Not much trouble at all
Banjul - When I arrived for a posting in Dakar in February 2016, all the west Africa old hands I met outside the AFP bureau told me the same thing.
“Nasty little dictatorship, The Gambia, but it won’t give you much trouble.”
How wrong they were. The tiny nation ended up consuming my life for months, sometimes with surreal turns.
Its leader, Yahya Jammeh, could have served as a model for the stereotype of an eccentric African strongman -- in power for 22 years, he was mainly known for eccentricity and brutality.
A 51-year-old former soldier who constantly clutched a wooden staff, a Koran and prayer beads in public, Jammeh said he could cure AIDS by administering an herbal mixture, and threatened to personally slit the throats of gay people living in the country.
His full title gave the measure of the man: His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa, the name tumbling out of the mouths of ministers who gave strained smiles as they tried not to forget each honorific.
Jammeh had a tight grip on his voters as well: the previous four elections had all gone his way, with his vote share steadily climbing between 1996 and 2011.
We believed the ballot due to be held on December 1 would go the same way -- Jammeh would be re-elected after the crushing of a weak and divided opposition -- and we would hear little more from the country (bar a few worrying stories about human rights abuses and forced disappearances) until the next vote in five years’ time.
What do you call a group of journalists who are utterly wrong?
To be fair, there were signs that this could not be a normal election year as early as April, when protests calling for political reform were held in the streets of a country that all but banned peaceful rallies.
During the weeks of protests and trials of political activists, I recall phoning our stringer in Banjul, Emil Touray, and asking nervously what was happening, knowing full well the total impunity of The Gambia’s security forces.
Whenever he wouldn't pick up the phone for an unusually long period, I panicked, and with good reason. AFP correspondent Deyda Hydara was gunned down in 2004 by killers who have never been identified, and journalists cycled in and out of jail with the regularity of press conferences held in more functional states.
But despite the protests, the prevailing wisdom in late November, when I headed to the country with our London videographer, Joe Sinclair, and Chief Photographer for Africa Marco Longari, was that the December 1 election would go the way of all the others.
When we arrived (catching the two-week period just before the vote during which opposition parties were permitted to campaign), we were unsure what we would find beyond what we had been told to expect -- highly-orchestrated rallies of schoolchildren and supporters of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Re-Orientation and Construction (APRC).
Then on November 25 we realised that something new was in the air.
Political novice Adama Barrow and his team were returning from campaigning in the provinces, and the road was at a standstill behind his convoy, blocked for kilometres and kilometres by screaming, dancing and singing Gambians, some already using the affectionate nickname “Wheelbarrow”.
“This time around it's like the whole of The Gambia wants a change,” enthused student Ousman Bah, surrounded by other Barrow supporters hanging from pick-up trucks and wearing T-shirts with the opposition leader’s face on it.
How different from the Jammeh rally that we had attended the day before.
The first thing that struck me as odd was realising that after four or five hours the dancers in identical print dresses were still dancing, in the same formations, as when we had arrived.
The primary-school age children holding up banners were still being made to stand and shout “Yahya, Yahya Jammeh, we love you”.
I realised that they weren’t allowed to stop, sit, rest. Or they were too scared to do so.
Later in the evening, my colleague Joe witnessed a young girl who had a “seizure” in the crowd being carried over to Jammeh and “healed” before the crowds.
Our interviews with Barrow and Jammeh -- which we got after a week of endless cajoling and pushing -- laid bare the differences between the two men.
Barrow was so shy, so humble, that I was almost worried for him. Was it all too much? I made a joke about supporting Arsenal and he laughed, suddenly lighting up. I could see the eyes of everyone around us on him, daring to hope he could do the unthinkable and win.
Meeting Jammeh, on the other hand, will remain one of the strangest experiences of my life.
I’d spent several days talking to countless Gambians telling me, often in tears, how someone in their family had been taken away by the agents of his National Intelligence Agency (NIA). And now there he was, standing before me, looking vaguely annoyed.
Short, enveloped in his habitual white robes and with luminously well-kept skin, it took only the first question, from a colleague, for his grin to disappear.
“What if the opposition wins?”
“There is no ‘if’," he snapped.
Further questions -- like why he thought Gambians represented the highest per capita nationality of those arriving on rickety boats to Italy across the Mediterranean -- failed to a cement a friendship.
“Why don’t you ask me about development?” he said, in a nation where most people lived on under $2 a day.
He seemed frustrated with this unfamiliar type of confrontation. Why would we ask such uncomfortable questions?, he seemed to be thinking. After about 10 minutes, he walked to his stretch humvee and was driven away.
The next day, on the eve of the election, the Internet disappeared as we we were eating dinner. It is hard to express just how reliant journalists have become on fast connections for breaking news. Speedy, accurate facts are what AFP clients pay for, after all. You need to send news and quotes while an event is still happening.
Marco, an Africa election veteran, had the sense to bring a BGAN, a portable satellite, to send his images. But he had to be as mobile as possible, while I had to write up the day’s stories, research and make phone calls as well as report. It didn’t make sense to be together all the time.
Then rumours soon surfaced that the BBC had managed to get the British ambassador to help it with a fast satellite connection -- especially crucial for video.
I made the first of what seemed like several million phone calls to Ambassador Colin Crorkin, who said he was aware of the problem and getting his staff to check what they could do to help us.
The next morning, election day, international phone calls disappeared, and soon thereafter text messages would no longer send. I was near total panic. How would I get my reporting out? The country was in an information lockdown as hundreds of thousands of Gambians headed out to vote.
Luckily for press freedom, Her Majesty’s government came through. Ambassador Crorkin graciously told us we could use the embassy’s satellite connection, located in a hut covered in bird poo at the back of his residence.
The humble surroundings soon became my second home. Unfortunately given the blackout, it also become home to at least another dozen journalists with no way to file.
We kept it civil, limiting ourselves to complaining rather than outright violence when one organisation argued their images were simply more important than everyone else’s and had to be sent first.
After all, we had no other choice than to share, and I almost look back with fondness to hours sitting on the grass typing up notes and fielding phone calls, waiting to be able to send my dispatches.
Live radio broadcasts chattered across the lawn, and we ground our teeth as another team came traipsing up after hearing about the miracle connection to the outside world.
Night fell as votes began to be counted, with the first results expected before midnight.
Sleep had stopped being a regular feature of our lives by this point. By late evening, state television had suspended broadcasts and was instead showing a young boy reading the Koran.
After drifting in and out of consciousness between 2 am and 5 am on December 2, punctuated by a colleague ringing me, I realised the results were still not in. What was going on?
Driving on deserted streets back to the embassy, the security presence was as heavy as ever, some of the soldiers now masked, lending an extra layer of menace to the uncertainty.
The results could have come in at any moment, so Joe headed to the electoral commission to film its announcement, while I stayed at the embassy residence in my hut so we could have them on the wire before anyone else.
By 8 am, still nothing had changed and I was tired, hungry and frustrated to be away from the action.
Sometimes journalism makes you wonder: what exactly brought you to be standing in an ambassador’s garden trying not to fall asleep on your feet as you await to see if a strongman will fall or not? Might normality not be a bit nicer?
Lucky for my journalism career, at that very moment the ambassador’s housekeeper passed by the hut, saw me standing like a zombie in front of my screen, and offered me breakfast.
I almost cried, driven half mad by sleeplessness, and followed her into the kitchen.
She sat me down with silver cutlery marked with the Royal Arms. Even the butter dish had the familiar lion and unicorn, who by this point were almost talking to me, such was my fatigue.
Scrambled eggs. Coffee. Brown toast. Half an hour later I was a new woman.
A strange phone call from Joe. Jammeh had conceded defeat. Before the results were announced. "It's really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat," the head of the electoral commission told reporters, in what can only be described as an understatement.
I knew what that meant. Before long, I could hear cheers in the distance. Racing out of the long drive, I saw lines of people dancing in the streets. I had to send the results first, but then I needed to get out of the garden, to capture the atmosphere of this electoral earthquake.
Westfield, an opposition stronghold neighbourhood, was like nowhere I had ever seen. People were unable to believe Jammeh had lost.
"It is a stunning day... emancipation day for Gambians. We have had 22 years of illegal arrests and suppression from Yahya Jammeh," said Maya Darboe, whose husband was then in jail and is now the country’s foreign minister.
"The dictator is out, we are going to party until daybreak!" shrieked one woman.
The same word was used over and over: freedom, freedom, freedom, we have our freedom.
That night, Jammeh famously conceded defeat on television, magnanimously and graciously wishing Barrow the best.
Crowded around the television in the lobby at the Senegambia hotel, we watched Jammeh tell the world he would “never cheat or dispute the election because this is the most transparent, rig-proof election in the whole world.”
Smiling during a phone call with Barrow, Jammeh wished him “all the best” and joked about becoming a farmer.
It seemed like the perfect happy ending to our surprise story and we left the country satisfied that we had witnessed history in the making.
Then one week later, it all turned on its head.
Jammeh said a recount that had slightly altered the vote counts of all three candidates had rendered the election result void. Although this result was the one we had originally expected, after covering the euphoric “new Gambia” story, we were once again caught out by its latest twist and the Dakar bureau quickly mobilised to cover it.
The presidents of Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone flew in to persuade him to step down, along with the leader of Ghana, who had just himself lost an election and had peacefully accepted the result.
Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s face, tight with anger, told us everything we needed to know after they met with Jammeh. With no deal reached, they flew out of a country thrown into uncertainty. We also finally left briefly for home, knowing that legally Jammeh had until midnight on January 18 to stay in power.
January 16. Back again. More talks, more pressure, and this time the spectre of a possible military intervention. Barrow left the country in January, flying first to Mali and then on to Senegal, where he would be inaugurated on January 19. Senegalese troops massed on the border under orders from the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), as Jammeh remained steadfast in his refusal to step down.
And then another twist. A last, last-ditch attempt by the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania finally bore fruit four days later. “I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians,” Jammeh’s familiar, reedy voice said on the television I was once again watching at 2am.
From then on, we mostly lived at the airport. We knew Jammeh could go and Barrow could return at any time, and there was only one way the soon-to-be ex-president was likely to take an entourage of dozens of people.
The country’s soap opera seemed to affect the judgement of everyone, even airport officials, and they let us sit on the tarmac pretty much as we pleased.
My new best friend had become one particularly useful airport source who later told me he knew that Jammeh had taken two Rolls Royces and a Mercedes with him, and that he had 13 more cars waiting to be shipped out.
Suddenly several TV reinforcement crews arrived, and I realised the Gambia had finally become A Big Story. It was almost two months since AFP had started reporting on the election campaign. I had barely processed the news that Donald Trump was now president, let alone followed reports from anywhere else in the world. The Gambia had taken over my life.
We still had no idea where Jammeh would live out his exile: Mauritania, Guinea and Morocco had all been raised, and we furiously googled the identification markings on the private plane that had recently appeared on the runway.
At 9 pm (Jammeh was never known for being a morning person) his convoy shrieked onto the tarmac. We rushed forward and the military did not hold us back. The robes, the Koran, the prayer beads, the smile - check. The now former president climbed the steps, kissed his holy book and waved. I wrote up two lines for the wire, waited to see the wheels lift off the ground to press send. And then he was gone.
Barrow finally returned on January 26, and west African troops by then had moved into the country to secure the institutions of state amid deep distrust from his camp of the Gambian security services. Burly Nigerian special forces armed to the teeth occupied the airport, while the friendlier Senegalese commandos controlled much of the capital, Banjul.
In February Barrow was finally able to hold the stadium celebration that he had promised Gambians on the day the election result was announced.
Back in Dakar, I was once again working on The Gambia with Emil, our stringer. Before, it was too dangerous to use his byline, and he dared not have a smartphone in case he was tracked. Now he was thinking about getting one and we were working on stories of families looking for answers about loved ones who had disappeared.
New stories, for the new Gambia.