For as long as they can remember, Isatou and Ebrima Jammeh have been asked questions about their surname. But, up to now, they always denied any connections to their infamous uncle, Gambia's erstwhile dictator Yahya Jammeh. So desperate were they to convince that they even claimed to be from a different tribe – from the Mandinkas rather than the Jolas.
Telling the truth could have cost them their lives.
Sitting in their sparsely-furnished livingroom in the town of Serrekunda, the estranged relatives of Yahya Jammeh tell their extraordinary story. Since 2005, they have kept quiet about the mysterious disappearance of their father, Haruna Jammeh, one of the rare family members who dared stand up to the former president. Only three years ago, they learned of his brutal murder by the regime.
Now, with "Uncle Yahya" thousands of miles away in Equatorial Guinea, where he sought refuge after a failed bid to cling to power last month, Haruna's family finally feel safe enough to speak out. "We want justice," says Ebrima. "We want to see him prosecuted and sentenced to life imprisonment."
It is a measure of the former dictator’s ruthlessness that he killed his own flesh-and-blood, says the 32-year-old.
Close in childhood
The story begins in the Jammehs' home village of Kanilai, where Haruna and Yahya grew up together in the 1960s and 1970s on the family farm, among the rice, tomato and corn fields. The boys were first cousins, but known to all as cousin-brothers, says Ebrima. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand-in-hand to school with Yahya.
We want justice. We want to see him prosecuted and sentenced to life imprisonment
Later, as adults in Serrekunda, where Haruna worked as a restaurant manager for Novotel and Yahya was a soldier at the nearby barracks, they remained close. Sitting next to her son and daughter, Haruna's widow, Fatimah Jaiteh, remembers how Yahya would drop by for green tea, boasting how he would one day be leader of Gambia.
“He was very arrogant,” says Fatimah. “He said: If there’s a coup, then you will know it was me.” But Haruna remained protective of the then-impecunious Yahya, feeding him and giving him money. By this point, the elder cousin was a rising star at Novotel, having been sent to Germany and Holland to study management.
Fatimah's description of the two personalities chimes with the recollections of James Gaye (65), a former minister of information in the government of Dawda Jawara, the country's first leader, who came to power after independence from Britain in 1965. Gaye, who was MP for Eastern Foni, which covers the village of Kanilai, knows the family story well.
It was while working as parliamentary secretary in the late 1980s that Gaye first met Yahya Jammeh. He had to vet the young soldier for duties at State House in the capital Banjul. The cocksure Yahya managed to squeeze past staff into Gaye's office, announcing that his name was "Kanilai". "I knew then that he was a difficult guy," says Gaye. "In hindsight, I would have said that he knew exactly what he was doing."
By contrast, he remembers Haruna as “a perfect gentleman, very nice, the opposite to Yahya”. He would often be greeted by Haruna at Novotel’s “A la Carte” restaurant. Some time after Yahya, true to his word, seized power from Jawara in a 1994 coup, Gaye was surprised to learn that Haruna had ditched his prestigious hotel position to manage the family farm in Kanilai.
It was the year 2000. After much coaxing from the dictator, Haruna had agreed to become what Ebrima calls “the eyes and ears of Kanilai”. “Yahya was his cousin and he didn’t want to sit and watch him doing everything alone,” he says. Haruna worked for no fixed salary, receiving rice, meat and the occasional cash gift.
Fatimah and the children remained in Serrekunda, but would visit Haruna on the farm, staying in the Kanilai compound, joining an extended family of assorted aunts, uncles and cousins for meals. “They were happy times,” says Ebrima, recalling childhood memories of nature and birdsong.
Yahya was always a distant figure, occupied with affairs of state in Banjul. “I would only see him sometimes with his bodyguards,” says Ebrima. “Once my father was with him and told me to come. He said to him: ‘this is your nephew’. Yahya shook my hand and told me to try to learn and to work hard at school.”
Sackings and arrests
But the farmyard idyll was already turning sour. According to Ebrima, Haruna was being frozen out from Yahya’s inner circle after raising the alarm when soldiers started to steal fuel and food. Haruna also began speaking out against the regime’s increasingly frequent sackings and arrests. “People were going to Yahya, saying my father wanted his place, that he wanted to become president.”
When Haruna was sacked from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused to leave the compound, insisting that it belonged to him as much as to Yahya. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” says Ebrima. “He didn’t expect Yahya to kill him because [Yahya] was the younger one.”
In 2005, Ebrima, now 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested by security forces in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back’,” he says. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”
Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister, Masie Jammeh, also disappeared after confronting Yahya. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing too,” says Ebrima’s sister, Isatou, (26) an administrative assistant. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”
In the intervening years, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the back streets of Serrekunda, denying all links to Yahya Jammeh. They had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive or dead.
In 2014, they discovered the truth after hearing a radio interview with Bai Lowe, a former driver for the “jungulers”, an elite hit squad taking direct orders from the president. The interview aired on seneweb.com in March that year. Lowe, who was seeking asylum in Germany, testified that he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in the bush near Kanilai in July 2005.
My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing too
Lowe, who briefly returned to Gambia to participate in the failed coup attempt of December 2014, declined to be interviewed by The Irish Times. After he fled back to Germany, his two teenage sons and other family members were arrested by the regime and he has since been reluctant to talk to media. His claims are, however, backed up in a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, which includes interviews with former "jungulers".
The interview with Lowe was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image” of the president. Camara claims that Masie Jammeh had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader reputed to have supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the “jungulers” on Haruna, a paranoid Yahya then targeted Masie too.
In December 2016, Yahya Jammeh was finally ousted at the ballot box by a little-known estate agent called Adama Barrow. After a month-long struggle, in which the dictator brought the country to the brink of war, Barrow was finally inaugurated as president on January 19th.
Fatimah and her children cried that day.
“I said my father will have victory because Yahya has fallen,” says Ebrima.
“Justice will finally come.”