By Zainab Jobarteh
Kabba Sawaneh has worked in the hotel industry since 1992. One would imagine that his line of work would shield him from any encounter with the regime. However, Kabba was to find out that there was no escaping the pervasive power of Yahya Jammeh, even at work.
In November 2009, he was a resort manager at the Dunes Hotel. He had worked there for three years when Jammeh acquired the hotel and brought it under his company, Kanilai Family Farms. Typical of the president’s penchant for micromanaging everything and surrounding himself with loyalists, he brought in his own manager to run the hotel. It did not seem to matter to the new owner that the woman he had employed, a Guinea Bissau national, had never worked in the hotel industry before. According to Kabba, she was just summoned to the State House and given the job.
Kabba’s instincts told him to get out. He knew it spelt trouble being involved in any way with anything connected to the president, so he resolved to start looking for a job. However, the new manager prevailed upon him to stay, and even enticed him with the new position of being her deputy. He could not very well leave immediately as he did not have another offer, and he needed a job.
According to Kabba, the hotel was run down and needed a large investment to bring it up to standard. Soon, renovations started.
However, problems soon reared their ugly heads. The manager explained that she could not open a bank account in the hotel’s name. Apparently, there was a problem with the hotel’s ownership documents. The manager solved the problem by using her personal bank account to conduct the hotel’s business. This meant that the money to pay the workers and funds for social security and tax were kept in the manager’s account. Kabba never met the new owner of the hotel, the president, so the manager was the link between them. However, the manager had told the staff that Jammeh had promised them lots of things to get the hotel functioning well. This included new vehicles to aid operations. However, the deputy manager started getting concerned when the promises were taking long to fulfil.
Kabba used his personal vehicle to facilitate the operations of the hotel until it broke down. He ended up selling it for scrap metal as he could not afford to repair it. He never received any compensation for the use of his vehicle. Jammeh later gave the manager and her deputy a vehicle each to use for hotel business.
Then one day, the Director General of the National Intelligent Agency (NIA), Yankuba Badjie, showed up with his team and ordered the managers to shut down the hotel immediately. There was no warning and it appeared nobody cared about the fate of the hotel employees, who were being rendered jobless. They were given 24 hours to hand over to NIA officers.
The manager and Kabba were summoned to the NIA offices the next day. Their vehicles were impounded and the manager detained. Kabba was told to go home. He had no idea what was happening and why. As far as he was concerned, neither the manager nor he had committed any crimes. The manager was released after three days because of medical reasons.
All the hotel employees lost their jobs and no explanations were given. Kabba was fortunate to get a job at a nearby hotel. He managed to move with a few of his colleagues who were desperately in need of jobs. He said many complained to him that they could not find work, but he could not employ everyone. He tried to think of a way to help his former colleagues and decided to write to Jammeh and inform him about what was happening. Perhaps the president would have compassion on the workers and help them, Kabba thought.
He was careful not to involve anybody else because he did not want his actions to be interpreted as an effort to mobilise workers to protest against the president, who was the owner of the hotel. Kabba genuinely thought the president did not know what was happening at the hotel and only sought to inform him.
“This hotel is lying in waste and the staff are not working. I am appealing to you to open it so that they can earn their living. Also, the hotel has been deducting social security and tax payments from the staff, which have not been paid to the authorities because the manager said you have not given her any documentation to the property,” Kabba’s letter said. He suggested that the money be given back to the staff to ease their suffering. He hand-delivered the letter to State House.
Kabba thought his letter would help the workers. He was, therefore, a little concerned when Detective Ousman Sowe summoned him to Kanifing Police Station. When he arrived, he was questioned by six police and NIA officers. They informed him that a commission had been set up to investigate the issues he had raised in his letter to the president. He was asked about the tax money and he told them it was kept in the manager’s bank account. They wanted to know whether he had informed the rest of the workers about the letter. The workers were interviewed and they all corroborated Kabba’s assertions that they knew nothing about his actions.
He felt that he had achieved a small victory when the money that had been deducted from the workers’ salaries was withdrawn from the manager’s account and returned to them. A month later he travelled to Senegal and when he returned, Detective Sowe called him again and asked him to collect a letter from the police station. He assured the policeman that he would go for the letter in the evening. He was surprised when police officers arrived at his house shortly afterwards to arrest him. Sowe informed him that the president had ordered that he be arrested and charged with giving false information to a police officer. He spent nearly 24 hours in a mosquito-infested cell without food. His family was not allowed to see him. He was bailed out by a friend the next day.
Kabba paid a lawyer D55,000 to defend him in court. He still owes the man D15,000. The prosecution called five witnesses and they all confirmed that what was written in the letter was true. When the prosecution concluded its presentation, the magistrate reassigned the case to another court. The case has been pending since then because Jammeh lost the election in December 2016 and fled into exile in January of the following year. Although Kabba has not been called before the court again, he is still affected. He is still on police bail and therefore cannot travel outside the country. He lost his job in 2016 soon after his arrest and has not found work since.
He was angry at the way the administration had messed up his life, but he soon realised how lucky he was when he started watching the sessions of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) and saw that many people had suffered a worse fate at the hands of Jammeh and his henchmen. He has registered at both the TRRC and the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations with the hope of getting the case against him thrown out. He wants to be a free man.
Kabba blamed his tribulations on the panel of investigators headed by Ousman Sowe. He said he believed the officers lied to Jammeh that he was mobilising his former colleagues against the president. He added that he had not forgiven the people who were directly or indirectly involved in the experience that traumatised him and his family. “I leave everything with Allah to judge between them,” he said.