Berkeley Rice on Pierre Sarr N'jie (Excerpts from Enter Gambia, Birth of an Improbable Nation)

Observing this impressive imbalance, three of the seven decided to join the PPP. The PPP’s New Gambia greeted their move joyfully: “With the withdrawal of Janneh, Jones and Jagana, the United Party is fast sinking and will soon close up”. The UP has not closed up, and its leader Pierre Sarr N’jie, still looks forward to the day when the UP will once again be the ruling party. His appetite was whetted by a one-year term of office he served as Chief Minister, just prior to self government. British officials who worked with him at the time are not as anxious as he is to see him back in power. “He’s charming chap,” says one of them, “but he’s impossible to work with – totally disreputable”.

The building on Buckle Street houses the UP headquarters, Mr N’jie’s residence, and the offices of N’jie Brothers, a leading Bathurst law firm. The firm specialises in registering foreign designs, patents and trademarks such as Daimler Benz, Coca-Cola and Planters Punch, at $14 each. The two brothers – Sheriff Aidera N’jie and Ebrima Dawda N’jie, an MP and former Minister – now handle most of the firm’s business, since PS is busy with party affairs, and also because he was disbarred several years ago for misuse of a client’s funds. “We could easily have thrown him in jail,” says an official involved in the case. “It was a clear-cut case of fraud. But by the time it was settled he was Chief Minister. What could we do? You can’t throw the bloody head of government in jail. So we just had him disbarred.”

To reach PS N’jie’s office, I passed through the firm’s offices on the first floor, where several young clerks sat copying legal documents by hand and discussing politics. In the compound out back a rooster and three chickens scratched in the sand beneath the party’s blue Land Rover. The party leader receives me upstairs in an outer room, where several party regulars sprawled in lounge chairs, and led me into a small room overlooking Buckle Street. He wore a beige linen sport jacket, red checked shirt and a plaid bow tie. Known as one of the sharpest dressers in Bathurst, he buys most of his clothes on his trips to Paris and London. 

Like many Bathurst Wolof’s, Pierre Sarr N’jie is a Catholic and grew up in a fairly prosperous family. “My father was a trader – a successful trader. He was a nephew of the last king of Saloum, Semu Joof. After school here in Bathurst, he sent me to King’s College at London University. I only stayed there a short time. I was to be a doctor, but I don’t like blood. So I moved to Lincoln’s Inn, where I studied law. All the N’jies are lawyers – my brothers, my cousins, we even have a niece studying law in Munich. All the N’jies are educated, but this man Jawara, he is not educated. He’s only got a veterinary diploma. I am much more popular than he is. Did you listen to the crowds at independence? They did not cheer him. They always cheer me. He should never have won the election in 1963. We should have won except for a scallywag of a chief who deserted us.”

Asked about a short-lived political “understanding” between the PPP and UP, N’jie became irate. “You can’t have an understanding with a man like that. He never means anything he says. He’s a liar. He’s a rascal – low-born, and low-bred. You see, the PPP are all Mandinka people, and Mandinkas only understand money, meat and groundnuts. They are all crazy. Character and honour is meaningless to them.”

“Do you include people like the Cabinet Ministers Dibba and Sissay, when you speak about Mandinkas this way?” 

“Dibba and Sissay? They are ignoramuses.”

“How about the three United Party MPs who crossed over to the PPP?” 

“They are not politicians. They were afraid. They put money before party and the country. You don’t get politicians in a backward country like this. A real politician has to be able to wait. He must wait twelve or thirteen years, like the Labour Government did.”

“What do you think about the prospect of The Gambia becoming a republic, with Mr Jawara as president?”

That would be all right for someone born with servants in the house and everything, like I was. But these PPP men are all from the bush. This Jawara is a scallywag. When I was PM and I said ‘yes,’ it meant yes. Not this man. It’s the result of coming from a low family – the lowest of the low. His Ministers and MPs are the same. Kah forged checks. Daffeh stole from the District Authority treasury. Famara Wassa Touray served a prison term. Singhateh stole money. When the police issued a warrant for him, he ran away to Sierra Leone. Then he came back and stood for election. I know these things because I am a lawyer.

“What about the rest of the opposition? Do you feel Mr Jahumpa and the Congress Party have any future?

“Jahumpa is dead now, for deceiving the people.”

“What do you think of the rumours that he receives something from the Communists?”

“He is not a Communist. People here are not ready for Communism. It’s too rough and ready.”

“How about ME Jallow, the union leader? Could he start a national party?”

“Jallow could never start a party. He is a ruffian, and Gambians are dignified. They don’t want a ruffian as PM. Besides, all the workers are members of the UP. None of these people you mention are important. I’m the only man they’re afraid of here.” 

Culled from our archives

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