The last time Lawyer Ousman Sillah was wearing a robe and wig, he was in front of a judge at the Banjul High Court defending Baba Kajali Jobe, a closed associate of President Yahya Jammeh who was charged with multiple counts of economic crimes.
It was on 23rd December 2004 and Mr Sillah of Oussu’s Chambers, didn’t say goodbye to his client. He never did when the case was adjourned because he thought he would be back the following week after the Christmas holidays to continue punching holes and discrediting the prosecution’s case. However, two days later, Mr Sillah was shot on the head outside his home in an apparent assassination attempt by unidentified men believed to be government agents.
He was flown out of the country to neighbouring Senegal where he underwent successful surgery.
In this exclusive interview with Ebrima Ceesay, first published in the now defunct Independent newspaper in February 2004, the veteran lawyer speaks about the shooting and how it has changed his life.
“On the evening of 25th December 2003 at around 10pm, I left my residence to attend the wedding (mour) of Rugie Lowe, daughter of my friend, Malick Lowe, near the Pipeline Mosque. I was at the ceremony until midnight before I said bye to my friends and returned to my home opposite Marina International School in Bakau.
I drove my son’s car that night, a red Audi hatchback. My own four-wheel drive vehicle was being used by my wife and the driver, so I took my son’s car. I was alone in the car as I drove home.
When I arrived at the gate of my compound, I waited for my watchman to open the gate for me. It was then that I saw two figures coming from a pick-up vehicle just behind my car. The pick-up did not have a number plate and was of the type used by the Gambia National Army. I have seen pick-ups of this type being driven towards State House in Banjul. While I was still in my car calling on my watchman to open the gate, I saw the figures moving closer to the tail end of my car. Just two meters away.
They came closer to me, while I was still sitting in the car, and I clearly saw them holding guns. The two men each had a gun. One figure was fairly tall, and the other was much shorter in stature. I turned my head to them, and saw the tall man raise his gun and direct it at me. I never came out of my car. And then the first shot came, and I felt an explosion in my head.
Having been shot once, I fell in the car seat towards the gear lever, and as I tried to sit upright, another shot was fired at me. That shot blew up the right side of my face below the eye. I recall putting my hand to that side of my face to check what had happened. I remained slumped in the front of the car and I kept motionless. I was not aware of other shots being fired at me, but I did become aware that my two assailants had returned to their own vehicle and driven off.
Being aware that my assailants had left the scene, I then struggled to open the car door, and I staggered into my compound. The incident had happened at the gate of my compound, and not inside it. I got to my house, bleeding profusely. I staggered onto the settee in my living room. I told my watchman to fetch my wife and tell her that I had been shot. My wife came into the room and I was rushed to the Ndeban Clinic. At this point, I was still conscious, and I narrated my ordeal to my doctor, Doctor Faal.
I was taken to the operating theatre, and then the Chief Justice, Justice Gibou Janneh and some lawyers came to visit me. After a while, I was taken to the airport to fly to Senegal. I was in terrible, acute pain but I remained conscious.
I had a successful operation in Dakar and am grateful to my team of doctors, especially Professor Idirissa Sillah and Dr Hobbalah, a surgeon specialist who looked after me very well. The bullets have been removed from me, and my wife has them. The doctors have told me that they have also removed one of my kidneys, leaving me with just one.
I don’t know for sure exactly where I was shot but I felt a shot in my face. There was a bullet that had exited from my back. I was certainly shot more than once. I bled a lot. My condition was so bad that my watchman cried like a baby in my sitting room, while he waited for my wife to attend me.
The intention of my assailants was to kill me. They wanted to eliminate me. But God is great. I am now at my friend’s house in Dakar, and I am recovering fairly well. I have had the stitches removed from my face. My face is slightly disfigured, but my back has healed up properly. I have some stitches left around my stomach area. I go for a change of dressing every other day.
I will be in Dakar in the short and medium term. I have no plans to go back to The Gambia right now. I will use this period to reflect on the future. From Dakar, I intend to visit the USA followed by a trip to the UK. I shall only return to The Gambia in the longer term.
Meeting With Government Officials
I got a telephone call from the Judicial Secretary and I was made to understand that there was going to be a delegation from the Judiciary and not the government. They came to visit me with the Chief Justice and Ebou Momar Taal, the Gambian High Commissioner to Senegal. They disclosed that they were sent by Yahya Jammeh. Well, I gave them a run-down of how I felt. I am yet to hear any condemnation of this barbaric act from the government. Members of the Bar Association came to see me recently.
Any Plans To Sue the Gov’t
I do not know about legal action[against the state]. Who can I sue? I have my own conviction that the shooting was state-sponsored, but in a court of law, it is necessary to have more than circumstantial evidence. I find consolation in the calls of sympathy I received from all parts of the world. This incident has touched many people and let us hope and pray that something good will come out of it at the end of the day.
Relationship with Baba Jobe
I met Baba Jobe once, and then again at the Library of the Court house just a few minutes before the case started. A team of lawyers and the YDE [Youth Development Enterprise] Management had arranged my meeting with Baba Jobe. While representing Jobe, I was doing my job in line with our professional ethics. For me, I will defend a person regardless of his or her colour, religion, tribe, political affiliation or history.
You see, as a lawyer, you defend your client vigorously regardless of his background and history. That is what our professional ethics demand.
Baba Jobe felt that he had been badly treated by the APRC regime, given his loyalty to Jammeh and his services to the APRC party. Jobe was genuinely stunned by the actions taken against him by his former friends. By the way, Baba Jobe always has his personal lawyer. I was only to lead the criminal aspect of the case, and that was the economic crime he was charged with. Baba Jobe had apparently been impressed with my style of cross-examination.
I don’t deserve an attempted murder. In fact, no-one does. Anyway, I am glad that people have spoken for me. People are writing on the Internet and in the newspapers, expressing their support and sympathy for me and my family. I did a lot for my country – in the Police, in the Judiciary and in Sports. In fact, I once acted as Acting Chief Justice of The Gambia. I was also the Captain of the Gambian National Soccer squad which last defeated Senegal.”