By Yaya Dampha
The seizure and continued detention of Gambian journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, by agents of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency remains a scar on the conscience of a nation that struggles to unfetter itself from a rather grubby past. Despite endless calls from across the world for the journalist’s release, there doesn’t seem to be any semblance of this in the horizon, yet no explanation has ever been forwarded for his arrest in the first place.
As you would expect, the situation continues to generate attention and more and more tell-tales surrounding the reason, manner and perpetrators of Manneh’s ordeal are emerging by the day. His disappearance is coming to its fourth year since he was kidnapped from the offices of the Daily Observer, in Bakau, on the 7th of July 2006, by security agents authoritatively described as from the NIA.
Manneh’s arrest came in the aftermath of his alleged attempt to reproduce a BBC report in the run up to the 2006 African Union submit in Banjul, which highlighted a declaration by the continent’s leaders that they would, in the future, not accept any coup on the continent. That report contrasted enormously the statement from the leaders with the composition of the continent’s leadership, vis-à-vis how a substantial proportion of them have assumed power through the barrel of the gun – from Omar Bongo who, ironically, would die on the ‘throne’, causing a near civil war in Gabon as a result of the power vacuum his sudden demise left; to Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh himself (the host of that summit), young enough to be Bongo’s son.
It was this part of the report that other clearly green and envious editors at the Daily Observer saw it fitting to exploit, knowing perfectly well it wouldn’t go down well with President Jammeh. But first, hundreds of copies of the paper that had already been printed that night had to be cancelled and dumped in the store. The editors openly agreed among themselves that the management should never know of what had happened.
Three days later, Chief Manneh was called in by the then Managing Director of the Observer Company, publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper, Dr Saja Taal, and informed that he wasn’t going to get any promotion. Manneh’s attempt to decipher the reason(s) behind that sudden decision proved a bitter experience as the notoriously erratic Dr Taal reportedly called him names and rudely ordered him out of his office. Ten minutes later, Pa Malick Faye, then a viciously envious reporter who would do anything to achieve promotion, and Lamin Dibba, both of whom were mere senior reporters, sneaked into the stores and, in betrayal of their earlier agreement, brought out copies of the report Chief Manneh had allegedly attempted to reproduce. On presentation to the vindictive Dr Taal, he wasted no time in rushing out of his office and headed for the offices of the National Intelligence Agency in Banjul.
Shortly after that, the Director General of the Gambia Radio and Television Services, Momodou Sanyang, another heartlessly mean person desperate to win full confidence of the president, was invited alongside the then Inspector General of Police, Ousman Sonko, who is now the country’s Minister of the Interior. Being the semiliterate these men are, Dr Saja Taal had to interpret word for word the perceived implication of the report allegedly written by the poor journalist, employing all his years of professional expertise to convince Sanyang, Sonko and the NIA agents present as to how Chief Manneh had besmirched the country’s image both nationally and internationally. Dr Taal explored the economical losses attributable to the cancelation of the hundreds of copies of printed papers, going to the extent of threatening to write to the president personally if no action was taken against Chief Ebrima Manneh.
About one and a half hour after that meeting, Taal again put a call through to the NIA, demanding to know if and when they were going to come for Manneh. Agents from the NIA arrived at the Daily Observer that day 6th day of July, but could not find Manneh as he was out of the offices on assignment. He is described as one of the most able and promising journalist there, hence his attraction of grudging attention. However, there were bound to be good people around. So, some sympathetic fellow staffers managed to get word across to him that he must go into hiding. Manneh however told them that he had done anything wrong, and that he would therefore not run away. He showed up for work the next day, while writing his reports for the paper’s next issue, Dr Taal called and informed the NIA of Manneh’s presence. Two agents from the Bakau police station showed up shortly after and invited Manneh to the station. He was first taken to Bakau Police Station before been transferred to the NIA Headquarters in Banjul, where he would be held for days before he was moved to mile II and then to various other secret detention centers across the country.
I am a living witness of Manneh’s arrest and detention by the Gambian authorities, as I first sighted him with my two eyes been held at Fatoto Police Station, about 390km from the capital Banjul, at the extreme end of the country, in December of 2006. And later in April 2007, I had another chance to set eye on him at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul, where he had apparently been taken for medical check up.
Another remarkable evidence of Manneh’s continued detention by the Gambian authorities emerged in 2006, during the treason trial of the March 2006 alleged abortive coup. One of the alleged coupists on trial then, (Name witheld) on seeing a portray of Chief Manneh on a T-shirt worn by a reporter with the Banjul based Foroyaa Newspaper, said to us that Manneh was with them in Mile II. He was clearly flabbergasted by what appeared as a rhetorical question ‘Where is Chief Manneh?).
Although we all know where Chief Manneh is, our helplessness to have him produced before a court of law and tried for whatever crime he might have committed makes us obliged to continue asking ‘Where is Chief Manneh? And this we shall continue to ask until such a day when the perpetrators seen reason and release him.
By Yaya Dampha