During the summer of 2016, photojournalist Jack Clark travelled to Gambia where he shot a secret project on a meeting with President Adama Barrow during the inauguration of 2016/2017.
This project started as a holiday with my girlfriend and her family. We were in Kerr Serign, The Gambia, in an area tucked behind the west coast, with some family friends who have been living out in Gambia for years now. It turned out that the bureaucratic state at that time was pretty tense. The people we stayed with were clued up on the political situation at the time, which should have been worldwide news. Given the fact that I had been studying photojournalism for 3 years and had just graduated, it seemed natural to try and cover the story.
Staying within the community had its advantages. I had access to first-hand information coming from the locals and even gained access to the Coalition’s WhatsApp group. The Whatsapp group leaked intelligence coming directly from the people inside the state house, a large portion of which were working for President Jammeh at the time. The media’s mass coverage of the situation led people to finally being able to speak freely on the subject, which seemed to become a topic of conversation in itself. President Yayah Jammeh abdicated, and did so quite honorably, which seemed to surprise the local community considering he had just stepped down from a 22 year long dictatorship he had held over the country.
After a while, issues that were happening internally with the government seemed to become more visible, and a vast majority of the Gambian people had turned on their president. Jammeh turned back on his decision to vacate the presidency, publicly and angrily protesting his abdication. He shut down radio stations and tampered with the electricity. He then called for a recount and claimed that the previous votes were fixed; he began to postpone the inevitable inauguration of President Adama Barrow. With Jammeh’s efforts to take what he could from the country, with the understanding that repercussions for his crimes during presidency were around the corner. This impacted the people of The Gambia heavily, fear of an outbreak of conflict caused families to flee to safer neighboring countries resulting in a mass exodus.
With all I had learned so far, it made sense to try to put what I had learnt at university to work. The day before I experienced the mass exodus I was put in to contact with Peter Simpson, the head of media for Bono’s charity ONE. He warned me about photographing the events taking place. Exposing anything against the Former president could have landed me in a lot of trouble (getting arrested or worse) and would have undermined any remaining influence he may have held. With the advice I was given I was limited to how I could document the events. My phone, being small, compact and rarely seen, seemed like the most viable option and was the easiest way to shoot and remain incognito at the same time. I concealed my phone in a pouch I had bought at the market, I then made a hole in for the lens to face out of and put it to test.
On the day we went to Banjul, residents were fleeing to Barra, the first leg of their journey to safer neighbouring places. I was up at 4am to catch the first ferry from Banjul. The plan, for most families, was to leave before it got too hot to travel. On an average day the ferry would be full of trade stock transporting between Banjul and Barra. As we entered the ferry port, waves of people, crowds of cars and mini buses were all waiting to board the ferry. They were leaving with all the personal belongings they could, filling suitcases and even wheelbarrows with TV’s and home furniture, without any real clue of when they would be coming home.
Once arriving in Barra, the neighboring port, not a far distance from Banjul, significantly smaller crowds of people were traveling back. We arrived at Fort Bullen, which is now a museum. It’s a place of interest because of its historical conjunction with the slave trade. We were greeted by GAF soldiers with a stern “no pictures of the soldiers” and we had to negotiate entry to the usually open museum, the military presence there seemed suspicious, with soldiers armed and on the lookout in a tower of the fort. In this situation (and most situations throughout the project) I could use being a tourist to my advantage, almost pleading ignorance, allowing me to use my camera to distract from my phone filming. The presence of a physical camera aided me to gain access to areas I otherwise couldn’t have, it distracted the soldiers from the recording in the process from my phone.
I had heard rumors of a military submarine belonging to President Jammeh that could have been dealing arms. Although that idea seemed pretty bogus for me at the time, I figured the way things were looking, I couldn’t rule anything out. The location of the museum overlooked the mouth of the river Gambia and would have been a good vantage point for the military.
Foreign embassies and local authorities began to warn tourists not to enter Banjul and there had been talk of President Jammeh threatening to close the airport. I was given the news I could potentially meet with the new president, Adama Barrow. I decided to extend my stay. As normal I went through the Thomas Cook website, but for the next few months flights departing from The Gambia were fully booked. This hinted to potential interference with the airport and control of passage in and out of the country. Then I contacted home to see if a ticket could be booked in England, I was happy to find out that it was possible. This seemed like a good example of the extent of the president’s control.
My girlfriend and her family’s 3 week holiday came to an end. This was a good opportunity for me to take a further look at the airport and see if there was anything to confirm the rumor of the airport being closed. During the drive, we saw more Sangars (protected structures used for weapon fire and cover) and were stopped and assessed at checkpoints. All of this seemed to embody the air of tension there was at the time. As we turned up everything seemed in order there was nothing out of the ordinary. On the air field was the president’s private plane that looked primed and ready for takeoff.
With President Jammeh seemingly out of the picture, I pursued his successor, President Adama Barrow, despite Jammeh’s intentions to make it harder for Barrow to begin his presidency. In an effort to be in contact with any sort of commotion that the president might have caused, I managed to begin to follow his tracks using the intel from the coalition WhatsApp group. Exploring hotels, looking for evidence of the president and working out where the meetings were taking place. It wasn’t too hard, as the country is exceedingly small and was easy to get to places quickly.
I started to understand that the new president still had to be seen by the public. He would be escorted, whilst simultaneously being paraded around, stood waving out of the sunroof. With a fleet of associates in other vehicles, beeping their horns, bringing traffic to a standstill and drawing large amounts of admiring locals to the roadside as they drove erratically, to their destination. It was definitely a culture shock for me to witness authority figures being viewed in this way.
With access to the Coalition WhatsApp group through my source (Mo), we were able to reach out and get in touch with a security guard of President Adama Barrow and a friend of Mo’s. As we turned up we were greeted by his friend, he took us through security, getting them to empty my bag, my pockets and to scan me, almost like entering a nightclub. I was given back my things, and we were let into the compound. At this point, we didn’t know if we definitely had a meeting with the president but we were ushered on through the garden and into the house were we waited during his meetings, everything was getting more and more surreal. We awkwardly walked into the lounge, sitting there were his friends, family and first lady, all watching the television. We were Observing Adama Barrow’s success first hand, with all the people who were close to him. I felt as if I had witnessed an important moment in history for the country and I had entered it with no real knowledge of the situation beforehand. We waited hours, making polite conversation, and then everything we had been hoping for happened, we were called in to meet Adama Barrow. He was taking meetings at the time and had allocated us a very brief 15 minutes with him, He was open to hear what we had to say. He had an interest in who I am and my studies in photojournalism, he understood that meeting him was a big deal for me and seemed like he had already expected I would ask to take some pictures.
Meeting with Adama Barrow was the final piece in the culmination of my efforts whilst I was in The Gambia. Finishing here represents a lot of time and energy spent learning African politics enough to follow and to meet the successor, becoming streetwise and appearing confident in an unfamiliar place. Where I made sure I was collecting useable footage, to screenshot that would explain what I was experiencing. Representing and producing a piece of work clearly and creatively as possible for people to understand
Not long after our meeting, President Adama Barrow was forced into exile in Senegal due to the heightened risk of conflict, despite his intentions being to begin his presidency. Eventually, things escalated to tourists being evacuated and a military intervention taking place, with the Senegalese and Nigerian troops prepared to forcibly remove Yayah Jammeh from the state house where he had harbored himself.
Jammeh was then forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea.