By Foday Samateh
Our preeminent scholar’s review of Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh’s memoir, Standing up Against Injustice, fails to stand up for literary justice. In an aptly promising beginning of the essay of the same title as the book, the very first thing the reader knows about Dr. Janneh is “dissident-turned collaborator.” That characterization appropriately marks the memoir suspect for a close reading of what he had to say. Alas, the review ends up trying too hard to humanize a self-discredited shapeshifter as a rehabilitated pro-democracy activist.
In the wake of Musa Camara’s Masquerader at Raleigh Conference on Dr. Janneh and his memoir and Lamin J Darboe’s spicy review of Papa Faal’s A Week of Hell, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is no longer business as usual for Gambian elites. The anything goes image-making and self-glorification finally and thankfully belongs to the bygone era. Dr. Saine starts on that path by raking over Dr. Janneh’s record and raising some important questions. He brings up Dr. Janneh’s announcement of his decision to join Yahya Jammeh’s government as a cabinet member; his prior admiration for Yahya Jammeh’s development projects, especially in his hometown of Gunjur; and his justification for the surprising decision on the claim that he would be initiating “change from within.”
Dr. Saine contrasts that with Dr. Janneh’s past dismissive lampooning and unsparing castigation of Yahya Jammeh’s government. He points out the fact that Dr. Janneh never resigned but was fired by the man he had already accused of having a policy of “hiring and firing” ministers at short intervals. He notes that Dr. Janneh’s memoir, like most of the genre, “lacks critical self-reflection/ analysis and omits or glosses over important concerns.” He reminds us that Dr. Janneh’s tenure as minister of Information, Communication and Technology “saw the enactment of some of the most draconian [media] laws by the APRC-Government, coupled with the most brutal treatment of journalists and civilians that included the assassination and near-assassination of Deyda Hydara and Lawyer Ousman Sillah, respectively.” He further underlines that: “Granted, Janneh may have had nothing to do with these atrocities but his continued tenure as [minister] made him complicit in these atrocities.”
After raising expectations for a climatic verdict, Dr. Saine states that, “These criticisms aside, Standing Up Against Injustice is a well-written memoir with intriguing stories of life, as lived by a cabinet-member-turned-collaborator-dissident.” Then he concludes thus: “Amadou also deserves praise for having written his memoir because he could have easily been content to living out his remaining days in obscurity or in business, as many have. Instead, his release from prison, appears to rekindle his “fire” (along with many collaborator-turned-dissident Gambians) to reclaim his place in the struggle against Jammeh. Therein, lies the book’s redeeming value and Janneh’s redemption. His return to the fold is positive — even if he drew justified criticism and scrutiny, which he weathered well.” (Emphasis mine) The comparison that comes to mind is the opening chapter in Mario Puzo’s enduring crime novel The Godfather. The presiding judge, looking stern and sounding outraged at two young men from well-to-do New York families for assaulting the daughter of a working-class Sicilian immigrant, went through the motions and paused for effect, only to stay the hand of justice by delivering three years suspended sentence under the pretext of some mitigating circumstances.
“These criticisms aside” is a poor choice of words. They sound too casual and certainly do not belong in the review. The criticisms are integral to the core of what makes Dr. Janneh a public, albeit controversial, figure. Putting them aside leaves no part of his “intriguing” life story that is of any public interest. We are not intrigued by the fact that he grew up in Gunjur like so many wonderful people, did a stint at Radio Gambia, studied in America, has a family. These are ordinary and common events, and certainly not anything that inspire a memoir of his revering title. The phrase has a cliche manner and tone of polite convention when the situation begs and cries out for the contrary; subverts Dr. Saine’s own thesis and underlying arguments; negotiates too much pardon for a man who deserves very little; and serves as a rhetorical conduit for more extenuating rationalizations to give Dr. Janneh reprieve and saving grace.
Dr. Saine appraises the memoir as “well-written” and wants us to praise Dr. Janneh for having written it when he could have easily been content in obscurity or business, as many have. One small problem, though. Dr. Saine has already enlightened us that the memoir “lacks critical self-reflection/ analysis and omits or glosses over important concerns.” In other words, the memoir flunks the credibility test. Another way to put it is that Dr. Janneh has written a self-serving memoir to reinvent himself as a born-again dissident, or freedom fighter if you will, rather than make a public confession of his apostasy from human rights and democracy campaign when he joined the brutish autocracy and remained there until the puppet-master had no use for him and booted him out of the inner sanctum.
About “the book’s redeeming value and Janneh’s redemption,” isn’t it too soon to be so “charitable” given how much he has to atone for? How has he “weathered well” the justified criticisms and scrutiny his erring conduct has drawn? Has he addressed the criticisms or apologized to the people in whose name he claims to be now fighting for human rights and democracy? The book has no redeeming value thanks to the evasions and omissions, and the jury is still out on Dr. Janneh’s redemption. Until we know the fate or the outcome of his current endeavors, we will all be well-advised to render no judgment. He has betrayed and disappointed before and there is no telling he is repentant and reformed for good. In the meantime, he gets no benefit of the doubt. The scrutiny must go on.
Dr. Saine’s review fails to ask the most obvious question: why did he choose Standing Up Against Injustice as the title of his memoir? Since Dr. Janneh avails himself the imprimatur of a freedom fighter, we need to know the injustice he stood up against and when. Before he worked for Yahya Jammeh? While he was working for Yahya Jammeh? After he was dismissed by Yahya Jammeh and went into a small business? During his “treason” trial and incarceration in Mile Two Prison? After flying out of the country upon his “pardon” by Yahya Jammeh? The only moment both Dr. Janneh and the news media point to in his life as a freedom fighter is when he printed “End Dictatorship Now” on a handful of T-shirts with the hope of starting an Arab-spring-style uprising in The Gambia, something Dr. Saine considers “baffling and naive.” The plan to establish a radio station in Senegal to broadcast anti-Yahya Jammeh messages into The Gambia and all other brilliant ideas to incite the public are good intentions. They are nothing more and should be categorized as nothing more. Many of us have wonderful ideas about liberating The Gambia and what to do with the villain in the State House, but until we conjugate them into action we haven’t stood up against injustice and cannot make any such claim. Nothing is heroic about good intentions and we can’t be freedom fighters on the mere strength of our plans.
Regarding his arrest, treason trial and sentence to life imprisonment, nothing is unique about those circumstances in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia. It doesn’t take much to get arrested. It doesn’t take much to get detained and tortured. It doesn’t take much to get charged with treason. It doesn’t take much to get convicted for life. Just as it doesn’t take much to get hired and fired as a minister. Everything depends on Yahya Jammeh’s mood swings. By Dr. Janneh’s own admission, he didn’t do more than print a slogan on a few T-shirts. He didn’t just admit this fact under duress in The Gambia, but in the safety of Her majesty’s free and democratic London. Denouncing the atrocious judiciary of the petty and paranoiac dictatorship to Amnesty International, he remarked in a prepared statement that: “Nothing underscores this more than my own arrest, trial, and conviction for merely printing and distributing 100 T-shirts with the inscription “End Dictatorship Now.”
Like too many things in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia, his incarceration was unjust and he was truly a prisoner of conscience. But he was no freedom fighter. His prison experience was horrifying but not news. Mile Two had been modern-day Bastille for ten years before he decided to work for Yahya Jammeh. If he hadn’t read vivid descriptions of that dark hell from the prison accounts of Lt. Colonel Samsudeen Sarr and former Deputy Inspector General of Police Ebrima Chongan, did he care to take a look at the place when he was in the cabinet? Wasn’t that supposed to be his whole raison d’être for joining the government, to “initiate change from within?”
Let’s not forget a crucial fact while we are still on Mile Two. When Jesse Jackson brokered “pardons” for him and another Gambian with an American passport Tamsir Jasseh, Dr. Janneh didn’t demand in the spirit of standing up against injustice that he wouldn’t leave his cell until all other political prisoners and detainees were released. He rushed for the exits, jumped on a plane and out of The Gambia, leaving behind in the gulag fellow prisoners of conscience not fortunate enough to bear an American passport to their name. Since he chose the easy way out, he picked the wrong title for his memoir. And certainly, as (my friend) Musa Camara had emphasized, he can’t trick our imagination by playing a Mandela.
To get arrested for a dead-end effort, be found guilty by a mercenary judge and be locked up is losing to injustice, not standing up against it. Didn’t he later tell us elsewhere that he had been surprised by the overreaction of the dictatorship; that he thought they only charged him with treason to scare the rest of the country but wouldn’t go through with it? It wouldn’t be the first time he misread or underestimated the man who hired and fired him. Of all the vile and vicious things that happened under this regime, how could Dr. Janneh be so wrong so many times about Yahya Jammeh? And he was the one who assigned himself the task of initiating “change from within” the power structure of an avowed autocrat?
Dr. Saine wonders why he would so readily tarnish his reputation by working for Yahya Jammeh. Against charges of desperation and opportunism for sleeping with the enemy, Dr. Saine points out that he should have explained his personal circumstances when he was departing the US for The Gambia, particularly his status as a college professor. Being tenured would suggest that he had made some personal sacrifice and the lack of it would insinuate disillusionment on his part. But would it have mattered whether he was tenured or had zero chance of getting tenured? Serving as a minister for the right reasons is still a privilege, not a sacrifice; doing it out of despair doesn’t by itself make it less noble. The only criteria should be: is it the right thing? In this case it wasn’t, notwithstanding Dr. Janneh’s delusions about initiating change from within.
For someone with a Ph.D. in political science, it is rather confounding for Dr. Janneh to be so naive, if not arrogant, to think that Yahya Jammeh would be malleable to sound reasoning. Which dictator can he name whose mind had been swayed by rational advice? Dictatorship is a condition that has never been cured by suasion. Despots see power in absolute terms, to be consolidated forever and never to be shared; a sad reality Dr. Janneh would come to acknowledge when it was far too late. Just ask Morgan Tsvangirai how he is faring as prime minister under Mugabe; and that man got into office through strenuous international pressure on his bitter political enemy for the good of the country at a time Zimbabwe’s economy was imploding. Instead of the popular opposition leader changing his marginalized nemesis from within, he was outfoxed and compromised as a man of the people, allowing the octogenarian to secure his hold on power.
The question Dr. Saine’s review should have posed is far more material than Dr. Janneh’s reputation. In his address to Amnesty International, the former minister of Information and Communication had this to say about what ills our country: “The Gambia’s problem, essentially, is that we have a dictator who is very determined to tighten his grip on absolute power as long as possible and through fear and intimidation. He has demonstrated his capacity to brutalize the population with very little regard for national laws, international obligations, diplomatic norms, or even moral dictates.” Dr. Janneh should know something about lawbreaking when it comes to Yahya Jammeh, because he collaborated with the man to violate the Constitution in accepting a cabinet post while being a dual citizen of the US. A collaborator indeed.
Dr. Saine should have brought this up as Musa Camara challenged the former minister to own up to participating in this gross and glaring violation of the supreme law of the land, express public remorse over it and apologize to the country. He even quoted the relevant Chapter VI Part 2, 71(2) of The Constitution of The Gambia: “A person shall not be qualified to be appointed or hold the office of a Secretary of State (Minister) if, he or she is a member of the National Assembly or if he or she holds the citizenship or nationality of any country other than The Gambia.” Why didn’t Dr. Janneh turn down the offer of ministerial post by telling Yahya Jammeh that he had dual citizenship and he wouldn’t partake in any injustice or injury to the Constitution of The Gambia? Not only did he fail to do that, but had the audacity to stand before an august assembly of Amnesty International and called out his former partner in crime against the Constitution for disrespecting laws?
In the forward to the memoir, Ndey Tapha Sosseh was unequivocal as a character witness for him. She had nothing good to say about Yahya Jammeh and his government and still poured out her heart for Dr. Janneh as the outsiders’ favorite insider in the cabinet. I reserve a vast ocean of respect and admiration for her as a superb journalist and an exemplary citizen. (The same holds true for Dr. Saine as a luminary of academic and intellectual excellence and an outspoken patriot.) I will be very reluctant to second guess much less disagree with her, especially on something she vouched for without hesitation. However, on the question of Dr. Janneh working for Yahya Jammeh, I will go with Brutus to maintain that, “The name of Cassius honors this corruption.”