My Encounter With The “Butcher Kanilai”

A pervasive breeze of freedom graced the Gambian atmosphere from Sabi to Berending, it was like a parrot freed from a cage ushered into its natural habitat. Even if the cage was made of diamonds, that was immaterial as the value of freedom is unquantifiable. The butcher of Gambia is vanquished in a remarkable fashion even though remnants of his terror agonises the memory of many families in various ways.

Never again will a bunch of half-baked soldiers with a dubious family heritage shall be allowed to hold the reign of power in the Gambia again inshallah. Yaya Jammeh’s terror transcends tribe, region and socio-economic groupings albeit it permeates the entire Gambian populace.

Yaya, the merchant death and his notorious and disgraceful NIA perfected the art of torture, intimidation and exploitation. They were callous to the core, respect no one, from the religious leaders to the ordinary people and operated above the law of the land.  They kill with impunity, they torture to maim for life, they exploit businesses to financial incapacitation, despicable serial sadist who prey on even older women. What a hideous organisation that celebrate human suffering, turning Gambia into an open prison where no one dare speaks his mind. And Bambadinka, an unforgettable dungeon that many a victim will carry its scars to their graves.

That dungeon, that leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of its victims should be preserved for posterity. It should be preserved a historical reminder of brutal epoch in annals of Gambian history.

The changes at NIA should be deep and decisive. There has to be cultural changes and this requires leaders equipped with not only intelligence background but those with good management skills to drive cultural changes. If not NIA will remain a potent threat not only the citizenry but even the coalition leadership including the president.

Over the years NIA had perfected not only the art of torture but poisoning its perceived opponents as well. They can poison the drinks of coalition leaders through their secretaries. We all know money can buy anything in Africa.

Yaya’s rule of terror was epitomised by human torture as well as economic torture and social re-engineering. For the last 22 years, he inserted his tribesmen in every sector of the economy and institutions to be the drivers and shapers. From Gamtel to Ports Authority, security services, social security, name it, a Jola hegemony was taking shape. He created a new and intricate Jola bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, this bourgeoisie was not prepared to be economically resilient and self-perpetuating, it was reliant entirely on the patronage and comradeship of Yaya Jammeh.

Economic torture was established to incapacitate would-be financial challengers, kill entrepreneurship and degenerated enterprise so that he alone would be the one stop shop for varieties of commodities. He crowded out competitors in acquiring cheap finance and monopolise all business sectors from petrol, to rice, meat water, transport name it yet he paid no taxes to benefit our chancery. It begs to believe how a pauper amazed So much wealth in two decades.

This was not the Yaya Jammeh I met on the floor of the Gambian Treasury at Accountant General’s Department. That was Yaya we thought represented hope for a new Gambia that would engender progress, justice, freedom and economic opportunity for all irrespective of social label.

I still remember on 22 July 1994, as the events unfolded, I was in Treasury at Accountant General’s Department that auspicious morning. My friend Mustapha called me to know whether I was aware of what was going on. Suddenly there was a near pandemonium, confusion abound, everyone started murmuring and noise of phones calls perverted the offices. The events transformed so quickly, one after another. We saw uniform officers in  confusion and they motioned us to leave the Quadrangle. I went to the computer room to see my friend Mustapha to strategise how to go home. We were told the Denton bridge was closed and vehicles were not allowed to leave Banjul and all telephone lines were dead. We decided to go to the ferries to go to Nuimi and stay there till the dust cleared and later hire a canoe to ferry us to Lamin. As we pass state house, there was palpable sense of anxiety among staff and guards, no one seems to have courage to defend the state house, reality of a military  coup dawned on us. Civil servants in that area moved in different directions and much confusion apparent on their faces. We passed by Buckle Street only to see slim policemen with dusty and antiquated rifles amateurishly flung in their shaky hands. I thought to myself if these guys would be defending the police headquarters then it was done deal. We headed to ferry terminal only to see two ferries were full to capacity and were already in the waters whilst attempts were being made by army marines to escort them back to base. We knew there was no chance. Those days mobile phones are for the rich and it would have been useless as tool because lines weren’t working. All kinds of thoughts inundated my mind. Darboe wasn’t a coward but just strategizing  to escape the potential  conflagration that normally happens when coups take place. News came that cars were now allowed so we boarded a government vehicle to join the slow agonising journey to Serrekunda.

Yaya dashed hope of a new Gambia where equality, justice and opportunity for all will be assured for all irrespective of tribe.

New era of accountability and probity will not only be mere slogans but implanted in our collective consciousness as a key panacea to economic progress for our nation with so much potentials.

Little did we know the initial sweet words would quickly evaporate, because an era of unflinching dictatorship characterised by economic usurpation, unchecked greed, human rights violation and institutionalised torture was germinating under our nose.

My first encounter with then Lt. Yaya Jammeh gave me no sense of what was to come. He appeared calm and collected, to be frank rather thoughtful or what would appear to a casual observer as a man with percipience.

Without doubt, masked under that initial gentle demeanour which I wrongly perceived was a vicious manipulator, a recalcitrant dictator, a tribal bigot and man with insatiable love for wealth, self- mystification, in many ways surpassed Idi Amin and Sadam Hussein, former Presidents of Uganda and Iraq, respectively.

At treasury all entrances were manned as I came down from control unit with vouchers in my hand. John Mendy I knew while in school was at the entrance to the treasury holding an AK47 professionally, motioned me not to enter. John was a brother to my school friend Sang Mendy from Kunkujang Mariama and I used to hang out in their home in Bakoteh. That day he was a different John Mendy. It seemed he could even shoot me if I dared to enter the treasury.

Members of the junta came in for their departmental visits at the infant stages which I thought was not only for acclimatisation but  to stamp their mark on the departments to get ready for new dispensation.

At that moment our own security guard intervened, he wasn’t scared of John who appeared to ignore my pleading to enter. Finally I was let into my office, looking straight in the treasury hall, there was Yaya Jammeh, Sana Sabally, Edwarf Singhateh and if my recollections fail me not, the fourth was Sadibou Hydara. Introducing staff and their roles was may principal accountant Ndey Yassin Jagne (May Allah have mercy on her soul). Sana was asking where I was and I saw a colleague pointing at me. There he is coming. I came face to face with the junta, just a span between us. Sana asked me where I had been and why I did not ask permission from my principal accountant. He went berserk, lecturing me about administrative procedures, need for control and coordination and that they intended to do to institute a new sense of duty and responsibility in the civil service. I explained to him that I had to take vouchers to control unit for a second signature after first signature by my principal accountant. Our procedures were that, we don’t need our principal accountant’s permission to go up for second signature. Sana insisted that at any moment our head of unit must know where we were. I tried to reason with him but Sana wouldn’t have it. Yaya calmly said, “leave the boy, he is doing his job according to their tradition.” From that moment I had admiration for him, I thought we have a beacon of hope.

Singhateh was my classmate for two years in sixth Form in Gambia High School but to my utter dismay he pretended he knew me not. Our maths teacher Mr Jasemato used to call him, if I could remember, Freetown Fire Force or Freetown Fire Service. He said he would get FFF or FFS in his A’ levels. Singhateh was a quiet guy who could hardly kill a fly but little did we know he will become a deadly snake.

My initial misgivings about the Junta commenced when I wa promoted to senior accountant position and acting as principal accountant at the control unit under Amadou Sanneh the Accountant General at the time. It was then I was made signatory to big transactions. The junta fixed their eye on Accountant General’s external deposit account in Natwest Bank UK which I was a signatory. That account was used to purchase items for government especially special stationary which were not readily available in the Gambia at that time. That account was depleted quickly and the Junta at that time entertained no questioning and proper documentation. The slogan or should I say catch word of accountability and probity and notion of “soldiers  with difference” was gradually thrown out of the window.

My second misgiving was at the Alkali commission.  A group was constituted from accountant General’s department to provide Information on financial improprieties of Jawara’s ministers and top civil servants including the former Accountant General Abu  Denton. They want quick news to tarnish the images of the Jawara ministers to prove that Jawara presided over a corrupt regime and the coup d’etat was justified.

We first look at the loans issued to minister, parliamentarians, directors etc. and the impress given to ministers when they travel overseas.

All minsters and parliamentarians were granted a building and car loan (if I can recollect D200,000 and D100,000 respectively at 9% interest). It was cheap loan with the objective that ministers can build houses to meet the need of their constituency responsibilities. It is a fact that many ministers and MPS host members of their constituencies and lot of students for that matter. I remember Mbemba Jatta and Malang Saho who hosted many students.

The loans were legally issued to ministers and MPS at the beginning of a new parliamentary term and recovered from their salaries over a five year period. I remembered even Sheriff Dibba and NCP MPS used to have the loan. That time a minister’s salary was D5000 with constituency allowance of D833, and other allowance amounting to nearly D3000. Ordinary MPS was D2500 with constituency allowance and Parliamentary secretaries and leader of opposition D3500. These were bona-fide loans approved my the Minister of Finance and Accountant General.

We provided them with loan balances of all minister and MPs and to my surprise they used that information to embark on media offensive to portray these loans as evidence of corruption which was not the case. The loans were genuine and were being recovered from their salaries.

They did not only start tarnishing the names of the ministers but also seized their compounds. When I was compiling the list of unretired impress I came across the voucher for B B Darboe for a impress given to him which if I could remember he stayed at Carlton hotel in UK, he attached most of the receipts except one yet I put it in the list however when we went to the commission, I was sitting close to Alkali, the big man himself and forwarding the vouchers, my conscience couldn’t take it, I hid B B Darboe’s part retired impress.  The same thing I did for OJ and Mbemba Jatta my own MP. To me these unretired impresses like the loans that are not evidence of corruption by any stretch of imagination. How could a minister obtain receipt for tip he gave to a hotel doorman or airport Porter. I knew it was ridiculous exercise and even my boss Amadou Sanneh and the new Finance ministers were unconvinced but he dare not disobey the junta at that time. Mr Sanneh, a man of exemplary character and high sense of decorum, made it abundantly clear that those loans were legitimately acquired and are payable over the life of the parliament but the Junta wouldn’t have it.

OJ was a remarkable minister whose generosity, kindness to members of his constituency was well known.  After 5pm when he closed from work, people especially young men thronged his compound near Sunukerr and he will eat with the crowd, I have seen that with my own eyes. So was Mbemba Jatta and I can say the same for Malang Saho.
As far as I was concerned, the Junta was disingenuous to soil the name of the ministers and to seize their compounds, which to me was a daylight robbery. They were bent on character assassination and that disillusioned me, and I realise that the epitaph of soldiers with difference was a mere slogan and a disingenuous balderdash.

I envisaged my mister Mbemba Jatta looking at me at far end of the commission room with utter consternation and a palpable fear over his face. We did our best at that crucial time to present the truth at the Alkali commission, which we all know came to nothing.

So much money was spent for nothing. It was not value for money commission. Later other commission chairmen (the short and big head Ghanaian whose name I can’t recollect) was using his position to benefit himself. He used to ask for petrol coupons more than what was allocated and I used to argue with Mr Sanneh for them to sign for the coupons before we could issue them, which to my utter dismay they flatly refused. It was a case of a “policeman becoming the thief”.

There were other things that I can’t relate for reasons best known to me. One of the many reasons Amadou Sanneh was fired unceremoniously was that he didn’t want to be complicit in their nefarious activities to plunder our nation quicker than the public would imagine.

Folks the adage of “Gambia without Jawara fear us” could not have been so poignantly articulated by Yaya regime and Yaya himself.

Mr sanneh or rather Amadou as he was fondly called was an excellent administrator who knows how institute “changes” in an organisation. He was one of the first Gambians to have combined Chartered Accountancy and an MBA. If I remember very well, he was the first non-Banjul Accountant General for whom according to grave-vine was groomed by President Jawara to become the Accountant General but was side-lined by the powerful Banjul lobby. Without exaggeration, he mastered the art of designing effective and efficient workflow system, a man of figures and prolific administrative abilities. Mr Sanneh was a team worker with great abilities, with a sharp analytical mind who can quickly synthesis financial data into meaningful information. The junta was not looking for such Gambians with their own mind and independence of judgement.

Yaya’s legacy is one a leader can be proud of and it’s one that skated on tears and blood. Indiscriminate torture, disappearance, economic plunder and poor quality education, I guess one of the greatest privilege or shall I say right usurped by Jammeh regime was the aura of freedom, to talk freely without fear of being arrested. We took this for granted in the Jawara era but today we know the value.

Dictatorship is a disease that grows in stages. If soldiers who gave way to Yaya knew he would betray them and their aspirations to turn Gambia into prosperous country, they would not have let him lead.

Alhamdullillah we close Yaya’s chapter in peace but the scar of his vicious rule still haunts many families and a truth and reconciliation commission should be instituted to heal those wounds. To my mind people who participated or authorised heinous crimes should be investigated and prosecuted.  People like NIA boss, Ousman Sonko and the former vice president should not be availed the reconciliation process because their role in enabling Yaya’s carnage was an affront to humanity.

Never again shall we put our guards down anllow a person of ambiguous heritage to rule over us, never again…never, neverrrrr……. inshallah. If anything, Yaya’s regime was trial and food for thought for everyone. Food for thought indeed.

In my subsequent articles, I will look at Gambian Accounting and Financial system, the treasury, the revenue collection system, internal controls and accountant General Department’s relationship with the Central Bank, Departments and Governor’s offices in the Jawara era.

I will look at Auditor Generals Department not as an insider but an outsider. They had fine boys at that time in the persons of Nuru Jobe, Baba Njie, Sheik Jobe, Karamba Touray. They provided good reports but no subsequent action would taken by the executive because those days it was Banjul maslaha (compromise).

Also if time permits the office of the Secretary General which was manned by the powerful Sara Janha. I think that office needs to be revamped and split. The Secretary General to my mind should not be head of civil service and again double as Secretary to the president. We have seen how secretary Generals in YAYA era became political arm of the president. Presidents come and but civil service stays.

Finally the myth of TERRI KAFO, the subtle competition for control of state resources and positions between Banjul bourgeoisie and provincial dominant powers. Each wanted positions, goodies for their constituents. All sides prepared for Jawara aftermath but their hopes were wrestled by entry of Jammeh. Thr new players came into the scene, the Jola bourgeoisie or Jola Sepremacy.


Lamin Darboe



One Comment

  1. You write “Never again will a bunch of half-baked soldiers with a dubious family heritage shall be allowed to hold the reign of power in the Gambia again inshallah”.

    As the saying goes, be careful of what you wish for. It might just have come true for the Gambia our homeland – has one set of elites come to replace another set of elites??. From the many allegations of weellings and dealings, the many appointments, etc coming out of the newspapers, one is tempted to ask: could it be that the Gambia, our homeland has just jumped out of the frying pan straight into the fire?