Following the departure of Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh into exile in Equatorial Guinea, political dissidents and journalists he banished from the small nation are coming back in droves.
Ebrima Sillah, a BBC correspondent to Gambia, escaped death when his house was engulfed in flames in 2004 while he was asleep at 3am in his native village of Jambur, about 19 kilometers from Banjul.
“When the whole place was engulfed in smoke, I had to use an escape route at the back of my house. With the help of God I escaped the fire. But it could have been very serious because a gas bottle was there. And immediately when I left the house was when the gas bottle exploded,” Sillah told Anadolu.
Sillah ran for his life and ended up settling in Ghana in the past years.
But today Sillah spoke as the director of the Gambia Radio and Television Services, a position that he has been appointed to from exile by the new government that promised freedom of the media.
He said the arson attack on his house was “part of deliberate attempts to control the way independent journalism was being conducted in the country”.
Sillah was arrested 11 times before he went to exile and was charged to court twice though they were dropped later.
“When we all heard that he (Jammeh) was already on a plane leaving the country, that moment of relief was unbelievable…,” he said.
He promised to reform the public broadcaster in the country to report divergent political views.
Gambia’s strongman Jammeh who ruled the small nation for 22 years has made himself popular for his tough anti-media stance and he was accused of enforced disappearances and killings by human rights organizations.
However, the new government led by a former property developer who was backed by seven opposition parties has promised to repeal all anti media laws.
They appointed another exiled journalist, Demba Ali Jawo, one of country’s toughest that Jammeh had to deal with, as an information minister.
The new justice minister, Bubacarr Tambedou, who has served as prosecutor at UN war crimes court in Rwanda, has told the Turkey News Agency that they are determined to ensure media freedom.
“Bad media laws have no place in our statute books and it is the resolve of this government to enact laws that will facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in a responsible manner,” Tambedou said.
“So media law reform is certainly a priority for this ministry during this transition period.”
He pledged that even when there is currently no time frame for the laws to be amended, “any media law that is inconsistent with the letter or the spirit of the constitution shall not be enforced”.
Jammeh was a very powerful leader against an increasingly weak and divided opposition before the 2016 coalition breakthrough, thus he would brag that he will remain president for a “billion years if Allah says I will”.
“I am very excited because I left with the perception that things might not get better,” Sainey Marenah, a Gambian journalist who spent two years in Senegal said.
“Defeating Jammeh was history. Most of the time dictators are brought down only through a popular uprising or military coup.”
Senegal and Gambia shares the same culture and one socio-economic background but the different colonial experiences makes it difficult for a Gambian journalists to work in Senegal without proficiency in French which most of the exiles don’t acquire.
It is difficult to ascertain the number of people who went into exile during Jammeh’s rule.
But Saikou Jammeh the secretary general of Gambia Press Union said about 200 journalists had left Gambia since 1994.
And majority of Gambians running from authorities in Banjul has Senegal as their first port of call, only a few proceeded further to other destinations.
“Leaving your family behind while in exile is the saddest thing one can experience,” Alhagie Jobe, former editor of a pro-Jammeh newspaper Daily Observer who was in exile for two years five months, told Anadolu.
How different family members received their loved ones from exiles varies and while others have been received with a party, Sanna’s was a plea from his three children.
“There was excitement and the kids were saying “oh daddy, don’t leave again”, Sanna Camara, also an exiled journalists who was in Dakar for about two years, told Anadolu.
“I am really optimistic that we are having a fresh start…,” he added.
Sanna was arrested for doing a story on human trafficking where he quoted a police spokesperson at the time, David Kujabi, admitting that they are having troubles dealing with trafficking cases.
While others have kept their fingers crossed on whether the “New Gambia” could deliver on its promises especially on media freedom, Camara said he is optimistic.