One night in 2004, an AFP reporter in The Gambia was shot dead

2 min 28Approximate reading time

In 2004, an army hit squad in The Gambia drew up in front of Deyda Hydara, an AFP correspondent, and gunned him down.

The killing was one of the most infamous atrocities committed under the tiny West African state’s then despotic president, Yahya Jammeh, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years.

An editor of the independent newspaper The Point as well as an AFP correspondent, Hydara had been driving two colleagues home from a party at the paper’s offices on the night of December 16.

But on the outskirts of the capital Banjul, a car pulled up and blocked the road in front of them.

Several people jumped out and fired shots into Hydara’s car, killing him, the head of The Gambia’s press union, Demba Ali Diao, told AFP in 2004.

“He was killed instantly,” he said.

The slaying shocked many in The Gambia, the smallest country on Africa’s mainland, and was also widely condemned abroad.

Gambia’s independent media launched a weeklong news blackout in protest at the killing.

Hydara had written frequently about corruption, and had also taken a strong stance against a press bill that authorised jail time for journalists who violated press laws, as well as heavy fines for their publishers.

He began working at AFP in 1974 as a translator before becoming a correspondent.

The newspaperman also worked with the media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres, who described him as the “impetus” behind an open letter that the group sent to Jammeh about the press bill.

The two colleagues travelling with Hydara after the office party survived after being shot in the legs.

But Hydara died, with a coroner finding he had been struck by three bullets.

He left behind a wife and four children.

The precision of the killing in the poor nation about two million people immediately raised suspicions of a state-sponsored hit job.

– Death squads –

Police pledged to investigate Hydara’s murder, but little came of the case.

The Gambia’s National Intelligence agency later released a 23-page report describing Hydara as “an instigator who stirred up the anger of a number of people through critical reports in his newspaper”.

The case then fell silent until, in January 2017, Jammeh fled the country after losing presidential elections and initially refusing to step down.

He had come to power in a bloodless coup in July 1994 and was repeatedly re-elected in disputed circumstances until being defeated in December 2016 by the relatively unknown Adama Barrow.

After Jammeh went into exile, The Gambia set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to probe numerous alleged rights violations under his rule.

Since hearings began in 2019, it has heard testimony about torture, rape, death squads and state-sponsored witch hunts, among other alleged abuses.

– ‘We opened fire’ –

A TRRC hearing in 2019 shed new light on Hydara’s murder.

Lieutenant Malick Jatta, a former member of Jammeh’s personal death squad — known as the “Junglers” — testified that the president himself had ordered the killing.

“We opened fire, myself, Alieu Jen and Sana Manjang,” Jatta said at the public hearing, naming two other military officers involved in the assassination.

He also told the truth commission that he received an envelope stuffed full of dollars afterwards, which he said was a “sign of appreciation from the big man”.

It remains unclear whether Jammeh or his accomplices will face justice in their native country.

However, hopes for justice were raised this week after public prosecutors in Germany announced that they had arrested a man in connection with Hydara’s murder.

The man, whom they identified as Bai L., allegedly worked as a driver for the Junglers — and allegedly drove the hitmen who killed Hydara, helping to block the journalist’s car on the road.

Baba Hydara, the journalist’s son, told AFP on Wednesday that he welcomed the arrest.

“I want the killers of my father and all the Junglers prosecuted abroad because I do not trust the justice system in The Gambia,” he said.