By Innocent Anaba
Mr. Edwin Kwakaeme, Nigerian born Director of Africa in Democracy and Good Governance, sentenced to six months in jail for giving false information to the office of the Gambian President, was released last week and deported back to Nigeria by the Gambian government.
He spoke to Vanguard Law and Human Rights on the charge preferred against him. He said he was convicted first by a Magistrate Court, headed by a Nigerian and another Nigerian judge, who sat on appeal at Banjul High Court upheld his conviction, even when a state counsel, had noted that the lower court was in error in handing down the conviction.
Edwin, who was detained for over seven months, for an offence that carries a maximum jail term of six months, was also forced to spend another six months in jail. He also spoke on his prison experience and others issues surrounding his arrest, detention, prosecution and conviction.
You have just been released from the Gambian prison? How does it feel to be home?
In the first place, I will like to say there is nothing like freedom. The worse thing that can happen to any body is to be confined to the four corners of a room. After all, you can be imprisoned in your house or any other place and that is the worse thing that can happen to a human person. It feels so good to be back home, I mean my country, Nigeria, after several months of incarceration.
How did family receive you back?
They were very happy that I am alive again, knowing fully well the nature of my job and how many people have lost their lives in this type of circumstances.
What was the offence for which you were convicted in Gambia?
I was accused of giving false information to the office of the President of Gambia, Yaya Jammeh and they later changed the offence to giving false information to a public officer, that our organisation, Africa in Democracy and Good Governance, ADG, is a non governmental organisation.
Does it mean ADG is not a non governmental organisation?
It is surely a non governmental organisation. Going through the Oxford English Dictionary definition of an NGO, which simply means non governmental organisation. It can be charitable organisation, community based organisation, and organisations that are free from government or its related agencies. ADG was duly registered at the Attorney General’s Chambers in 2006, that is in Gambia, as a charitable orgainisation under the Company’s Act of 1956. From then, the organisation has been operating as a regional Pan-African organisation.
So what is the false information in all this, which you were charged for and convicted?
That is the one million dollar question. In the first place, I was arrested on February 22, 2010, from my office by three plain cloths state security officers from the Serekunda Police station (in Gambia). Instead of taking me to the police station, they drove me away to the Kairaba Police station and held me incommunicado.
The following day, they handed me over to the Immigration Department for deportation, without any reason. Up till this time, no one, not even the security officers, or the Immigration Department were able to tell me the reason for my arrest. I managed to get a cell phone from an immigration officer and quickly called the Head of Chancery of the Nigerian High Commission, who came the following day at about 4pm at the American Embassy, where the Immigration Officers escorted me to go collect my passport, which was ready.
It was there that the Head of Chancery asked them of my offence. And again, they were unable to tell him why I was arrested and detained.
Rather, they referred him to higher authorities. It was there that he assured me that they will not be able to deport me without a genuine reason and also writing back to the High Commission. I was the focal point of the Gambian Chapter of Beijing +15, Africa’s Region, which is a platform for women and this did not go down well with the Gambian people and authorities.
You said the people? In what way?
The Gambian civil society groups were never happy with my organisation, because of our numerous activities. This was because most of the organisations that are operating in the Gambia are pro-government or do not want to be seen fighting the government for fear of being clamped down.
They also see our organisation as a non Gambian organisation and anti-government. This made them, particularly the Association of Non Governmental Organisation, TANGO, headed by one Ousman Yarbo, to see us as an enemy of the state and always prevented us from becoming a member of the body and participating in their programmes and activities. Within the last few years, ADG was able to record huge progress in its activities, both within and outside Gambia, which also includes the observer status granted it by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, ACHPR.
Are you saying that Gambian NGOs were envious of your organisation?
Yes. That is what the Gambian people are well known for. When you want to start something, they will be by the side watching you. And if it appears that you are making a head way, they will look for a way to hijack it or to bring you down. As I speak to you, a lot of Nigerians and other nationals are suffering the same things in the Gambia and they are always supported by their government and security agencies.
You are yet to say what the false information you were convicted of meant?
Right from February 22, when I was arrested, I never knew the charge against me up till March 8, when I appeared before a Magistrate Court in Gambia. The Magistrate was Mr Hillary Abeke of the Banjul Magistrate Court. Through out the proceeding, not even a single person appeared in court that I gave him or her false information. And no document was tendered with regards to the said false information in court.
The two state witnesses, who appeared in court were the Programme Officer at the NGO Affairs and the Police officer, who took my statement. So to whom was this false information given to. That I have not been able to resolve till date. The 2009 World Day Celebration, for the Prevention of Violence Against Children and Child Abuse, which is an annual event of the Women’s World Summit Foundation, WWSF, Geneva, and in partnership with Africa in Democracy and Good Governance, which celebration was a huge success, was issued a march past permit by the Inspector General of Police of the Gambia.
The march was led by the Army Band, covered by the media in the Gambia, including state owned Gambia Radio and Television Service, which was aired. Among those who received the WWSF/ADG Goodwill Ambassador Honour was ASP Yamundow Jagne-Joof, who is the officer in charge of the Child Protection Unit at the Police headquarters. So if the programme took place, what was the false information and who was it given to?
For the avoidance of doubt, one can log on to the website of the WWSF 2009 members and partners.
So there is just nothing in the charge, except that they just wanted to get me out the system for doing a good job and maybe, being critical of government, which is what any normal civil society group is supposed to do. They even ransacked my office and took away the hard drives my computers.
You were convicted by the Magistrate Court. Did you not appeal against the judgement?
I was convicted on September 6, 2010 and I appealed on September 21 and appeared before Justice Emmanuel Amadi and the Banjul High Court, which sat on appeal over the lower court decision. Surprisingly, the judge is a Nigerian. It is also embarrassing that the Magistrate is a Nigeria and yet they convicted me and upheld my conviction, when they knew there was no case against me.
Even at the appeal, after much delay by the state, the prosecutor admitted that the conviction and sentencing was faulty. She also said that lower court did not even take into consideration that I had already spent seven months in prison, which is above the maximum sentence for the offence for which I was charged.
The unfortunate thing about the Gambian system is that the moment you are accused, the Magistrate and Judges themselves are more or less the prosecutors. It appears that they find you guilty first and want you to prove your innocence, which is the other way round in every other system, excerpt in the Gambia, that you are presumed innocent until the otherwise is proved. The court which should ordinary be the last hope of the common man, is actually the one prosecuting people.
What is your assessment of Nigerian judges in the Gambia?
In the first place, I don’t think there is any credible Nigerian judge in the Gambia. Rather, what we have are Nigerian mercenaries and state counsel, imported by the dictator Yaya Jammeh. Jammeh uses them to cover up his dirty works.
What was your experience in the Gambian prison?
It was a terrible experience. But it made me appreciate certain issues, particularly as it relates to how people are jailed for no just reason or killed in prison. I was informed by a source in the prison that the late Gambian journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, of the Daily Observer Newspaper was tortured to death on the instruction of powers that be in the Gambia.
The prisons were over crowded and lacked good medical facilities, which explained why a lot of people were unable to make it out alive from Gambian prison, as they die when they fall sick, because of lack of proper medical care. The food is even worse. There were many cases of detention without trial. Most of the people in prison were not charged to court or convicted for any offence.
Inmates were subjected to serious torture and extra-judicial killing was the order of the day. They come by night to take inmates and you don’t get to see the inmates again. If you ask, fellow inmates will tell you that the person had been killed. Gambian prisons are nothing but slaughter houses.
Were you ever afraid that you may not make out alive out the prison?
No, because there were lots of international pressure on the Gambian government, and people knew my whereabout. I also want to thank nstitutions and people around the world for their support, without which I may not know what would have happened to me while in the Gambian prison.
Did the Nigerian High Commissioner in Gambia do enough to assist you?
Not at all. I was most embarrassed by her actions or lack of it. You cannot believe that it was the British High Commissioner and Americans that were following my case and doing all they could to help, while my High Commissioner, who is being sustained by the Nigerian tax payers money did absolutely nothing for me.
It is rather very unfortunate that out foreign missions do not care about us or represent ordinary Nigerian in foreign countries well. If you have any problem in Gambia, as a Nigerian, you are sorely on your own. If you expect the Nigh Commissioner to do anything, you will certainly die before anything is done, if at all any would be done.