By Sheriff Bojang
As in the Cat Steven’s song, morning broke and the black birds were singing. It was Thursday, December 16. It was a special day for Deyda Hydara, co-founder and managing editor of The Point newspaper. It was his wife’s birthday and the 13th anniversary of the founding of his mildly critical newspaper.
For those trammelled by superstition, 13 is an unlucky number. For example, even in the Muslim world, those skilled in the esoteric science of reading stars, figures and dates, regard Thursday night/Friday +13 a hexed cocktail latent with catastrophe. Often, when a feast falls on a Friday, a 13th or both, kings and chiefs would find some lame excuse for not going out public. I come from a family of kings and I have seen it once, twice, many times. Paraskadekatriaphobia is universal.
But such curious science was not for Deyda Hydara. It was going to be a good Friday for him… and the new United States ambassador was coming for a visit. He took a bath, ran the comb through his thin greying hair, put on his finest lanolin three-buttoned grey coat, white starched shirt and blue silken tie with starry dots knotted Wellington style. Deyda entered his blue 1987 Mercedes Benz 190 and drove from his Kanifing South residence to The Point newspaper offices on Garba Jahumpa Road , Bakau.
About 11am, Ambassador Joseph D Stafford, arrived accompanied by his public diplomacy officer, the writer, Nana Grey-Johnson. He was shown around and had some chat with the staff of the newspaper which began life in a two-room side office in Banjul . There was optimism in the air, a good dose of cheer and bonhomie. ‘We are celebrating our 13th anniversary today and although they say 13 is an unlucky number, we are serene and determined to continue our work and struggle for freedom of the press…’ Deyda told the ambassador and the members of his staff gathered, stammering heavily in his accented English, his brown, beefy face breaking into his trademark benign smile. It was his swan song.
Ambassador Stafford left and Deyda set to work on the Friday edition of his paper. Well-wishers called to felicitate him and his staff on a happy anniversary. Later in the evening, the food and the drinks arrived and the party began. It was to be someone’s last supper. Everyone was there except reporter Justice Darboe who was either piffed at the absence of his favourite beer or was drafting a speech he wanted to read out in his self-glorified capacity as the head of the newsroom. By the time he showed up, the food, the drinks and all the revellers had gone home. Seeing his sorry state, Deyda gave him a fifty dalasi note and dismissed him. He then checked on the proofs of the pages of the Friday edition before asking some of his staff whether they would need the usual lift home.
His secretary, Nyang Jobe, got in the front seat beside him, while another secretary Ida Jagne and janitor Buba Janneh took the back seats. They sped along Kairaba Avenue, took the detour at the Westfield main junction, branched off right and took the annex road that runs past the Old Cooperative compound, KMC headquarters and Gamcel building before halting at the PIU barracks end.
Janneh came out of the car and Deyda turned right at the nondescript junction crowded by eleven sign posts and drove down the unlit street that turns out to be a cul-de-sac with a mosque at the end. But, before reaching the mosque, just about 200 metres from the Mamadi Maniyang Highway , past the Police Vehicle Workshop, Deyda slowed down his car to give way to an accelerating vehicle revving behind him. As the vehicle passed him, shots rang out, pumping into his car. He swerved, lost control and his car ran into high dry shrubs, crashing into the metre deep drainage ditch before screeching to a halt ten metres away, the blue paint of the car pockmarking the inner concrete walls of the ditch.
As Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair many years ago: ‘Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead with a bullet through his heart.’
The crescent moon bathed the night in silvery hue as the light balmy breeze sucked the forbidden fumes of the nearby brewery. Vehicles came and men took the body away. In the morning, the news broke: Deyda Hydara has been shot to death. A bullet in the head, a bullet in the chest, a bullet in the stomach. He was lying in the frozen chambers of the RVTH mortuary. The two ladies in the car were in the hospital, receiving treatment for gunshot wounds to their legs. Friday was not a palindrome. It was not a good Friday. It was a bad Friday for Deyda Hydara and for The Gambia. His patriotic ideals of sacrifice and gallantry came to an abrupt halt in the terror of a trench at the hands of an assassin/s.
In the evening, after the post-mortem, the body of Deyda Hydara was wrapped in the simple shroud of white linen and taken to the Independence Drive Mosque where hundreds of sympathisers, among them, his family members, friends, colleagues, cabinet members and the imam ratib of Banjul, eulogized and prayed for his departed soul before accompanying the body to its last resting place at the Old Jeshwang Cemetery.
Talking to anyone yesterday, they would ask: ‘Is it true, is it really true?’ I didn’t believe it myself until I saw the cold, bloodied body and even then it took a while before the truth of the reality sank in. What happened on Thursday night to Deyda Hydara is just too monstrous and barbarous to be believed. It is too vicious, too brutal, too alien. We Gambians do not know such evil. That’s why we are all shocked and that is why we should all speak out in the strongest voice and curse and condemn the evil and the evil livers who perpetrated this heinous crime. We should speak out so that we snuff out this evil from among our midst the same way those evil livers snuffed out the life of Deyda Hydara on that lonely Kanifing road.
Those who killed Deyda are criminals who committed a most foul crime. Every crime has a motive. Who killed Deyda? What is the motive for the crime? Who would profit from his death? The answers could be many. But the tongues are wagging and the fingers are pointing. And if you do not know what the tongues are saying and where the fingers are pointing at, I will say it here. People are saying agents of the state killed Deyda. Ask them why and they will tell you because he wrote critical things about the government in his newspaper.
But there are those who criticise the government with greater vehemence, yet they have not been killed. So why him? Ask this question and you ask a rhetorical one. No one will volunteer an answer. People will believe what they want to believe. And especially since Hamat Bah stood in the National Assembly and called out the names of people he said burnt down the printing press of The Independent newspaper, and the state failed to counter his assertions with any convincing rebuttal of fact. Consequently, the state would be the prime suspect for any targeted attack on a journalist in The Gambia.
The inability of state agents to investigate and bring to book through diligent prosecution those faceless people who are letting loose unbriddled brigandage on Gambians does not paint them in good pictures. That is why they should do everything possible to find out who killed Deyda Hydara, and make them pay for their heinous crime. What happened on Thursday night is too much. It must be stopped!
They have killed the body of Deyda but martyred his spirit and it shall haunt them to the end of their low lives. In killing Deyda, they have widowed a woman and orphaned children. And they have killed a friend of many and a man I prided on calling Uncle. As my competition, we have pulled each other’s legs, criticized each other’s papers and given each other the rare compliment.
As friends, I visited him every other day during which we debated and argued about everything from Jawara whose party he was a senior official of, to Bakary Dabo for whom he had the highest respect of any Gambian politician, past or present, to Yahya Jammeh for whom we mischievously nicknamed ‘The Moody One’, much to the chagrin of Fatoumata Jahumpa-Ceesay. We discussed Senegal , Africa and books, a lot of which we shared and his hopeless battles to control his weight any time his wife and kids pressured him into stopping smoking. And I know this of him: he was not a coward. He was not a perfect man, but who would want to be perfect when even Jesus, or Muhammad after whom he claimed descent, was not perfect? But certainly, Deyda was a good man to many. And in killing him, they killed a good man. They shed a noble blood in their coldblooded hauteur. Let them beware the curse of Karbala .
Sheriff Bojang was managing editor of the Observer newspaper and former Information minister.
This article was first published on 18th December 2004.