Tracing Exile

“It was hell working there,” exiled Gambian journalist Saptieu Jobe said, referring to, her home country in West Africa. “National Security Service (NSS) were investigating my affairs. Interviewing friends and colleagues, places I had worked before. Wanted to know where I went to school, which countries I studied, organizations I worked with, men I go out with.”

Saptieu told her story in Ontario, Canada on January 14, 1993 in a phone interview with Kim Brice, a new researcher responsible for Africa with the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). I found Brice’s rough transcript of their conversation in the CPJ’s archives at Columbia University while researching the suppression of the press in The Gambia between 1994 and 2017 under Yahya Jammeh. While Saptieu’s story occurred before Jammeh came to power, her ordeal illuminates how some of the abuses associated with his regime have their roots in the era that preceded him.

In the early 1990s The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, was home to around one million people. Since independence from Great Britain in 1965 the country had been ruled by one man, Dawda Jawara, whose personal popularity ensured he consistently won elections. Today – after two decades of Jammeh’s brutal authoritarianism – Jawara’s rule is largely remembered as a time of peace and responsible governance. 

However, Saptieu’s story shows another side of the era many Gambians remember so fondly. She began her career as a journalist in 1976, but soon had the opportunity to study in the United States. Afterwards, she returned to Gambia to work for the Gambia Weekly, a magazine published by the Ministry of Information.

Despite Jawara’s personal popularity, cracks in his government were beginning to show by the late 1980s. A 1981 coup was foiled by troops from neighboring Senegal, leading to the unpopular Senegambian confederation in which Gambia was a junior partner to their larger and more developed neighbor. Meanwhile, officials in Jawara’s party were increasingly seen amassing personal fortunes while average Gambians’ livelihood stagnated. 

In 1989, Saptieu established the magazine Topic as one of the first independent Gambian publications. Under Saptieu, the magazine took on controversial issues such as female genital mutilation, polygamy, and government corruption.

Her first altercation with the Gambian government occurred that year while she was covering the repatriation of 39 Gambians fleeing the Senegal-Mauritania border conflict. According to press accounts and the notes of her conversations, an over-zealous policeman seized her camera and locked her in a cell for a few hours when she started taking pictures. She later published a front-page article about the incident, much to the consternation of government officials.

In 1991, she had two more run-ins with the authorities. After taking photos of conjoined twins – considered a graphic image in a conservative country – she was threatened to keep her from publishing them. Someone broke into her office and the photos were stolen. Later, she found the negatives and printed the photos, which led to another series of threats.

The same year, Topic published a review of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was banned in Gambia, in which the reviewer said there was nothing harmful in the book. Two-thirds of the board resigned, and a prominent imam took to the airwaves to denounce the magazine and call for a boycott. Between the threats and the boycott Topic folded and Saptieu moved to Awa, a magazine published by the Women’s Bureau, which was ostensibly an independent organization, but with close ties to the government.

On December 4, 1991 Jawara shook the Gambian political order when he announced he would not contest the upcoming 1992 presidential election. According to a freelance journalist based in The Gambia at the time, the announcement was met by “shouts of ‘no, no no,’ … with crowds of party militants refusing to countenance the departure of their father-figure.”  

Saptieu was in Senegal when she heard about Jawara’s announcement and his party’s reaction. She penned an editorial for the December issue of Awa in which she accused Jawara’s followers of “shedding crocodile tears” – implying that they were more concerned with their personal political fates than the country’s future. She concluding that Gambian journalists would not be sad to see Jawara go, considering the corruption and lack of development, specifically of the media, under his rule.

When she returned from Dakar, her supervisor at the Women’s Bureau, who was married to a high-level official in the Jawara administration, told her to retract the piece. She refused. A few days later she was accused of being a spy for the Senegalese government and all copies of the December issue of Awa were recalled.

While she was in Niger on a work trip, The Point, one of the new independent newspapers, published a copy of her editorial in solidarity. Upon her arrival back in The Gambia, Saptieu was handed a dismissal letter, effective immediately.

The reaction both inside and outside the country was swift. She gave a series of interviews to the BBC and Senegalese media, and the Gambian Press Union continuously pressed the government about the issue. The pressure mounted and in May 1992 she was invited back to Awa.

She returned to the magazine, but as she told Brice from Ontario in January of 1993, “it was hell working there.” One of her brothers, who was in the army, told her that he heard the government was trying to find out if she was a Senegalese spy. In July 1992 while in Canada on a study tour, she heard that the government was planning to arrest her when she returned home. She never took her flight. Soon after, her brother also fled, fearing arrest after the government found out they had been in communication.

In early February, Saptieu wrote Brice a letter thanking her for helping with her upcoming asylum hearing. The letter includes requests for financial assistance: “I am desperate. I am not allowed to work or study here until my hearing later this year. Penalty? Deportation.” Brice’s scribbles on another piece of paper indicate that Saptieu was struggling to pay her monthly bills. Her asylum request must have been approved, because later that year she began working for Culturelink Settlement Services in Toronto.

In 1994 Jawara, who in the end had run in and won the 1992 elections, was removed from power by a young lieutenant named Yahya Jammeh in a military coup. A year later, Saptieu returned to The Gambia and began working for Jammeh’s government as the director of public relations. At the time, many Gambians felt Jammeh represented a breath of fresh air after the stagnation and corruption that had come to characterize Jawara’s rule. However, as Jammeh’s regime became more tyrannical, Saptieu fell out with his party and eventually settled into retirement instead of risking exile or imprisonment.

While Saptieu was able to escape persecution under Jammeh’s regime, dozens of other journalists were forced to flee and those who stayed endured harassment, detention, torture, and even assassination. While Jammeh was far more ruthless in his pursuit of power than Jawara, the systems that facilitated his brutal regime clearly did not originate with him. As Saptieu wrote in her final editorial after the assassination of prominent journalist Deyda Hydara in 2005: “I will also tell you what I told President Jawara over fifteen years ago resulting in my years of exile in Canada: A DEMOCRACY CANNOT FUNCTION WITHOUT A VIBRANT FREE PRESS.”

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