Friday, November 2, 2012

Freedom at Mile 2 for Sale to Highest Bidder

Jasseh (L) and Janneh (R) said they were expelled from Gambia as Americans, not pardoned as announced

By Saikou Jammeh

When reports emerged that Lebanese-born Yusuf Ezedeen has bought his freedom, leaving his Gambian co-convicts to rot in Mile 2, some critics of the government were whipped up into a froth of nationalist frenzy, though low-key.

One commentator even sounds upbeat about the possible release of the embattled former defence chief Land Tombong Tamba and six other top Gambian security officers and businessman, who were convicted for treason together with Yusuf.

This was since late 2010. Today, just a little under two years on, Gen. Tamba and Co, as the press refers them, seem drawn closer to the firing squad. At the same time, if the reports which the government neither denies nor confirms are anything to go by, Yusuf is exploiting his freedom in Lebanon.

Fast-forward to August 2012. The widespread uproar that greeted President Yahya Jammeh’s government’s controversial execution of nine prisoners in August was unprecedented. The executions were the country's first in 27 years and were widely criticised as arbitrary.

As one American-Gambian puts it, "For the first time in the 18-year tyranny in Gambia, the US Congress is being engaged in a manner that hopefully will lead to a better understanding of serious human right abuses committed against a defenseless population by the current regime."

A blessing in disguise

For two Gambian-Americans, however, the execution which is believed to remain a subject of controversy in the country’s political and diplomatic scene for the foreseeable future is a blessing in disguise.

Tamsir Jasseh, only 54, but who put on octogenarian bears after six years in jail had his lengthy jail term brought to an unexpected end together with a lifer, Amadou Scattred Janneh, who turned 50 on the day. This was after a revered US civil rights activist negotiated their release from The Gambia’s central prison situated at the outskirts of Banjul.

Rev. Jesse Jackson had, in the wake of the executions, reportedly been in contact with President Jammeh on a daily basis for two weeks before the Gambian leader invited him to Banjul to meet face to face. The leading US advocate arrived in the country on Sunday Sept 16.

On Monday, he held a one-on-one meeting with President Jammeh for hours, from bright daylight to deep dusk. On late Tuesday night, he left for the United States with Jasseh and Janneh. “Those who were expected to die are now expected to live and those who were in prison are now home,” Jackson says upon arrival in the US.

Both Jasseh and Janneh were born, raised, and started their first pay job here before traveling to that superpower nation of a country, whose citizenship they were conferred after several years of recognised services there.

Tamsir Jasseh was born in Banjul to a retired police officer. He graduated from St. Augustine’s High School and worked at The Gambia Airways for years. While in his prime, he left for the US where he joined the US military. Jasseh was among the 500, 000 U.S troops – Operation Desert Shield later Operation Desert Storm - that, within 100 hours onslaught, declared Kuwaiti liberated from invading, occupying Iraq forces of Saddam Hussein.

Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh, on the other hand, is a native of Gunjur village, Kombo South district. He started journalism at the age of 17 at Radio Gambia before he left for the US where he bagged a bachelor’s degree in journalism, masters and doctorate in political science in 1990. He was a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee.

Today, The Gambia, a tiny West African country with a human population of less than two million has over 65, 000 of her citizens who are experts in the Diaspora, according to a World Bank report. Perhaps majority of them have less cozy opportunities than Jasseh and Janneh.

There is, however, no sign of majority of them taking the decision Jasseh and Janneh took. Pursuit for greener pasture is cited as the main reason for their stay. But the hostile political environment is also blamed.

Yet Jasseh and Janneh had forgone relative more comfortable life in the US and returned to their monetarily poor motherland to help improve things.

On his return to the country, Tamsir Jasseh served as police adviser before he was appointed Inspector General of Police and then Director General of immigration. In 2006, he was charged with treason following a failed coup attempt led by then-defence chief Ndure Cham. The veteran US marine was found guilty even though had maintained his innocence throughout the trial.

Dr Janneh, for his part, returned when he still had a lot to offer. This was in 2003 when he came to work at the U.S. embassy in Banjul as political assistant. Six months later, he was appointed by President Yahya Jammeh as communications minister. He was unceremoniously removed in 2005. Typical of the Jammeh regime, no reason was advanced.

For many observers, this was a warning shot to Dr Janneh that the battle line with President Jammeh had been drawn. But the easy-going, soft-spoken political scientist seemed poised for any duel. This was manifested a few months prior to his saga. He was outspokenly critical of the Jammeh regime in a way no other former minister had been.

On Tuesday, June 7, 2011, while at his computer retail business COMMIT enterprises, he was arrested.
He was later accused of planning to stage a regime-change mass protest akin to the Arab Spring.

All other things equal, Tamsir Jasseh and Amadou Scattred Janneh’s saga, though separate, have so much in common. For instance, it was a patriotic move on their part to return home from home. They were to help improve things after signing up with the government, but ended up dramatically turning against the regime.

Public sympathy towards both of them was overwhelming. Both are lifers, expected to die in prison where death is frequent in recent times. But both are now in the U.S – a home millions of miles away from home. 

But even after the life-threatening ordeal they underwent in the hands of a regime that have come to master the art of countering such insurgencies, both Jasseh and Janneh seem undeterred from pursuing their new found way of ‘doing better for oppressed Gambians’: activism. 

“Freed at Last! Turned 50 too," undeterred Amadou Scattred Janneh says on his Facebook page, upon arrival in the U.S. And the following day, he warns: "The real struggle to end dictatorship in The Gambia has just begun. Stay tuned.”

Yet, in spite of Jasseh and Janneh’s seeming unwavering determination to continue the campaign to ending what they call dictatorship in the country, many Gambians, though welcome their release, are critical of it. Some criticisms were even directed at Rev. Jackson, details of whose ‘private’ mission are shrouded in mystery, especially as his trip was bankrolled by President Jammeh. 

Commenting on FREEDOM newspaper, an American-Gambian, A. Koroma writes, “Given the human rights record of Yaya Jammeh and his reputation within the international community, no private mission of mercy to Banjul should have been taken without either being sanctioned by the U.S. government or a recognized national or international entity with a mission that addresses the larger governance picture of the country.”
Not only are the thick clouds that shroud Jackson’s trip the bone of contention here. The Gambia government too has come under fire for the okaying of the release of only Americans, while a number of Gambian political prisoners remain caged.

Small wonder when human rights activist cum journalist Saikou Ceesay offered his opinion, there was a rare fury in his voice. “How about the [rest of Gambian] political prisoners who are victims of unfair trial,” he said, wryly.  

He was not alone with this feeling. Veteran journalist Demba Ali Jawo was speaking from the same hymn sheet when he says: “…the release of the two, while welcome, raises quite some pertinent moral questions. Is it morally right for a prominent American like Rev. Jesse Jackson to come to The Gambia and request the release of only two American citizens when there are several others incarcerated in that hell-hole of a jail? No doubt many people would have wished that he instead also requested for the release of several others, in addition to the American citizens.”

In fact, Dr Janneh was convicted alongside three youths – two Gambians and one Nigerian – who were sentenced to a two-year jail term after they were found guilty of sedition. All of them printers by profession, the youths, according to the evidence adduced before the court, were contracted by Dr Janneh to print 'Coalition for Change the Gambia, End Dictatorship Now’ on the T-shirts which Janneh randomly distributed.

The two Gambian youths, Modou Keita, Ebrima Jallow, are currently serving their terms in prison while the Nigerian, Michael Ucheh Thomas, who married a Gambian, died in prison. He was 37.

Tamsir Jasseh’s case is indeed similar. The many Gambians he was jointly tried, most of them lifers are currently serving their jail terms. Besides them, there are many other Gambians jailed on widely-believed politically-motivated allegations.

Furthermore, reports have it dozens of Gambians are being detained, some of them since 2005, for no publicly known offence. No trial!

Journalist Jawo, therefore, was at pains to understand why President Jammeh had the heart to pardon Janneh and Jasseh, refusing to extend the amnesty to ‘all the others in similar circumstances.’ According to him, “It is quite unfair to pardon Janneh and leave those young men who were convicted with him or to pardon Jasseh and leave his co-convicts in the coup attempt for which they were tried and sentenced, just because they are lucky to also have American citizenship.”

If it is true that Yusuf had bucked Gambian authorities with dollars to bully his way out of harsh Gambian jail, what price did the U.S activist Jesse Jackson paid to get the American citizens out? Friendship? Because Jackson himself was quoted as saying that he is a ‘friend to The Gambia and likes the country’? Or diplomatic influence? Because even though Jackson’s visit was private, denying him his demands could tantamount to antagonising the US government – and in the words of President Jammeh, The Gambia will never be an enemy to the U.S.

Answers to these questions are hard to get. For now, what seems to be truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is that the back gate to the prison is wide open, though only a carefully-chosen influential few are passing through to freedom. But is freedom in The Gambia for sale to the highest bidder?

 Journalist Demba Jawo would not disagree much. He even suggests that Nigeria, a country that has more advantage over Gambia than any other country, should start flexing her muscles to buy their men out. Perhaps Senegal, who he says, was only awakened to gross human rights abuses in the country after the execution of two Senegalese could be next.

Unfortunately, Gambian prisoners a bulk of whom many believe, from the outset, should never have been convicted or sentenced, seemingly lack a civil society or patriarchic family that has the financial wherewithal or the diplomatic muscle to help them elbow their way into freedom.

And if the current trend of death in the prison continues even those who would have lots to offer to The Gambian society after the expiry of their prisons terms may come with their bodies covered in a deeply-tanned product of ‘keno’ tree.

Saikou Jammeh, is the Editor of The Daily News and publisher of Kissy-Kissy Mansa. This article first appeared on The Voice newspaper on October 8, 2012.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The North Bank Evening Standard's editorial policy.

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