MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we are going to turn our attention away from the U.S. for a few moments to the West African country of Gambia. Human rights groups have been frantically trying to bring attention to the recent announcement by President Yahya Jammeh that he plans to execute 47 prisoners on death row by the middle of next month. That's all the prisoners on death row. Now the death penalty has not been carried out there for more than a quarter of a century, but the government confirmed that nine people faced a firing squad on Sunday. President Jammeh says he is implementing capital punishment to stop crime but critics don't believe that because of his checkered human rights record over the 18 years he's been in power.
We wanted to find out more about this, so we've called upon a Gambian journalist now living in exile in North Carolina. Pa Nderry Mbai is the managing editor for the online "Freedom" newspaper and he's with us now.
Mr. Mbai, thanks so much for joining us.
NDERRY MBAI: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Now I understand that you have a theory about why the president has started these executions now. Why do you think he's doing this?
MBAI: That's a fundamental question, Michel. President Jammeh is a weird guy. It is evident in the country. He's very, very unpopular. The Gambians are complaining about the high cost of living, the governance crisis in the country, the maladministration in the country, the lack of justice in the country. All these factors compounded, Jammeh is apparently trying to instill fear to the minds of Gambians.
MARTIN: Now you say he's a weird guy. Could you talk a little bit more about that? You've met him.
MBAI: Yes I met President Jammeh while I was a journalist in Gambia. He's a very weird guy, very irrational, erratic. Jammeh is very unpredictable. On a personal level he appeared to be a very nice guy - smiling, but the inner character of Jammeh, that's the problem. He can smile while he's killing. He's very, very deceptive. Jammeh doesn't represent the true portrait of himself. There was a time he accuses some people of, you know, killing his Auntie, and about 1,000 Gambians were rounded up during that incident. Some people died. They were kind of poisoned.
MARTIN: Can I just stop you right there? How do you know these things?
MBAI: Well, I'm very connected to the Gambia. I have sources embedded in Jammeh's government. There are some in the country who are also, you know, giving me information.
MARTIN: Now, I do think it's worth noting that your newspaper is credited with having broken the story of these executions having been planned, which has subsequently been confirmed by some of these human rights organizations.
You know, people may remember that the last time Gambia made international headlines was in 2007 when President Jammeh claimed that he could cure AIDS in three days with a secret mix of medicinal herbs. Does he believe that he himself has supernatural powers or something of that sort? Do you feel - I guess the question is do you feel that he has some sort of a personality disorder?
MBAI: Indeed. Indeed. He's kind of mental impaired. Jammeh is very, very funny. He's trying to, you know, convince Gambians that he is a Superman, he can cure HIV/AIDS, he can cure diabetes, he can cure asthma, infertility. Jammeh knows for a fact that he cannot cure HIV/AIDS. He doesn't have anything to offer to Gambians.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about Gambia in West Africa. The president there has vowed to execute all the prisoners on death row by next month. My guest is exiled Gambia and journalist Pa Nderry Mbai.
What crimes - alleged crimes - were the executed prisoners on death row for? And what about the people who are still there?
MBAI: Well, some of the executed inmates, some were murdered, some were accused of treason. But the matter of the application of the executions is our beef. The entire Gambian population are saying that Jammeh never fulfilled the constitutional mandate. There is a stipulation in the Constitution that if there should be any execution those provisions got to be met.
MARTIN: Now last December, President Jammeh told the BBC that he didn't care about criticism of his human rights record. I just want to play a short clip of that conversation. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PRESIDENT YAHYA JAMMEH: I will not bow down before any human being except the Almighty Allah. And if they don't like that they can go to hell. I don't care what they say. I fear only Allah. God will judge me tomorrow. Those who accuse me of human rights violations...
JAMMEH: ...Allah would judge between me and them.
MARTIN: How do you interpret his remarks? I mean on the one hand he's saying that he doesn't care about international scrutiny. On the other hand, he did get interview to an international news outlet which suggests he does care to some degree how he is viewed internationally.
MBAI: Well, that's Jammeh. He's an attention seeker. Each time you want to be in the news he will come up with something crazy so that he can attract the attention of the international media. Yes, Jammeh can say that he doesn't care about the West, he doesn't care about human rights activists, but indeed, his government is paying for the consequences. Right now there is no investment in Gambia. Gambia's economy is in shambles. People in that country, they are living in poverty. Jammeh's actions and remarks is costing the Gambia very dearly, economically, politically, socially, Jammeh doesn't possess any good qualities as a leader.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, I think it's worth noting that we don't get that much reporting from Gambia. And press organizations, media organizations do a great Gambia as among the worst in terms of respect for press freedoms. I did mention at the outset of our conversation that you're living in exile in the United States. Why is that, if you don't mind telling us?
MBAI: That's a very good question. I left the Gambia due to political persecution. I used to report for the "Voice of America" radio. I also used to work for The Point newspaper. Deyda Hydara, the journalist who was murdered in Gambia, was my editor. I mean I suffered in the hands of Jammeh's criminal regime. I was detained. I mean there were incidences, we have very good stories linking Jammeh to corruption but due to the draconian media laws in Gambia, the editors advised if we go ahead with the story they will either firebombed newspaper, kill us or worst-case scenario, probably, they will close the newspaper. These other problems facing the local media in the Gambia. Now I am here in the U.S., say OK, wait a minute. Now I'm in a free country. I think I can still help my people. We set up the Freedom newspaper with the ultimate objective of trying to fill the media vacuum because the local press in Gambia, they cannot report certain stories affecting the government. That's what we're doing right now. We're trying to keep the government honest, reporting the stories as it is without any bias. We're here to represent the Gambian story.
MARTIN: Do you feel there is any lever that might cause President Jammeh to reconsider his decision to execute all of these prisoners in violation, as you say, of their due process rights? Do you see any evidence that he is willing to reconsider, or that there's any entity that has influence with him?
MBAI: Jammeh is a very irrational leader. He's very unpredictable. Jammeh can tell you yes, I will stop the executions. The next minute Jammeh will embark on executions. But one thing I can tell you Michel, I know for a fact that Jammeh is bent on trying to consulate himself into power, basically that's the reason why he's doing these executions.
MARTIN: Pa Nderry Mbai is the managing editor for the online "Freedom" newspaper. It reports on important events in Gambia, and he was kind enough to join us from his home in exile in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Mr. Mbai, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MBAI: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORENPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.