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Leaders of Africa

Leaders Voices with Ms. Fatou Camara, The Fatu Network

Ms. Camara explains that the media must play an important role in enhancing government transparency during The Gambia's political transition.

Interview summary

  • Media will play an important role during the transition
  • Fostering economic growth and delivering services (e.g., water) will be a major challenge for the new government

Ms. Fatou Camara (@Fatushow) is the founder and CEO of The Fatu Network, an online radio station focusing on the politics and ongoings in The Gambia. The Leaders of Africa Project represented by Peter Penar spoke to Camara in May 2017. The interview addresses Camara’s background in journalism and communications, views on The Gambia’s recent political transition, and the prospects for the future of the country.

Camara mentions that peace for The Gambia is an important foundation for the future of the country. Thankfully, The Gambia did not endure a civil conflict surrounding the 2016 election dispute, so this presents the country with a great opportunity for a peaceful political transition. There are, however, many challenges facing the country going forward, including the state of the economy, the evolving political allegiances, the potential politicisation of ethnically-based divisions, and the constituting of a proposed truth and reconciliation process.

On this last concern, Camara suggests that although many Gambians may prefer to see prosecution for all crimes committed under former President Yahya Jammh’s rule, it is important to recognise that people often behave very differently in a dictatorship than they would if full freedoms were granted. In the interview, Camara reflects on how to achieve justice with prosecution and reveal information about past abuses, while promoting peace in The Gambia.

The Leaders of Africa Project much appreciates Ms. Camara for sharing her insights in the video broadcast and accompanying edited podcast.

View the video here on YouTube and listen here to the audio on SoundCloud. Subscribe to the feeds for the latest.

Interview key points [with time markers based on the video broadcast version]:

Interest in journalism and communications

  • Camara’s interest in journalism and radio, in particular, began during the period of the military junta. [3:10]
  • In The Gambia, Camara became involved in broadcasting including hosting her own show. The show had to focus on largely non-political issues because there was limited space for independent journalism. [4:30]
  • Camara details her experiences as the press secretary for Jammeh. [5:10-6:10] She also speaks about her detainment after being appointed Jammeh’s press secretary for a second time. [6:10-7:15]

Role of the African diaspora in the political transition

  • “The big chunk of the work in removing Jammeh came from the diaspora because we have freedom of expression here.” This was realised by the ability to set up online journalism, information, and radio platforms, as well as organise protests and pressure groups in the U.S. and other countries. [7:30]
  • The Fatu Network was banned in The Gambia, but then The Fatu Network developed an app to avoid being censored. [8:20]
  • There was also the use of social networks, such as WhatsApp groups, to gather and confirm information about what was going on the country (e.g., the disappearances of certain people). In response, “Jammeh was calling us serial liars.” [9:05]
  • Camara is working with leaders and civil society in other African countries who are dealing with similar struggles with internet and communication blocking. The collaboration is particularly taking place in the diaspora. [10:30]
  • The diaspora plays an important role in speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak freely in the country. Despite facing several criticisms from Jammeh, the diaspora was able to demonstrate that they were willing to work hard. [13:00]

Truth and reconciliation efforts

  • Camara just returned from a study tour of Sierra Leone to look at truth and reconciliation efforts. Camara has been designated as the communications strategist for the new truth and reconciliation commission (when it is formally constituted). [14:40]
  • “A lot of Gambians want prosecution because that’s what they are saying. But, this was a dictatorship and a lot of things happened that people did that would not have done in a normal circumstance. But, you know as the saying goes with a dictatorship: it is this way or else. There is always a price to pay. So, some of those people who would engage in things did that to save themselves. Because if you don’t do you are going to get killed yourself. So, we are trying to explain to our people that we cannot prosecute everyone. Of course, there will be prosecutions because there were people who killed. But, at the same time, The Gambia is very divided right now. So, we are trying to bring our people together. I think that will be the main objective of the TRC in Gambia.” [14:50]
  • “Peace is the best thing in the world.” Gambia is lucky to have escaped from the election dispute without war. The goal is avoid any conflict in the future. [15:40]

The Gambia’s changing political landscape

  • There are always political ambitions that may come out when coalitions win an election. This leads to some coalition partners going their own way and planning for future power consolidation. [17:50]
  • Several Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) members switched to the new ruling coalition, with a few holding out for a Jammeh return. Most APRC members are being pragmatic and becoming associated with the governing coalition parties. [20:00]
  • Ethnic tensions have always been an important feature in Gambian society. In the past, Jammeh has lashed out against Mandinkas. Now, after the transition, some non-Mandinkas are thinking that the government is a Mandinka government because President Barrow and some around him are Mandinkas. [22:00]
  • Sensitisation efforts around the ethnicity concern are key, and President Barrow must speak up about this concern since he has said very little to date. One thing Camara wants to do is contribute to a real discussion about ethnicity in The Gambia and provide for a unified future. [24:50]

Political transition from the Constitution to security

  • “Every Gambian is calling for a reform of the Constitution” because Jammeh arbitrarily changed the Constitution on several occasions, including removing certain people from the government arbitrarily. There is still no vice president because of the age limit concern. [27:20]
  • President Barrow never thought he would be president, but “he does not think he is an accidental president.” President Barrow does not generally know how government works yet. It is a hard job, but President Barrow is moving a bit slow. President Barrow says that he is learning and he will get there soon. [29:15]
  • Camara questions some of the approaches to government appointments, including “compensating” some coalition members with positions. Many people are now looking to be part of the government – “it’s like a market.” [31:40]
  • President Barrow is a bit skeptical of the military because of the past relationship between Jammeh and the military. Right now, Gambia is being secured by ECOWAS troops (ECOMIG). Camara suggests that if the ECOWAS troops (ECOMIG) were not there it would be likely that there would have been a coup. “I’m 100 percent sure about that.” [33:35]
  • President Barrow should begin to engage with the military and build some loyalty. “Communication is key here.” [36:30]

Promoting mechanisms of accountability – the media and civil society

  • Right now, it is difficult to hold the present government accountable. Part of the reason is that the country is emerging from a past dictatorship, and this means that the media and other groups are not used to the new freedoms. There is a good deal of “self-censorship” particularly in the media. [38:00]
  • The media is afraid to criticize the government on some occasions because the government may not be happy and then limit access if things are being said that criticize the government. [39:00]
  • Some in the media are telling the government that the media is not the enemy. However, the government should not be the ones to define what “constructive criticism” is. “We [the journalists] are sticking to our job.” The media needs to always stay vigilant. [40:25]
  • Jammeh killed most of the civil society organisations, and now many civil society organisations will probably start coming up. “I am looking forward to having a whole lot” of civil society organisations. [42:00]
  • The Gambia should engage Western donors because they can help with sensitisation efforts. “We need them” right now as partners. Even before the transition, organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, helped get information out of the country. In the future, “we should be able to do our stuff on our own.” [44:20]

Elections and term limits in The Gambia

  • Electoral commission head said that the marble system of voting will be ended and paper ballots will be implemented. There is even talk of a run-off system. [46:00]
  • “There is no way we are going to give any president the opportunity to rule us forever. It’s never going to happen.” Camara suggests that a term limit is necessary for the country, even two four year terms is preferable. [47:30]

The Gambia’s challenges

  • The economy is a problem, as well as electricity and water. Youth unemployment is also a major concern. One of the priorities must be education. [48:30]
  • About 65% of the population consists of young people. There are not too many youths in government. The EU is also promoting youth programs that may solve some of the migration concerns. [49:55]
  • “The Gambia did great by removing a dictator.” And, Gambia provides a good example. [51:15]

Remarks:

  1. The Leaders of Africa Project is independent and non-partisan. The unedited views expressed in Leaders Voices are not those expressed by the Leaders of Africa Project. All opinions and experiences expressed are solely that of the thought leader.
  2. Use of any of the information gained from the video or this post must be cited: Leaders of Africa Project. “Leaders Voices with Ms. Fatou Camara.” Online video and audio clip. leadersofafrica.org. Leaders of Africa Project, 23 May 2017.

About Ms. Fatou Camara

  • Gambian-born broadcaster and journalist
  • Founder and CEO of The Fatu Network, an online radio station focusing on the politics and ongoings in The Gambia
  • Presently living in exile in Georgia, United States, but she will be returning to The Gambia to serve as the communication strategist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is to be formed

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