Jammeh 'award' coverage reflects chill in Gambian press

By Frank Smyth with Mohamed Keita/CPJ Staff on September 24, 2010 3:26 PM ET

Jammeh may be a Nebraska "admiral," but he was not commended by Obama. (Reuters)

"President Jammeh bags 4 awards," trumpeted a September 17 headline of the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper in the Gambia, a West African nation whose idyllic façade as "the smiling coast of Africa" is maintained in part by President Yahyah Jammeh's brutal repression of the independent press. 

Under the headline, Observer reported that "two of the awards with an accompanying letter came from the president of the United States of America, Barrack [sic] Obama, who commended the Gambian leader for the accolade, and also commended him 'for helping to address the most pressing needs' in his community." The Gambia State House's website similarly reported: "In a letter accompanying his two awards, the U.S. President Barrack [sic] Obama described President Jammeh as an inspirational leader and thanked him for his exemplary dedication, determination, and perseverance for the development of the Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large." The story quickly spread over the Internet, reaching the circulation of the widely read, Washington, D.C.-based news aggregator AllAfrica.

The claims are false. Regarding "your query asking for confirmation of Gambian reporting on the Gambian president receiving awards and a letter from President Obama," White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen wrote in an e-mail to CPJ: "Those reports are incorrect. The Gambian president did not receive what the media reports are claiming."

In fact, among the four announced awards, only one from the United States was undeniably real: a Nebraska Admiralship or award denoting Jammeh as an honorary admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. A tongue-in-cheek distinction from the Midwestern, landlocked state, "an 'admiralship' in the fictitious 'Navy' of Nebraska is meant to be a ceremonial acknowledgment of Nebraskans who have shown outstanding citizenship," noted Nebraska governor's office spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein in a statement to CPJ. "We regret that this individual has attempted to embellish a certificate for a Nebraska admiralship, claiming that it was a high honor bestowed upon him by the governor, when to the best of our knowledge, this person has no relationship with or ties to Nebraska." The spokeswoman further noted that the Nebraska governor's office routinely processes thousands of admiralship requests annually.

The Gambian State House website reported that three of the awards, including the Nebraska admiralship, were presented to President Jammeh in Banjul by an unnamed official from a Palermo, Sicily-based organization called the International Parliament for Safety and Peace. Its website states that it was founded in 1975 by an archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. The international parliament has been reportedly accused of providing credentials to educational institutions otherwise not accredited in their own nations, and of selling membership, titles and other distinctions for fees.

The fourth stated honor was an "Honorary Vocational Bachelor's Degree" bestowed upon Jammeh by the "Printers and Publishers Guild of Northern Germany," according to the Daily Observer. German authorities told CPJ they found no record of any such award; extensive Internet searches in English and German revealed no such guild or other organization with a similar name.

Speaking to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, a former Daily Observer staffer, who worked at the newspaper in recent years, expressed no surprise at the credulous reporting of the awards. "If [the story] wasn't out in the paper, someone would be in Mile 2 [prison] today--the managing director or the editor." The person described a newsroom gripped by fear: "You're terrified. Nobody wants to go to that prison." One Observer reporter who may have suffered this fate is "Chief" Ebrima Manneh who has disappeared in government custody since National Intelligence Agency officials seized him at the Observer office in July 2007. Despite repeated calls from U.S. senators, journalists, activists and a West African human rights court ruling, Gambian authorities have continued to deny their detention of Manneh. Former colleagues said Manneh was arrested after printing a critical BBC article about Jammeh.

Daily Observer columns consistently flatter Jammeh and refer to him as "His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh" in a cacophony of honorifics reminiscent of late Ugandan military ruler Idi Amin whose formal introduction was a recitation: "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC., Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda."

Yet it was not always so. The Daily Observer was once the standard-bearer of independent journalism in the Gambia. Launched in 1992 by Liberian editor Kenneth Best, the Observer was Gambia's first daily newspaper and was once its largest circulation publication. Best, who arrived in Gambia as a refugee following the burning of the offices of his original Liberian Observer during civil war in Liberia, told CPJ the paper started with a circulation of 3,000 and peaked with a certain July 1994 edition that sold up to 30,000 copies. "'Army coup in Gambia' was the headline," he recalled. "It was the first successful coup, and we told the whole story. We interviewed all the five lieutenants who staged coups."

One of those lieutenants was then known simply as Yahya Jammeh. "We sold 10,000 copies in 15 minutes," Best said. However, as Observer began scrutinizing the junta's handling of transition to civilian rule, the newspaper became a target of government repression. Barely three months after taking office, Jammeh's junta deported Best, who later sold the Observer to private businessman Amadou Samba.

That the handful of Gambian private newspapers has not challenged Jammeh's questionable award claims is indicative of the chill of self-censorship that has fallen on continental Africa's smallest republic. This is the result of years of repression, including a series of unsolved arson attacks on media outlets, the unsolved assassination of leading editor Deyda Hydara, ongoing arrests and Jammeh's periodic threats to the media.


Not surprising at all. It is part of a systematic effort by the sycophants and surrogates of the regime on a daily basis to glorigy President Jammeh and build a cult syndrome around him. They are prepared to go to any extent, even to fabricate lies in order to glorify him.

Thank you Frank ,Mohammed Keita for clarifying this blatant lie of a report from a narcissistic and unscrupulous bandit of a leader called Yaya Jammeh. An Award from any American leader, institution or individual would be a stab in the chest for all Gambian journalists seeking refuge on American soil and most importantly a deviation from the wise words of your founding fathers who did everything possible and thought of the most wise and dynamic of laws that uphold the freedom and respect of all human beings . I am glad that you guys caught this lie from this brutal dictator who has no respect or value for human life. Two Gambian journalists were shot dead and one is still missing. We are still searching for answers. We need help from American citizens.

Jammeh also claimed at one point that he could cure AIDS.

Great job Mohamed and Frank. This tyrant needs to be further exposed for holding the Gambian people hostage by trying to mystify himself by all means at his disposal, including the trumpeting of fictitious awards. Earlier this year or late last year, a so-called University of Fundamental Studies in Russia granted him an honorary Professorship, which sis now among his sentence-length name. This is a great investigative story for which all right thinking Gambians are grateful. Thanks.


This is simply a question of ego gone way past the limit. It explains how absolute power corrupts absolutely. The other day I called an editor in Gambia who could not even speak for a minute for fear that Jammeh's secret service could be listening to our conversation since in Gambia, even walls have got "ears".

Thank you Mohamed and Frank for the vivid clarification on this matter.

You have hit the last nail on dictator Jammeh's coffin, thanks.

President Jammeh is trying to mend his brutal and bandit regime by associating himself with the likes of president Obama. The fact that he is spending millions of Gambian tax payers money for gaining unscrupulous titles, shows how desperate this despot is trying to fool himself. President Jammeh should know that the world in 1994, is different from the world in 2010. Daily Observer Newspaper (with its dishonest and low intellectual journalists) should know that Jammeh worth nothing to the long term development of the Gambia. All these titles and awards meant nothing to ordinary Gambians who are struggling to feed themselves. The next move for Jammeh is to change the name of the Gambia to: "Jammeh Enterprise", hence he owns and gives everything belongs to the Gambia. We are sick and tired of these silly titles and childish behaviours!! Please let us discuss more serious issues affecting the Gambia, and get rid of Jammeh in 2011 election.

This man has really managed to strangle the necks of the Gambians people

This guy is insane.Why would anyone go around touting fake awards and letters from the u.s President? This is embarrassing to the Gambia.

The State of Nebraska should strip him off of the award for misusing and propagating there ceremonial award.

The US Embassy should issue a statement in Banjul to denounce the statement and ask for a formal apology from Yahya Jammeh.

The fake presenters should all be investigated and prosecuted on their interest in all this fiasco.Wherever they may be Banjul,Germany,Italy or here in the United States.They must have gotten a handsome reward from the money disher president.
A big congratulations to CPJ;a true friend of the Gambia and her people.

This guy is INSANE, he is a Psycho, I hope and pray that what befalled Abacha also befall him. Let us all pray that God deliver us from him, it may take a while, but it will happen one day. I hate the fact that he opens his big mouth and address the Gambians like we are his children or his housemaids. He is rude, disrespectful, arrogant, insane. Its a same that he thinks nothing can get him out of the State House, but God is great. One day, his journey will come to an end. Let us keep praying.

What an embrassement to Jammeh, but he deserves it because he's always into title businesses.

technology is surely catching up with the dictator and his gang.

Mr. Smyth and Mr. Keita,
CPJ has done a great job by investigating and exposing this lunatic called Yahya A.J.J.Jammeh the president of The Gambia.
Let Yahya Jammeh maintain his HIV/AIDS, cancer, hypertention,and diabetic doctorate.

Keep up the good job.

Thank you so much CPJ,you did well by exposing this cheat to the world. White House should ask for an apology from Jammeh,for the fact that he is guilty of fraud.
You see Yahya Jammeh is a big fool.How could he recieve such medals and a letter from the White House without involvement of the US embassy staff in Banjul. Or was he in complicity with those who came to hand over these false and fraudulent medals.
Jammeh is shame to we Gambians and Africa as a whole.

Great job. No one is fooled by Jammeh's long-list of bogus titles. He can add more to the list if he wants; and he will. Sadly, it is a disgrace for The Gambian people to have an insane buffoon ruining the country. The other worry is that he has messed the country up so much that his long overdue exit will come at a heavy cost to ordinary Gambians. God help The Gambia.

Keita- Thanks for this article. What a clever attempt by Jammeh to use stolen or shady accolades to endorse his idi-amin-istic leadership. And to show how degraded the connect between his ego and his smarts, this latest "string of pranks", for lack of a better description, really backfired. Okay, he got away with it for a few seconds with the Gambian press under his bully thumb, but how far? The Gambia is too small. His head is too big, growing with each "new" accolade/title. Can a whale survive in a pond? As his head continues to grow, he's running out of mental space and ideas, which is why this string of pranks didn't work. From here on, he's likely to get much more personally and physically aggressive than ever, with more people going missing again. Lessons learned from Liberia. God forbid!

Fantastic thank you CPJ for digging in to this am not surprised at all about this nonsense on the Daily Observer i have worked in this paper for six years and and for that long we continue to receive cabbages from state house and no one dear to question the content of the informations from state house for fear of reprisal or been label anti Jammeh.President Obama is a democrat and will never commend a dispot like jammeh who rule with iron fist.

jammeh is the best for the gambian

There is nothing good about this despot. His government, family and business is all about lies. Its time the international community hears the cry of helpless Gambians under the butchery of this monster alien "leader".

The office of President of U.S government is being brought into disrepute by dictator Yaya Jammeh. CIA needs to dig into this and appropriate U.S government's actions/penalties be applied to protect the sanctity of U.S government.

Thanks CPJ. Yaya Dampha has hit the nail on the head. I also think the Us Embassy should come out and address this....will they?

Impersonation is a crime and must be treated as such. It is not enough for State Department to debunk the fictious award claimed by Jammeh, they need to prosecute it. If they fail, Jammeh and other rogue leaders in repressive societies will only be emboldened by any U.S. government inactivity. If we can prosecute for minor traffic violation, why not for impersonating a seating president?

Gambians need not feel embarrassed by the actions of Jammeh. Jammeh has simply revealed to the world what a fool he is. Of much greater concern is the tyranny under wich Gambians are forced to live!!

It's the fear of losing power that corrupts absolutely

is useless commenting on this article, but none the less let me just drop few lines for all you lunatics,the coming of H.E is among the best things that the Gambia has ever experience. he has transform the country from what it was to what we pride of today. Is unfortunate some of you unpetroitic citizens that we are very proud of him and will always behind him. he need not fake what cuz he represent a country greater than any other. so please accept Gods' doing.

I am amazed and amused by these startling revelations; what on earth is this?

Kenneth Best exposed me to journalism when I worked for the Daily Observer in Liberia during the days of Samuel Doe in the 1980's. He is a principled person and would not have compromised his editorial integrity if he was still owing the Gambian Daily Observer. Bravo, guys! Job well done.

JONATHAN PAYE-LAYLEH September 29, 2010 1:01:44 PM ET

Muhammed and Frnk what have you done to share with the world the pain The Gambian people are going through because there are a lot of flood victims throughout the country. You are tools of the west trying to destroy Gambia as whats is happening in Somalia just to make a name for yourselves and your pockets. Do something to change the lives of Gambian people than invest your energy to just a name, title and awards. WHO CARES?

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