Once Upon A Time in Gambia By Reuben Abati

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 afterall, 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 everyday, 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 apologized. 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 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.