Point’s reporter Sana Camara recently had an exclusive interview with Gambian
journalist and activist Fatu Camara, who spoke on several issues ranging from
her exile to her work as State House press director under former President
Yahya Jammeh. The following are excerpts of the interview.
The Point: Welcome home, Fatu.
Fatu: Thank you…. (Laughs)
How does it feel like returning home after four years in exile?
Well, if you know me, you know that Gambia is what I like. I like to be home.
I was in England in 1996 and I did University just one year and when I could not go with it due to some issues at the time, I decided to come back home instead of staying there. I went to the US in 2000 and got married there….. And I decided to come back home at the end of it. So this time again, we were in a fight against a dictatorship and when the dictatorship is gone, I decided to come back home.
So home is where the heart is. This is where I like to be.
The last time you left The Gambia it was under a different circumstance compared to your earlier stays away. You ran for your life…. What actually happened?
Fleeing home was a situation I was never expecting. I am sure many others were shocked too because I did nothing wrong. I was working for Jammeh (his government) at the time and I was doing my own things too. Anyone who knew me knows I am able to sustain myself and my family with or without a [Jammeh] job. Jammeh invited me to work as his press secretary because he saw what I was doing and he liked it. At first I turned his offer down because I had ongoing projects that I needed to finish. Six months later, he called me again and said, “You should come and get this job. In fact you are starting tomorrow!”
However, we fell out after three months: I was removed. But if you remember, I had my own show called the Fatu Show that broadcast on GRTS each week and it was a success. I told Jammeh I would not let my show go. So I was doing the PR job at the State House and running my show and the I-Media company at the same time. In 2013, he came back and said he had realized he was wrong but because some people misled him. So I listened to him and took the job. But I was removed again after three months. And this time around, he went to the point of arresting and detaining me as a way to frustrate me. He does this to others before just to demoralise and frustrate you.
Jammeh gave instructions to GRTS that I should not go back on television again, thinking that would be the end of me. Little did he know that the journey has just started; I was detained at the NIA for 25 days incommunicado. I was denied access to my kids and my lawyer. I was released on bail after 25 days and I could remember them telling me that they have investigated but could not establish any proof of allegations against me. Still they were instructed to press charges and take me to courts. They assured me that the charges were not from them but the Attorney General’s chambers…
Who was the Attorney General at the time?
It was Mama Fatima Singhateh. The NIA said the AG’s chambers pressed the charges which were false. I was also told that due to my popularity and the attention on my case from international media, they would not risk being sued for detaining me without charge after my release. They advised me to accept the charges in court and Jammeh would drop them afterwards. But when I got to courts, I pleaded innocent of those charges because I did not do anything…
So would you say that you regretted working for Jammeh?
I was not working for Jammeh but the government. And I had ideas that were going to help that office. Because when it came to communication and PR, I saw that the government was not doing very well. If Jammeh had listened to me…. Anyways, he underestimated the power of the online media. I pushed him to engage and keep talking to the online media. He underestimated its power and he has seen the result…
So no regrets…?
Well, Jammeh was not paying me from his pocket. It was The Gambia government that was paying me for my services to him.
Did you personally benefit from Jammeh’s financial benevolence?
People will be surprised to know that Jammeh would help you when you are far away knowing you are not working with him than when you are working close to him. It is only when he engages in events that he will call the soldiers, the press and tells them ‘you can have this’. Jammeh never bought me a car or a house. I had always been taking care of me based on the contracts I was winning and the show I was running. Although he promised to pay my school in 1996 but the only money he ever gave me was $6,000 and one time when we had our Fatu Show anniversary, he said we can use his equipment for free. He donated us D200,000 and asked all ministers to come to the event. A lot of people did donate to us too, but it was not like I was receiving financial aid or money from Jammeh. Once you work with him, you did not get any money from him.
Did Jammeh buy you your house? People say he bought you a house….
That is not true. He never bought me any house. If he did, let him prove it, be it where he is or here. The house that I have is the house my son got from his dad. That’s where I was staying….
…which of the sons is it, from first or second marriage?
The second marriage... So that’s the house we keep now and the other one is a land that I am building. Besides, I do not accept financial gifts from people. I could remember that when I separated from my husband, I was trying to find a house. Jammeh said to me, “I can give you a house. I can give you money to rent a place”, and I said “no”. I told him if he has a place that I can go and stay while I sort myself out, let me go there. So I told him if the AU Villa is free I could go there but I would not accept money from him to buy or build a house. I do not take money from people. That is very dangerous especially with the profession we do. So if you do that, you don’t know when it will come out. So I stayed at the AU villas for a few months and when I was removed from office, I went out to stay in the house built by my son’s dad.
Was that the compound used as collateral to bail you out from detention?
No. To bail me out, we had to use my ex-husband’s friend’s house built for D3million and to recover the papers after I fled, we had to pay a million dalasi. So the state owes me D1million. I hope I will get that back because I did not do anything wrong…. (Laughs).
Will you testify before the Commission of Inquiry into Jammeh’s finances and assets to explain your dealings with him when summoned?
I don’t think I would be called to that commission because I did not receive any money from Jammeh or a bank that will show up at the commission. I have seen those who were the signatories to his accounts and they are the ones who would go there to explain their activities with Jammeh.
How was your experience during the three weeks you spent in detention at the NIA? Where you tortured?
When I got there, I was never tortured. Although I was hearing a lot of information about torture in The Gambia (and I always denied this); I did not believe that those could take place here until I got there myself. I however see my detention at the NIA as a work of God. I was denying this and I came to see them myself. I saw torture, beating and I saw people who did nothing but still went through torture even when they were falsely accused.
When I got there, I was talking to everyone. I was asking everyone why they were there and the NIA used to call me the chief of detainees. If any detainee did not get their medication on time and it was brought to my attention, I will go to the supervisor’s office and ask them to administer these. But when I saw torture, 7pm each day I would complain that I am sick because I was scared. The Junglers used to come to beat up detainees at night. After I saw that, it frightened me. That is why I saw my detention as work of God. I have seen it and I could tell people there was torture in the Gambia. I saw them come in, beat up five detainees till they collapsed, I was there. I saw them endure the pain till their recovery. God made me witness those things and I was out and got a voice to tell the world what I saw in the Gambia.
Has this inspired your fight against Jammeh?
Everything else started from there. I am such a person who would not be pushed into anything when I am not ready for it. So when I left Gambia, a lot of people wanted me to start speaking about my experience. Until when I was ready, I looked at the situation and said it was time to speak out, and then I spoke out.
Thank you Fatu, for speaking to us.
Thank you, Sanna. We fought and won.