My intention to remain in my home country, to use my pen to correct injustice, and to champion press freedom was aborted by security threats that forced me and my family into exile. I left behind my beloved country and editorial desk in the hands of perpetrators.
I had been a journalist for a decade in the Gambia without a brush with the government until June 2001, when I and 11 other colleagues threw in the towel at the Daily Observer newspaper after the government attempted to interfere with our editorial policy. I still practiced until April 2005 when I was appointed the editor-in-chief of The Independent, a biweekly paper known for being outspoken. The unsolved December 2004 assassination of a leading Gambian journalist, Deyda Hydara, by then had virtually paralyzed independent journalism and created an editorial vacuum.
• CPJ’s Emergency Assistance
• CPJ Blog: Lives in Exile
• Journalists in Exile 2009
With a strong desire to serve a news-hungry population, I closed my ears to a warning that I would be “sitting on a ticking time bomb.” And with a vibrant editorial team, the paper became hot again, regaining its footing in the market. Murmurs started filling the air. All eyes focused on me. People kept telling me, “Your editorials are too itchy.”
A trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2005 to attend the African Editor’s Forum, where I handed over a petition to the country’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, expressing concern about our volatile media environment, was the beginning of my trouble. I was arrested by security agents who interrogated me, questioned my nationality, and accused me of being a traitor.
Since the arrest, the government was looking for an appropriate moment to pick me up again. Of course, there was none better than a purported coup on March 21, whose aftermath saw the mass arrest of the government’s perceived enemies. Arrested by a group of heavily armed security officers on March 27, I was whisked into a Land Rover that drove to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency in the capital, Banjul.
I wasn’t told the reason for the arrest, but I was assured it had “no connection” to the foiled coup. I was, however, jailed alongside two people allegedly involved in the coup. Those 22 days in detention included three nights of systematic physical and mental torture that left scars all over my body as well as my hand broken in three places.
The government did not want to set me free, but finally bowed to Thabo Mbeki’s threats of not only boycotting the African Union Summit in The Gambia, but also withholding his country’s more than monetary contribution to the summit. I decided to flee the country with my wife three weeks after my release, for security and medical reasons. All the doctors I had approached refused to examine me, let alone treat me. One doctor gave me painkillers and asked me to leave. “Who knows whether my office is being monitored right now,” he said.
We spent two and a half years in Dakar, Senegal, amid insecurity and nostalgia. Four months later, the African Editor’s Forum contracted me to do research on Africa’s restrictive media laws for four months. In the same October, afrol News Agency named me the head of their West Africa department.
We were resettled in the United States–in Michigan–on November 4, 2008, and have been living a normal life, though freezing temperatures and several inches of snow have taken a great toll on us. Our resettlement process was smooth, especially with the help of our agency and its sponsors who network us with people in all walks of life. I have yet to start working in journalism again.