Last month saw the end of the month long Muslim fasting season of Ramadan and few had their political sensitivities or antenna turned on under that month piety. In fact during whole month politicians, their supporters, party militants and even the party organizations chill out and put all politics on a stand still. So was it last week of fasting the hysteria that usually surrounds the observation of end of Ramadan, the clamour over consumer goods like meat, sugar, clothing, etc, put public affairs, politics, and so on, far down the agenda of public discourse and conversation.
However, in the run-up to the last Eid al Fitr there were widespread fears that the feast would be followed by another wave of arrests of people failing to pray according to the timing set by the intrusive Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh.
So almost every Gambian was really surprised to get to know that instead of the arrests feared Yahya Jammeh was planning to grant an unprecedented amnesty for two hundred and twenty-nine political, death-row and other prisoners as part of his twenty-first July 22nd “revolution” celebrations. But we wrote that what he “was planning,” was not really planned. It wast another of Jammeh’s mercurial whirls, struggling for attention? Or was it a meek attempt to appease international donors and critics in the face of looming international sanctions, or a political master-stroke designed to thrill domestic opinion and confuse his opposition both at home and abroad?
Gambians in general and even political observers and opinion builders appear to be scratching their head in disbelief and wonderment though all appeared to be pleasantly surprised.
It was when he addressed crowds gathered for the celebration of the July 22nd “revolution,” held Wednesday July 22nd at Arch 22 in Banjul, that the Gambian leader announced his decision to grant amnesty to up two hundred and fifty prisoners, including death-row, life-sentenced, drug-convicted and politically-convicted prisoners. The prisoners amnestied were those who were “convicted and imprisoned, during the period from 1994 to 2013, for various specified offences, including treason, murder, and drug trafficking.”
As promised at the time of the announcement on Wednesday the prisoners were released in the appointed time on Friday July 24th at a special ceremony held at the headquarters of the Gambia Prisons Service, Mile Two, outside Banjul. Speaking at the ceremony, Minister of the Interior, Ousman Sonko, and Secretary General, Head of the Civil Service and Minister for Presidential Affairs, Lamin Nyabally and other senior government and security officials spoke, asking the about-to-be-released-convicts to be law-abiding and be “good ambassadors of the country.”
The officials spokes-men, among other things, said that, “The President has turned to a new page.The President has further extended an olive branch to all those in the Diaspora, as well as all political opponents who might have committed crimes, and has asked them to feel free to come home.”
Nyabally added however, that they must “caution that any person who errs on the side of the law will pay the price.”
“The President has a very good heart for you people by deciding to pardon you for whatever crime you have committed; that is why today all of you are going home to be reunited with your families again.”
Nyabally added that “the unexpected gesture of unqualified forgiveness to these ex-convicts by the President, who is a devout Muslim, is worthy of emulation and appreciation by all.”
Because there was no roll call or person-audit, the Kairo News correspondent wrote , it could be assumed that there were really two-hundred and fifty persons until when official commentaries began the bringing the figure down to two hundred and twenty-nine prisoners about a week later. But our correspondent later put it to what he wrote as “probable logistical or bureaucratic in-exactitudes.” Other detractors say “many who Jammeh thought are still alive might have died naturally in jail or due to hash conditions of the prisons or the treatments meted out to inmates.”
One informant told us that “not all those released here were based in Mile Two, many were brought in late Thursday night or early this Friday from Kanilai, Hollgam, and other secrete detention centres and torture chambers.”
Whatever, the informant gave the names of some he saw being definitely released who included the following:
Former Inspector General of Police, Ensa Badgie, was “only a little emaciated and looked in jolly mood freely chatting with former NIA-agent turned diplomat Ngorr Secka, who also looked relaxed.” Lamin Jobarteh “looked like he really was not sure they were not being lined-up for the firing squad. “ I could not at first make out Pa Harry Jammeh, former Solicitor General, walking side-by-side with Dr Njogou Bah, former Secretary General and Head of the Civil Service and Presidential Affairs minister, who looked relaxed enough I thought,” he added.
There were all the March 26th 2006 gang, including Ex-Accountant General Alieu Jobe, jailed for 20 years; Alagie Nying, who was going for 10 years; Captain Bunja Darboe, former army PRO; Captain Yaya Darboe, Captain Wassa Camara and Private Pharing Sanyang, who were all on life after being convicted of treason. Captain Abdoukarim Jah, sitting for 20 years; Captain Pierre Mendy, sitting for 10 years were among this gang.
“I could neither make out nor remember Lt. Landing Sanneh, convicted of treason, and jailed for 16 years in the year 2000. Lt General Lang Tombong Tamba, the former CDS looked good and well taken care of, and it could be seen that he still enjoyed much reverence from his Jola kinsmen both in the army and the prison police. Abdoulie Joof, civilian and private businessman looked much better than rumours had previously suggested. Alleged co-plotters, Lt Colonel Kawsu Camara; Bo Badjie, ex-Director General NIA; Momodou Gaye, Ex-deputy IGP; Brigadier General Omar Mbye; all jailed for life for the alleged treason but least-convincing December 2009 coup-plot planning.
The mass of the released were said to also include forty-six foreign nationals jailed for diverse types of crimes including murder and narcotics. They were all said to be set for immediate deportation to their respective countries. Surprisingly and alarmingly enough, they include the cocaine convicts from Holland and Venezuela, caught with a record catch of over two metric tons of pure cocaine smuggled in from South America, and probably destined for the European market. That this gang was among the released naturally raised eye-brows in some seasoned places making some speculating if the South American convicts, perhaps backed by powerful cocaine cartels are not the real target of this “amnesty exercise.”
There are no sufficient evidences to back up such suspicion, one observer noted, but it is not too far fetched. Even before the treason trial against Lang Tombong and the others was concluded, co-accused Youssef Ezzedine ( alias, Rambo], a Lebano-Gambian businessman, was bought out by members of a visiting official Kuwaiti delegation from his jail-room where he had been kept in remand, straight to the five-star Sheraton hotel, then to Banjul international airport and out to Kuwait City, leaving his co-accused persons out in the lurch. Now, if Rambo, alleged to be part of planning a coup plot, could be sold out for petro-dollars in the millions without much moral qualms being wasted on it, why not two or three Venezuelan members of a Latino drug cartel for even bigger cuts of cocaine dollars?
I will tell why, because the nature of the circumstances surrounding the unravelling of the USD2 billion cocaine case of June 2010. It came at a time when the whole world had its eyes on the then booming cocaine trade in West Africa. The United Nations had its agency on narcotic drugs specially monitoring the whole region especially Guinea Bissau, then virtually a narco-state.
But the classical prototype of a narco-state was one dysfunctional and unruly like Guinea Bissau following a number coups and counter-coups with an army unpaid for months. This creates a natural environment for the growth and sustenance of rampant crime of all sorts because there is no centre that can hold firm against the inducement of crime chiefs.
But there is also a non-classical fertile land for economic crimes, and that is a place kept frozen and therefore stable under the iron-grip of a one-man tyrant, and that was what Gambia was without much international notice. So it could be said that while Guinea Bissau was a nacro-state destabilized, Gambia was a stable narco–state and the South American drug cartels were among those who realized this early.
But not early enough as the US and UK authorities who for long had eyes on the Gambia and were aware of the fact that President Jammeh got his hands into illegal narcotic affairs from early in his head-of-state career when even the narco-state was yet to be coined and remained unknown
. Back in 1995 United States Drug Enforcement Agency agents followed a ship carrying a container-load of heroine from Cambodia. The container was destined for the port of Banjul but was forced to be off-loaded at the transit port of Nouakchott in Mauritania. The agents then found out that the shipping documents stated that it was addressed to the then ministry of Agriculture, then so called the Department of Sate for Agriculture, in Banjul and that it contained fertilizers That too was a record catch and the matter still remains unresolved almost twenty years later.
Later from 2005 both Brits and Americans had also observed that Banjul used to offer temporary sanctuary for many of the Bissau drug-lords when they were in need of it. Guinea Bissau military big brass and alleged drug-lord now under US custody, Admiral Bubu Amerigo, spent time in Banjul as guest of the state in 2009.
Remember too that the Wednesday June 2nd 2010 raid on the cocaine warehouse in Bonto, an island about 40 km outside Banjul was an initiative, not of the exclusive operation of Gambian authorities, but of the British SOCA , Serious and Organized Crime Agency. While news of the record catch was on BBC World news already on Friday 4th June 2010, the Gambian authorities tried to sit on the news until on Wednesday 14th June 2010, spinning it as a Gambian police affair with some technical help from the UK police.
After the case, British diplomats based in Banjul never let up on their watch over the seized cocaine that was used as exhibits in the hurriedly executed trials. The authorities in Banjul tried as much as they could dragging-feet on destroying the seized drugs even after they had been used as exhibits for the trials. The embassy had to rudely even make a well-publicized donation of new modern incinerator to the then National Drug Enforcement Agency (NDEA).
The Bonto cocaine case was really revealing. The volume of the narcotic drug involved, the industrial scale of the operations, the size of infrastructure, with speed boats, diving suits and all paraphernalia involved, made it hard to believe that it could have been carried out without any local Gambian participation. Failure to trace any such connection could only call to mind what in Mandinka says when the chief drummer has foot over his supposedly lost whistle, it can never be found. That no native Gambian was known to have been arrested and interrogated by the Gambian police points to either of two possibilities: either that there was really no native Gambian accomplice altogether, a very unlikely ; or that the accomplice(s) must be highly placed in Gambian society not be liable to probing by official investigators. Now who is today placed highest in the hierarchy of power, authority and influence in Gambia? President Jammeh of course. Who, at the time was the most named suspect of involvement in the hard-drug business in the country? President Jammeh, of course.
In court cases against former Inspector General of Police, Ensa Badgie, one Silaba Samateh, testifying against Badgie alleged to have been told by the former police chief that he was selling cocaine for President Jammeh. In the same trial, one Nigerian –born prosecution witness alleged to have been told by Samateh that ex-IGP Badgie was peddling cocaine for the Gambian president. Idrusu added that he was told by Samateh that in fact more of the presidential cocaine, was on its way through Mali. In the middle of Samateh’s cross-examination, after having revealed that he owed President Jammeh personally Euro 750 000 and settled that through the sale of a property he owned in Latrikunda German and the case was adjourned for continued cross-examination, Samateh jumped ship and managed to re-surface in Holland in a feat that surprised many. So linking the name of President Jammeh with the Bonto cocaine case is not too far fetched and suspicions by Western authorities was not idle.
President Jammeh is well aware of the watch and suspicions of the two Western drug enforcement authorities, that was why he could not just sell the Dutch and Latino cartel members without incurring the wrath and further fussy investigations like he did with Rambo, the Lebano-Gambian prisoner he let go in 2010.
But when traded off under the smoke-screen of a general amnesty, especially letting go his political opponents, death-row inmates in their hundreds in the name of “turning into a new page,” it can be turned to a master-stroke. A multi-purpose master stroke that can dazzle and win over both domestic and international public opinion, repair the damages of international negative publicity and even win back friends, and help in restoring both relationship and cocaine dollar as ransom money for freeing the cartel members.
It is that cocaine dollar, more than any “love of Allah” that is likelier to have pushed Jammeh to this amnesty, we believe. Jammeh shies from no crime that can bring him cash. His twenty-year rule is a long catalogue of crimes, particularly economic and self-enrichment crimes. Jammeh has had his hands on all, blood diamond, gun racketeering, crack, heroine and cocaine. Jammeh has been in partnership with internal world-class gun-runner, Victor Booth. He bought or got Booth’s Millennium Airline plane in 2000 at a time when the notorious international gangster was being spied on and followed by all Western intelligence agencies. Jammeh and his then partner and facilitator, the late Baba Jobe, have all been the subject of a special United Nations panel of experts on blood diamonds and illegal arms trade. At the time of the drug burst in 2010, Jammeh was already hand in gloves with Iranian arm merchants selling arms to Bagbo’s forces during Ivory Coast civil war, to rebel forces in the Casamance, rebels in the Nigerian Delta region rebel uprising.
Finally though politics cannot be said to be a science, but perhaps an art form, or better say a craft, one of leadership or manipulation, it can hardly be called craft of random impulses and practices. Most politics is planning, designing and manipulating a set of actions to serve a desired purpose. But it is only human and therefore liable to what can be suspected to be spontaneous impulses. There was nothing in Jammeh’s politics, practice, record, his rhetoric, his self portrait, all throughout his twenty-one year rule that could be identified as carrying the seed or the sign of such coming magnanimity like the general amnesty declared on the 22nd July 2015. Equally there was nothing in the chain of events preceding the declaration that any such “change to a new page.” Just weeks earlier Jammeh forced through an electoral bill that serves to kill the chances for competitive multi-party politics in the country. A day after the amnesty declaration, Jammeh’s NIA agents again picked up community FM radio Teranga Director, Mr. Ceesay, for the second time in two weeks. This was a day before the prisoner release. Does that look like a turn to new page?