careful but I didn’t mind. When the coup happened, I know I wasn’t arrested because of the coup. Jammeh himself knows that I don’t believe in coups. When they arrested me, when they were interrogating me, most of it centered on the political party we wanted to form, consisting of myself, Tamsir Jasseh, Pa Sallah Jeng [former mayor of Banjul], Lai Conteh (former mayor of KMC) and Buba Baldeh [late].
Jammeh released you but you got arrested again and charged with treason and conspiracy, can you expound on the circumstances of that?
After my first arrest it was suggested I stayed with my mother because it’s not safe, I found his young guy sitting right opposite my mother’s house, smoking cigarette. I didn’t know that he was the informant that the NIA left there. My mother said two people came here and asked for you. She didn’t know that was Modou Hydara and another NIA officer, Nfally Jabang, a state guard. Five minutes later, these men came back and said to me Ma’am, you are wanted at Headquarters. I said where is headquarters? They said NIA office. I said about what? They said well that was the instruction we got. I called my eldest daughter and told her I was being arrested again. I thought we were going to NIA but they signaled and entered Mile II, took me to solitary confinement and later took me to NIA where I was told that the president said there are some people who are involved in that coup that I know about and I am not talking and that Tamsir Jasseh had told me some people were involved. I said I didn’t’ even know there was a coup. They started threatening me and later took me back to Mile II. One morning, I was picked up and taken to NIA again. They were not saying anything and just left me there. All of a sudden, I decided to act like a mad woman and Malia [Musa Jammeh] worked in and I grabbed him and said it’s on Fridays that you kill, so, today you are going to kill me or release me. He said I didn’t even know you were here. I was later brought to one inspector Ndure who said I was being charged with treason, conspiracy and concealment of information. How do you plead? I said I am not guilty. They told me to sign a document, I signed. Later somebody came back. I guess Yahya Jammeh’s conscience came back. The president sent a state guard and Modou Hydara was there, and they told me well, we are extending an olive branch for you.
You were close to Jammeh even before he came to power, what type of person was he then?
Yahya Jammeh when I first knew him was a very humble, kind human being. He cared about people and loved farming, even before he became president. He lived opposite my family house in Latrikunda German. Even when the harvest came, he would give to all neighbours and wouldn’t sell. But sometimes when power swallows people, then your true color starts showing. But Jammeh was motivated by us Gambians. You have people who are very selfish and self-centered and whenever they are close to the leader would tell him sweet talks to earn themselves favours. We saw the Njogu Bahs who were saying Jammeh should stay for 999 years. He is a so-called PhD holder. If you see some intellectuals trying to motivate a leader, telling him what he wants to hear is very sad. I don’t fall into that category.
Your critics said you also played a part in the dictatorship, do you accept that?
They used to accuse me, but everybody is an enabler. When you believe in something, even in marriage, you see somebody that you love, you fall in love and after found out that the character of this person is such that you cannot go.
Are you surprised by the revelations at the TRRC?
I’m not surprised at all. I am a first-hand victim of torture. I have seen the way I was tortured. I know that Jammeh is brutal. The sad thing is some of his supporters still believe the TRRC is set up to tarnish his image.
How did you come to join the UDP?
I became a UDP sympathiser after I left the APRC, although I did not come out fully, publicly. At the time, I was tortured twice and was a bit afraid to come out. Even if I wanted to come out and declare publicly, Ousainu Darboe would not have allowed it because he was concerned about my safety. Ousainu is like an uncle to us, in fact, when I was with APRC, most of my family members were UDP. I was advised not to come out publicly because I had already traumatised my family. So, when Ousainu came out of jail, I decided I should come out publicly and start campaigning.
You condemned NAM Fatoumatta Jawara for her recent statements calling for the return of Jammeh during one of President Barrow’s recently ended country-wide tour. Why did you advise President Barrow to distance himself from those statements?
I feel very sad when I see this kind of politicking going on and it’s not stopped, that’s why I sent a message to the president of the republic that he is the president of all Gambians and not just the NPP. I was a member of the APRC. It took me a long time to believe in some of the things they said were happening under Jammeh. At all these rallies, it’s attack, attack, attack, just attacking one party. Very sad. Yahya Jammeh would never allow… in fact before rallies, he calls for a meeting and warns against abuse of other opposition parties in our speeches. He said ‘I can say it but not you people’. If a dictator can say that, why can we not do better and put some morality in our talks? So, it’s sad for Fatoumatta Jawara, who was an active militant of the UDP… she didn’t see the evil of Ousainu Darboe until today? Because she’s in another party. That’s what made me angry. Is she so angry calling for Jammeh’s return? I would have expected Barrow to get up and have the mic taken from her, but he didn’t say or do anything, which is a total disappointment. This is constructive criticism of Barrow.
What do you say to the suggestion that Darboe should step aside or risk imperiling UDP’s prospects at the December polls?
That’s left to the electorate and to the party to decide. The party has so much confidence in him they reelected him.
But as a seasoned politician…
[Cuts in] Well as a seasoned politician, I see no… what these people are talking about, ‘he is old’, ‘he is this’, I don’t see it that way. In every household, you need an elderly to run your household for you. Abdoulaye Wade has been looking for position since the time of [Léopold Sédar] Senghor
and is far older than Ousainu Darboe is today when he became president but look at what Wade did for Senegal. No president has done what he has done in terms of development in that country. For me, Ousainu should be given a chance. UDP has a long list of young intellectuals that could be handpicked any day to become president of The Gambia. All of these people have confidence in Darboe.
President Barrow made you ambassador to Malaysia but recalled you, did it have anything to do with the rift between him and Darboe?
That is best for them to answer. Actually, I was told they wanted to close the embassy in Malaysia because the government does not have money.
What do you make of that?
I don’t think it’s justifiable because we have a concentration of Gambians in Malaysia, lots of them in southeast Asia. As I am talking to you now, there’s a Gambian who is held at the airport in Malaysia, for two days now, cannot go in. These were the problems we were dealing with on a daily basis. And it’s being delayed now. If the embassy was there, it’s easily solved. These are students, but they decided to close the embassy. I was written a letter because my contract had ended. It wasn’t renewed. Fine. That’s what they want to do.
One commentator said you are angry because you are no longer ambassador…
I have been Ramzia Diab even before NPP, before UDP. I have been comfortable. I have lived a privilege life since I was young. So, for me, riches are nothing. It’s not that I am looking for a job; I want to work for my country and I am concerned with what is happening in my county again.
The inception of Barrow government engendered a lot of enthusiasm for change, but he has since reverted to hiring former Jammeh disciples. As a victim, do you think his hiring trajectory bodes well for your fight for justice as Barrow dances with the same people who enabled Jammeh to commit those crimes?
Most of the recommendations of the Janneh Commission were not implemented. It’s like they handpicked who they wanted to punish and ask them to pay. It’s not fair. As a victim I feel very disappointed and I hope and urge the authority, who is Barrow himself, to please when the time comes, implement the recommendations of the TRRC. I am definitely concerned about the fate of the TRRC because I see what is happening in the country today. So many Jammeh cronies are working for Barrow. Those people are deciding the fate of the Gambians and how our ship is being steered.