By Mary Mam Degen Fye
It is no secret that Yahya Jammeh was prepared to break all the rules and go to great lengths to secure his reign. He did not hesitate to kill, maim, torture, and exile any person he perceived as a threat to his authority.
One would expect that even the most ruthless of dictators would draw a line where his family is concerned. But it seems Jammeh was one exception to this rule. He had no compunction about ordering the murder of Haruna Jammeh, the first cousin he grew up with in Kanilai, their home village.
Haruna was like Yahya’s older brother, holding his hand as they walked to school in those early years in the 1960s and 1970s. As adults, Yahya, then a soldier in the Gambian army, would visit his cousin’s house and Haruna’s wife would serve him meals. Family members describe the two cousins as being of completely different temperaments, with Yahya boastful and brash and Haruna firm, gentle, and friendly. But Haruna always looked out for Yahya and gave him money when he needed help.
Haruna moved to Greater Banjul and got into the hotel industry. He ended up working at Novotel Hotel, steadily rising through the ranks to become manager of the rooms division. Some of the people who knew Haruna were surprised when in 2000 he gave up his thriving career in Banjul to move back to Kanilai village. Apparently, Yahya had finally persuaded him to go back home on the pretext of managing the family’s farm. Family sources say Yahya coaxed his cousin into returning to Kanilai to be his “eyes and ears” there. Perhaps Haruna was just continuing in his role of looking out for his “little brother”.
It is a measure of Haruna’s sacrifice for Yahya that he gave up a well-paying job for one without an assured salary. His family says he only received food and sometimes a cash gift. And he had to leave his family behind in Serrekunda to live alone in Kanilai, only visiting them occasionally. Sometimes his wife and children would go to see him in the family compound in the village. They never imagined that he would pay for his decision to work for the president with his life.
Yahya and Haruna soon fell out. Sources say Haruna was sidelined from Yahya’s inner circle when he started complaining that soldiers were stealing fuel and food. According to Irish Times and Kairo News, he was also critical of the government’s increased sackings and arrests, apparently of perceived opponents, and confronted Yahya about these issues. Yahya and the people he had surrounded himself with apparently interpreted his criticism and complaints the only way they seemed capable of – that he wanted to oust the president. His fate was sealed.
First, Haruna was sacked as manager of the family farm. He refused to leave the compound, saying he had as much right to the family farm as Yahya. His defiance seemed to have infuriated Yahya and he was arrested in July, 2005, late at night, and detained at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
According Omar Jallow, testifying before the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) on September 17, 2019, he and two other members of President Jammeh’s hit squad, the Junglers, were sent to collect Haruna from the agency.
Jallow claimed that he did not know that they were supposed to kill Haruna. He knew Haruna Jammeh personally and had even visited his house several times and shared meals with his family. He confessed that Haruna had helped him many times. Perhaps that is why Haruna expected the truth when he asked Jallow where he was being taken as he and another Jungler sandwiched the prisoner in the car. Jallow told him that they were going to Kanilai.
Jallow described how he and his colleagues pulled Haruna out of the vehicle when it stopped in a bush near Kanilai. They forced a rope around his neck and two of them started pulling it, trying to strangle Haruna. One Jungler finished him off by stamping on his neck with his heavy military boots. They threw him into the well they had earlier dumped the bodies of some of the more than 50 Ghanaians and other west Africans they had killed. The migrants, who were trying to find a way to sneak into Europe, were apparently mistaken for mercenaries out to overthrow Yahya Jammeh.
During an interview with Freedom Radio, former Jungler Musa Sarr said Haruna was assassinated because he was “the only person in the family who would tell [Yahya] Jammeh the truth to the point of quarrelling with him… So in the process of quarrelling and jailing, I know when he was tired of it, fed up with it he decided to kill him once and for all.”
Alhagie Ceesay, for many years chief of protocol in Yahya Jammeh’s office, told the commission that only a handful of people could stand up to Jammeh, and Haruna was one of them.
Haruna just disappeared and his family did not know what had happened to him. They had last seen him on the night of his arrest. They could only guess what had happened but were too scared to try to find out the truth. Their fears were enhanced by the disappearance of Haruna’s sister, Masie Jammeh, who was also said to have been killed when she confronted the president about Haruna. They only found out the truth about what happened to Haruna and Masie almost nine years later when Bai Lowe, a former Jungler driver who was seeking asylum in Germany, said in an interview that he had witnessed Haruna’s murder. And Omar Jallow confirmed the truth at the TRRC.
It appears few things were sacrosanct for Yahya Jammeh. His paranoia, intolerance, insecurity, and ruthlessness could not allow him to ignore any threat, real or imagined, to his power and authority; not even a “brother” who had always looked out for him. Haruna learned the hard lesson that you could not oppose the dictator and live to tell the tale.