‘A Date with Destiny’ by Demba Ali Jawo Launching Ceremony Saturday 23 March 2019, Paradise Suites Hotel, Kololi

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Here is the bombshell: Demba Ali Jawo was a founder member of the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) and much more; it was DA who designed the PDOIS flag! Wow!

‘A Date with Destiny’ is therefore not just a book about the life of Demba, it is a documentation of the socio-political history of the Gambia. Think of any Gambian of stature in government or business and society today and you will find his or her name in this book! However out of principles and dedication to service as a journalist. DA had abandoned all political affiliation to PDOIS and never to align himself ever again with any political party. This is a trait of all great journalists who wish to remain independent and credible in the eyes of the society that one cannot belong to any group, no matter how well meaning they are! Journalism is DA’s destiny and he has fixed a date with the profession for which he does not wish to betray!

‘A Date with Destiny’ is hugely about journalism and one cannot find a more up to date account of the trials and tribulations of the Gambian media than what is provided in this book, particularly with the advent of the military coup in 1994. Not only is the account quite detailed but it is also glaring for the fact that DA was himself a key participant in all of the ups and downs that the media went through under the dictatorship.

In the first place DA described the emergence of the Daily Observer as the beginning of the golden era of Gambian journalism as we saw for the first time a newspaper printed on newsprint and not on an ordinary A3 size xerox paper! But also, in terms of content the earlier emergence of Topic magazine of Nana Grey-Johnson and The Point newspaper of the late Deyda Hydara, the late Baboucarr Gaye and Pap Saine all contributed, together with the Daily Observer, to witness a marked turning point for the Gambian media into modernity, professionalism and recognition!

The life of a journalist in the Gambia is a bitter-sweet story. While Daily Observer in practice also became a school of journalism as it massively churned out large numbers of smart young journalists, at the same time the Jammeh dictatorship ended becoming the beast that also nearly devoured the media to extinction! Yet it was the Gambian media that stood its ground, as a protagonist as well as a tool to be employed by many other forces, not least our political parties to fight that monster to extinction! In traversing the plains of journalism, the book gave an interesting account of the various actors, incidents and issues including the disappointments and threats in which we witnessed physical assaults, arson attacks, assassinations as well as closure of media houses and mass exodus of journalists!

Hence the killing of Deyda became a watershed moment in the life of the media and journalists. As the author narrated, that assassination generated fear, but DA refused to be silenced as he continued to write critical articles against the Government to the discomfort of his family and friends afraid for his safety. Even when DA had a very good paying job in Dakar, he insisted on coming to visit family in Kanifing periodically, against the wishes of his wife, just that Jammeh does not think that he had succeeded in banishing all journalists out of the Gambia.

DA joined the Gambia Press Union in 1980 when Dixon Colley was the Secretary General. DA himself became the Secretary General in 1992 and then president until 1998 when he stepped down. The story of GPU is intertwined with the life of the author who, together with Deyda had to seriously struggle in ensuring that the union survives when there was little support. Not only did the union face resource challenges but it also went through lot of turbulence as internal wranglings among members over benefits nearly derailed it. However, the book reveals that DA traversed a path that was laden with difficulties – from financial to security issues to social pressures and personal fears especially after the death of Deyda!

Life in exile in Senegal brought lot of gain and pain to DA. Not only did he gain a more rewarding job financially and built strong and lasting relationships with a myriad of people and institutions, but he also became a huge source of support to fellow Gambians in Dakar or those Gambians fleeing through Dakar or coming there to seek visas or medical attention. In fact, his kids would tease that their father’s house became a ‘Transit Hotel’ because of the numbers of people who would come by.

Like many Gambians DA joined the current Gambia Government not because he wanted to share in the spoils of war. His fight against the dictatorship was for nothing other than to salvage his country and secure the freedoms and progress of his people including himself, in any walk of life one might be. Hence, he never imagined becoming a minister such that when a request came for him to send his CV to the Government he flatly refused. Thanks to the intervention and encouragement of four remarkable fellow women fighters – Fatou Jagne Senghore, Aisha Dabo, Ndey Tapha Sosseh and Veronic Wright that DA eventually succumbed; and of course, because Pres. Barrow had expressed to him that he admired and also preferred DA to become the Minster of Information.

Life as a minister was indeed instructive for Demba. Instead of the environment becoming smooth and supportive rather DA actually became a victim as soon as he accepted the office of a minister. The book has given a rather vivid picture of the environment inside the Government. DA pointed to a situation of chaos, flaws, missed opportunities and unnecessary reactions. As the Minister of Information and the Spokesperson of the Government DA was not only side-lined on fundamental issues of the Government but was poorly or not consulted at all in many instances and even where he sought answers from even the top, he either gets no response or a very diluted explanation without head or tail!

Indeed, DA did not enjoy his time as a minister. Not only was he excluded and even labelled as ‘Mr. Complain’ because of his incessant demand for answers or explanations, but he became extremely disappointed at the amateurish manner of addressing issues and the failure of the Government to be transparent or accountable.

For example, the confusion about the Brussels roundtable that the Government was coming home with money when only pledges were made could have been better addressed if enough information and engagement was made. Amazingly DA was left out of that meeting. The immature reaction of the President towards Dr. Ismaila Ceesay of UTG or the question ‘where were you’ should not have come from a President. The donation of vehicles or the D11 million provided to pilgrims or the China money transferred into the First Lady’s foundation account are all incidents that were badly handled by State House simply because the necessary sharing of information, coordination and engagement were not taking place. Consequently, DA faced series of embarrassments when he faced local or foreign journalists asking about simple issues about which he had no idea because no one shared information or true information with him.

Not only was DA a victim of exclusion and non-cooperation from even inside the Cabinet, but he faced incessant interference in his ministry on issues such as the liberalization of the International Gateway or the granting of TV licenses to applicants such as the Ahmadiyya among others. DA was seriously committed to transforming the media landscape through legal and institutional reforms but unfortunately received little to no cooperation from Cabinet colleagues including the President except for the Minister of Justice who seemed to recognize and value his role as a fellow minster.

Above all the book gave us insight into the kind of leadership in the country where courtesy and the national interest do not seem to drive the agenda. For example, the author’s termination letter was handed over to him by the Secretary General and he wondered why the President could not have simply invited him to discuss why he was being sacked as a matter of courtesy and leadership. But as the book recounts nothing like that happened in the first place when VP Tambajang or Mai Fatty was sacked. Hence when it was his turn to be also fired unceremoniously, the author acknowledges that he and his Cabinet colleagues must also take blame for that because they also never stood up to enquire from the President why their former colleagues were being sacked. If they had demonstrated such responsibility probably, they would have seen a different and better show of leadership by Barrow next time he wanted to sack a minster. But since they never cared to ask the President, it means the President also considered that he is indeed the bus driver and he can onload and offload minsters as he likes!

DA is not a bitter man after all. Rather his stint in Government gave him a better understating of our society and its circumstances. He came to better understand where our troubles lie and how to solve them. While he seems concerned that there are some invisible forces and interests driving the agenda around Barrow, he however offers quite succinct pieces of advice and recommendations to the President, ministers, local government authorities, fellow journalists and indeed every citizen.

For example, he cited the various cabinet reshuffles as missed opportunities where Barrow could have re-branded himself by adding more women and young people or appoint someone from the other smaller ethnic groups into his Cabinet to reflect diversity and unity of our people. Furthermore, he cited the lack of a Christian in the National Assembly which could have also been addressed if the President had utilised his authority to nominate a Christian person. Rather we see how Barrow further closed his Cabinet to women and youth by appointing more elderly men! He reminded the President to stick to his words as a mark of honour and refuse ‘wakh wahet’ noting that even Abdoulaye Wade could not survive the trick!

In conclusion, I have never been prouder of DA after reading this book. It is rich, blunt and accurate in its information content, objectivity and user-friendly in its consumption! As he said, he and many Gambians supported the Coalition in 2016 to salvage the Gambia and not to seek power and privilege. He remained unflinchingly committed to that agenda as a minister even though he was frustrated and concerned at the limited support of this Government to empower Gambians by protecting fundamental freedoms.

On the Coalition – whether it exists or not, and the political future of the President and the risks and threats, and the intrigues of partisan politics and the rest – I won’t tell you. Read the book!

Thank you for your kind attention.

Author: Madi Jobarteh