6 July 2012

Gambia: Where Is Ebrima Manneh?

Journalist Ebrima Manneh was detained without charge in 2006, and the government and police keep changing their stories regarding his whereabouts.

Nobody seems to know the whereabouts of the Gambian journalist Ebrima Manneh. Since his arrest by Gambian intelligence services six years ago, the government's line has switched from claiming Manneh is not in custody and denying knowledge of his whereabouts, to insisting he is still alive. Meanwhile, senior police reports have swayed wildly from asserting that the journalist is dead to claiming he is in US.

Manneh's disappearance

Ebrima Manneh, 34, widely known as Chief Manneh, was picked up by plainclothes agents of the feared National Intelligence Agency on July 7, 2006, at the office of the pro-government newspaper Daily Observer, where he was a State House correspondent.

Insiders from the paper explained to Think Africa Press that they believed Manneh's arrest stemmed from an article he allegedly downloaded from the BBC website for re-publication in the paper's international news page, a routine practice at the daily. The article was part of the BBC's coverage of the African Union Summit in Gambia in June/July 2006, which was said to be critical of most African heads of state, including the host President Yahya Jammeh.

In 2007, the media watchdog, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Ghana filed a suit against the Gambian government's arrest of Manneh at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Nigeria. Following Gambia's repeated refusal to appear before the court and defend itself, the court entered a default judgement in favour of Manneh. It ruled that his arrest and detention are illegal and ordered the authorities in Banjul to release the journalist and compensate him $100,000. Authorities did neither. And reports of Manneh's whereabouts since have been sketchy and contradictory.

Press freedom in Gambia

Press freedom has suffered badly under Jammeh over the past 18 years. In Gambia, the media is subject to draconian laws regarding "false publication" and "sedition" which carry jail terms and heavy fines, and Jammeh has closed two newspapers and two radio stations as head of state. According to a Committee to Protect Journalists report in 2011, 17 Gambian journalists were exiled between 2001 and 2011. Meanwhile, the 2011/2 Press Freedom Index ranks Gambia at 141 out of 179 countries.

And Jammeh is not shy about his opinions regarding the media. He once described journalists as being the "illegitimate sons of Africa" and persuaded the public to stop buying newspapers so that journalists might starve to death. Soon after his re-election in 2011, Jammeh said: "The journalists are less than 1% of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1% of the population to destroy 99% of the population, you are in the wrong place".

It is of little surprise then that Manneh was arrested and detained. What is peculiar about his case, however, is the mystery surrounding his whereabouts and the conflicting reports.

Contradictory claims

Back in April 2009, Marie Saine-Firdaus, The Gambia's justice minister at the time, told parliamentarians that Manneh was not being held by the state. "I have enquired from the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, the Inspector-General of Police, and the Commissioner of Prisons, and to the best of their knowledge, information and belief, Chief Manneh is not in their custody," Saine-Firdaus told the National Assembly.

That same month, however, an unnamed senior police officer told Agence France-Presse that the journalist is no longer alive. Agence France-Presse reported that Manneh was last seen by their source in 2008, when a plainclothes officer took him from the State Central Prison just outside the capital Banjul.

The belief that Manneh is dead was alluded to in March 2011, when President Jammeh said "Let me make it very clear that the government has nothing to do with the death of Chief Manneh or Deyda Hydara [a newspaper editor whose murderers have never been identified] or the disappearances of so many people".

Later that year, however, the story of Manneh's fate took a turn when, in October 2011, Edward Gomez, Saine-Firdaus' successor as justice minister, said in a newspaper interview: "I can tell you that Ebrima Chief Manneh is alive." He added, however: "We shall talk about this case at a later stage when it is more convenient, when I can prove to you beyond any reasonable doubt."

Where on earth?

In May of this year, another twist in the tale emerged as The Gambia's Inspector General of Police, Yankuba Sonko, claimed that he had received information from the international police organisation Interpol suggesting the journalist is in the US. The Gambia Press Union and Manneh's family swiftly condemned the statement. "The Gambia government officials have been making conflicting statements over the disappearance of Chief Manneh", the press union remarked in a statement. "Rather than engage in a speculative expedition, it is important for the state to do its utmost with the sole objective of locating Chief Manneh's whereabouts."

"Manneh is a victim of enforced disappearance," Ayodele Ameen, Amnesty International's campaigner for The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia told Think Africa Press. Ameen added that "he is still listed by Interpol as a missing person," which suggests he is not in the US.

Manneh's father, Sarjo told Think Africa Press that he believes his son is still in The Gambia. "I told him [the police chief] he is lying. My son is not in America."

Bubacarr Sowe is a freelance Gambian journalist. He has written for various international and Gambian publications.

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