Podcasts: Feature

Killing the Truth: The case of Deyda Hydara

Deyda Hydara – one of The Gambia’s most respected journalists – was killed in a drive-by shooting on 16 December 2004. But who gave the order?

Penny Dale
23 February 2022, 12.07pm
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Deyda Hydara – one of The Gambia’s most respected journalists who stood up to the dictatorial regime of former president Yahya Jammeh – was killed in a drive-by shooting on 16 December 2004.

In 2019, testifying before the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, a soldier confessed that he was part of an elite paramilitary death squad that killed Deyda, on orders from the top. But no one has yet been prosecuted for the crime. In partnership with A Safer World for the Truth, openDemocracy examines Deyda’s death – and commemorates his life.

Jaliba Kuyateh played the music he wrote especially for this episode. Sound design by Lee Sparey. Episode research by Anita Mureithi. Written, produced and hosted by Penny Dale.

Find out more about the work of A Safer World for the Truth.


Every week, a journalist is killed. Just for doing their job. In eight out of ten cases, there’s no justice. And that matters to all of us – because this culture of impunity weakens our democracies.

I’m Penny Dale and this time in Killing the Truth … The Gambia … and the death – and life – of Deyda Hydara.

He was very kind, very caring, and also very courageous.

My name is Demba Jawo. I am a journalist.

In 1979, I wrote an article. It was something critical of the police. I was arrested and detained. Then he was the vice-president of the Gambia Press Union. Very few people actually had the courage to come and visit me but he was all the time coming to visit me. That is actually how I became so close to him.

My name is Pap Saine. Deyda Hydara was my childhood friend. Deyda, he was a man, very competent. He was a role model in the media, in the society. He was generous, always wanted to help the poorest. He wanted to always defend the voiceless.

Pap and Deyda both worked for decades for international news agencies – Pap for Reuters and Deyda for AFP and Reporters without Borders. In 1991 they decided it was time that The Gambia had its first independent newspaper. So together they launched a tabloid. They called it The Point in order to:

Tell the readers whatever we say is direct, is clear, is direct to the point, is direct to the point.

In 1994 Yahya Jammeh seized power in a coup – and thus began 22 years of a cruel and bloody dictatorship. President Jammeh vowed to rule for a billion years, he said he could cure AIDS with a herbal concoction and his government routinely violated human rights. Jammeh threatened to bury journalists “six feet deep”.

During Jammeh’s time it was very difficult to establish a news paper. Why? He decided, Jammeh, for all owners to sign a bond at the Minister of Justice about $10,000, to deposit their title deeds. And also you don't have peace of mind to work. Every morning when we wake up, we pray God to survive because any noise that we heard that time we are panic. There was self-censorship. Really it was a big challenge during Jammeh’s time because your house could be burned, your media house could be burned, so your life was at risk. Many journalists that time went on exile, many people abandoned the profession.

The journalists who kept on working and kept on speaking out during Jammeh’s time were constantly threatened. Demba again:

In most cases, it was Yahya Jammeh’s thugs who are doing that, you know, he had this youth group called the Green Boys.

The Green Boys were called that because Jammeh’s party’s political colours were green.

In certain cases, also certain people who are working within the security forces, would also do it. We all had received threats, and I knew that Deyda had received a lot of threats as well. But he was the kind of person who – he was very brave. And he was not deterred by such kind of threats.

Deyda refused to be silenced. And instead he decided to do something that had not happened in Gambian journalism before. He spoke directly to Jammeh – each week in his column ‘Good Morning Mr President’. Here’s Pap.

There were a lot of things happening. And maybe the president was not aware or people of his entourage were afraid to tell him the burning issues. So Deyda took the courage since he was representative of the voiceless to address issues, which is very important to day-to-day life of Gambians.

And true to the name of his newspaper, Deyda was very much to the point, says Demba.

Deyda, he definitely didn't pull his punches in telling the president what he wanted to tell him. He would, of course, put some fun in the column as well. But it was a very serious column and making a lot of serious advice to the presidency. Knowing Yahya Jammeh, he was definitely not happy with it.

He used to actually have people call him up from the State House telling him, “Deyda, that's too hot today. You can’t do that.”

That’s Deyda’s youngest son recalling how his father – after whom he was named – responded to the phone calls he received from Jammeh’s inner circle.

He said: “I didn't insult him. I just wrote the truth. Where's the area where I directly attacked him?” You know, so he had this savviness in the way he wrote things. He didn't do it for any political gain. He didn't do it for any sort of financial gain or any sort of publicity stunt. He was merely trying to make his government better, trying to take The Gambia forward, rather than backwards. So very, very necessary, very, very important work and my father knew the sort of risks and knew the sort of trajectory of their journalism and decided to stay on course, and ultimately die for it.

My name is Marie Hydara, I am a daughter of slain Gambian journalist Deyda Hydara.

As a family, we talked about a lot of stuff. He was open and if he thought he was taking decisions that would concern us, he will have to consult us. Even his editorials; weekly ones, if he wrote something he thought was quite critical, he will, for instance, say, “today's editorial is, this is the title. And I thought I would say goodbye because you might not see me again.”

Anyone who's close to him knows that he always says that he will be shot. And the first bullet would have to go to his head. Otherwise, if he survives, he would write an editorial in his hospital bed. So those were the jokes he made.

It’s the 16th December 2004. Thirteen years earlier The Point newspaper was born.

16 December 2004 was also my mum’s birthday. My mum was here with me in England. My dad was supposed to join her here just after the anniversary of The Point newspaper as he wanted to be there for the anniversary, plus he's been challenging the new media bill.

After pressure from journalists, led by Deyda, the government dropped a bill that would have seen a state media commission established with sweeping powers to shut down radio stations and publications and to jail reporters on the flimsiest of reasons. But two other changes to the law were pushed through. Journalists found guilty of sedition or libel would be sent to prison. And newspaper owners had to buy expensive operating licences – and put up their own homes as security.

He's been in court all that week. And he’s been on the phone with my mom about the court case that whole week. My mom had been telling him again, “You have to stop now then that you have lost the case in the courts.” And he was saying no.

Deyda Jr was in the Gambia on 16 December 2004. He was 13 years old. He had spent the evening with friends at the family home. But then…

I started getting this awful headache, so painful. I needed to lie down. So I just sort of slumped in the living room.

The next thing I know was the house phone just literally ringing, ringing, ringing and I was in deep sleep but I could hear it and I w as thinking – is this a dream, is it real? Anyway, eventually I woke up to it and we had a big clock in the living room and I saw the time - 1250 exactly. I missed the phone call. So I got up and I was thinking, where’s dad?

So I walked to the garage to see if the car was there and there was no car. So I was thinking, OK, maybe because of the party.

The party was to celebrate The Point newspaper, founded by his father and Pap Saine.

After having our reception for the 13th anniversary, I and Deyda were supposed to go to the wedding ceremony of my younger brother. You know, with the family ties that I have with Deyda, he was the one who was supposed to conduct the marriage.

Pap Saine was to go to the wedding in Deyda’s car. On the way Deyda would drop home a couple of colleagues. But at the last minute, Pap decided instead that he would go home to freshen up. And he would meet Deyda there.

After two hours, we were waiting for him. I call him; the mobile was off. We continue the programme and with another imam to do the rites of the wedding ceremony.

But Deyda didn’t turn up. In the UK Marie was on a night shift at the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

My phone was on my pocket, and it vibrated. And I took it out. And I saw my dad's name – it said Pa calling. So I picked up expecting his voice. But then it was a woman's voice. And I realised it was my auntie. So I knew something was wrong. I could hear my sister Nellie screaming in the background. So I said, “I know my dad's dead.” Because it's 6am. So if you're in my house this early in the morning, and with my dad’s phone, then that means he’s dead.

It was difficult to get a flight out. And as Muslims the corpse is to be buried as soon as possible. So elders back home are calling to ask my mum whether she wanted the body to be kept until we got there. But because we didn't know when we'll get the flight out my mom agreed that they could bury him on the Friday.

If we had seen him probably… I know that my pain would have been better

When we got to The Gambia names were already starting to surface and rumours were going around that these were the killers of my dad.

My name is Leonard Vincent, a French journalist and writer. In 2004, I was the Africa director for Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom NGO based in Paris. And this is how I met Deyda. And I was sent to investigate his killing, first in December 2004 and in May 2005.

There were eye-witnesses – the two women being given a lift home by Deyda. They were in hospital in Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.

With the help of Pap Saine, they agreed to speak with me. And they described to me pretty much the same thing. The car driven by Deyda entering a small road. A taxi behind them with no licence plates. They said that Deyda thought that the guys in the taxi were in a hurry for some reason, that he was pretty annoyed. So he slowed down and waved outside his window and made a sign that the taxi should pass by. And that's how he invited his killers to approach him.

Passing by on the left, one man coming out of the window with a gun and shooting several bullets on Deyda.Three of them hitting him, several others hitting the ladies in the legs behind and their car going slowly into the ditch while the taxi with the killers fled the scene.

For both medical and political reasons, they were flown to Dakar, with the help of Western embassies, to be put in security somewhere. Because their testimony was, of course, absolutely crucial. And yes, they were, even in Dakar, absolutely terrified, really terrified. I mean, all along this first trip in The Gambia and Senegal I had never seen such a profound level of fear.

Everybody in the family, among Deyda’s friends and colleagues, they were all absolutely panicked. Because they were absolutely sure. And there was no doubt in any of their minds that it was Yahya Jammeh’s killers – the Junglers – who had killed Deyda. And they even gave me names.

The Junglers was an elite paramilitary death squad set up by former president Jammeh. Leonard was determined to find proof. When he returned for a second trip to The Gambia, six months after Deyda’s killing, he had a breakthrough.

First of all, I met with an employee of The Point, who told me that he could testify that when Deyda left the newspaper that day – with the two ladies in his car – he was being monitored and watched by several men in a four-wheel-drive car outside the newspaper. And that that car followed Deyda's car immediately after he left, and that obviously these guys in the car in the four-wheel-drive were NIA agents that had been spotted around The Point for a few days before the killing.

The NIA is the Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency – which meant that …

The authorities knew exactly where he was at all time and who he was with and especially maybe 15 to 20 minutes before he was killed. And the second thing is I went by the place where the Junglers met. It was no secret, it was just by the presidency, and there was a car park there. What I was looking for was the famous car, the NIA car that was monitoring, and I found it, it was parked there. And the witness confirmed that it was exactly that car. And in the same car park I found a yellow taxi with unmarked plates.

Both eye-witnesses to Deyda’s murder talked of a man leaning out the window of an unmarked taxi and shooting Deyda. And yet Leonard’s lead was not followed up by the NIA, which had taken over the police investigation. The NIA was the same organisation which had Deyda under surveillance on the night of his murder. So they should not have been involved in any investigation. And it took them only 18 days to come up with what daughter Marie says is an absurd conclusion:

It vilified the victim. It said he was maybe responsible for his own death because he attacked everybody. It character-assassinated him. It said he had a girlfriend and probably the girlfriend’s partner must have killed him.

Off the record, the story was very different. Pap Saine, Deyda’s childhood friend and his newspaper partner, was told that:

Deyda was killed for two reasons. One: for ‘Good Morning, Mr President’, because every time he was pointing out certain weak point, or lack of commitment to the public. The other aspect is about the legal battle between the media owners and government about the media law. Security sources told me that: “Jammeh, he said, Deyda, he should be eliminated.”After his killing, the National Intelligence asked me to stop the column because they said they got instructions from President Jammeh not to continue the legacy of Deyda. Which I did.

Pap felt he had no choice. But he did defy Jammeh by putting the photo of his friend on the front page of every edition of The Point, with the question: “Who killed Deyda Hydara?”

At the end of 2016, Yahya Jammeh lost elections. After a few weeks of refusing to accept defeat, in January 2017 he flew out, to Equatorial Guinea. At last, the long, dark Jammeh era was over.

Except, the same harsh media laws that Deyda had fought against remain in place.

But what the Adama Barrow government did do was to set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to investigate the human rights abuses committed by Jammeh’s government.

In 2019, public hearings began. They were broadcast live. And day after day, chilling accounts of disappearances and extrajudicial killings shocked the people of The Gambia. In July 2019 a soldier, Malick Jatta, testified that he was part of the elite squad – the Junglers – which had killed Deyda Hydara.

Let us get the full names… yourself Malick Jatta, Tumbul Tamba as commander, Alieu Jeng and Sanna Manjang, correct, yes

Yes, correct.

This would be in 2004. Tell us about this mission.

Tumbul, he said as he was driving today we are going for the magic pen.

‘The magic pen’ was a codename for Deyda.

When he was opposite to the vehicle, as he was trying to pass the car, he shouted, “Gentlemen, the driver is the idiot!”

Idiot’ was how the Junglers referred to the people they were to assassinate.

He was shouting, “Shoot, shoot – you had better shoot!” When we shot, he never stopped, he just kept driving through the streets.

Tumbul was reporting directly to the president.

Directly to the president?

Directly to the president. He was responsible for giving the orders because at a point in time I was hearing him speak to my commander on phone.

The following day was when he, Tumbul, came to see us, he came with an envelope containing some dollars and he said to us, “This is a token of appreciation from the big man.” ‘Big man’ implies the president.

Did you know for certain he was referring to the president?

Very well.

The envelope contained a thousand US dollars.

Finally, the question who killed Deyda Hydara was answered.

My name is Nana-Jo Ndow. My father Saul Ndow was forcibly disappeared in 2013. And killed allegedly on the orders of Yahya Jammeh, the former president of The Gambia. My experience trying to find answers, trying to piece together what might have happened, led me eventually to launch the organisation African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances. Because I just wanted people not to have their voices silenced, to live in fear, and not to go through what my family went through.

I think it was very important for Gambia to have the Truth Commission but our position is that the Truth Commission is just one process in a transitional justice process.

The Barrow government has until the end of May 2022 to publish a white paper setting out whether it will implement the commission’s recommendations. Which are to investigate and prosecute perpetrators such as the Junglers – and former president Jammeh – for the unlawful killing of at least 240 people, including Deyda Hydara and Nana-Jo’s father.

I was extremely and pleasantly surprised that this report was made public. And it's a great achievement. Now that it has been handed over to Barrow what we're expecting is criminal proceedings, having the perpetrators face justice. Some of these crimes date back to 25 years ago. It's just too long for the families. And now it's time to actually make sure that they get some sort of closure. But also for Gambians to understand that actions have consequences. And that theTruth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is not really a free ticket to discharge yourself or your responsibilities, and of not being made accountable.

There’s been truth – or at least some truth – but will there be justice? Some of the Junglers have died – others are still, mostly, at large.

Some of the Junglers had gone into exile with Yahya Jammeh to Equatorial Guinea in 2017. And so there’s this video on social media showing them actually celebrating Adama Barrow winning the elections in December. So that made us obviously very nervous, and they came back voluntarily to The Gambia.

And we’re very also concerned that the Truth Commission has handed recommendations. You can act on them if you want to – or not. So it really feels like all the efforts put into the Truth Commission might go to waste.

And this is essentially what happened in Liberia. Up to this day, Liberian victims have not had any semblance of justice in Liberia. Prosecutions that have occurred have occurred outside of Liberia. That's the case as well in The Gambia where you have one case in the US, you've got one in Switzerland and one in Germany, the case of Bai Low, who's involved in the Deyda Hydara killing as well.

Demba Jawo – Deyda’s friend and fellow journalist – also says some Gambians worry because of how Barrow’s government responded to a commission that investigated the corruption and financial crimes of the former president.

The government published a white paper and they decided not to implement most of the recommendations of that commission. So we are also sceptical that this one will go the same way. But we are also hoping that President Barrow has learned some lessons from the criticisms he received. So this time around, we hope he is going to implement this one to the letter.

Oh really justice for Deyda definitely would mean a lot to me and to all Gambian journalists. The very fact that he was killed just because of the work he was doing as a journalist. If justice is served in his case, it is definitely justice for Gambian journalism.

As sad as it is and as depressing as it can be, there’s a lot of hope and a lot of powerful messages within his work, within his life. I just wished that he had spent a bit more time blessing us with some of those powerful writings.

I have a favourite. One of his last write-ups, actually,

For some of us that are willing to use the pen, we are ready to use it to the last day.

Thank you to all who spoke to me for this Killing the Truth: the case of Deyda Hydara. And to you for listening.

And thank you to the King of Kora, Jaliba Kuyateh, for playing the music he wrote especially for this episode.

This is an openDemocracy production in partnership with A Safer World for the Truth. The sound design is by Lee Sparey. Research by Anita Mureithi. Written and produced by me, Penny Dale.

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