It was chaos a year ago on the streets of Washington. I had my camera standing at the corner of H Street and 16th Street waiting to take a photo of The Gambia’s dictator, Yahya Jammeh. Activists from across the United States, in their large numbers were screaming “Yahya Jammeh terrorist,” demanding the African strongman to come out of his 5 star presidential luxury suite at the Hay Adams Hotel.
Little did we know that Hay Adams will be turned into a luxury prison called Mile Hays for The Gambian leader and his delegation.
I arrived about 2 hours after a handful of activists who were busy all night trying to locate the hotel of President Yahya Jammeh already made their presence known, waking Jammeh by drumming their pots and pans they came with. That does not sound like the usual beautiful wakeup call Mr Jammeh gets from the crow of hens and cocks on his farm next to his village villa that early in the morning.
I drove from Atlanta with a colleague Fatu Camara, our political strategist Musa Jeng, two other protesters and an activist Banka Manneh.
Of course during the night long drive, we deliberated about The Gambia and what is the right way forward. Banka, who would usually want to talk at the top of his voice surprisingly allowed Fatu Camara to go on stressing her point for nearly two hours without interruption.
“Fatu, it is enough. It is my turn to talk now,” he said.
We all laughed but the feeling was so mutual that something extra ordinary was going to happen in Washington.
Don’t worry about what happened the rest of that journey, it was our usual arguments on strategy and if there was a generational divide, which Banka and I will never see eye to eye on.
On the other side of the hotel, I saw some supporters of the president, about 11 of them, wearing a t-shirt of him and holding small Gambian flags.
It was hilarious at first until I tried asking one or two questions.
As protesters scream “Jammeh must go,” the president’s counter protesters screamed “Jammeh must stay.”
But they were so overwhelmed by the hundreds of activists that turned up that I had to go very close to the counter protesters to even hear what they were trying to say. A whisper was more audible than whatever they were shouting.
It was easy to distinguish President Jammeh from the rest of the crowd. He wears what might be mistaken for the hotel’s bedsheet. He dresses in a thick local White gown, with a white shoe and a white hat pointed from his head, looking like a local Gambian masquerade called ‘kumpo.’
I was expecting him to come out any moment that morning to attend the business meetings and other sessions like his colleagues at the US-Africa Leaders Summit. I was disappointed that did not happen.
I could not believe he will be forced to stay in his hotel room, while his secret agents tried to take pictures of protesters from the hotel balcony.
He was the man who would be seen as the lion of the Gambian savannah. His proclamations were law. How could a couple of hundred activists keep him in his room when he controls nearly two million people as he wished?
I was disappointed with him for I could not get my photo opportunity; then I remembered the local saying that a dog only barks at his home but not when he is outside on the streets.
Our colleague Babou Abdoulie Jobe was in the studio broadcasting what Fatu and I were reporting the whole day from Washington. Thousands of others around the world tuned in. Babou would not sleep, eat or drink. He was having a lifetime of broadcasting.
People were calling the radio expressing their anger towards the Gambian leader and telling protesters do whatever they can to make his stay regrettable.
As I looked around, I saw Sulayman Makalo, an editor from ASN sitting by H Street, on the pavement, his legs crossed like an old Badibunka man or may be a ‘talibe’ with his laptop updating the ASN website with reports. And there was Omar Bah and Pata Saidykhan with bullhorns denying Jammeh a peaceful sleep.
Reports were coming in of multi-million dollar deals signed by Ghanian president John Mahama, Senegal’s Macky Sall and other African leaders. The Gambian president could not sign one. May be he just wanted a photo with Obama I thought.
It was coming to evening now and we got word that the President would be out in an hour to attend the White House dinner. I had an invitation with Fatu to the dinner too, and we were all excited about the large shrimps we would have, but more excited about being in the same tent with Jammeh for him to notice our presence.
That wouldn’t happen. I mean honestly, it did not go our way like it did most part of the day.
There was high police presence at the hotel than any other leader’s. The DC Metropolitan Police was kept busy as Jammeh’s security reported that protesters were armed and had eggs, which would be thrown at Mr Jammeh.
A carton of egg was taken and that was it. I could not believe Mr Jammeh was scared of being ‘omeletted’ or turned into a ‘scrambled egg.’ Umm, how I love scrambled eggs with turkey bacon and pancakes for breakfast.
More than an hour later, nearly two hours, a 2006 ford expedition pulled up at the hotel entrance.
About 15 personnel of Mr Jammeh’s security detail came out. I ran from the far left of the hotel to the far right, where his vehicle would exit the hotel quickly taking a video.
Jammeh moved so quick in his white gown I thought I saw a ‘jinneh’ pass. I would have needed some prayers to recover from seeing this ‘jinneh.’ He disappeared into the vehicle with my video only getting a glimpse-second of him. Yes it was that quick!
Nobody wants to be made an omelet or scrambled egg – certainly not Mr Jammeh.
One thing I saw in the president’s face was frustration, anger and disgust as activists rained insults on him and kept on chanting.
“Sam, easy easy!….,” Fatu yelled. “These people are crazy!.”
But oh yeah I was in America and had a press card from the State Department with full clearance – I must have mistaken that for diplomatic immunity.
An attack from Jammeh’s security detail ensued. One of his guards, who was later identified as Lt. Col. Ansumana Tamba hit me on my face. I managed to kick back and swing my camera at him before another kicked Fatu right on her back.
I never knew Fatu could beat Marion Jones in a race even in high heels; and I did not know I could beat Usain Bolt in a race either.
Usually a sprinter would wait for the on your mark, get set and go but we didn’t. Don’t say we cheated, it was about thirty of them and we did not know where they came from – all sprinting towards us, attacking and aiming to hit us.
We took off quick like African cheetahs – may be not necessarily the ones Professor Ayiteh has been talking about, running towards anti-Jammeh protesters.
“You should have stood there and we would have killed you both,” Tamba screamed.
Activists now were aware of what was happening at the other end of the hotel and started to charge at Jammeh’s security. FIAM! They jumped the little bushes of pretty flowers at the hotel’s front yard, and DC police came between the two groups. I didn’t know Gambian army had Special Olympics too. They ran so quick they might have taken the gold from Fatu and I.
As DC police was sending reinforcement, I was running my mouth screaming at thetwo poor secret service agents (attached to watch Chuck – code name for Jammeh), who could do nothing but apologize to me, and said his colleagues and the State Department were in route.
“Did you see that? Did you see that? In America where we pay taxes and you abuse a journalist…. Oh heck no!” I screamed.
Now that I saw reinforcement, I moved towards the hotel like an uncontrollable mad lion – not so cool like Simba in Lion King. What a circle of life this was. I was screaming at Jammeh’s security to come out so we can finish the fight they started.For a minuate I felt like I was Muhammed Ali until I look behind me and saw this other Ali.
Right behind me was Coach Pa Samba Jow. He had a wooden stick from a placard he was holding. Then I saw Saul Mbenga jogging down the pavement stuttering between words and Ousainou his brother angry, and could not talk but pointing towards the hotel. Might sound funny today. LOL!
For this reason, we did not makeit to the White House on time for our shrimps and lobsters. Oh, Fatu was furious about that than anything else. God bless her shrimps because Jammeh ate her share of it. Nothing could be more hurtful than for Jammeh to send his guards to kick you and then he delightfully ate your shrimps.
The DC Metro Police came and took pictures of Fatu and I and where we were hit. We gave our statements and waited for Jammeh to return. He came through the back door and was hit by the smell of the nasty dumb bin. Activists camped outside the hotel that night until in the wee hours of the morning. Mr Jammeh could not sleep. Lights in his suite were still on.
The next day, activists woke Mr Jammeh up as early as 6AM again. Mr Jammeh didn’t get enough sleep and he had to attend the official summit at the State Department.
Fatu was tired and we had to harass her to wake up so we could get to the White House media center on time to cover the summit. Well, we made it on time though.
As we entered the media center, my ‘don’t mind your business’ eyes saw a book with the Gambian flag, which was supposedly a speech delivered by the Gambian president at the summit. “Ah Ah, Mr. President, what kind of lie is this,” I thought out loud. I was just wondering and I told Fatu to take a look at it. But as we made our way to our seat among other journalists, all praise be to Babili Mansa my small eyes looking everywhere zoomed on GRTS’ Kebba Dibba and State House presidential photographer, Sulayman Gassama.
“Fatu! Fatu!,” I said. “Look at Saul and Kebba there.”
I didn’t tell Fatu to go talk to them but she picked the booklet of Mr Jammeh’s speech that never happened, and catwalked like Tyra Banks to Kebba and Saul.
“You guys know this not true. This never happened. So why did you put it here?” Fatu asked.
Mr Dibba said they only had it there so the media can pick it up. Fatu duly informed them that she would tell the entire media center that the speech never happened anywhere during the entire summit.
Oh, oh, oh at that momen,t Mr Dibba ran off and he was on the phone – that sneaky snitching ugly duckling.
I went upstairs to a different room to call Babou, who was in the studio that day as well to deliver Mr Jammeh’s speech. I think it ended up being my speech. Oh yes, oh yes, call me President Phatey (Jammeh from the other dimension or a clowned one) addressing his citizens and African leaders from the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Oh yes, fellow Gambians and friends of The Gambia (in my Yahya Jammeh squeaky voice)……
Well, Mr Jammeh got word that he was busted by the LIE BUSTERS!
He threatened to leave the summit hall because he does not feel safe to be in the same vicinity with us.
His security team was listening to the radio the entire time. They would have been better off picking Jammeh’s speech that was thrown by the uninterested reporters all over the floor of the media center – people having to step over it.
I came out, Fatu was gone. A reporter from Kenya informed me that the Secret Service escorted her out and her press card taken.
I made it clear, I am not living and will have to be shot and killed before I can be removed. I would not be paying taxes for Jammeh to come and apply his authoritarian rules in the land of the free.
I stayed and continue covering the event. Did some networking and made friends, but don’t get it wrong, I was still reporting and informing everyone of what happen.
Then I covered President Obama’s Press Conference, and yes I took a couple of photos of me with him in them. There, most of us journalist were angry that Mr Obama did not give African journalists any chance to ask questions but only allowed the White House Press Corp to do so, but for one African journalist from Kenya’s Standard who was handpicked by the White House or State Department.
We were disgruntled and should have booed him. Ahhh, may be next time we can. We probably thought the African leaders have turned him into a dictator because he came more than an hour late like those African mis-leaders.
As soon as I came out of the White House press conference, I got a call that when Mr Jammeh came back to the hotel, his security detail attacked protesters agai, and this time specifically targeting my colleague, Fatu. Well, not a surprise because she was a LIE BUSTER who busted the president for saying he gave a speech when he did not.
Thousands were listening from Gambia and heard that Mr Jammeh lied about giving a speech. This is a man who charges journalist for giving false information and publishing false news. He just then committed a crime at virtually every African continent. “That’s a long jail term,” I said to myself.
This time, the attack was bloody. One man, part of Jammeh’s Bravo Team stood out – his name is Armando Jatta.
Fatu who was stuck between the curb of a pavement and a midsize sedan got hit on her head and stamped upon by Jammeh’s men. She suffered a concussion and was transported to a hospital with a $3,000 bill to follow.
I was angry but not as Sigga Jagne. For hours she was walking up and down the pavement.
Ousainou Mbenga was hit with a brace knuckle on his eyes and there was blood all over. Pa Samba tried to fight back with a stick and a female DC Metro officer got hit by Jammeh’s thugs in the process.
While Metro police did not care about diplomatic protocol, it was chaos all over. Mayhem at Hay Adams was exactly what it was.
There was police reinforcement. DC has never seen such aside from another assault on a protester by the security detail of Congo’s Kabila.
The Secret Service, FBI, State Department and Metro Police filled the premises like mosquitoes in the rainy season. Well it is called summer here in America.
Jammeh’s guards ran into hiding but there was nowhere to hide. They were in the bathroom.
They told surprised secret service agents and state department officials that protesters insulted Mr Jammeh and that’s why they attacked. The secret service agents found that to be absurd knowing how many times Mr Obama gets insulted right in front of his home – The White House or even get heckled in public.
“Do you guys have a constitution,” one of them asked.
The police barricaded Mr Jammeh’s hotel with him and his security unable to go in or out. He was grounded. I mean, they were quarantined.
Activists celebrate the victory though Jammeh’s men could not be prosecuted, because he had given them diplomatic immunity. The state department quickly declared some of them persona-non-grata and were asked to immediately leave the United States.
It was such a huge blow to Jammeh and a lesson for President Obama not to have a party with dictators.
Relations between Banjul and Washington became sour as Jammeh help the Obama Administration to simply verify rights abuses happening in the country.
Mr Jammeh was smuggled out of his hotel room that night, left with two secret service officers and taken to his Potomac Mansion, where he stayed until Sunday, when he was allowed to leave Washington.
This is how Hay Adams become Mile Hays. Ironically, Jammeh calls a notorious prison called Mile II his free hotel.
After the mayhem that winter, the US removed the Gambia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act and has condemned The Gambia right abuse since. The White House for the first time started to directly caution Jammeh’s administration.
Jammeh was left so embarrassed about this, he took up two titles – Babili Mansa and Nasirudeen – only to drop them later to help manage the crisis.
“We all spoke there. We did,” Mr Jammeh said when he arrived at the airport in Banjul, where he had his picture with Mr Obama printed on t-shirts. The State Department told him it was a violation and he had to stop printing anymore of that. The next day, Daily Observer Photoshopped a picture of him but mistakenly put the wrong flag tag in front of his image. The man was trying to prove he gave a speech. NDEYSAN!
To be honest, it was the most successful demonstration ever held in the diaspora and I went home with my gold medal. May be someday, Fatu and I would represent The Gambia at the Olympics and bring home the gold. We had enough training and trials at Mile Hays.