He got his first opportunity at Knoxville College, a small historically Black college in East Tennessee.
"There were a few Gambian students studying at Knoxville College," he recounted in an interview in the nation's capital, where he had been brought by Jackson to attend the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Legislative Conference, better known as CBC Weekend. "Because I didn't have any money to go anywhere, they told me that Clinton Marsh, the president at the time, had worked in Africa and he may be willing to give me financial aid.
"So, when I went there, I had no money and appealed to him. I was given a grant just for one semester and I was told that financial aid from that point would depend on my performance. I not only got straight A's, but I completed the program in three years."
After graduating second in his class at Knoxville College in 1986, Janneh decided to go across town to enroll at the University of Tennessee, feeling he still had something to prove.
"Because people had doubts about a Knoxville College education, I decided I wanted to go to UT to prove to them that the education you get at Knoxville College is valuable and I did very well there, too," he said. "After a year, I got a master's degree and in another three years, a Ph.D."
After proving himself at the University of Tennessee, he was offered a position teaching African and African American studies and political science. After serving on the faculty for a decade, he felt he had proven his point and decided he wanted to prove that he could be successful in business.
"In 2000, I moved to Savannah, Ga. and became an entrepreneur in the area of information and technology – exporting computers and related products to The Gambia and Senegal," Janneh recalled. "As a result of that I decided to move to The Gambia because I saw that the economy was growing and I started making more money from that than from teaching."
Once back in Gambia, Janneh proved to everyone that he had talent.
"When I went back to The Gambia, instead of doing my private enterprise, the U.S. Embassy grabbed me and I was hired as a political adviser to the ambassador – that was in late 2003," he said. "I did that for about six months, then the president said, 'We want you to become our Minister of Information, Communication and Technology.' And that's how I got into government."
Janneh served from April 2004 until July 2005 when he decided to set up an information and technology company.
"We were doing very well until I saw that the country was headed in a different direction and I tried to combine business with politics by criticizing the government. That's how I landed in trouble, by calling the ruler a dictator," he said.
That did not sit well with President Yahya Janneh, in whose administration the former college professor had served. Since his election in 1996, international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have complained that those who opposed the president were tortured, arrested, harassed or killed.
Professor Janneh, who shares little in common with the president except the same last name, had heard the horror stories but wasn't afraid to publicly voice his views.
"Dictators do things their own way," Janneh said, referring to the president. "They don't care much about what others think. They dominate the economy, the politics and they're repressive. My characterization of him as a dictator is underscored by human rights reports, human rights organizations – Amnesty
International and so on – it's no secret."
And Janneh didn't keep his opinion a secret.
"I printed T-shirts, distributed them saying, 'Ban dictatorship now.' I wore some myself and drove around town – that's how I landed in trouble," Janneh said.
And that trouble came to a head last year.
He recounted, "I was in my office and some plainclothes police officers –it was June 6, 2011 – came in with two young guys and asked me, "Did you assign these guys to print T-shirts?' They said the T-shirts had been seen around town and were printed by them. They said, 'Did you assign them?' I said, 'Yes, I did.' They said, 'Are you behind it?' And I said, 'Yes.'"
That was all the policemen needed to hear.
"I was picked up, taken through a fake trial – I don't know if it should be called a trial – and charged with treason and sedition," Janneh recalled. "I didn't think anything would come out of distributing 100 T-shirts."
But it did.
"I was charged with treason and given a life sentence in one of the toughest prisons in the world," he said.
There was an international outcry over his arrest. Ayodele Ameen of Amnesty International said: "Dr. Janneh is a prisoner of conscience and is emblematic of the horrific human rights situation that prevails in the Gambia today."
Jesse Jackson decided to make an appeal to the president for the release of Janneh and Tamsir Jasseh, another jailed dissent who held dual U.S.-Gambia citizenship. Jasseh, a Navy veteran who fought in Desert Storm, had served 6 ½ years of a 20-year sentence for treason. President Janneh announced that he planned to execute all 47 prisoners on death row. Last month, eight men and one woman were executed by firing squad. Jackson said he persuaded Janneh on his trip to place a moratorium on capital punishment.
If anyone who could get the two Americans freed, it would be Jackson, who had conducted similar missions to Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Liberia and Cuba.
"I called the president and the foreign minister returned my call," said Jackson. "They publicized our coming, which suggested something might happen."
Janneh, who served 15 months, had no expectation that he would ever get out of prison.
"This guy does not seem to be susceptible to pressure, so I thought I would just be there forever," he said. "To be called overnight to say Rev. Jackson is taking you out was quite unbelievable and it also fell on my 50th birthday – September 17th.
"The announcement was first made on TV, but we did not have access to TV. That was at 8 p.m. on the 17th of September. The guard came – he was not supposed to give me any information but I think he was so excited. He just came and said, 'I have some good news for you.' I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'You've been pardoned by the president.' He said, 'A reverend from the U.S. came and you've been pardoned.' Later it was announced over the air and the next day we were taken to the airport and handed over to him."
After flying from Gambia to Brussels and on to New York City, Janneh said his release did not sink in until he spent a couple of days in the U.S. enjoying long, hot showers. He plans to resettle in Savannah with his wife and go about his life recognizing that he has nothing to prove anymore.
"I will resume my IT business but now focusing on U.S. to Senegal," Janneh said. "And I have a book to write."
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