By Foday Samateh
“When I arrived in Gambia, I was greeted by some plainclothes secret service personnel at the airport. “You are Fatou Jaw Manneh?” they asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Come with us,” they said. My brother was there to pick me up. “Where are you taking her?” he asked. “We cannot tell you.” Seeing my brother agitated, I begged him to go home. I really knew they had me. I was ready for the showdown. Die or live. In my own country, here I was crammed into a white pickup truck and driven into the darkness. No one would have known that our car of plain-looking Gambian citizens was actually a team of people whose job it was to make my countrymen disappear. On and on we drove, and then I knew — we were heading to the capital Banjul…Suddenly, we made a swift turn down a road to a secret detention center. It was enclosed by tall dusty walls and edged just along the Atlantic Ocean. I shivered as I realized that they could easily just throw me into the sea.”
This was Fatou Jaw Manneh in Norway recounting her encounter with the tyranny of the despot. She went to Washington to protest Yahya Jammeh at Obama’s US-Africa Summit. She flew to Oslo to deliver a speech on why she wouldn’t quit fighting until The Gambia is rid of this scourge. Her personal story dominated her moment on the stage, but only to serve the purpose of presenting a breathing human face of a nation under siege of cruel dictatorship to fellow freedom fighters at the Oslo Freedom Forum, dubbed the Davos of dissidents.
She laid out Yahya Jammeh’s police state in its parts and the sum of its parts. The secret police at the airport and everywhere. The military checkpoints in busy city streets where the police used to control traffic. “Plain-looking” thugs at his beck and call to make their fellow countrymen disappear. The mosquito-infested filthy facilities of his notorious “National Intelligence Agency” headquarters. Citizens interrogated and prosecuted on claims of endangering national security for speaking out against his misgoverning of the country. Innocent defendants convicted on trumped-up charges because the presiding judges would rather satisfy his vindictive wrath than serve justice. Severe jail terms and penalties for stroking his ego the wrong way. Media houses set on fire or closed down for daring to stir his ire. Detentions without trial, torture, abductions, summary executions, murder and assassination as his signature methods of maintaining power through fear. Prisoners executed not on the letter and spirit of the law, but on his say-so. Families set against families, neighbors against neighbors, towns against towns, tribes against tribes for his devious purposes. The haunted nation must go through his witch-hunting exercise because his aunt paid the debt of mortality. The ready smile gone from the lips of a beautiful country thanks to his draconian desire for absolute power.
Back to that godforsaken detention center that enjoys the misnomer the National Intelligence Agency. It’s neither national, just another arm of Yahya Jammeh’s repressive machinery on the taxpayers’ dime; nor is it an intelligence agency, given the crass minions and scoundrels who run it to inflict horrible harm and terrible treatments on conscientious citizens for exercising their constitutional and universal rights of free speech and association. Even someone as courageous as Fatou Jaw Manneh, who was resolved to face death at the moment of her “arrest” at the airport, couldn’t shake off certain foreboding fears.
The first wasn’t the fear of death itself, but being disappeared without trace. “I heard many stories of people disappeared by way of the deadly intelligence officers, but this time it was happening to me. It was terrifying. The thought of my mom and my sons was unbearable. I prayed inwardly and asked God to give them the strength to move on should anything happen to me. I swore to myself that I would not shed a tear for the punk president.”
The second fear could be felt by only a female detainee in a despot’s gulag. She couldn’t sleep. A battalion of mosquitoes buzzing around her certainly didn’t help. But the predominant cause was the fear for her life and dignity, and of never seeing her two sons and mom again. “When the morning sun came out the next day, I was happy that I was alive, not raped, not shot.” To stand on that global stage in Oslo and admit to these fears freely and openly was, paradoxically, brave, very brave. The National Review Online, a US conservative publication, called the speech “fiery and serene.”
If she addressed the reign of terror to the degree and scope it deserved, she spoke also of things it can never succeed in snuffing out. Hope in the face of despair, endurance under duress and the altruism of the human spirit. Those were her lifeline to the outside world. Besides counting on the fact that her brother saw her at the airport, she knew few of her fellow passengers on the flight who could bear witness that she had arrived in the country. A tiny ray of hope that her fate wouldn’t be shrouded in mystery. That morning, when she was summoned to the office for questioning, someone walked in with a copy of FOROYAA newspaper and she saw the front page emblazoned with the words: “Where is Fatou Jaw Manneh?” You can imagine her disbelief. “There it was! A headline — the voice of the voiceless.”
Then the interrogations began, round after round for six days and nights. In case she had any ideas to try to get comfortable in that dilapidated, desuetude factory warehouse, they subjected her to sleep deprivation. Given what she was going through one would be forgiven for assuming that she had committed a treason or she came to the country to launch an armed rebellion or incite a popular uprising. Alas, the pettiness of despots! She traveled to the country simply to pay her respects to her dad. Why were they interrogating her for being a threat to national security and for driving away investors? She had written unflattering articles online about the government and gave a critical interview to the Independent newspaper that was soon attacked by the regime arsonists before it was eventually shut down for good.
She was put on trial for sedition and giving false information. The case attracted the attention of the Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, major press houses and human rights groups around the world. Foreign ambassadors followed the trial, and even the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent out a letter on her behalf. Those laudable efforts might have saved her from being disappeared, but didn’t end her ordeal. The kangaroo court complete with false witnesses and bureaucratic shenanigans dragged on for about two years to the most unsurprising outcome. “One day, finally, the verdict was read. I was convicted of sedition and writing false information against the government. I was fined 12,000 dollars — to be produced in two hours, or else I had to go to jail for four years with hard labor. I was shocked at the cruelty of it all, all for the crime of journalism.”
Stepping out of the courtroom, she spotted a police van waiting to transport her to Mile Two Prison. A police officer approached with a pair of handcuffs. She prayed and told her lawyer that she wasn’t paying a dime of the fine because she didn’t have the money and it was unjust. What she didn’t know was that family members and friends came to the court prepared. They pooled the amounts of cash they brought with them and the Gambia Press Union contributed $2000.00. “FINALLY, there was enough money — I was set free.” The next day, a friend’s husband drove her to Senegal, out of fear that she might be re-arrested and sent back to jail without any trial like so many others experienced. After six months in Dakar to get her traveling papers in order, she flew to London to see her family. She never held back on denouncing what had happened to her. However, given the worse that could have happened to her, she would be the first to say: “I was very, very fortunate…I will never forget the relief I saw in my sons’ eyes meeting them. From [London] I went back to the US, with the help of the Human Rights Defense Fund…I was very lucky.”
She founded Maafanta.com as a platform to keep speaking out for a democratic order in The Gambia. Seven years later, she was invited to Oslo to share stories and strategies with the likes of Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, all nemeses of the Russian strongman Putin, along with a full spectrum of activists from the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Cuba, Peru, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Bangladesh, North Korea, Cambodia, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Afghanistan, China, Germany, Burundi, Denmark, Britain, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Ukraine, Turkey and Jordan. Such an acclaimed moment in a Nordic hotel could feel surreal looking back on the desolate days in Yahya Jammeh’s custody. As can be expected of a gathering of rallying cries, it felt rewarding, rejuvenating and rebellious. BBC categorized the atmosphere as “chemistry of troublemakers agitating for change.”
After her speech, she sat down for an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times, Norway’s largest English-language newspaper, and was asked what were the things she hated the most about her detention and what she felt were against her rights. She responded: “Well, they arrested and detained me for six days before taking me to court. I was dumped in a mosquito-infested room for six days and nights during which I slept on the floor and my whole body was red and swollen due to mosquitoes bite. Most Gambians, after they get arrested are beaten and tortured seriously and spend months if not years before they are charged with anything. I went through series of interrogations, but I was lucky for not being tortured like my countrymen.
“I am from a small and once peaceful country called Gambia. But just exactly as I had stated in the ‘The Independent Interview,’ these military boys who took over in 1994, contrary to their promise of good governance, have turned out to be nothing but a bunch of greedy, misguided, bullies who have invaded Gambia’s democratic space. President Jammeh is a cruel leader who spares none on his road to power and to secure his position for eternity. His government has no respect for the rule of the law. He is killing, jailing, torturing and threatening innocent Gambians by dragging them to the courts for just instilling fear in them of him.
“I hate it that he cares less about empowering the institutions that should be the guiding blocks for rule of law, order and fairness in a democracy. He has proved himself to be a misfit for any modern nation. All he believes in is the bullet and his never ending and insatiable desire for money. He is corrupt and cruel to the core. Yes, I hate all of that.”