Ousman Koro Ceesay, a young, handsome and charismatic Finance Minister was busy drafting his budget speech in June 1995 to present to the nation. That was just under a year after the military overthrew the government of long-time president, Sir Dawda Jawara and instituted the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), led by Lt. Yahya Jammeh.
Listen to Koro Ceesay’s Aunt, Isatou Jagne talking about his mysterious death.
That was a very difficult moment for the country and its people. Confusion and uncertainties were looming, with a roof of insecurity hanging over everyone’s head. The Gambia was isolated by the International Community and donor partners. There was growing suspicion that the military boys were looting the money left in the national coffers. Koro’s budget speech was expected to spill the beans. Unconfirmed reports said some people in the junta wanted a cover up in the budget speech, and Koro, a sun on the rise, had no plans to do anything other than present the budget as it was, without fear or favour.
In the middle of the preparation to deliver the speech, Koro would take time off every Saturday to visit his maternal aunt and close confidante, Isatou Nyang in Bakoteh. “We had a plum tree and he was very fond of that. He’d come and collect plums. On this particular day, he came and I was chatting with him when his mum called. His mum said ‘is Koro around’ and I said ‘yes he’s around’, and he asked who was calling and I said it was his mum. And then he said (jokingly) ‘you should not have told her I was around’. That was the last time I saw him,” she recalls.
On a regular basis though, the young minister would call Aunty Isatou to let her know he was busy preparing for his budget speech.
“He was very fond of me. He liked me so much… He would call to tell me ‘I’m busy with my budget speech’ and then I’d imagine his fluency in English. I was eager to listen to that budget speech.”
Koro’s last phone call was in the early hours of Friday 23rd June 1995 and the message was that he was going to the airport to see off the Chairman of the AFPRC, Lt. Jammeh who was traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Jammeh boarded the plane and left and Koro was last seen shaking hands with him, like all other ministers and dignitaries present. From the airport, the rest of the story became blurred. Strangely, his family did not hear from him and as hours passed, they became worried about a man who was obsessed with making regular contacts with loved ones. Their anxiety continued for many more hours and at around 1pm on Saturday 24th June 1995, Aunty Isatou and her husband received a phone call.
“On that day, I woke up early in the morning, went to the market and cooked. We sat in the parlor, eating. Then it was a landline. The telephone rang and my husband picked it up. And then I heard him say ‘accident!’And I said ‘who had an accident’ and I heard him say ‘Koro! Hope he didn’t die’ and they said no.”
Confused, Aunty Isatou headed to Koro’s family house at Dippa Kunda where she found people crying and wailing. At the request of Koro’s mother, she left for the mortuary in Banjul to join other family members who had already gathered there to see the body. After waiting for about an hour, Aunty Isatou was escorted to the room where Koro’s remains were kept.
“Koro’s height… he was 6 foot 3. So I was expecting to see the body of a 6 foot 3. But to my surprise I saw something like this (using her hands to display the smallness of what she saw) … his charred remains on the slab and a soldier was standing holding a rice bag. Then I said ‘who is this?’ And they said that’s the remains. I said that can’t be Koro’s remain. I said ‘where is his head? Where are his limbs?” she says, crying and sobbing.
Aunty Isatou was led away by relatives back to Dippa Kunda.
“I said to my sister that what I saw was not Koro. She asked what I saw and I said I saw charred remains of something but that was not Koro. So my sister collapsed and fainted.”
Official reports emerged later in the day that Koro had died in a car accident in some remote place around Jambur where his charred body was found in the front seat of his burnt out black official Mercedes Benz. He was burnt beyond recognition.
According to Aunty Isatou, AFPRC members including Lt. Edward Singhateh and Lt. Yankuba Touray, and Fatoumata Jahumpa visited Koro’s family three days after his death to pay condolence on behalf of the military junta.
A little over a week after Koro’s death, the AFPRC went on to present a budget (believed to be different from the one Koro was preparing) to the Gambian people. It was delivered by Bala Garba Jahumpa who was then Minister of Trade overseeing Finance Ministry. In that budget, Jahumpa said that Foreign Reserves dipped by 13 per cent to USD 90 Million or 5 months import cover.
Fast forward to weeks and then months later, different unconfirmed reports emerged contrary to the government’s version of how Koro died. Consistently, one report after the other would allege that Koro was beaten to death and his vehicle set on fire to make it look like an accident.
For his family, it was two decades of trauma and confusion. Koro’s father and mother appealed for investigation into their son’s mysterious death and the regime showed no interest to do so. They kept fighting for justice until they both died many years ago.
“The family was devastated and disintegrated. Some went to America, some went to England and some stayed in The Gambia. And we worked under this torturous and undesirable condition. What cannot be helped must be endured,” says Aunty Isatou.
The TRRC Revelation
On Thursday February 28, Aunty Isatou went to the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission at the invitation of the commission to listen to a former soldier who was expected to confess to taking part in Koro’s killing. Though she was not convinced there’d be any confession, she took a seat in the hearing hall to listen to what the witness had to say. Also in attendance were Koro’s two sisters and other family members.
The witness, Alagie Kanyi testified that Koro was killed and gave graphic details of how he was killed. “As we were entering, I heard the noise vip vip… two strikes and the man fell down.” He testified that Lt. Edward Singhateh bludgeoned the young minister with a pestle to death. “He hit him three times and everywhere was blood,” he told the TRRC.
Kanyi also alleged that Singhateh ordered him and other officers who were present, including Peter Singhateh and Yankuba Touray to hit Koro one after the other. The witness cried, sobbed, held his head in his hands many times during the testimony and repeatedly asked for forgiveness.
Though he did not say why Koro was killed.
The more Kanyi’s testimony deepened, the more Aunty Isatou felt she couldn’t take it anymore. She started sobbing and screaming and had to be taken out of the room.
“When he explained how Koro was hit with a pestle, I couldn’t take that (sobbing). Koro was very very peaceful… I could have jumped and grabbed him (Kanyi) but I couldn’t take the law into my own hands.”
Face to face with the confessed killer
At the end of his testimony, Kanyi requested to meet Aunty Isatou and other family members present at the TRRC. The family accepted the request.
“He said we should forgive him. My niece spoke about how he devastated and disintegrated the whole family. He said to us that we just had to forgive him, saying he was a dead man walking. He said ‘just forgive me in the name of Allah, in the name of Islam’. I said do you know who Koro was and he said no. He knelt down and we all knelt down. And I was like ‘who’re we not to forgive’. And we left everything in the hands of God through the TRRC.”
For Aunty Isatou and family, one chapter of their struggle has now been closed and a healing process is opened.