By Ajong Mbapndah L
As the government of President Adama Barrow grapples with meeting high expectations of the Gambian people, the there is a noticeable change in freedom of expression says Journalist Kebba Jeffang Jnr.
Kebba Jeffang who covers the State House for the Foroyaa newspaper says Gambians express themselves more freely today than was the case during much of the 22 year rule of former President Yaya Jammeh.
Jeffang who has interviewed President Adama Barrow twice says his administration deserves some bragging rights for opening up the media space and providing an environment where Gambians can talk freely, air their views and criticize the government without fear of arrest.
Other than freedom of expression, not much has changed or is changing at a pace acceptable to Gambians since the Barrow Administration took office says Jeffang who is also President of the Young Journalists Association of Gambia in an interview with Pan African Visions.
Thanks for accepting to talk to us, it’s been over seven months now since President Adama Barrow took over power, what is the mood like in Gambia today?
Expectations are certainly high in the Gambia on all affairs that one could think of. The victims of the former dictatorial regime of the ex-president Yahya Jammeh are so much in anticipation to see justice done by the present government. You must understand that a lot of people were tortured, resulting in deaths, while many others were paralyzed psychologically, and physically, due to different forms of torture. Miserably, many people went missing without trace. No information has ever been heard about them even though the new government set up a committee to look into cases to release many disappeared people, yet some have gone for good. Few special cases to epitomize that are the disappearance of Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh who hasn’t been seen since 2006, a political activist Kanyiba Kanyi and many others. Recently, they were confirmed that they were actually been killed by the former regime.
A lot more were killed such as the country’s former Finance Minister Ousman Koro Ceesay who was found dead in his vehicle on the outskirts of the city of Banjul, a political activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng was killed after staging a protest calling for electoral reforms in April, 2016 as well as the gunned down veteran journalist Deyda Hydara. The direct victims and those victims whose cases can only be fought by their relatives are consistently running out of patience just to see that justice is seen to be done. Despite the already kicked-off move by the government to set up the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC), many are saying there will be no consideration for forgiveness, and healing of victims must begin now.
Aside that, the country has evidently been experiencing a very dilapidated economy as currency has been consistently depreciated against the foreign currencies.
Young people were been promised by the new government prior to their election in December, 2016, that the scarcity of jobs will be history. The lack of a large job market for youths has led to the menace of irregular migration that causes the dead of many Gambians at the Mediterranean Sea. This is a significant area of expectation for fulfillment but so far in seven months, much remains unchanged .
In terms of changes, besides the departure of Jammeh, what has changed for the country under Barrow?
Not much has changed in terms of infrastructural developments in the country like wise in the area of markets as the country’s stable food ‘rice’ remains at a sky-rocketing price. But fundamentally, one great achievement one must also attribute to Barrow’s government is the respect of freedoms of the people. There is undoubtedly freedom of expression, as well as for the press. People are coming out to criticize the leader and the government openly on social media platforms without any instinct of fear while the media is working with no fear of reprisals. So far, this is the main significant distinction between present administration and the previous government as far as Barometer for Barrow’s government is concerned. The transport fare tariffs has been reduced recently as well across the country to march the global petrol prices.
Would you say Gambians are interested in a probe of the Jammeh years or there are ready to move forward with the Barrow Administration and to hold them accountable for the electoral promises that brought them to power?
Already, there is an established Commission of Inquiry probing into the finances and assets of the former President and his associates. Many senior members of his cabinet, managers of the banks, and his many close associates are been called to testify in order to ascertain the embezzlement of public funds, and abuse of peoples’ properties by Jammeh. There have been substantial revelations that could help the government to have a legal footing against the former leader. So people are interested to do this to the extent that even if the government fails to be serious about it, it could pay the price. As I said people are running out of patience, but they are at least bearing with the government for now with an understanding that high damages done in 22 years rule cannot be addressed just in seven or eight months. I don’t think the Gambians will allow themselves to be looking at any leaders anymore wasting their resources and putting them under misruling and unfair treatment without holding to account.
Recently you had a one on one interview with President Barrow, how was this interview arranged and would you consider this a departure from the Jammeh years?
As I said, this is the fundamental achievement Barrow’s government can brag about. The media and people are free to raise certain issues which might have been considered as sensitive and no go areas in the Jammeh years. I work for an independent paper Foroyaa Newspaper and I was assigned to be the correspondent in charge of State House matters so I have. It was non-thinking for independent newspapers to have the thought of interviewing the former leader due to his antagonism with the media. Barrow had promised in January that he will be organizing a bi-annual press conference with the journalists irrespective of which media house a reporter comes from. But this past media conference was preceded by one-on-one interviews and I applied a slot and I was given. It is important that Barrow be credited for this achievement. However, this is what is highly expected of him and his failure to do it could create him very bad attributions which will certainly destroy him.
In the course of the interview, was the President at ease with the media and did you get the impression that he was fully abreast of developments in the country and the direction he wants to take the Gambia?
The Gambia’s Adama Barrow is a soft man and not an outspoken person. He is a composed character with high-level of maturity. But he is a type that doesn’t give journalists what they always want. His answers towards issues are always short and precise and you wouldn’t easily push to further because he will insist not to. Sometimes, you as journalist will think that he is not well informed about issues. This could be right because he hadn’t been an active political player prior to election when he was selected to lead the coalition of 8 parties even though he came from the then largest opposition party. In fact, many times during the campaign he was quoted saying he might not have the stuffs but his associates are well experienced people. But despite all these shortcomings, the president is a good listener. And let me say this, if he gets honest advisers, who are not affected by party or any selfish interest, despite his low understanding on issues, he can lead the Gambia to the right place. Let different stakeholders in all arms of government continue to do their job well seeing the Gambia first, The Gambia will move towards right direction.
Many Gambians have not had the opportunity to meet President Barrow in person, what can you tell Gambians about him based on your interactions, and how different is he from former President Jammeh?
As I said earlier, he is a respectful man, down to earth leader; he likes teasing people including journalists. He likes using proverbs to emphasize his points. Importantly, he is a good listener. However, on the other hand, his softness could be seen by many as a person who can be easily manipulated by certain special interests.
What is the state of the opposition platform that brought President Barrow to power?
I must say that disunity has entered inside the united force that brought the Gambia into safe hands. According to the President when I had my first exclusive interview with him immediately after his election in January, just before the impasse, he confirmed to me that he is a transitional leader who agreed to serve three years and then all parties will go back to their various camps and contest another election. However, in my recent interview, I brought up this issue again and this time he responded with a brief answer that the issue about his tenure is left to Gambian people to decide. This has since been creating confusion and reactions at the camps of the various parties and in the public domain. The initiator of the Coalition talks Halifa Sallah, the leader of the socialist party also said his party wouldn’t take any executive posts citing party principles. This also brought some confusion as to why a key player like Sallah will reject ministerial positions if he really meant the unity. Sallah insisted that they are better in the National Assembly in order to create a better representative house and make Gambia a perfect democratic state. The leader of the United Democratic Party lawyer Ousainou Darboe who was imprisoned before the election said Barrow will serve complete 5 years as dictated by the Constitution, and not the agreement Barrow had with stakeholders citing that the MoU that brought together the 8 parties was not even signed. As things stand, the fracas has been widening all over the country from different camps.
There are Gambians who have been side lined like Omar Faye former Ambassador of Gambia to the USA who put country first in opposition to plans by Jammeh to hang on to power, is the government making a mistake by trying to shut out people who served under Jammeh , even the good ones?
Actually, many senior government officials have been put aside particularly among the ministers. However, many, especially in the public sector are being retained by the new government. Some diplomats too are being retained so far even though many were relieved. Although Mr. Faye was among the first people to openly tell Jammeh to relinquish power when he rejected the polls, he was an opened defender of some of Jammeh’s actions in his prime time. Could it be that he was sacked as Gambian ambassador to the United States? I don’t know. But I must state that it wouldn’t be a better idea for the government to get rid of all former employees of Jammeh. Some of these people are rare talented technocrats in various domains and they have the potential to deliver. After all, no matter what, they are Gambians, and it is the duty of the government to provide employment to its citizens irrespective of party affiliation, religion, tribe or gender.
What has become of the ruling party that Jammeh used to stay in power?
Jammeh was capitalizing on the disunity among the opposition parties for 22 years. His opponents will always hold talks for unity and put a one force coalition against Jammeh but it always fail to materialize until last year. There is no doubt that this is the fundamental reason why Jammeh was winning elections for long. Another point would be that Jammeh during his campaigns will be threatening electorates that if he wins, any region he lost the election in, will not be considered for development. This fear in many areas particularly among women folks kept him up for such a lengthy time.
22 years of Gambian history under Jammeh will certainly not be erased overnight, while he may be a villain now, are there any positive things he did for the country that Gambian may remember him for someday?
Jammeh did quite some infrastructural development ,such as road constructions in many parts of the country ,and he rehabilitated many as well. Before, the Gambia’s election was organized by the Local Government authorities, until Jammeh set up the Independent Electoral Commission charged with conducting elections. This however, did not guarantee his noninterference in the results as he was responsible for hiring and firing of electoral chiefs. He also set up the only television station in the Gambia called the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS). There was never a television station in the Gambia before his coming as President. He established the only University of the Gambia which made higher education in the country possible. There is a lot more that Jammeh actually did for the Gambia. However, his good deeds are overshadowed by the torturing, killing, and disappearance of people without any due cause.
You are a political reporter of Foroyaa Newspaper, can you tell us a little about your paper and what impact the political changes have had on your paper and the broader media landscape in Gambia?
Foroyaa was founded in 1987 as a media arm of the People’s Democratic Organization Independence and Socialism (PDOIS). It was later modified to be a registered independent newspaper in the second republic under Jammeh’s rule. The paper has since been giving an equal voice to people, analytical reporting on political matters, and investigations into inhumane activities. It was the most followed paper during the repressive regime of Jammeh due to its high regard for human rights violations, abuse of power by power holders. The daily paper still remains credible in and outside the country due to its strong editorial stance.