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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Saikou Jammeh, former GPU Secretary General

By Tabora Bojang

To a lot of people, Saikou Jammeh is probably one of the finest Gambian journalists of his generation. A former Daily News editor, Mr Jammeh worked for various international news organisations and wrote critical and compelling articles opposing the Jammeh dictatorship. Unlike others, he never went into exile. For the past five years, he has been at the helm at GPU, and credited for the many transformative institutional reforms that have made the Union a force to be reckoned with. Last month, Mr Jammeh caused a huge ripple in otherwise calm waters when he announced he was leaving the GPU after half a decade. When Standard journalist and guest Bantaba anchor Tabora Bojang met Mr Jammeh at his residence in Bijilo, he began by asking him whether he was pushed to resign:

I wasn’t pushed. But several reasons let to my resignation. One of the main reasons is that I never wanted to stay at the GPU beyond five years, from the beginning.  In fact, I thought I was going to do three years and move on to something else and I ended up doing five. From the onset, I wasn’t going to stay there for a very long time because that’s not how I operate. The other reason would be that over time, I grew a little bit bored at work. I wasn’t having the kind of excitement that I used to have. I thought the best thing is actually to leave. The other reasons could be that when you look at the composition of staff of the GPU, you realise that we all are very young. So, no one was going to retire any time soon. Those that are working under me needed also to grow and for them to grow, I also need to move for others to step up. So you need to have growth at work. The more I stay, perhaps the more frustrated some of them would be because they wouldn’t have the desire of growth and would leave. So, it’s actually a combination of a lot of reasons, and were all very compelling.

Why did you say it was the the most difficult decision you ever had to make?

It’s like a family… apart from that, so much work has been done but a lot more work is needed to be done also. And to turn your back on that at a very crucial point is not an easy decision for anyone to make. I was convinced that work will be done and that’s why I left. But it was a tough decision for me. I always remember what Jawara once told me in an interview with him that (bangkudokuwo nenehbuka bang). For me, that was something that was useful in making my decision.

What will you do now?

I am a son of a farmer. Probably I will go to farming. But I will come back to journalism. In fact, I am working on getting myself set up, prepared for a big thing in Gambian media. I don’t know what that will be.

Is that not in fact working to set up the investigative news medium Malagen?

Well, it could be Malagen, yes. Everyone knows my relationship with Mustapha. Malagen, yes I do contribute particularly in supporting Mustapha to do the work that he is doing. I don’t know what will happen with that. I am yet to make full decision on my commitment to Malagen. Probably something else different, but if it is Malagen it would be great, really.

You hailed from a peasant family in Sitanunku, but not many people know that, and lost your mother to a snake bite when you were very young. Can you talk a little about how those circumstances shape you into who you are today? 

That’s a difficult question because I never saw that coming. I hardly talk about myself or family. But then yeah, it was… it was a struggle growing up. I come from quite an extended family and yeah, I lost my mom, which is quite sad, never talked about it in public. It’s coming in this interview, I don’t know but yeah, I lost her. And then I grew up with my grandmother in Brikama. I spent most of my time in Brikama. All I can say here is that yes, it was a struggle and the experience… it was a struggle and that’s all I could say. Let me not dwell so much into that. But I am happy to be where I am today with the support of the people who supported me along the way.

Emil Touray and Gibairu Janneh’s GPU was in a topsy-turvy, according to some observers, but following your reappointment there in 2018 as secretary general, you received widespread praise for some transformative institutional reforms, can can you expound on that?

Well, I wouldn’t say the GPU under Bai Emil was topsy-turvy. The GPU even under Emil and Gibairu, I think they did quite well, under the circumstances. It was a very tough environment. I mean they did superbly well under the circumstances. They have supported a lot of journalists who were in trouble with the law when there was no one for them. Remember the work that they have also done in terms of internationalizing the campaign for press freedom in the country when they started going to the UPRs, and they started going to the African Commission. Of course, there was a lot of criticism, which is quite normal if you are leading journalists. But I think they did quite well under the circumstances.

Personally, what are some of the institutional reforms you embarked on?

When we came to office, we realised that the GPU was run more like a 20th Century association where the structures that should be there to promote resilience and sustainability were not quite effective. So, we had to embark on some very controversial reforms at the time and such reforms include creating a secretariat that would be manned by staff who are going to be paid every month to do the work and, this staff would be highly qualified and highly competent people. This may sound okay to you but at the time it wasn’t quite because journalists typically feel that the people that they elect at congress are the people that should work for them. This probably resulted in some of the shortcomings that the previous administration has. That’s why there were a lot of gaps and a lot of criticism. So, one of the things that we embarked on was to do that institutional reform but, we didn’t just stop at appointing staff, we also created some mechanisms in order to improve the effectiveness of the way we run the administration, and also the way we manage our finances. We put in place policies on human resource, we put in place policies on how to manage our finances, policis on how we communicate, policies on how we do our advocacy, policies on how we do our fund raising. So GPU becomes a policy-oriented institution because everything that we do is in accordance to a set of policies that we created, so, that’s why it becomes that effective. Particularly with regard to the way we manage our finances. That’s why you see overtime, we have won a lot of donor confidence to a point that GPU can now just sit and not do anything and partners would come wanting to partner with the GPU because that reputation has been built due to some of the reforms that we embarked on.

And do you consider these as your achievements?

Yes, because I have left behind a strong institution, way stronger than I have found it. When I was coming to the GPU our accounts were empty. It was just one or two accounts that had some money but the money wasn’t more than 200,000 dalasis. Over time, from 2015 to now, in terms of the projects that I have managed, we are talking about more than 50 million dalalsis, and not even half of that have been spent. A lot of projects are running currently at the GPU. It was about six or seven at the time of my leaving. GPU is well provisioned now.

Those are your positives, what about your failures?

For me in particular, we didn’t take up the issue of welfare of journalists a little bit earlier than we should. That’s why the 2018 congress was kind of a rude awakening for us when journalists came out and started complaining. But before that, we were more focused on getting a strong institution first. There were also some circumstances that were not necessary about the felt needs of journalists such as the law reforms which we have done a lot of work in that. You are aware of the laws that we challenge before the supreme court and we succeeded in a few of them but the welfare of journalists is quite a challenge for the GPU. But I wish I had taken up that issue a little bit earlier.

What makes you believe that media chiefs will consent to those lofty ideals set out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement document?

Of course, when we had the initial review sessions, there were a lot of disagreements. There were certain provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the standards that have been set there. A lot of media owners feel that those standards were too high but the employees on the other hand, feel actually, they are too low. That’s fine. We expected that. That’s why we have always promoted the idea of dialogue so that when we sit and discuss these issues, there would be consensus, and from the initial meetings, you also are aware that we have appointed a lead negotiator. The lead negotiator will be the one to facilitate the negotiations between the employers and the employees so that we have industry-wide consensus around the standards in the Collective Bargaining and have it adopted and applied. But we have to be realistic in the sense that we are not going to have every media house to sign up to the Collective Bargaining. It’s not possible. The standards in some media houses are too low but the overwhelming majority would sign up to the document eventually.

During the Jammeh days, you ran a controversial column ‘Kisi Kisi Mansa’ and wrote articles, even essays critical of the regime. A lot of people thought you would have been arrested or even disappeared if you continued to stay in The Gambia but you did and nothing happened to you, why?

I don’t know why. Probably we should ask Jammeh. You talk to a lot of people and they would tell you it’s because his surname is Jammeh. Of course, Jammeh doesn’t spare people that share the same family with him talk less of those that share the same surname with him. I don’t know. I think I was just lucky. I was pretty young at the time and as they say in Mandinka, the child doesn’t know the way. I think I was just lucky. Looking back on some of those stories, do I like them, yes, I like them. In my position today, would I have said some of the things that I had said in some of those stories? Probably I would have been a little bit more careful.

A lot of journalists actually went into self-imposed exile for less, why did you decide to stay with all the risks?

I don’t know. They know best why they went into exile. I mean, it has never crossed my mind to leave this country to go into exile and stay there. People are different and people face different threats. I have always believed that I should stay here and do work and serve my country. I will be here, be a pian in the throat of every regime. I will not go into exile.

When the change of government happened, many Gambian institutions including the GPU had a lot of goodwill which was translated into lots of millions, accumulatively, how much did you receive and how much did you spend and on what?

What we did at the time, GPU, we had a strategic plan before the change of government. Now when the change of government happened, we knew the strategic plan needed to be reviewed as soon as possible. The first partners that we contacted were locals in the Gambia here. We thought we need to have a multi stakeholder approach to media sector reforms in the country, and that was very useful. We thought for us to make impact after the change, we need to reposition ourself as an institution but also the media as an industry. And then we had great support from Media Foundation for West Africa and the IMS and GAMES. They came and supported us and we put together a Media Sector Reforms Framework, which talks about the kind of capacity building that we need, the kind of institutional building that we need, the kind of legal and policy reforms that we need. So a framework is there already.

A lot of people including some journalists criticised your administration for paying its staff huge salaries and benefits when many media workers are receiving pittance, what is your justification for that?

No… when you look at the salaries that we have at the GPU, you compare it with the salaries at some NGOs, you realise that the GPU is paying a little bit less. I think the problem is a lot of journalists were comparing the GPU salary with that of the salaries that people earn in news rooms and they were like how can you pay these people this huge amount of money? But the fact of the matter is, the kind of work that we do at the GPU, requires highly competent people to do it. If you are to get highly competent people, you need to get them highly motivated. That’s why we decided to go that high and it is paying because today the GPU is managing multiple projects and not even once did we get a complaint from any donor or any partner to say you’ve not accounted for even a dalasi.

Critics said the Union was turned into a club of friends for example you and Sheriff Junior, the president, and Lamin Jahateh, the programme manager are friends and therefore there couldn’t be any serious independent decision making with all three of you very close bedfellows. What do you have to say to that? 

We do not have to antagonize one another when at work place. I am not as close to Jahateh as people think, no. There’s professional relationship and something beyond that, of course, because over time we have all been colleagues in the media. I got close to Sheriff when he returned from Senegal. Probably I am one of the last persons in the media to know Sheriff that much. The Gambian media is small. The Gambia itself is small, the media industry is small. It is difficult for media workers to not know each other.

Former SG Momodou Sabally said the Union is a group of friends. Is there nepotism and cronyism at GPU?

Look at my relationship with Emil Touray for example. When I was at the Daily News, Emil and I were fighting everyday. I was writing editorials about Emil and Gibairu and all others. When it comes to work it’s different. When we are at work, we must be friends, and when we are friends at work, when it gets to a certain point, we also sit outside of work and probably have tea and dance together. But that’s quite essential. That doesn’t affect any decision making at the GPU. Come to GPU, hard decisions are made there.

Your administration has also received a lot of flak from a group of journalists calling themselves the Balance Crew, what is the issue? 

[Laughs] I don’t know. I mean… I think, the Balance Crew… is it the Balance Crew or something? It’s not… I don’t know how to respond to that question, really because as far as we are concerned, we do not recognise a group called Balance Crew. We do know that there are few individuals who are quite critical of the GPU, which is quite fantastic. Let me tell you one thing, if its constructive or even if it’s not constructive, I will get calls from people who will insult me but we never take it personal. We accommodate everyone. But then, some of the criticisms are quite unfair. I think a lot of it borders on ignorance, maybe, but you don’t have to blame them much, you have to blame the GPU because we need to be out there communicating with people better. I don’t think I should give much relevance to that.

You are abandoning the GPU at a crucial time when it needed you the most, what are your fears?

Leaders everywhere, they are like comedians. You leave when things are better so that other people can come. I don’t have to be at the GPU for the GPU to remain strong. No, I don’t believe in that.

Did your decision to leave the GPU have anything to do with your recent divorce from your wife of many years?

Not at all. My leaving has nothing to do with anything personal in my life. Me leaving the GPU is just been professional. Just professional reasons.

The inception the Barrow administration had engendered a lot of hope and enthusiasm for change, but those have since faded, where did Barrow get it wrong?

I think Barrow got it wrong from the moment that he started seeing himself not as a transitional president running a transitional government. Once he stepped out of that part, I think that’s where he started getting a lot of things, if not everything, wrong.

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