By Kemo Cham
When in 2019 former hit men of a defunct Gambian security unit -National Intelligence Agency (NIA) – told the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) hearing that Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh had died in police custody, they only confirmed what had been known by many Gambians all along.
What his family and campaigners wanted to know was the exact circumstances surrounding Maaneh’s death and his supposed crime.
For the family, even though they would have loved to see him back, they knew the chance of that happening was impossible.
“All I want them [government] to do is to tell me what happened, so that my heart can be at rest and I can die in peace,” Sarjo Manneh, the late journalist’s nonagenarian father, told me in November 2017, almost one year after the change in government in Gambia and 11 years since the disappearance of his son.
“All I want to know is what happened to my son,” he emphasized.
Chief, as the journalist was affectionately called by his friends and family, was described as a calm and reserved person. He was 28 when he disappeared.
With his disappearance life came to a halt for his family. Dreams of academic careers were destroyed and plans for traveling and businesses cancelled.
Chief was a senior editor at the Daily Observer, The Gambia’s largest publication at the time, the same publication I worked at, although at different times. When I joined the paper in 2007, he had been missing for nearly a year.
Even inside the Daily Observer, there were different versions of stories of what exactly happened.
One account goes that he was investigating something the then President Yahya Jammeh didn’t like. The second version was that he was caught trying to publish an article that was deemed negative for the regime’s image, at a time Gambia was preparing to host the 2006 African Union Summit.
What has been of no doubt is the circumstances in which Manneh left the offices of the Observer never to return. Two plain-cloth officers of the NIA, a highly feared special police unit answerable directly to the president himself, marched into the Observer offices in Bakau one evening and asked the unsuspecting Manneh to go with them.
It was widely believed that the Managing Director of the paper at the time, Dr Saja Taal (late), had invited the NIA after word reached him about the alleged crime of the journalist, which he interpreted as an act of sabotage to his leadership.
Jammeh, a former military Lieutenant who came to power in mainland Africa’s smallest nation in a bloodless coup in 1994, would go on to transform himself into a civilian head of state, contesting and winning four elections, all of them disputed by the opposition. His iron-fist grip on the nation made him a de-facto monarch. He had a particularly strong dislike for the independent press, which he saw as “enemy of development” and he constantly threatened to “deal” with any one who threatened the peace and security of the country.
Many journalists were either jailed, tortured and, in the case of one of the country’s best known journalists, Deyda Hydara, killed, in a brutal fashion. Many other journalists, including myself, were forced to flee the country under these circumstances.
It was therefore almost impossible to come by anyone who knew what happened with Chief Manneh. This is because the few who actually knew something couldn’t dare say anything, for fear of facing the same fate.
Rumors of his death began as early as 2008, but it became apparent after a 2011 statement by the former president directly addressing the issue. While meeting with representatives of the press, Jammeh was quoted saying: “Let me make it very clear that the government has nothing to do with Chief Manneh’s death.” This was after the government had repeatedly denied having anything to do with the journalist’s disappearance, despite repeated sighting of him at various police detention centers across the country by eyewitnesses, including an Amnesty International investigation team.
A very compelling version of report on Manneh’s fate were contained in reports by The Trumpet and The Point newspapers in 2019, which claimed that the journalist died in mid-2008 while being transferred to a hospital from a police station. According to those reports, his remains were buried behind the local police station.
Several local and international human rights organizations petitioned President Jammeh to ensure the safety of Manneh.
In 2008, the regional ECOWAS Community Court of Justice ruled that Manneh’s disappearance was unlawful and ordered the Gambian government to release him and pay him a stipulated amount as financial compensation. Of course, the then Jammeh regime ignored that ruling.
Jammeh was himself forced into exile in 2017 by advancing regional forces of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after he refused to concede defeat in presidential elections held in December 2016. He has since been living in Equatorial Guinea amidst international campaign to bring him to justice.