REUBEN ABATI: Once upon a time in Gambia

I have very vivid memories of my last visit to The Gambia. This was in 2013 when President Goodluck Jonathan paid a two-day visit to the country. In the course of that visit, President Jonathan commissioned the new Chancery of the Nigerian Embassy in Banjul, and also met with the Nigerian community, in addition to the usual bilateral meetings. Nigeria and The Gambia have very strong cultural and diplomatic relations.


We were quartered at a very nice, hospitable sea-side hotel, the Coco Ocean Resort. One of the first things I noticed was the large population of female tourists, lounging by the pool-side and the sea-side, with biceps-wielding, six-packs-flaunting young dark-skinned men on the prowl, with gigolo-ish gait and mien.


A female member of our entourage who had gone to the restaurant alone, later returned – visibly shaken and alarmed and what was her problem: one of the male ushers in the hotel had asked her if she would need a man to keep her company so she could have a real taste of Gambian hospitality.


We laughed over it later, but you could not but wonder whether this was one of the reasons why The Gambia holds a special attraction for middle-aged ladies from Europe. There was no time to conduct further research into that aspect of our encounter with The Gambia. I was far too busy for that. But there was no doubt that The Gambia under President Yahya Jammeh took the country’s tourism endowments seriously: a beautiful seaside, good weather, low crime rate, good hotels, beautiful women, adventurous young men, and a meek populace.


President Yahya Jammeh was determined to give President Jonathan and his delegation a good reception. From the airport to the hotel, you would think a festival was afoot. A public holiday was declared and our visit was aired live on radio and television. When we got to the hotel, President Jonathan’s vehicle was immediately serenaded by a cavalcade of horse-riders and a full band of drummers, singers and bag-pipers in colourful costume. They led our convoy to the Presidential suite, where security had been heavily deployed in fitting recognition of the importance of the visitor.


President Jammeh like virtually every other West African President took a special liking to President Jonathan- the only one who was aloof and liked to act like the father of everyone was that one in Cameroon, although I must say when we went there for a security summit, he received us excellently well too.


We felt very much at home in The Gambia. We were kept in rooms that were a bit far away from the President. And whenever that happened, the aides were always excited. It meant we could have a little more freedom away from the searching eyes of the security people around the President. And those ones, I will tell their story someday because they were fond of disturbing other matters of state and personal interest by suddenly interrupting with calls: “Oga dey call you, Oga says you must come now, now” only to get to the big man and he tells you, “No, I didn’t ask after you.”


By the time you hang around for a while, just in case the big man would change his mind, whatever plan you were pursuing would have been aborted, or seeing you, the boss would find an assignment for you or drag you into a meeting. Angry, deflated, you went to the security man who made the phone call: “But you said Oga sent for me.” Those guys always managed a poker face: “But you know it is always good to stay around Oga in case he needs you.”


I was impressed by Jammeh’s hospitality and respectful disposition towards President Jonathan. I recall that in 2012, when President Jammeh tried to succeed President Jonathan as chairman of the ECOWAS Authority, his own colleagues, including President Jonathan, opposed him. He rarely attended ECOWAS meetings.


His then Vice President, the motherly, regal and polite Isatou Njie-Saidy always occupied The Gambian seat. But he usually showed up when a new Chairman was to be elected. Seniority is something that is taken seriously within the club of African Presidents.


They refer to themselves as “my brother, my brother”, but they are always very mindful of seniority and that is one of the reasons why the likes of Paul Biya, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo behave and speak as if they are God in human form. Each time Jammeh wanted the ECOWAS chairmanship position, he behaved as if it was his birthright, but in 2012, and again in 2014, he was bypassed for junior Presidents as had been the case since he first expressed interest in the position in 2001. He was the only long-serving President who was never allowed to chair ECOWAS.


He must have been aware of President Jonathan and Nigeria’s stand on the question of his chairmanship, but he never held it against both. In fact, Nigeria and Nigerians were so influential in The Gambia under Jammeh, ordinary Gambians complained openly about the overwhelming influence of Nigerians in their country.


Everything went well during our state visit until it was time to meet with President Jammeh in the state house. It was part of my duty to introduce the Nigerian President’s delegation, except someone else seized the microphone and I stepped down. In The Gambia, mere protocol recognition of the President of the country ended up being a major problem.


His full titles had to be mentioned, and in a correct order in order not to upset him. The pre-meeting briefing by my Gambian counterpart dwelt too heavily on the titles: His Excellency, Sheik Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung (AJJ) Jammeh Nassiru Deen Babili Mansa, President of the Republic of The Gambia.


It was something like that. The security guards were also rough and menacing. Security men often do not understand the language of diplomacy. We went to many countries where we were treated roughly and our own security men often threatened to retaliate if the affected country ever visited Nigeria. I don’t think we ever got a chance to retaliate because our protocol system proved to be more orderly.


The state house in The Gambia when we eventually went in, however, was quite modest. It looked like the guest house section of Aso Villa. The meetings went well too. And Jammeh, to my surprise, spoke very well. He didn’t sound like the fool he was portrayed to be in the western press. He was articulate, debonair, well-composed and mentally sharp.


I guess these are required qualities for dictatorship and crookedness. And I admired Jammeh. He is, after all, my age-mate. He sat there, in his royalty, running a country, and I was there, switching between a microphone and a notebook, documenting his history. But something else happened that gave a true picture of Jammeh’s Gambia.


Our official photographer, Callistus Ewelike (he took over from Kola Osiyemi – God bless his soul) had issues with Jammeh’s security men. Security men at state houses around the world are unfriendly towards journalists. They seek to control access. They consider journalists busybodies, looking for negative news.


Accreditation and the use of tags should ordinarily take care of this, still, the security people just prefer to misbehave, and I witnessed that even in the United States where we were treated as if the visiting media was a team of terrorists. There was no violence in the US, but in The Gambia, they seized Callistus Ewelike’s camera and smashed it. Callistus is an aggressive, stubborn photo-journalist. He would fight if you try to stop him from doing his job.


He was a staff of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) handed over to me by Ima Niboro when Kola took ill. Callistus must have resisted the Gambia goons, claiming his right as President Jonathan’s official photographer. In The Gambia under Jammeh, the President and the security agencies ruled as if there would be no tomorrow.


They trampled on everyone else’s rights. Anyone who tried to act like a free man was brutalised and dumped in prison. For 22 years, Jammeh sat on his country and his people with the help of marabouts and security enforcers. He kissed the Koran every day, but he did not act according to its dictates. He wore a trademark white garment, but his true garment was of a black colour from the kingdom of Satan.


Ewelike’s travails eventually became a full-fledged story on the second day of our visit when President Jammeh’s spokesperson and the rest of his media team started looking for me at the Coco Resort. We were to be treated to a luncheon before departure. The luncheon had started but I got cornered.


Jammeh’s spokesman brought a brand new camera to replace the one the Gambian security people had destroyed. Callistus was with me. The Gambians apologised. Apology was taken and accepted. They said they didn’t want the two Presidents to hear about the incident. I gave them my word that I would not mention it to President Jonathan. Then, they pleaded that we should accept the replacement camera they brought.


I told them not to bother – as far as we were concerned, whatever happened was occupational hazard and Nigeria would replace its own damaged equipment. I looked at Callistus. He was eyeing the new camera greedily. At a point, he called me aside and whispered: “Oga, this camera they are giving us is better than the one they smashed oh.


This one na better camera. Oga, abi make we take am?” I stood my ground. I also consulted Ambassadors Hassan Tukur and Daniel Hart who said accepting a replacement would amount to a diplomatic tit-for-tat. I thanked The Gambians for their good sense and assured them that we were fine with the photographic coverage of the visit so far, despite the damaged camera. I always had a back-up photographer and cameraman, in any case.


That encounter was a blessing in disguise. It saved me from the first course at the presidential luncheon, which had started while we were outside the hall discussing the damaged camera. When we got back to Nigeria, close to eight persons on the presidential delegation ended up in the hospital due to food poisoning! They all took that first course. Nobody died but somehow the information got back to The Gambia and the chef was arrested and charged to court.


Jammeh’s rulership of The Gambia was jinxed in many ways. The biggest jinx was his volte-face over the last presidential election. Gambians deserve a new place in the sun and a new Gambia. But so much depends on new President Adama Barrow. He should look beyond the past and face the future. If he spends his time facing the past, he will disappoint his people and exhaust the enormous goodwill that has brought him to power.

14 thoughts on “REUBEN ABATI: Once upon a time in Gambia

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