By Foday Samateh
Even as I write these words, a part of me is still in denial. Ten years on, the wishful in me still clings to a chimera. I do so because the ghoulish reality of December 16, 2004, sends me in bouts of disillusionment to the borders of derangement. The assassination of Deyda Hydara changed the world for me. It shattered my neat but naive assumptions about a beloved country, and brought home Golding’s Ralph weeping “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend…” Suddenly, the evil deeds of evil men weren’t just happening in foreign lands to foreign people. The horror was us.
Even after the summary executions of soldiers in the wake of the foiled coup of November 11, 1994, the massacre of students during the demonstration of April 10, 2000, and all the atrocities in between, it wasn’t entirely foolish to presume that there was a line Yahya Jammeh wouldn’t cross. But he did, in cold blood; and a kind man had never faced so unkind a fate. For me, from that December night, this hardened criminal in the State House in Banjul answering the title of President would always be a murderer.
Denial alone wasn’t the cause of my silence about Deyda for the past ten years. At the approach of every anniversary of his shooting, I resolved myself to pay him a tribute. But when the moment arrived, I just couldn’t do it. The rush of emotion simply rendered me paralyzed, and I had to put it off to the next one. At the same time, I never felt adequate to the task. Anything I could say wouldn’t measure up to the man or express my deep love and reverence for him to my own satisfaction. This anniversary, however, I had to break the perennial procrastinations to do him the honors. Something else finally compelled me to say a word or two. If I had been the one struck down by the assassin’s bullet, God knows, he wouldn’t have stayed silent for a moment, much less this long.
I claim no special bond with Deyda. Legions of people knew him better and longer. This much I can say: he was special to me. I met him in a way that would exercise a novelist’s imagination. I was teaching Ebou Dibba’s Alhaji to a grade seven class at Bakoteh Upper Basic School when a student interrupted me saying a newspaper wrote about the book. The student pulled out from his school bag a copy of The Point he had brought from home to show me. A godsend, I thought and began reading the review to the class with the great expectation that it would echo my take on the book. Ay, there’s the rub. I ran into the first disappointment in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Then they came, as Claudius in the great tragedy would say of sorrows, not single spies but in battalions.
The entire review was contrary to everything I taught the class about the book. Not a solitary point of convergence. Not even a straw I could clutch for a lifeline. I needed no jury expert to tell me whether the students believed me or a newspaper. The look in their long faces was so unforgiving an indictment no amount of pleading could mitigate my circumstances. All my protestations that the review was wrong moved not an eyelash. My zealous attempt to disabuse their impressionable minds of the notion that everything in a newspaper is incontestable fact fell on deaf ears. My competence and credibility as a teacher came under the judgment of their skepticism. The class ended with my professional pride in tatters. Alone licking my emotional wounds, the idea of responding to the paper sprang up in my mind. I went about disputing in full adversarial mode the “sacred truth” from its genesis to revelation. I even indulged in the blasphemy of making a Kilimanjaro out of every molehill of misstatement and mischaracterization the review was so riddled with.
In the evening, I hurried out to Kairaba Avenue, jumped into a Bakau-bound taxi and hopped out at The Point headquarters. Answers to my inquiries pointed me (no pun intended) to the corner office. The managing editor’s door was open as it would be for most of my experience. There sat Deyda behind his desk, perusing with the editor’s eagle eye something I could only guess was a story he was getting ready for the next day’s paper. I had seen his photos but those were light years from the impression the man in person was making on me.
No suit, no ties, nothing ostentatious. A plain gentleman in a plain dress shirt in a plain office. Though the complex was capacious, it boasted of little more noticeable furnishing than the bureau of the most well-known spartans of The Gambian elites. If the luminaries of Foroyaa had taken the vows of austere lifestyle, I would later learn that choosing to be an anti-establishment figure like Deyda, to a cruel and petty despot, involved making other sacrifices besides braving constant threats of arrest, incarceration, and death. The burden of my surprise as I waited at the door to be welcomed inside, however, was on the man and not the challenges he confronted in a world that was still unfamiliar to me as a distant spectator. Even in that split second observation, it was obvious that Deyda stood apart from the run of the mill Gambian elite. He had no air of flamboyancy, no touch of pomposity, no smidgen of self-importance.
Where others tried making up their inadequacies with arrogance, self-adulation or pretentiousness, I would come to know that his humility was not for show. It wasn’t a conscious effort for effect. He didn’t try to appear humble, he just was. Nor was his humility the type that smacked of docility. I met my fair share of The Gambian elites. Deyda belonged in that rare breed that elicited in me awe and inspiration. He was so comfortable in his skin that he wouldn’t spend his time telling you that he was comfortable in his skin. His countenance and comportment communicated something profound.
The first time you saw him you might not know it. It was something you felt. With time, familiarity might make you take it for granted. But it would still be there, an ever-present expression manifesting itself as look of a man preoccupied with brooding thoughts, a man who knew more than he could ever say, a man weighed down by the trend of the state of affairs and the looming consequences for the country. I couldn’t put a name to it. Not that evening I first met him, not in the months ahead he would take me under his wings, or even the last time I would see him. It would make itself known in hindsight.
He put away the material he was reading and stared up at me. I pulled out the rejoinder from my bag as I stepped in to his desk. “W-why are you brin-ging this now w-when I’m go-ing to p-press,” he stuttered. I didn’t know that he was a stammerer. Little wonder he went into print when he decided to be a journalist. I was stumped by what he said but handed him the rejoinder anyway. While he was going though it, I realized that he had mistaken me for a struggling freelance reporter peddling a pedestrian story for a quick buck. I braced for him to reject the piece given not only my sweeping attack on a material that carried the official imprimatur of his paper, but also overly harsh tone. He looked up at the end, asked me couple of questions I had since forgotten, and led me two doors down the hallway to the editor’s office. Mr. Kabba, a refugee from Sierra Leone, was chatting with the paper’s book reviewer. Deyda broke into a delightful smile and gave the piece to its intended target.
The following week, it appeared in the paper. Except a brief editor’s note at the bottom begrudging acknowledgment that the review contained minor errors but dismissing in general my contentions as overblown, not a comma in the piece had been altered. Deyda didn’t add the comment. I became certain that the reviewer hadn’t read the book. He took the liberty of merely skimming through to take both his readers and The Point for a ride. Glad to have caught him and feeling emotionally healed, I went back to being a teacher to my students.
Then came Harmattan, a British “retiree,” who wrote a food critic column in the Daily Observer and reveled in dishing out supercilious articles on how Africans should get their acts together. One article provoked a rhubarb. He accused Africans in so many words of being the only people who killed their own heroes, and gave Lumumba and Sankara as examples. Madi Jorbateh was the first to call him out, and cited the killings of Kennedy, Lincoln and Dr. King as counter-examples. Harmattan was so unruffled that he couldn’t let that stand. Others joined on both sides as they went one heated round after another.
I couldn’t resist missing all the fun and decided to join the furor that was already subsiding. When the piece was published, I fumed and sighed on the way to the Observer to protest the number of typos in it. I hardly uttered a syllable to Sheriff Bojang, the editor-in-chief, at his office door when Harmattan ran in kvetching at him for publishing my piece. Even though I was a party to the quarrel, I couldn’t fail to realize that editors would be better advised not to take part in popularity contests. What I didn’t know also was that auditioning for UN peace envoys was never their first thought. Sheriff introduced us and disappeared, leaving us to sort it out on our own. After a good deal of squabbling, we agreed to put the matter behind us and shook hands on it.
I went back to my teaching. But something changed this time. I didn’t want to be just a teacher. There were things that were happening and not happening in the country I felt passionate about. So I began sending articles to the Observer’s Viewpoint and Commentary columns. I even got a shout-out from the paper’s Private Eye for one of my articles, which felt like a mini-Pulitzer to me at the time. And the petty cash for the articles didn’t hurt, either. I started talking to the paper’s echelon about giving me my own column when the bloody April 10 student demonstration occurred.
The Point’s editorial about this dark day was an equivalent of reading Yahya Jammeh the riot act. It was twice the length of the paper’s normal half-page editorial. But something else was even more remarkable, if not ominously prescient, about it. Deyda stated that he got on unimpeachable information that orders had been given from the top to shoot him and his senior scribes if they were out in the streets covering the protest. Then came his clarion dare to Yahya Jammeh: They were prepared to die doing their job, he wrote, than be cowered into silence. I thought about my meeting with him in his office, and couldn’t imagine anyone giving the order much less shooting him. Even though the editorial wouldn’t be more fiery, I failed to grasp its gravity. The same could be said of, I guess, the rest of the nation.
The Observer was publishing me at least once a week for a good run. Then, Harmattan happened. He made an Israel-Palestinian violation of our little truce. It was pointless; and that was exactly the point. One side got bored out of their mind by the detente and needed to blow off some steam. The sure-fire way of fixing that problem was to provoke the other side knowing full well that they would retaliate, and the confrontation would escalate into a new round of the old conflict. The old man from Queen Liz’s Kingdom couldn’t let me have the last word on the previous kerfuffle, and so he accused me of engaging in “diatribe” and much worse. He got to me and, as I was wont to do at the time, I responded with every arm and ammunition in the arsenal of my temper.
The article wasn’t published. Sheriff and another editor, Hassoum Ceesay, considered it unfit to print. I was livid that they denied me the right of reply to Harmattan and walked out of the Observer swearing to do nothing more with it. I would later realize that they were right and feel grateful to them for saving me from myself. I have since learned to “develop a thick skin” to criticism as Hassoum advised me, and never taken a bait. On the other hand, I didn’t regret drawing the wrong conclusion and reacting the way I did. As Hamlet would say, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I boarded a taxi to The Point at the other end of the street.
Deyda was standing in the hallway with someone and his affable broad face broke into a surprise smile. Before I could say hello, he crowed that he had planned to put out an advertisement in The Point for me to come. He must have been following my articles in the Observer, I thought to myself. He explained that his book reviewer had quit and he wanted to give me the assignment. I followed him across the street to Timbooktoo Bookstore. Overwhelmed with excitement like a kid in a candy store, I walked around from shelf to shelf of the most well-stocked bookstore in the country. I was free to choose any book I wanted, read it and write a review for the week. And for that infinitesimal use of my abundant free time, I was getting paid for what I would have paid to do.
A month or so into my guilty pleasure, one of my reviews found its way into my class. A student pulled out a copy of The Point and announced that he had seen my photo in it. The students passed it around with funny smiles and mischievous smirks. Apparently, they were more amused to see my ugly face in a newspaper than they were interested in my substandard review. Seeing their teacher’s name in a paper, however, meant something to them. If I hadn’t regained my credibility before then, I redeemed myself in their eyes that evening. That was something for me, too. I would go on to review Nana-Grey Johnson’s novel The Magic Calabash, and Fafa Mbye’s speeches and writings titled In the Service of my Beliefs.
Doing book review every Friday, however much I loved it, wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to carry on writing the kind of opinion pieces I used to send to the Observer. I spoke to Deyda and he blessed the idea without a question. We settled on a Wednesday column for that. As much as I felt thankful to Sheriff, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, and Hassoum for publishing me at a far higher rate in the nation’s largest newspaper than I deserved, it couldn’t compare to having my own column. Because I had no background in journalism, I would only come to appreciate the full significance of this favor Deyda bestowed on me after I left. In the West, I would find out, columnists are generally seasoned reporters who spent a lifetime covering news before graduating to pontificating opinions on matters local and global. Deyda made me one without a single news story ever filed under my name.
Few weeks into the new column, I wrote a piece on Hamat Bah’s NRP. When I submitted it to Deyda, he didn’t want to publish it. He complained about the endless complaints he would be getting from Hamat. I explained to him that it was going to be a four-part series on the four political parties. Why, he asked, didn’t I start with the ruling APRC? I intended that to be the last, I replied. He approved the idea but with the utmost reluctance about doing anything on Hamat, especially by starting with him. No, he wasn’t afraid of the NRP leader. I suspected they had some kind of personal relationship.
The article came out without my byline, due to a mistake that turned out to be a mixed blessing for Deyda. That Sunday I was in the newsroom working on my piece on the main opposition UDP when a disgruntled-looking Hamat and a retinue of aides stomped into The Point and headed for Deyda’s office. Several minutes later, Deyda came out with them. He saw my pensive face and waved a stealth hand at me to stay calm.
Hamat had come to submit a response to my piece. Because my article bore no name, Hamat addressed me as Mr. Gentleman who never traveled the country beyond Brikama and didn’t know what he was talking about. When I asked Deyda what was the basis of the blind assertion about the writer’s limited knowledge of the country, he replied that Hamat had assumed that he, Deyda, was the author. I would learn also from A. A. Barry, an editor at the paper, that Hamat had been pretty pissed off at Mr. Gentleman because, among other reasons, the article forced him to cut short his constituency tour in Upper Saloum to come back and respond.
The day before the piece on UDP came out, I was talking with Deyda in the hallway when Mr. Kabba joined us and observed that I needed a pen name for the series to protect my job as a public school teacher. Deyda smiled wistfully before adding that he would be only too happy to hire me full-time at the paper. Mr. Kabba pointed out to him something that would later keep recurring to me. Power, he warned, meant everything to the people in charge. They might not just fire me from my job. They might arrest or even kill me.
Deyda’s delightful wish froze into deep concern for me. They would call me, he told Mr. Kabba, “Our Cassandra,” after the pseudonym of the legendary British columnist William Connor. Few days later, Deyda came out with an editorial about the series. He gloried in the widespread interest it was generating, stood by me for expressing my constitutional right to free speech but made it clear that the opinions I expressed about the political parties were mine alone and didn’t reflect the views of The Point. A second editorial would soon follow to reiterate the same point.
I was in Banjul for some business at the Ministry of Education and decided to drop by a friend at the Central Bank. We chatted about the series with two of his colleagues. My pen name was a cover in name only. Few of my friends had already confirmed from me that I was doing the series, and I would later find out that the secret wasn’t much of a secret in the media circles. My friend at the bank walked me down to the Ministry of Education and whispered gently in my ear to be careful in writing the next article in the series. The irony wasn’t lost on either of us. He, an ardent supporter of the ruling APRC, was warning me, an unapologetic supporter of PDOIS, that if I went hard on the latter, they would come after me as they had been known to do to their critics. I thanked him for his sincere advice. I was either too critical or sympathetic toward them depending on who you asked.
The feedback from Deyda made me laugh. He was attending a conference with the PDOIS presidential candidate at Kairaba Beach Hotel that week and they hung out together with a handful of others before each session started and during the recess. The morning the piece came out, however, Sidia Jatta was beside himself with great displeasure and left the conference early. For his own apart, Deyda was explicitly nonchalant if not implicitly gloating. Several weeks later, Ebrima Sillah of Citizen FM would give me a surreptitious look that was filled with incredulous curiosity when we bumped into the PDOIS Secretary General on Kairaba Avenue. If Halifa Sallah had known that I was the critic or had been offended by the criticism, he gave not the slightest indication. He was as gracious to me as he had always been.
The time came for the fourth piece and I was prepared to unload on Yahya Jammeh and his claque of flatterers and clique of miscreants in the ruling APRC. I could still remember how I intended to start the article: I shudder with appall at the sad fact that Yahya Jammeh and his mediocre fellows are the ones in charge of the country. But I ended up not going that route. A close friend whose advice I trusted and valued completely since high school, the most enlightened and sagacious mind Baddibu could ever swear by even among the great constellation of geniuses from Kiang, suspected what I had in mind. He would succeed me as the book reviewer at The Point and produced far superior masterpieces than I could ever dream of emulating.
Out of genuine misgivings that I would incur wrathful reprisal from the regime, he pleaded with me to moderate my views. He even brought up the eerie reminder about the regime’s penchant for detaining and disappearing people whose views they considered heretic to the status quo. A reporter at the Independent, who knew my family quite well, also came looking for me and doubled down on the same advice. Hadn’t he met me, he underscored, he was going to visit my sister for the family to prevail on me. My folks had no idea I was writing in the newspapers. I asked him how he knew that I was the Cassandra, and he replied that The Point reporters had confided in him and his colleagues from the other papers. Right there my faith in that fine, esoteric belief called journalistic confidentiality ended. For those who read into coincidences, both my friend and the reporter happened to share the same last name — Dibba.
I sat down to write the piece but I couldn’t go with what I had planned, and that weighed heavy on my mind. As much as I appreciated both the substance and the gesture of the advice of my friend and the reporter, something else swayed me more in their direction. Their well-founded concerns for me notwithstanding, I was more anxious about Deyda. The media was already very much in Yahya Jammeh’s bullseye. I didn’t want to write something Deyda would be forced to reject for those reasons.
On the other hand, I remembered his reluctance to publish the piece on Hamat Bah’s NRP and I didn’t want to put him through that again when the stakes were much greater for him. I didn’t want him to risk everything he had worked for on a single article by me. So many people’s livelihoods depended on the paper, and I could not in good conscience want to be responsible for it to be closed down for a week, a month or for good. If it were my paper, I could take the risk and face the ramifications. But it wasn’t mine, and I felt that it would be unfair and selfish to put into jeopardy someone else’s life work. So I blinked and moderated my views.
When the piece came out, the verdict was brutal. The consensus was that I was afraid. My APRC friend at the Central Bank wondered part-jovially if Saja Taal, the Administrative Secretary of the ruling party, had taken me out to a dinner. Deyda was no less disappointed and pointed out that had he seen the piece beforehand (I submitted it like all my articles for the column to his secretary Ida), he wouldn’t have published it. I was rendered dumbfounded. After regaining my ability to speak, I asked him how could he not have seen it. He replied that he enjoyed reading my stuff after they had been published. For a good moment, I didn’t know what to think. The most enduring of the miscellany of questions that flooded my mind was: What did I do to deserve such a trust? If I couldn’t explain away the charge of cowardice for my vacillating take on the increasingly power-crazed regime, my justifications weren’t entirely meritless. I became even more convinced that the restraint I exercised was the prudent one after Deyda told me that he had been waiting to read my anticipated philippic the same time as the despot himself.
I would have a very different view altogether on the matter the next day when Deyda showed me a piece in the Observer I had somehow missed. Unbeknown to me, Brikama Serifo, the pre-eminent essayist and the northern star of the national intelligentsia, had also been following the series. Just before the piece on Yahya Jammeh’s ruling party, the Spirits of Santanba inspired him and, with his eyes wide shut, came up with “Killjoys.” The essay was a platonic challenge to me. After pillorying Mugabe, Yahya Jammeh and the rest of the usual suspects, and wondering why they unfailingly turned out to be the antiheroes of their own power drama, he concluded thus: “This is the riddle our resident philosopher Cassandra must help resolve.”
It dawned on me there and then that I had missed an opportunity. Regret dethroned my assuaging rationalizations. I failed myself. Failed Deyda. And failed the readership of The Point. Had I seen Sheriff’s essay earlier, the Solomonic counsel of my trusted friend, the macabre worries of the reporter from the Independent, and my own heartfelt concerns about putting Deyda in a quandary would have seemed transient in the transcendental moment. I would have put everything on the line for me, for Deyda and for The Point.
The fact that Deyda hadn’t screamed at me for the colossal miss made me respect him even more. And soon after that, I disappointed him again. I went to submit an article and found him reading me in the Independent. He wasn’t glad to see me that afternoon. Thanks to my naivety about the competitive politics of journalism, I sent a piece to a rival for the vain claim that I published in all the three main national papers. He didn’t mince his words. “We found you,” he stuttered, “and now you write for everyone.” I performed the baptism of mea culpa for my cardinal sin and pledged never again to be impious to his idol. Instantly, my repentance soothed his anger and restored my good standing in The Point’s brethren.
Writing a column every Wednesday and a book review every Friday while being a teacher still left me with more free time than I had use for. I wanted to do more and approached Deyda with another idea. To my surprise, he didn’t just give it his blessing, he was invested in it. The product of our deliberation became, arguably, the most popular title for a newspaper column in the history of journalism in The Gambia. Sitting in his office discussing the style and structure of Good Morning Mr. President, neither of us could have predicted the breathtaking popularity of this groundbreaking idea.
Deyda intuitively knew what it should be like: Three or four brief hard-hitting paragraphs addressed to Yahya Jammeh on a topical issue every Monday. I could still feel the exuberant excitement on his face. He didn’t have to tell me that he had been thinking about something along those lines. The lingering regret for not coming up with the idea first on his otherwise mellow disposition was too telling. He would have helped himself to it if pilfering wasn’t beneath him. But since he could do anything short of that, he made sure the darn thing was done to his exact liking. He demanded brevity and punchiness to make it a must-read for Yahya Jammeh. Thus, “Good Morning Mr. President” began.
I fired the opening salvo the following Monday. I went after Yahya Jammeh for owning a foundation while he occupied the Office of The President. Deyda published it under the sobriquet “Degaleh Wagh” (roughly, Wolof for he told the truth.) In the subsequent pieces, he decided to dispense with the byline altogether, and the column effectively became a special editorial for the exclusive purpose of giving Yahya Jammeh congestive heartburns every Monday.
Three days a week I had something to say in The Point. I wasn’t a member of the staff, but in every other respect I was part of the paper. Above all, Deyda loved me around for a chat in his office. He rarely made me wait outside his door even when he was with someone, and never rushed me out even when someone wanted to see him. And I enjoyed listening to him impart wisdom to me. Our chats were always about the country, and he hardly had something optimistic to say about Yahya Jammeh. He wanted him out of the State House already for the good of the country. Every reader of The Point was actually in on that secret. And he easily betrayed his frustration with the despot’s method of governing.
One day he blurted out that he would never quote Yahya Jammeh in the paper again. Every time they quoted him for saying something outrageous that later turned out to be embarrassing for him, he explained, the State House would call to contest it. When he responded with incredulity that the guy made the statements in public, and on national television for that matter, the minions would push back claiming that the objectionable remarks weren’t in the text of the speech but off-the-cuff, and therefore weren’t supposed to be quoted. I could only imagine the high frequency of such calls since bloviating ridiculous balderdash had always been to Yahya Jammeh what oxygen would always be to humans.
On another day, he directed his ire at PDOIS/Foroyaa for always defending the Constitution from the assault of the other oppositions. He never understood why they were so invested in arguing that it was a good Constitution or why they seemed to think that they owed it to themselves to do so as if they had been a stakeholder in it becoming the Supreme Law of the land. They weren’t the only ones who urged the people to vote for it in the referendum, he pointed out. The Point did as well knowing that the Constitution was very flawed, he added, but was eager for the country to get out of military rule.
On yet another day, he swore that he would never take part again in any committee or conference empaneled by the government with the purported aim of institutional reform and good governance. He ran through a list of the efforts he had been enlisted in, some convened by the UN bodies and other international agencies in the country, only to watch Yahya Jammeh discard the reports, make a scornful mockery of the democratic process, and cast aspersions on the very idea of democracy itself.
Deyda was pretty much radicalized against Yahya Jammeh at that period. And he had every reason in the world to be all-out confrontational. The despot unveiled what he and his slobbering apologists channeled their inner Orwell to call the Media Commission draft bill. Just as the Constitution provided for an Independent Electoral Commission, it required the government to establish a Media Commission to guarantee the freedom of the press. If Yahya Jammeh had emasculated the Electoral Commission of its independence, his draft bill was to all intents and purposes a death warrant for any concept of free press in The Gambia. The most draconian decrees of his military rule read like kindergarten rhymes compared to this proposed legislation. It was monstrous beyond imagination.
The intent and object of the Media Commission in the Constitution was to ensure that the press had rights that were inviolable to any arbitrary power. Yahya Jammeh, in keeping with his idiosyncratic character of acting contrary to the normal and proper, perverted the letter and spirit of this constitutional provision. He didn’t want to just muzzle the media, he wanted to make sure that he strangulated it in case it continued to inconvenience him.
The irony of the matter was that the media had been the one crying out for the Media Commission. Who could blame them. Given the increasing arrests and attacks on them, they thought that the best remedy for their plight would be the Supreme Law of the land. When Yahya Jammeh couldn’t ignore their screams any longer, he and his newly appointed Minister of Information, Sarjo Jallow, turned around and effectively said to them: Thank you for asking. Here’s a bureaucratic branch of the Big Brother to watch you. Deyda and the rest of the independent press were immediately up in arms. But it wouldn’t be a quick or an even fight. The test of wills would be protracted, and at every turn they would find themselves at a disadvantage against an ever more spiteful despot.
About that time, the next phase of my life was about to begin and I had to move on. Deyda had a mixed reaction when I informed him. He was happy for me that I was about to set sail on a new venture, but sad that I was leaving The Point. I still had few weeks before the goodbyes. The highlight of the interim was the paper’s ninth anniversary party. It wasn’t exactly a Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner, but was nonetheless a boisterous event attended mostly by people in the media. The food was delicious, the music was melodious and the atmosphere was festive. A night of needed escape from the dolorous, daily grind of a journalist in a sham democracy.
The center of attention was unsurprisingly Deyda himself. I was filled with admiration and marvel as he went around acknowledging people and thanking them for coming to celebrate his achievement. When he stopped by me, he pointed at two young men walking about in brisk steps like friends attending a party and told me with a ringing delight that one was his son and the other was the son of Pap Saine, his co-founder of the paper. I didn’t know anything about his family. That happened to be true for most people I met in the public sphere. But the pleasure in his voice could come only from a very proud father.
The Monday after the party, I went back to The Point to submit one of my last articles. Deyda tasked me to find my replacements for the Wednesday column and the Friday book review. He wanted good people, meaning superb writers. I was struck by the fact that the doyen of journalism asked me to bring him talents. What have I done to deserve such honor? Luckily, I didn’t have to think hard or at all. I settled on two buddies, one of them was the best and the brightest of Baddibu I mentioned earlier, and the other was a friend from The Gambia College. I wasn’t surprised by what Deyda left out — the Monday slot — but brought it up nevertheless. He broke into his signature broad smile and replied with relish that he would take over “Good Morning Mr. President” himself.
My friends welcomed the opportunity to write for him and he approved of them. Thus, my stint of a career at The Point, if you can call it that, was over. I returned for a proper farewell. It was coincidentally an evening, about the same hour when I first met him to give him a rejoinder to a book review that caused me so much embarrassment in my classroom, but also fortuitously created the circumstances that led to this brief, remarkable relationship for me. This extraordinarily good man who had given me the opportunity and privilege to purse my passion gave me a small fortune for the venture I was about to embark on. I promised to stay in touch and we shook hands. It would be the last time we saw each other.
Though I never stopped thinking about him and others who had been influential in my life, it took this habitual procrastinator two long years to resume contact. Lesser men would have been upset with me, but Deyda couldn’t be more magnanimous on the phone. He was very delighted to hear from me and pressed me to write articles for The Point. I promised him that I would but was off the grid again for about another two years before calling him the second time. I was glad that he was glad that I called again. It was a good and long chat mostly about Africa. He told me about a recent conference he had attended in South Africa. That almost dominated our conversation.
Thabo Mbeki’s government was facing multiple challenges at the time. Crime was rampant and unemployment was stubbornly too high despite a growing economy. The trade unions were demanding land reform, which meant taking much of land from the white minority and giving it to poor Africans. Such type of land redistribution in neighboring Zimbabwe proved to be a disaster, not least because of punitive Western sanctions. HIV/AIDS was ravaging through South Africa while the multinational pharmaceutical companies were suing the government in the courts for violating their patent rights by purchasing the unauthorized but cheap generic antiretroviral drugs instead of the expensive brands.
Deyda told me he remembered lying in his hotel room in South Africa thinking how it could all go wrong for the country hanging on the precipice. He kept musing to himself a phrase by Letizia Bonaparte. He translated the French quotation for me as “May it last.” Napoleon’s mother, he went on, was worried about strong resentment in France toward her son for being the emperor, given his Corsican background with Italians roots. The anxious mother was known for repeating the phrase to herself anytime she feared that the people might revolt against her son. He found the prayer apt for South Africa’s fragile stability and so kept saying, “May it last.”
We talked about other things and other places, too. Several times we had to pause for him to address matters his staff brought to him. His responses for the most part were gentle and subtle excuses to get rid of them. At one point he told one of them that he was on an important call. That was the first and only time anyone ever used “important” and me in the same sentence. But it did the trick. The only other interruptions we had in our lively chat was his countless reminders to me to write something for The Point.
I meant to fulfill my promise to him but kept procrastinating it. Four months later, on the night of the 13th anniversary of The Point, he was assassinated. It was one of those defining moments you would always remember where you were when you heard momentous news. I was resting in a couch the next morning when my friend from The Gambia College turned on a desktop and stared back at me. His face was a silent scream of shock. I raised my head and saw Deyda’s photo under a BBC headline: “Leading Gambian editor shot dead.” I stared back at the friend but neither of us could find our tongue. Devastated, I slumped back into the couch.
That Friday evening, a friend in Michigan called to inquire if I heard the news. That was when I recovered from my daylong muteness. Another friend in Seattle called me shortly after to express his condolences. He too knew about Deyda and me, and rightly considered me a member of The Point family stricken with inconsolable grief. The American conservatives weren’t wrong about the death penalty, I told him. Who could convince me that the people who shot Deyda should be spared their lives? Before that evening, our political discussions were unwaveringly in favor of liberal positions. I used to cringe at people who defended the death penalty. Nothing could be more inhumane to me until that fateful Friday. That was how the assassination of Deyda changed the world so instantaneously for me. From that point forward, I never refuse to admit the limitations of the soothing idealism of liberals or acknowledge the truth in the unfeeling rhetoric of conservatives. And Americans talking big about living in a free country no longer sounded mere swaggering platitude. It resonated.
More importantly, I re-evaluated my position on Pan-Africanism. While I still fervently believe in the idea and aspiration of a prosperous united Africa, I no longer offload all the blame of our problems to colonialism and its legacy. A continent that produces the likes of Yahya Jammeh, Blaise Compaore, Samuel Doe, Valentine Strasser, Sani Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, J. J. Rawlings, Nino Vieira as leaders by default for half a century, and the likes of Nkrumah and Mandela as the rarest of exceptions, really need to take a hard look at the face in the mirror. I conceded much more to Harmattan than I would have four years earlier when he faulted Africans for killing their own heroes. Why is it that in Africa, more than in any other continent, the wrong people get power most of the time?
My incessant recollections of the news always bring to mind something that had only academic relevance to me until the assassination. Anytime I see crowds pushing and shoving to meet Yahya Jammeh, throngs along the road cheering him, elites and religious figures singing his praises as a great leader who, but for the trappings of power and all the pomp and circumstance, is an avaricious, intemperate and incorrigible criminal with blood dripping from his filthy hands, a dreamlike memory occurs to me.
One morning in form three (third grade in high school), the incomparable Mr. Ceesay was teaching the murder scene in Macbeth and spent a good deal of time explaining to us the speech Macbeth gave when Macduff discovered the slain King Duncan’s body: “…From this instant / There is nothing serious in mortality / All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead / The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees / Is left this vault to brag of.” Though Macbeth, who assassinated Duncan, was being ironic, obfuscating and hypocritical, not unlike Yahya Jammeh giving D10,000.00 to his Information Minister Dr. Amadou Scattered Janneh to pay his condolences to Deyda’s family, the situational meaning characterizes The Gambia under this usurper.
The news of the assassination went global. Reading it in the New York Times, the paper of record, said something about the humble and stoic managing editor who gave it all for a small country. He earned his place in the hall of fame for martyrs. That’s an inspiring consolation for all of us who loved and revered him. When I first met him, greatness was what I felt in his presence. It wasn’t the greatness of fame, power or riches. It was the greatness of courage and spirit. I only knew it after his death.
Much has been speculated about the motive of the assassination. Some people believed that it was because of “Good Morning Mr. President.” It was no secret that Yahya Jammeh hated that column with every element and fiber in his being. He had on more than one occasion sent emissaries to Deyda to stop it but to no avail. The fact that right after the assassination the column disappeared from The Point gave this theory lot of credence. But Yahya Jammeh could have simply shut down The Point as he had done to the Citizen FM, and later to the Independent. Others believed that Deyda was shot because of his unflinching opposition to the new repressive media law. This theory too has lot of purchase with the prevailing reality. But the abhorrent law was passed in the National Assembly two days prior to the assassination despite the dauntless challenge Deyda and others had mounted against it.
And long before the column and the law, Yahya Jammeh had Deyda in his gunsight. Deyda had stated as much in the editorial after the bloody April 10 student demonstration that orders had been given from the top to shot him and his senior scribes if they were spotted in the street covering the violent protest. Reducing the assassination to a particular column or specific law misses the point. Deyda was killed for the dreadful threat he represented to Yahya Jammeh: The idea of freedom. More than any other paper in the country, with the possible exception of Foroyaa, The Point was the publication to go to for people seeking truth about their loved ones murdered or detained by Yahya Jammeh.
How many times had Lt. Saye’s father been given the front page of The Point to dispute the military junta’s claim that his son had died in a firefight at Bakau Military Camp on November 11, a night the two of them spent together in their village? After Capt. Elbow Jallow fled the country as the spokesman of the military junta to the United States, to which newspaper had he faxed his incriminating dossier against Yahya Jammeh? How many times had Lawyer Emmanuel Joof’s mother been covered on the front page of The Point crying for the release of her son held incommunicado? How many times did Waa Juwara get the front page while he was in unlawful custody of Yahya Jammeh? How many times had Dumo Saho’s wife been on the front page expressing her plight about him in indefinite detention along with others? The list is inexhaustible.
Far more than a journalist, Deyda stood for the motto of The Point: Freedom and Democracy. These twin pillars of liberty have always been haunting nightmares to Yahya Jammeh who seized and wielded power with an iron-fist. Deyda’s work and existence embodied freedom. Yahya Jammeh’s ambition for absolute power could only be realized through dictatorship. Irrespective of what the issue of the moment happened to be, Deyda stood for republican ideals against Yahya Jammeh’s propensity for tyranny. The difference — too deep and too wide — was irreconcilable. And since Deyda wouldn’t compromise his principles much less give in, Yahya Jammeh assassinated him. We need no other motive. Whatever incident triggered the shooting was in the scheme of things just incidental.
The assassination exposed Yahya Jammeh for what he has always been: a pitiless despot. In a crude sense, that’s what he wanted. The shooting of Deyda marked the end of debate about freedom and fear in The Gambia. From that day on, not even his most salivating puppets could say with a straight face that the country was ruled according to the law and not by the diktat of a dictator. But having played the tyrant’s folly, he couldn’t escape its consequences. By ending Deyda’s life, he had immortalized him in death. Deyda has since become a household name.
For Yahya Jammeh, it wasn’t supposed to be like that, hence he could sympathize with Ato’s mother Esi in The Dilemma of the Ghost lamenting: “Hureri, Hureri. Oh, the name keeps buzzing in my head like the sting of a witch-bee.” And as a usurper, he couldn’t find a better companion in a fellow traveller Bolingbroke in Henry IV, Part II wallowing in restless thoughts:
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in the hour so rude
And in the calmest and most stillest night
With all appliances and means to boot
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Above all, time is the mortal enemy of every tyrant.
Of all the moving eulogies and tributes paid to Deyda, the best for me was unreported. And it came from someone who had never met him. My friend in Seattle once remarked that Deyda was the most helpful elite figure in the country to a generation of youths given the number of people who cut their teeth in journalism under his auspices. I disagreed somewhat, reminding him that Halifa Sallah, Sam Sarr and their colleagues played big roles as well. He was talking about an individual and not a group, he hastened to clarify. And this friend is a stronger believer in PDOIS than even Sidia Jatta. That was something to say for Deyda.
After the assassination, some people attempted to adopt the column “Good Morning Mr. President.” My friend at the Central Bank urged me to stake my claim to it. I didn’t on the ground that I supported their efforts to keep Deyda’s legacy alive. And I neither needed nor desired public recognition for something that became identified with Deyda. When those efforts failed, I was tempted many times to carry on writing the column in his honor, but couldn’t bring myself anymore to call the thug president. I stated here my role in the history of the column to pay Deyda the truest homage. I gave account of our relationship the way he practiced his profession — by reporting the full story. Anything less would be unjust to his memory.
For ten years now I stopped wondering how the likes of Steve Biko found the courage of their convictions to stand up to brutish regimes and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Deyda, we love and salute you. Rest in Peace.