Kanjia: Why Gambia’s president may refuse to leave despite election loss

The Gambia had been ruled by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who served initially as prime minister then as the republic’s first president, for more than 30 years.

Augustine Kanjia

The country’s main political party was the People’s Progressive Party [PPP]. From the mid-1960s to the early ’90s the country was relatively quite stable and citizens accepted the status quo. Gambians were very proud of their country and had no will for political change. Peace was plentiful. The country was safe.

But since the July 1994 overthrow of Jawara — the legitimate president, re-elected in 1992 — by then army Lt. Yahya Jammeh, the country has become confused, more corrupt and paralyzed by one person.

The nation recently conducted an election which, as usual, Jammeh was expected to win easily — his confidence in winning again this time likely stemmed from the fact he’d jailed his main opposition, Oinou Darboeusa, for protesting on the street before the election. In fact, President Jammeh was accused, regularly, of rigging elections (including by Darboe, who’d lost to Jammeh in 2011).

Jammeh got the surprise of his life after the Dec. 1 general elections. He at first congratulated his opponent, Adama Barrow, and offered advice, but Jammeh later changed his mind and has since refused to hand over the presidency. The struggle continues.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Gambia’s first president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara

Augustine Kanjia, who spent years uncovering corruption as a refugee journalist in Gambia during Jammeh’s rule, examines what Jammeh might be thinking, what’s next for the West African nation, and how America’s electoral issues pale in comparison to those in Gambia.

The people of Gambia for 22 years have been living in fear under President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh, who has earned the title Dictator. Who dares to talk loud where one is never sure if the person next to you is a government informant? Year after year, Gambians have become more fearful of Jammeh. When his name is heard on the streets, many look over their shoulders.

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 28: The Kanjias’ First Snow

We were put in a hotel when we first arrived, since no house was ready for us. To me, Worcester looked like the cleanest city in the world. I loved it.

I felt the hotel would be our home for a while, but it was only for three days. The children and I would leave the room to look at the trees that beautified the place like flowers. Flowers were not visible then, it was the colorful tree leaves that showed. Yes! It was fall — a season I would learn more about — and the leaves had changed colors. Our case worker, Chris Lamboi, was also from Sierra Leone. We thought he was going to be a very good source for development and enlightenment into American life.

Our apartment was ready, Chris came to tell us. I could not believe we were already leaving our luxurious room. Our bundles were not much; I had acquired nothing to bring over here. I had a few books and my neckties. And my photo album. Theresa, my wife, would tease me, saying, “You take delight [only] in [old] photos, addresses and phone numbers.”

This place was very cold for us, and we had no heavy clothes for it. We huddled in the corner of the room and waited for Chris to come back and take us home. Once he picked us up, we drove across the city, looking everywhere. My two kids asked me loads of questions. I didn’t know what to say, except to make up answers from what I’d learned.

For example, Mary asked, “Daddy, what seasons do they have here?” I tried to say what I knew. I said with confidence (but not in correct sequence), “Summer, winter and spring. We have the dry and wet seasons” in West Africa.

Our new house was on Ellsworth Street, not far from Kelley Square. The traffic was quite confusing. I had never seen such crazy traffic like Kelley Square, with no traffic lights. That was not my worry because I had never seen a traffic light in Sierra Leone. In Senegal and Gambia, sure, but never in my homeland.

Chris spent a long time talking big during our ride. He said he had been driving in Worcester for ages with no accident record, and that Kelley Square was no trouble for him. But we sat at the intersection for more than 10 minutes waiting for Chris to drive through. At last, we were free. It was evening.

Augustine’s last chapter: Goodbye, Gambia Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 27: Goodbye, Gambia

We were in Dakar the night of Oct. 17. The airport looked angelic, full of light and people of different colors. This was also just the start of our confusion until we’d reach our destination. It continued being wonderful, and full of wonder.

An IOM [International Organization for Migration] officer met us at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport and handed us our travel documents in an IOM bag to be held in our hands till we reached our destination. We knew we were going to the United States but were not sure in which city or state we’d land. I liked it that way, so my expectations would not be too high. I thought constantly about education, though, and Massachusetts was long on my list of places to come for studies, because they said it was the seat of education.

Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal.

Popo le Chien/Wikimedia Commons

Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal.

The protection officer liked my baby, shook our hands, and kissed and hugged Mary. She gave us her number and said to feel free to get in touch when we settled. The journey was soon to begin.

When the plane finally took off in the middle of the night, it was safe to tell my wife, Theresa, the secret of narrowly escaping a meeting with the chief justice at 8 o’clock on Monday morning — a meeting regarding one of my last news reports that would have almost certainly led to prison. She was shocked to hear it. I gave her the letter which the CJ had asked me to destroy. She shed tears but encouraged herself by thinking of our journey and what lay ahead of us: a new address.


Augustine’s last chapter: A Very Long One Week Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale


The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 26: A Very Long One Week

Our journey from Senegal back to Gambia was superb after succeeding in the orientation. We were on top of the world, but we dared not say a word about our upcoming change of address.

We were all aware of the fluid and tender situation we were in. My wife, Theresa, called it “time bomb.” She asked me to be more careful — the devil was at work. Our prayer times increased. We prayed the Rosary every night, instead of on Fridays as we used to do, on top of our other prayers. The one week until we’d be leaving the shores of The Gambia once and for all seemed everlasting.

Augustine poses with Theresa, as their secret departure nears, wearing T-shirts at once honoring their former newspaper boss and defying their president (whose photo lurks in the background).

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Augustine poses with Theresa, as their secret departure nears, wearing T-shirts at once honoring their former newspaper boss and defying their president (whose photo lurks in the background).

Some days it was hard to sleep. We had already told the resettlement team that we knew nobody in America, so we were in God’s hands to place us somewhere. In fact, my oldest daughter Alice and her three-year-old son had left before us, in August. Her mouth could not relax; she may have told her friends about our plans had she stayed, but these challenges were part of the game.

I was hunted by the secret service, though they had no reason to apprehend me. I was gentle and focused. One week.


Augustine’s last chapter: Final Problem Lands Me in Dakar Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale


Augustine Kanjia

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 25: Final Problem Lands Me in Dakar

People were waiting to hear from me as they wondered about our frequent travels. Our crossing through the airport was swift, but there was a checkpoint ahead. The drivers would stop and passengers crossing the border would pass close by the police. I was noticeable! My name had been mentioned in recent court cases in the news, particularly as a witness for the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in The Gambia.

The worrying was enough to make my wife, Theresa, shake. But we were only waiting two more weeks for the final touch in our resettlement quest.

The IGP was apprehended for stories I notified the police about before publishing, especially his involvement with armed robberies and drug issues.

One more trip across the border ...

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

One more trip across the border …

It was a surprise to know that the IGP was part of these horrible activities that were perpetrated on the masses over several years. He was, it turns out, one of the most notorious criminals whose story I dug up. He was called Ensa Badjie, commonly called “Jesus,” because Ensa in their language, they say, means “Jesus.” I thought he was a very reliable man with the name Jesus. He was not reluctant at all to send his men with me — the crooked ones — to show me where the crimes I’d been writing about [such as the taxi scam from a few chapters back] were happening — the crimes, it just so happened, he was orchestrating.


Augustine’s last chapter: Surprise News That Set Us Free Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale


The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 24: Surprise News That Set Us Free

We received yet another call to report for results of all our troubling interviews by the UNHCR (the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). It was the most troubling appointment above all in our quest for resettlement. Many teeth will grind in disappointment and discouragement.

There were about 20 families, more than 30 people. I had a case to be a witness to in court. Did this bother me? Not at all! My thoughts were all on my results to be released to me and the date I’d be given for our orientation.

How should we leave this time? How would people think about us? Would they conclude their stories about our frequent visits to Dakar? Well, a trick came to my mind before we would set off.

Mary, Glen and Theresa finally meet up with Augustine in Dakar.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Mary, Glen and Theresa finally meet up with Augustine in Dakar.

Tell your boss at work that your son fainted overnight, I thought, and that there was an urgent need to go see his doctor in Dakar, so urgent you could not go by road.

Slok Air International, a Nigerian businessman-owned airline that was closed for a time due to corruption and mismanagement, was contacted by my boss, the managing editor of The Point newspaper. The Point had an agreement with Slok Air: They gave us their adverts, and they ferried Point workers and their families, wife and husband and one child, for free. I was called by a Slok manager, with the help of my wife’s Catholic friend, Aunty Bridget, who had shown compassion and pointed to this opportunity, which expedited our securing the ticket and leaving in the afternoon with our sick son.

Glen had, in fact, fainted earlier on in the past week. He had malaria, and was given chloroquine [a common treatment for malaria], which his heart would not accept. He then collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He was treated and advised never to receive chloroquine for malaria.

All my colleagues at The Point knew my son had a problem that needed fixing. Many important details of our issues remained a complete family secret. Nobody said a word to anyone to avoid contradicting themselves and bringing our resettlement to a halt.


Read Augustine’s last installment, Joy, Despair and More Threats, or scroll down to start from earlier in his incredible journey


The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 22: Augustine is Apprehended

Returning to the hot seat was not expected.

I was ready to go for my reporting the next morning. There was a big trial concerning eight journalists who were accused of disseminating false reports and sedition. Trouble awaited me, but I did not know.

I had to be there in court to satisfy my boss and colleagues at The Point newspaper, who comprised the eight. The journey from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, had not ended. We were at Barra (Niumi, Gambia), where there were police on the ferry and at a checkpoint. It was evening, and the water was seemingly calm.

On his way to court ...

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

On his way to court …

I used the most dangerous way of going across: the dugout canoe. It was overloaded with bags of rice and a few men. The water became turbulent and we were in apparent trouble. A few bags of rice were thrown in the sea, which made our boat calm down. There was no life jacket … and no engine. Only paddles.

I survived and crossed over to meet my family. It was a breathtaking event. I wished I had never tried going by dugout canoe — though I was ready: I had no luggage and could swim well.

We got a taxi home and relaxed, ready to answer questions from liars.


Read Augustine’s last installment, The Toughest Interview Brings Success, or scroll down to begin from earlier in his incredible journey


The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 21: The Toughest Interview Brings Success

There was confusion surrounding my family’s eligibility for resettlement from other refugees, who became jealous for no reason. It was time to prove it.

My eldest daughter Alice, who I’d first met when she was 16, got pregnant when going to school. Her mom was apparently tired of her stubbornness and could not keep her in Sierra Leone anymore. I felt lucky to see and meet this girl. She was difficult but part of our family.  Her arrival prompted more questions, but God was behind us.

Alice

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Alice

Fatou Barry, the refugee protection officer, called me for questioning. My answers were salient and convincing. The end product was superb, but The Gambia remained dangerous for me.

There was an urgent call for my family to return to Dakar by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We always enjoyed the trips, so we looked forward to going. And returning. We did not know why there was so much urgency added to our going to Dakar. I lied at my workplace, telling my editor how my son, Glen, had collapsed overnight and that had left us not sleeping but staying the whole night in hospital; we were referred to Dakar so we were leaving.

My boss, Pap Saine, was quite gullible for a journalist, easily manipulated. He asked us to leave in time before it was late! We left with the collection of our travel documents from Gambia Immigration. My going through immigration was somewhat more controversial than one may think. I was always given a hard time. I was there and I went to see Sergeant Ceesay, who was the focus person for refugees. He had already known me so I thought it was going to be easy.

He checked his file and said he did not find my name for traveling.


Read Augustine’s latest installment, Suspicion and Senegal Visits, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.


The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 20: Suspicion and Senegal Visits

UNHCR, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was aware of my situation and the health struggles my son was undergoing. But I did not want the police or secret police to know about our resettlement process.

Hatred toward Sierra Leoneans in The Gambia was part of the problem in going for interviews for resettlement. Fatou Barry, the UNHCR protection officer assigned to my case, was clever enough to have transferred our case to Dakar since we were going to Senegal’s capital, anyway, for Glen’s checkup. She made it possible for us to have our interviews there. The interviews were many and long.

Barry had secured our first interview date. We kept it secret. I called my family to attention to warn them strictly that whatever we were going through should be a family secret. Sometimes when my wife is over-happy she says stuff. I told them of examples of how some people could not go and were even killed because of the complications involved in resettlement. It was then sealed between us: Our only reason for going to Dakar was Glen’s checkup.

Augustine and his family have some travelling -- and secret-keeping -- to do, as their future in Worcester gets closer.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Augustine and his family have some travelling — and secret-keeping — to do, as their future in Worcester gets closer.

Barry had also arranged with Gambian Immigration to allow us a United Nations family laissez-passer [Editor’s note: like a temporary passport for humanitarian reasons] as refugees to go to Senegal for Glen’s checkup. It would last for only one trip, so we were supposed to be visiting them each time we wanted to travel. The immigration office knew my son had a very bad heart condition. They sympathized with me too. That was our exit point, Glen’s heart.

Our first trip was glorious!


Read Augustine’s latest installment, Challenging Resettlement Process Begins, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.