Interviews & Guests on African Outlook
A day with Fatou Jaw Manneh, Gambia's Iron Lady
A day with Fatou Jaw Manneh, Gambia's Iron Lady
Call her the Gambia's Iron Lady, you won't miss it! Fatou Jaw Manneh is a well known figure in the US Gambian community. Popularly known as the "Dame of the Flaming Pen", Fatou's writing has caused a lot of stir in Gambia.
Fatou has been living in the USA since gaining political asylum in 1994, following the coup that brought President Yahya Jammeh to power. She was an avid contributor to the US-based opposition website AllGambian.net, and a prolific writer who has been fighting against injustice in her home country, Gambia.
Fatou has penned several articles critical of the regime of the Gambian president and the criticisms have not come without a price.
On March 28, 2007, she was arrested at the Gambian international airport after arriving home from her US base to pay her last respects to her dad who had just passed away.
The bone of contention was an interview she gave in which she accused President Jammeh of 'tearing our beloved country to shreds' and called him a 'bundle of terror'.
The interview was first published in the now banned bi-weekly newspaper,The Independent in June 2004, and later published on several websites, including AllGambian.net in October 2005.
She had to go through a painful year and a half long seditious trial. At the end of the trial, she was handed a four year jail term or an option of paying $12,000 in fines.
Through friends and family, she was able to pay her fine and has since resumed her normal life in the US where she now hosts a popular website: Maafanta.com which focuses on politics, health, education and general welfare.
In this interview, Fatou touches base with African Outlook's Wasiu Sodeinde on numerous African issues ranging from her experience in Gambia to the perceptions of Gambians towards Nigeria especially as it borders on allegations that the Nigerian government assisted in plotting the 1994 coup in Gambia that ushered in the reign of Yahya Jammeh, a 29 year old army Lieutenant who has since clung to power. Happy reading:
African Outlook: Would you first tell us a little about yourself? Where were you born and what is your background in journalism?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: I was born in Sukuta/ Foni Bulock, Gambia, West Africa. I was a journalist for a short time for the daily Observer, owned and managed by Kenneth Y. Best, an exiled Liberian journalist. I am more of a commentator or contributor, but I still practice some journalism. I publish Maafanta.com.
African Outlook: Were you a political activist before coming to US...what influenced your decision to go into activism?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: I did not see it as political activism at the time, I was young and inexperienced. But yes, I was speaking my mind during the Dauda Jawara years too. We were helpless. Motivation came from witnessing what was going on in my surroundings. The future was bleak if you are coming from a poor background like some of us. I remember I sat contemplating, with my brother and his friends, wondering where are we going to get a job in this world called Gambia rife with nepotism, corruption, and serious government irresponsibility? No jobs for school leavers. I knew a whole lot of brilliant students, A-Level graduates with no jobs. If you don’t know anyone in the top offices, you don’t get a job, much less dream about scholarship or any chance whatsoever to further your education. I had my brother who taught me how to brew tea/attaya, play Scrabble, listen to all kinds of music; mostly Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh and all the heavyweight reggae kings. Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up, stand up for your rights' was a favorite. Plus he introduced me to reading political materials and holding arguments, taking and receiving blows.
Interesting times, but Jawara was not arresting and killing Gambians at random. While his presidency was not all too rosy or hopeful, he had a cooler head than this brutal nonentity we have now as president.
African Outlook: Some newspaper staff were arrested over an article you wrote in one of the oppositions' newspapers in your country. Was there a warning sign that you were going to be arrested before you went back to your country in 2007 or did the arrest come as a shock?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: I was caught off guard to tell you the truth, but not shocked, given the hostility towards journalists in the country. Two Journalists were shot dead, and one is still missing, so the arrest was not a shock.
African Outlook: Can you recount your experience during the incarceration and trial for sedition by the government?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: It was a very difficult time for me. It is not easy when all of a sudden, you are restricted to an unhealthy facility. The emotional and mental torture was tough. I had to sleep in a mosquito infested room. I was red like a tomato from all the mosquito bites. No sleep. Thank God I did not fall sick after six days of detention.
The sedition trial was like watching a movie, I'm like, For real? Am I going through this in my own country? So much has changed after this military takeover. You see judges just being pawns and dictated to. So they choose to side with the dictator, and send citizens to jail for all kinds of libel and seditious charges. I had to pay about 10,000 dollars within two hours or go to jail for four years with hard labor.
African Outlook: Since being released and back in the US, I realize you have not relented in your efforts to criticize the government of Yahya Jahmeh...are you not afraid that you may be arrested again if you ever venture back to Gambia?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Actually for some of us now, it is “till death do us part” with Jammeh and his government. Yaya Jammeh is becoming more dangerous, more corrupt than ever. Gambians are being detained, jailed and killed at random. Gambians have never seen such a leader and hope he is the last of his kind in the country. So we are leaving no stone unturned, in exposing the atrocities, cruelty, lawlessness and corruption. 'Inshallah', God willing. I will go back to Gambia, whenever I please and next time around, it will be a different fight I promise you that. Inshallah
We do not sleep, we cannot go home. Jammeh cannot sleep and cannot hide anywhere or hide anything, Inshallah. We are going toe to toe with him. God willing. No, I am not scared to go back home. The anti-Jammeh crusade continues.
African Outlook: Is he corrupt too?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Yes, Yaya Jammeh is one of the richest and most corrupt leaders in Africa. He is selling everything in Gambia, from bananas to bread to meat. He is trafficking drugs in the country, he is an arms runner; name it our leader is involved in it. Ironically, he said he came to power to clean the system of corruption. Now he is a million times richer than the former government and all its leaders combined. He called for government accountability, and probity, but all who probed in his government are either dead, jailed or have fled the country. He kills if you probe. The guy is the most brutal and blatant liar of all the Gambian sons I have seen.
We just discovered a mansion he bought in the Potomac area in Maryland, USA for about four million dollars, about 100 million in the Gambian currency, and spends one million dollars yearly in taxes and other expenses to maintain the house. He also owns a bank and several businesses. We are going to trail his wealth all over the US, and put down evidence that he is a kleptocrat and all assets should be seized. We are following it up to find out how he was able to buy those. I can assure you, it is from ill-gotten wealth.
African Outlook: Your email account has been hacked, as mentioned on your website. Do you think the Jammeh government is behind it?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Yes, my personal email account has been hacked. This is the second time, and it may be the work of Yahya Jammeh and his cyber terrorists, or maybe some curious, inquisitive and low self esteem folks sniffing on me. I will not give details, but it has been reported to the appropriate authorities. The findings will be laid bare when the time comes.
African Outlook: How would you rate the judicial system in Gambia?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: The judicial system is at its lowest ebb in Gambian history. Lawyers and judges have no say in the courts. They are not independent at all. Even the lawyers are scared now. Jammeh single handedly has brought all our men and almost the whole country to its knees. They cannot execute cases according to the law, but according to what appeases the Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh. They are almost handicapped in all cases involving the Gambian government. Government has encroached on their independence in deliberating on cases. Now that is scary. They are not spared of threats either, "Do as I say or the same applies to you." Jammeh would not blink at throwing any lawyer in jail or trying to kill you. He is a dangerous and heartless dictator. He will do whatever it takes to keep himself in power. Let the blood flow is his mantra.
Even poor, older folks who he says or suspects are witches or practicing witchcraft, were all dragged and drugged, all in the name of protecting his presidency. No law or lawyer was available to defend them. Have you seen that anywhere? Not sure even Idi Amin preyed upon the poor folks like that.
African Outlook: I remember that most of the top judicial positions in Gambia were at a point held by Nigerians and some Gambians trained in Nigeria. Is the situation still the same?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Yes, we have a lot of Nigerian lawyers and judges in the country, yes and also Nigerian trained Gambian lawyers.
African Outlook: What is the attitude of an average Gambian towards Nigerian government? You may wonder why I asked this question. My reason is based on the premise that sometime in 1994, a Nigerian military officer, by the name of Col Lawan Gwadabe was alleged to have been the mastermind of the coup that brought to power, Mr Yahya Jammeh...one wonders whether Gambians do sometimes blame the root cause of the problems being perpetrated by the present government on Nigeria. Do Gambians have any animosity towards Nigerians?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: No. Gambians have no animosity toward Nigerians, Nigerian lawyers or military personnel. Yes, I also read that at some point during the Jawara regime, some Nigerian military personnel were given priority over some competent Gambian military which did not go down well with the Gambian military. Yes, Nigerian military was part of the grievances that brought about the Jammeh military coup, but Gambians have no animosity towards Nigerians in general, What we could not fathom though, is the Gambian government using Nigerian lawyers and judges to unlawfully jail Gambian citizens. Yes, we raised our concerns over that and we still do, but Nigeria, with all its issues, is still big brother in West Africa and I hope the Nigerian government, military, and lawmakers keep that in mind. We would love for positive assistance and collaborations in all factors to continue and not allow for any brutal government to use them otherwise. We hate Jammeh importing Nigerian judges to jail Gambians.
We do not appreciate Nigerian lawyers and judges slapping the most ridiculous charges on Gambians just to make Yahya Jammeh happy. It is not lawful, neither is it African, we are suppose to look out for each other, be each other’s keeper.
I will like to add here that the Nigerian movie industry is very popular in Gambia. Everywhere you go, you see Nigerian movies. Even in villages. Nigerian actors are always invited to Gambia, to meet their fans.
African Outlook: Why is there little focus on Gambian social-political issue in international media? Does it mean there is less agitation for democracy among the vast majority of Gambians both home and abroad?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Gambia is a very small country, we do not have vast resources that will attract powerful western governments to pay much attention to us with their media houses. At the end of the day, it is all about protecting their interests. Gambians have no history of political upheavals and apart from the history of some Gambians, who left for Burma war/ World war II, and the 1981 coup that did not last long, there was never a political upheaval, so all this Yahya Jammeh brutality is new in Gambia and Gambians are wishing it away than strategically, or politically and democratically doing any significant efforts towards making it history. It is changing but slowly. Yes, we lack that agitation at home or abroad that we see from other folks from different parts of the world or Africa. But we are trying.
African Outlook: It was reported even by most International media that he was going to be crowned King. How is that prospect coming up for him? Why are Gambians crowning him King?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Gambians in the Diaspora were all baffled at that reports too. I don’t know why any sane Gambian will crown such a brutal nonentity King. Why should anyone bow down to Jammeh and his offspring will be the new wonder of Gambia. For that to come up in the Gambia in the 21st century is disheartening for us too. Hope he does not graduate to that.
African Outlook: I read somewhere that he has developed antidotes for curing the dreaded AIDS, do you believe he can cure AIDS?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: NO I do not believe he can even cure a headache Sir. Why not he cures himself then. Sir, the guy is coo coo, he is on medication, cannot cure himself how can he cure AIDS? His body is jam-packed with all kinds of ailments. Why does he have to shop for doctors in US and Europe, when he is a traditional doctor and a religious genius of Gambia, and can cure everything? Why does he have to import witch hunters to expose Gambian witches if he has all that traditional and super natural powers. He is a fool. Don’t listen to all he says?
African Outlook: But some say he uses the Holy Quran and some fruits to cure AIDS?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: I said he is Coo Coo. He does not understand the Holy Quran sir. Not a single Verse from this holy book he points, parades and party with. May God forgive his ignorance. Teach any Christian the shortest Surah Iklas in the Quran, in an hour; he/she will catch it. No luck with Jammeh! They have been teaching him..they've been teaching this guy for eternity and he cannot still catch one phrase in the Quran. So he is abusing Islam.
He can go on Gambia TV and recite Fatiha to us sil vou plait? If he disputes.
Did you ever hear him even say Allahuma Salli Allah SaidyNaa Muhammaddin or Wa la Ha Wala Wa la Kuwata Ilah Binlah? He can not recite even the first three sentences of Surah Fatiha with this entire Quran carrying attitude. He is not a Muslim. He has Malian bush doctors kept underground near his hometown village, in Kaninlai. The guy is all messed up, so sick, so paranoid, such a joke. It is unbelievable. He is always carrying the Quran to hide his ignorance of it. He is no Muslim, Christian or Animist. There is a wrestler experience on his resume..that’s about it!
He cannot speak English, Mandinka, Wolof, Fula or even his Jola language I can bet…..not that it has any relevance to your question, but listen to him and see if you can catch any sense from him…Jammeh is just a strange happening on the country.
African Outlook: What are your thoughts on the recently conducted election in which President Jammeh was declared winner? What are the general views of the people back home about the re-election which Gambia electoral body claimed he won after he allegedly secured about 72% of the votes out of an estimated voters' turnout of 83%?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: My personal opinion is that the election was a fraudulent one. We cannot put our fingers on where it went amiss but among many shortcomings, Jammeh cannot be more loathed by Gambians at home and abroad. I can understand probably a 40- 50% win, 72 out of 82% is not real. Who is he kidding? He killed, jailed, tortured, exiled and threatened too many Gambians to achieve the love he claims he has from Gambians. Opposition parties could not put up a united front against him, and neither do they have any time to campaign. They were given only 11 days to campaign. So he got away, fraudulently.
African Outlook: There were also reports that President Jammeh was interested in becoming the AU chairman. What do you think may have influenced his decision to shelve the idea at the last minutes? Do you think this has to do with the pressures back home?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Yes, Pressure from civil society groups across West Africa in particular. It would have been a disaster to let Jammeh slip and become head of the African Union. The whole of Africa, not only Gambia would be the laughing stock of the world if that had happened.
African Outlook: The Nigerian President also shelved his AU ambitions due to pressures. What do you think?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: These African heads of states can be baffling. I do not know much about President Goodluck but he comes across as a very weak president. Nigerians are still very poor people as a country even with all the oil. He cannot manage or hold Nigeria together. Where is he going to go, as president of AU, surrounded by some of the worst dictators in Africa? He has to spare himself for real.
African Outlook: Jammeh just got inaugurated and sworn in for the fourth term. He invited Diaspora Gambians for dialog. Don’t you think he is extending his hand of fellowship to you all now? That you should all come together and work for Gambia's development?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: First of all, if Yahya Jammeh thinks all this inauguration pomp mesmerizes us, he is mistaken. Far from the truth. We are not impressed with his election's victory. It is all fraud. Watching our president camp unwilling citizens for show, some huge dance festivals just irritate and embarrass us. It is not pizzazz as he thinks! We get embarrassed anytime he camps people in Kaninlai for no reason but to watch some dance groups especially women, praise sing him for seven days straight. It is not funny. No, he cannot lure us. We know better. He is threatening his entire cabinet, so he will not use any sensible diaspora Gambian, to fill in for Gambians he is ready to fire and disgrace. We do not want to meet him. If he wants us to come work and participate, he has to stop this vampire attitude of arresting, snooping, jailing and killing Gambian citizens. Jammeh is threatening almost every Gambian on the ground. He just sent Dr. Amadou Janneh to life in prison. So, now tell me if that is impressive or we should shake his hand if he stretches it out. He wants to fire all his cabinet members but struggling for replacements. Even the greediest of Gambians know now, this man is no human being to get close to. (Note: This interview took place before Gambia's president dissolved his entire cabinet)
African Outlook: Your neighbor, Senegal is in flames, do you think President Wade will win a third term?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Well if he can be given a mandate to run for a third term, then most likely he can win, maybe. The constitutional council should not have given him a pass in the first place, but let’s see. He insists the second term limit came into effect after he was elected president, so he cannot be affected. So he will cling to power, at 86 years old no matter what. It’s a shame. He can win, but the country will see more turmoil. Senegalese people do not fear government. They will riot and make their opinions clear regardless of what the government imposes on them. Let’s see what happens.
African Outlook: With the growing influence of Islamic jihadists like al-Qaida, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, who are fast spreading their tentacles along the Sahel region, do you foresee Gambia having religious conflicts like Nigeria and Somalia?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: No. I did not see any religious rifts in the Gambia soon. The country is almost 90 percent Muslim, also we do not have fanatic religious leaders, or Muslim clerics in Gambia. Most of our religious leaders are more like drummer boys for our dictator, Yahya Jammeh, than really messing with international jihadist groups like al- Qaida . They love Jammeh more than they love Muhammad or Allah. So No, religious rifts are not a threat in Gambia as yet.
African Outlook: Do you plan on going back to Gambia in the near future?
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Oh yes, probably sooner rather than later.
African Outlook: Thanks Fatou for granting African Outlook this interview.
Fatou Jaw Manneh: Thanks Wasiu for the wonderful job you are doing educating us on happenings in Nigeria and Africa.