Five years after President Yahya Jammeh lost power to opposition candidate  President Adama Barrow in a shock election, it defeated long-term incumbent Yahya Jammeh when Gambians saw its ‘first-ever-unorderly peaceful transfer of power.’ The Gambia’s democracy survives the political turbulence. 

I asked one of my former reporters active in mainstream journalism to interview the last Information and Communication Minister and chief propagandist of President Yahya Jammeh, not Seedy Njie but Mr. Sheriff Bojang Snr. 

The reporter responded that Mr. Bojang was lying low—no short- or medium-term interview with journalists. I laughed. Could it be that events around the 2016 Presidential Election shocked results, and the aftermath took him by surprise? the  2016-2017 political impasse. However, I was not astounded at the reaction. I knew the role of being a government propagandist.

I read a lot about Paul Joseph Goebbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party and then Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945. You could see all around you persons who called your principal messiah and saviour, and he was leading the pack of executioners baying for blood: no honour, no loyalty, no principle.

You suddenly realise that everything is about money, sex, and power in that strange world. Then you ask yourself what led you into that kind of job.

Why would a lamb find himself in the wolf land of politics and politicking? The Washington Post of 30, May 2014, described being a presidential spokesman as “the ultimate burnout job.”

The job of a government journalist or press secretary is about plights and pains. It is not a job for the meek. It is a permanent, constant contention with spins, contra-spins, and anti-spins. It is a pain no one wants to suffer twice. 

Ari Fleischer, US President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, captured the pains of the job very accurately: “The grueling part is not just the bad hours, it is that your mind never gets a rest. You are always wargaming. It is constant intellectual chess. You are thinking of the next question that the press is going to ask, and that leads to the next question and the next question et cetera, et cetera.” 

Indeed, in US history, two press secretaries died on the job – both of heart attack, one right on his desk. I do not know how many persons in government today wish to be exposed to the unfriendly, harsh realities of a media that does not take prisoners. However, when you work in government, all eyes, seen and unseen, are watching you. You must therefore choose what to say and what to write.

I promise to dedicate this piece to the ex-presidential propagandists and government spokespeople, and successor. I did not know I ought to add an ‘s’ to a successor.

President Adama Barrow did in his five years with the appointment of journalists who have no background in public sector journalism as Information minister of Information and Communication or his spokespeople or chief propagandist both Demba Jawo and Ebrima Sillah were outstanding journalists in the private media, another freelance journalist without government and public policy experience Mr. Ebrima G.  Sankareh as Government Spokesperson. Ms. Amie Bojang Sisissho had a vocation with radio as a vernacular announcer with limited knowledge of journalism as Director of Press. 

The President’s information and communication team appears to be ordinarily a formidable one. However, did you notice what I saw? or Are you thinking what I was thinking! 

The former Gambia Press Union boss, Mr. Demba Ali Jawo, was named Information and Communication minister and later replaced by Ebrima Sillah, former the Gambia Radio and Television( GRTS)  Director-General, just like another freelancer and editor of an online paper, the Gambia Echo Mr. Ebrima Sankareh named as Gambia Government spokesperson. 

What a conflict and role strain? Sometimes, the Director of Press at the State House, Ms. Amie Bojang -Sissoho serves as the President and the Government Spokesperson.

I feel like asking the President why he would put those two gentlemen giants in a tiny office at the Ministry of Information and Communication. Not even President Yahya Jammeh did that.

Mr. Ebrima Sillah, as Information and Communication minister, is the bonafide Government Spokesperson and Chief Propagandists and Publicity for President Barrow and his government and should also be in charge of Strategic and Public communication 

Or could it be that President Adama  Barrow in the spirit of change felt his three-star players (Mr Ebrima Sillah, Mr. Ebrima Sankareh, and  Mrs. Amie Bojang Sissoho would serve him better wearing the same jersey number 10 playing the same position). 

The United States 35th  President John Kennedy’s stellar cabinet of “the best and the brightest” was described as a ‘team of rivals’! Furthermore, it was throughout. I do not think this is a communication team of the “team of rivals” of the communication giants. 

Now, the two Ebrima’s and Demba also  Amie. I hope they have realised that they are no longer the same persons that went to the State House four or five years ago. They are not. We do not need to organise an exam to know that they are, at this moment, deeper in knowledge and understanding than PhDs could infuse in them. 

In my previous article, I alerted them that their job inflicting themselves would give them pains more than pleasure. I am happy they told them on one of the two occasions they read and ‘glazed’ that piece. I also told them they would come face to face with the powerful ones around the President. 

The latter were always masters of everything, especially media management. I remember that people who make things impossible for the masses mill around power corridors holding omnipotence flags and behold them. 

Every journalist in government sees their flesh and blood as they bail out of the ship at the first buffeting signs of danger. Did the two Ebrima’s, Demba and Amie, see all these?

How much goodwill will they be able to attract for the benefit of the President? I cannot wait to read their memoirs. The fourth President of the United States, James Madison, warned in 1822 that it was not enough to have a popular government: “A popular government without popular information and communication or means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both!” 

In the last weeks of the Yahya Jammeh government, I listened to a top presidency official lamenting that what that APRC  government suffered from was “not lack of effective information and communication but effective and efficient media in the era of social media or the digital media.” 

I could not understand what the man meant. He was not a media or information manager. Still, he wanted me to see him as a knowledgeable person in that area. I  watched him as he waxed lyrically in his analysis. I silently wished the two Ebrima’s, Demba and Amie were there to listen to him.

Nevertheless, President Yahya Jammeh himself told a few reporters in his first newspaper interview before the 2016 Presidential Election that he was reaping the fruits of what he called his government’s “poor investment” in information management in the era of digital media. 

Again, I could not say I understood what he meant by “investment.” Whatever it was, there were lessons to learn not just by President Adama Barrow and his communication team but by all who just moved into the various government offices. When you work well for God to see, make sure men are created to see your great deeds too.

Then this. The new men and women going into the new government of President Barrow as senior strategic information and communication and public affairs will meet people of weird conviction. 

Strange people who were not in government but would phone the principals before daybreak to break the bad news of bad press. These are men and women who would seek to plant it in the mind of the principal that his communication and digital media team “are not doing nothing.” 

As I noted five years ago, these characters are of all ages — young and old, and it is the sure misfortune of every private journalist in government to suffer their presence. I had known many of them in dozens, but I knew of few lucky colleagues on time. 

On one occasion, one of my colleagues told me that his boss had asked him why some press officers and particularly government spokespeople wanted to do everything with big grammar in their press statements and public communications. 

“Are they trained journalists?” his boss asked. However, not every principal would be that discerning and understanding. In most situations, the negative press takes the better part of government officials. So they visit their frustrations on their media and communication team.

Ari Fleisher, White House press secretary (to President George W. Bush), once described his job as “a balancing act that requires careful judgment in service to two masters.” So true. You serve your boss and your media constituency – protecting one from the other at all times and in all situations. 

Even now, a third boss has surfaced on social media. That is a tough one you cannot control. I do not envy any journalist who manages government media in this age of gateless social media. Even the media itself is a victim of social media attacks. 

How do you then control water flow in a dam without gates? That is the tough job today’s government media managers have. However, the big boss has given them the job. They must do it. Moreover, you and I sent out messages of congratulations to them on their appointments!

Back to Yahya Jammeh’s last Information minister and his ex-spokesman who wanted to lie low for now because he had found himself out of power. Five years ago, I warned: Do not take it if you are not ready to do this job forever. 

President Yahya Jammeh was no longer in power almost five years ago. His chief propagandists and his information and communication team did not wean of working for him. Their yearly remembrance’s media and communication contents are their colleague’s headache. 

So, I tell the men and women in President Barrow’s new government that there is no jumping this ship they have willingly boarded. They must forever sail with the captain, fighting pirates, sharks, and whales. That is the meaning of the job.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

Alagi Yorro Jallow

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