‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been arrested and locked up’

Alieu Badara Sowe
Alieu Badara Sowe

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A blazing smile rarely leaves the face of Alieu Badara Sowe. He is immensely cheerful and full of the joys of early spring.

But that beaming grin hides a grim secret – years of terror and heartache.

By day Alieu is a security guard. You can often find him working at Portsmouth Crown Court.

The irony is not lost on him. ‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been arrested and locked up,’ he said. ‘So to be working at the court is quite funny in a way.’

Alieu – ‘please, just call me Ali’ – is a Gambian abroad. He is also a journalist. In exile.

We chat in his Southsea flat to a permanent background of rolling news on his television.

Ali has an ear on it throughout as the crisis in Libya escalates. Close by is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. The man is his hero.

As pictures of the rebels on the streets flash up, he whispers ‘yeees’ under his breath.

‘What I want more than anything is for what’s happening in Libya and what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia to spread south to my country.

‘The people of The Gambia are watching all this and I just hope and pray that something similar happens there.’

Ali, 43, holds dual nationality as a Gambian and British citizen and fled to Britain 10 years ago after, he says, being persecuted by state police and security services for writing anti-government articles.

A military coup in 1994 deposed the government of President Dawda Jawara, It was led by Lieutenant Yahya AJJ Jammeh who became head of state and banned opposition political activity.

Ali added: ‘I love living in Portsmouth and there’s quite a few Gambians living here.

‘But I feel I can achieve much more here by writing articles for the internet highlighting what’s going on in The Gambia. I’d never be able to do that at home.’

Ali, who won the Investigative Journalist of the Year Award in 1999 in The Gambia, has seen one of his editors murdered and another colleague vanish.

And he has just returned from his first trip back home since he left the west African state.

‘I was nervous before I went back but I didn’t have any real problems. I went to the magistrates’ court, the supreme court and met most of the political leaders, but I’m pretty sure all my movements were monitored.

‘My mobile phone was stolen in my first week there I had a gut feeling it was taken by somebody from within the system who wanted to find out who I had been contacting.’

Ali, who was brought up by his grandparents, has a son back in The Gambia who is completing his education, as well as other family members. ‘I have to be careful about what I write and you always have a fear for them in the back of your mind.’

Ali is sad the political situation in The Gambia is not widely known in Britain.

‘The Gambia is a former British colony and the vast majority of tourists pouring into the country each are British.

‘Yet Britain has done very little towards holding to account the government regarding its gross violation of human rights and the complete negation of democracy.

‘Sadly also the brutal and repressive measures applied by President Jammeh towards silencing journalists, opposition politicians, human rights activists and anyone perceived to be in opposition to the government goes largely unreported in the British media.’

Before he left for the UK, Ali had worked for 10 years as a journalists for The Point, New Citizen and Daily Observer newspapers.

He was also news editor of the Gambian-based Senegalese radio station Sud FM.

When he left the country he was assistant secretary general of The Gambia Press Union. And while in the Britain he served as the secretary general of the UK branch of The Gambia Press Union.

Ali added: ‘One of the first pronouncements of President Jammeh when he assumed power through a military coup in July 1994 came at a public rally at the Independence stadium on the outskirts of the capital Banjul.

‘He described the country’s journalists as ‘the illegitimate sons of Africa’ and urged his supporters to ‘get rid of them’.

Ali has campaigned to discover who shot one of his former editors, Deyda Hydara in 2004. The president insists the state had no hand in it.

Hydara was a co-founder and editor of The Point, a major independent Gambian newspaper. He was also a correspondent for AFP News Agency and Reporters Without Borders for more than 30 years and critical of the regime.

Ali said: ‘He was shot in his car when he was taking colleagues home from the office one evening. He was gunned down yards from a police barracks.

‘And despite resounding international condemnation, the president waited years before he publicly, on national television, asked the press and ‘those interested’ in Deyda’s death to go and ask the dead man himself ‘who killed him’.

‘How insensitive is that, especially to his family?’

He added: ‘When The Gambia Press Union issued a statement referring to his comments as insensitive, which they were, the entire executive committee of the union was rounded up and then locked up in the country’s most notorious prisons.

‘The president of the union, Ndey Tapha Sosseh has since been forced to live in exile in neighbouring Mali.

‘No credible investigation has ever been launched to give everyone closure. This is just one of the atrocities against journalists – the list is a long one.’


The Republic of the Gambia in West Africa is commonly known as The Gambia

It is the smallest country on mainland Africa, bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal, with just a short coastline on the Atlantic. It has an estimated population of 1.7 million.

The country is based around the Gambia River, from which the nation takes its name. It flows through the middle of the country and empties into the Atlantic.

The Gambia was granted independence from the United Kingdom on February 18, 1965 and joined the Commonwealth.

Banjul is the capital, but the largest conurbation is Serekunda.

The Gambia shares historical roots with many other west African nations in the slave trade, which was key to the maintenance of a colony on the Gambia river, first by the Portuguese and later by the British.

According to the current president Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia ‘is one of the oldest and biggest countries in Africa that was reduced to a small snake by the British government who sold all our lands to the French’.

During the Second World Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma and Banjul served as an air stopover point for the US Army Air Corps and a port of call for Allied naval convoys.

US President Franklin Roosevelt stopped overnight in Banjul en route to and from the Casablanca Conference in 1943, marking the first visit to the African continent by a sitting American president.

In April 1970, the Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth with prime minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, as head of state.

He went on to be re-elected five times until he was deposed in 1994.