Ebrima Sillah is a former BBC journalist who woke up in a house engulfed in flames in his native Jambur village in 2004. It was an attempt on his life allegedly by the government of former president Yahya Jammeh, known widely for his anti-journalists rhetoric. Sillah would be forced into exile but not deterred in the fight for freedom in the home country ruled by a dictator. He is now appointed as the director general of the Gambia Radio and Television Services. In this exclusive interview with The Torch, he explains his life as an exile, burning of his house and his new job.
Below is the entire interview:
Thank you very much for this opportunity. Let’s start from where your trouble began. It was in 2004 when your house was attacked. Why do you think you were subjected to that kind of treatment and who do you blame for it?
ANS: I don’t want to go into a blame game or into a guest game. Well, we all know the dispensation that was here— the kind of problems journalists were going through and the harassment, intimidation, the media laws that we had— issues that were not favourable to the media especially the independent journalists. This was a part of deliberate pattern by the administration to control the way independent journalism was been conducted in this country and it kind of succeeded because after the first waves of arrests and intimidation didn’t do much in term of effects, they had to go into what is called damage control to ensure that the media was properly gagged.
One way of doing this, was to look at key figures who could be either put out of operation or who could be controlled in a way that others would not be able to effectively do their job.
This deliberate pattern of having to deal with the media continued with the arrest, intimidation, burning down of The Independent newspaper and the attack on Radio One FM. These were the key media closures plus the closure of Citizen FM and the implementation of the harsh media laws. This in addition to other measures culminated into the kind of constricted environment that we found ourselves in.
You were in your house when the arson attack was made. You could have been killed…
ANS: Yes. I could have died, that’s why I thank God for giving me my life. I am alive and I can narrate my story and that we can all say never again to what had happened in this country in the past 22 years.
Was the door locked when the fire engulfed your house?
ANS: All the doors were locked, because it happened around 3 a.m. But you know this is something I was kind of expecting— not any arson attack but some kind of attack basically which can include being in your house. As if I knew, I invited the former commissioner of crimes and prosecution then a certain commissioner ASP Dibba who actually advised me on the need to have escape route through the window or the back door that I will use as my last resort in case of anything. That advice came to be very useful when all the place was engulfed in smoke. I had to use that escape route at the back and that’s how I managed to escape the fire with the help of God.
But it could have been very serious because a gas bottle was there. Immediately when I left, the gas bottle exploded there.
Where you alone in the house?
ANS: Yeah, at that time I was alone because I came from the UK and my wife had just given birth. This was just two weeks after the christening of my first child. So I came actually to report on the 10th anniversary of the regime following the 1994 Coup. And I think it was an embarrassing situation where rather than concentrating my report on the so-called achievements of the revolution as they put it.
I was looking at the key central concerns to the people like the arrests and disappearances, politically motivated crimes committed against innocent people, the unfinished business of torture, the corruption and the lack of accountability and transparency on the KMC was published where they discovered a pencil at that time was purchase at D74 just to show you the magnitude of corruption at that time.
A lot of departments were audited and in fact the auditor general’s report was suppressed and the auditor general herself Miss Jallow Gaye was sacked and had to go outside of the country, because of fear of her life. To me that was a very interesting development especially for a government that came on the pedestal to fight corruption.
Did they know you were working on that?
ANS: Or they knew because I don’t operate clandestinely. I operate openly as a journalist and all my reports were on the BBC.
Could that be the reason they were hunting you?
ANS: Yes, that could be with the kind of dispensation that we were dealing with you don’t know who you have offended so badly. It could also be the president was not even aware of it. You see how the situation had even escalated from been very bad to worse. People calling themselves the jugglers under the command of the president going around arresting people, even soldiers.
Did you regret going into exile?
ANS: I didn’t regret going into exile, because it was like a first important choice for me. To be out of harm’s way, it was an important choice to ensure that you live to tell your story and you cannot live to tell your story when you are dead. I would also have been the same journalist like you living here, but you were not telling the real stories, because of the cruelty that it could generate.
So I am happy I was out and I have developed myself professionally and that through the exile I have also experienced the best part of life.
I also had the opportunity to work in big international organizations in different part of the world and later I ended up heading a big international organization which covered the whole of Africa with an annual budget of more than fifty to hundred million dollars.
What is the name of this organization?
ANS: The African Center for Development Reporting. But before then I worked with Gates Foundation, USID in South Sudan and other places and the UNDP. So I had the opportunity to do many different things.
You were in exile since 2004; there is a reason why you were exiled. Would you have done it again if we were to face the Jammeh era scenario?
ANS: Or yes. Because before I went to exile I have been arrested in this country for eleven times and I have also spent time in the worse detention centers in this country.
I can tell you more detention centers and prisons than even some security forces. Eleven times being arrested, detained, taken to court twice and the charges dropped. So that was for a reason to ensure that we uphold the independence of the media by telling the unfettered truth, because at the end of the day journalism is not journalism when you cannot tell the truth, you cannot operate in a situation where you have to censor yourself and you call it practicing journalism.
Journalists can have a way to maneuver in difficult situations but if it is self-imposed, then you have to critically rethink about the direction of your professionalism.
The Gambian journalists went through lot of difficulties in the past 22 years, the magnitude and the impact on them was just enormous.
How did you feel when you heard that Jammeh was defeated in an election?
ANS: I expected Jammeh was going to be defeated because remember I am one of the prominent dissident activists in the Diaspora online and we mobilized people.
The kind of mobilization we did we predicted we were going to get between 41 to 52%. So to me the victory didn’t come as a surprise. I was part and parcel of the people who were directly dealing with the right people on the ground for communication strategy on how you can convey your message and the platform you need to use.
You can see the use of Whatsapp because we were denied to use the media in the country. So we came up with a platform rather than having to depend on the media, we depended on social media which was free. All you need is to have your mobile in your pocket and a data card and then you have a virtual studio in your own bedroom where you could hear and see things that the government will not like you to hear and see.
But after having the knowledge that Jammeh’s regime is gone you probably must have been very happy knowing that you are coming home?
ANS: Yeah I was really happy that I was coming back home; after all home is home.
If you look at the mental trauma that all of us went through even on the last three days when this man was insisting not to go, it was huge because everybody was right on a cracked egg and everything that was in the egg was dripping very fast and solution was needed immediately; either to force this man out and people die in their numbers or deal with him strategically in ensuring that the mandate of the people is ensured.
So it was a difficult situation for everybody and after when we heard that he was on the plane on his way out, that moment of relief was unbelievable.
Because of my direct engagement with the activists, I take a month leave to concentrate wholly on the campaign to be active on social media. We had more than three hundred Whatsapp platforms and each platform had two hundred and fifty people. Imagine the number of reach that we had throughout the country, we kind of like virtually controlled the narrative.
Every day we have to put something relevant to the strategy that we have put in place to ensure that people run away from the guy. So that was huge.
Did you have kids back home while you were away?
ANS: No I was always with my family. You know in every misgiving, also comes with an advantage. So I was lucky to have a good job when I was working with the BBC. I left in 2004, I was given a good job at a very senior level in charge of West and Central Africa based in Dakar.
So I did that since 2004 to 2008 then I went to work in South Sudan as a communication director then I was deployed to Nairobi to head the whole of West, Easterner and Southern Africa Corridor.
For the BBC?
ANS: No. No… for another international organization when I get the job with Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation, a project that was kind of like outsourced to the Pan-African Institute of West Africa based in Dakar called the Pan-African Radio Platform Project.
We were working in more than 45 countries across Africa working with community radios to support governments in enhancing their development outcomes.
It was a huge project and I was in charge of the project. Then after the project phased out after four years, then I went to work with the UNDP in Nigeria as the communication director of an election project for two years. Then after that, I came to Ghana to head the African Center for development reporting.
It was in that job that I came here basically for a six week visit because I have not seen my family for a long time. Though my Mum has always been with us especially when we were in Dakar and my dad too; they were going and coming.
Are they still with you?
ANS: No my dad died while I was away in 2015, and I really felt his death you know, because I have never discussed anything with anybody other than my dad because he was a very intelligent man; a visionary. He was just amazing.
When he died he was in Gambia?
ANS: Yes he was in the Gambia
Did you attend the funeral?
ANS: No I couldn’t attend and that really had a big impact on me. I found it difficult to imagine that my dad died, it really affected me because by that time in November we were preparing our annual report and also preparing our final project implementation for the following year. It really impacted on me because my dad was really handsome, clean, beautiful, and intelligent and loved his family and all that.
My father really love ambiance. He did so much for himself. He had gardens, orchard all over, ruminants, goats, sheep and cows all over. So he used to slaughter a goat everyday because we used to have guests all over. We were a strictly religious family.
Was he never concerned about the possibility of you getting into trouble with authorities given the kind of work you were doing?
ANS: Sometime I take a lot of things for granted but personally I also knew I was going to be in trouble with the regime because of my work, but my dad also in particular.
Because when I was at Citizen FM, people were coming to him warning him that I should stop talking about the regime, but my dad was a very intelligent man. Anytime they talked to him he will say no matter what happens as far as I’m not giving out my own opinion on the radio then that’s okay and it should not concern anyone.
He also used to tell me that if I had said the truth I should not be worried about the risk that befalls me because God is the one who protects those who stand by the truth.
So when my dad died it had a big impact on me. I can remember the first three months were really tough, because I know how my dad is, tall, neat and beautiful. I always imagine how a grave is, how many meters small. My dad was really beautiful and he loves life.
So at night I used to imagine how dark that place was. So sometimes at night I used to put off the light, closed my eyes and stretched my arms trying to imagine how was he coping and it was really tough.
You were a victim of an anti-press government. I would say a government that is very repressive and now you are in this new government. Tell us how do you intend the GRTS to be?
ANS: You know we are a public broadcaster and you know with public broadcasting, you also have a duty to the state. That is to support the state to enhance the development outcomes of the state.
In the mean time we also have responsibilities to ensure that citizens hold their governments accountable. This cannot be done when you don’t have an independent mind; this cannot be done when you want to engage in self-censorship. It cannot be done when you don’t also understand the issues that you want to address.
So the public should also understand its role in the development framework of the government, but also to understand its role in the democratic dispensation that we have found ourselves in.
This means we have to strike a balance between what the public wants and what the government is doing to ensure that they respond effectively to the concerns of the citizenry. That is our role. We have to provide that platform in this new dispensation.
Is it your belief that there should be space for the opposition in the state TV?
ANS: Is not even there should be. The issue is that the opposition is part and parcel of the citizenry; they are part and parcel of the tax payers.
If you have your business you have a right to see how that business develops and how it is sustained. I don’t just understand why people are asking me this question that the opposition, the opposition. The opposition is part and parcel of what we are doing.
Maybe it is because of the system that you inherited?
ANS: Exactly I can understand that, but people also have to know that when we want to promote divergent views we cannot do it in isolation.
The oppositions have a right to say whatever they want to say in this country. You don’t expect the outside media to come to give the opposition the platform to talk about issues in this country.
This is the place where they should come and talk about what is happening in this country. If the government is not happy about that they should come and respond.
This is our line. We are not going to censor ourselves whoever has an opinion that opinion should be respected.
What we need to do is to make sure that we provide that platform in a responsible manner so that we don’t jeopardize the peace and security of this country, we don’t jeopardize the oneness of Gambians, and we don’t jeopardize the unity of this country because freedom also comes with great responsibility.
So we all have that responsibility and one way of engendering democracy is to give voice to the people, give them the platform to express themselves. Look for avenues to express themselves, because not doing that is what in fact led to the downfall of the previous regime. If you tighten the public space people will have a way.
During the political impasse we have seen what has happened here. People were very frustrated and at some point one of the reasons why people were so frustrated and had to flee the country was because of the statements that were made by former president Yahya Jammeh and the impossible nature of one predicting of what will happen next. In line with also what GRTS was doing…
Do you think GRTS has the capacity to do that independent journalism you are talking about?
ANS: What is the problem with that? All the journalists that are here; circumstances were forced on them, because most of them didn’t like what was going on.
How can you be an enemy to your own people? All of them have brothers and sisters and relatives in this country, but the system was forcing them. That is why some of them even resigned.
I heard that some of them were even refraining from going to the field to do anything, in this place what people did not also know and refused to acknowledge is that there was a silent protest against what was been forced on them and it was done in many ways. But you know in a situation where your soldiers can come and arrest you and kill and no one will say a word.
You have to also take a balance between strategy and the need to live a life, but that notwithstanding I commend the staff of GRTS.
But hope you are not defending your staff?
ANS: No. I am not defending my staff; I commend them for striking that balance in a very intelligent manner. The management, especially those at the senior levels; some of them misbehave. Where have you seen a director general of a radio and television been the only one going to read news.
You have to ask yourself what happens to the news readers. So those were the part of the silent protest that our staff were doing.
Drivers were tampering with the vehicle and camera men were tampering with the videos and there was not more than three to four people who were part of the problem. What happens in this country was not a job of a politician, it was the business of every Gambian.