Bakary Bunja Dabo, better known as BB Dabo, served as Vice President and Finance Minister under Jawara and Jammeh regimes respectively. He has been living in exile in the United Kingdom since parting ways with the Jammeh regime after serving as Finance Minister for only 70 days.
In this edition of Bantaba, former Standard editor-in-chief Sainey Darboe began by asking him a bit about himself as he served at periods when a significant number of The Gambia’s current population were either not born or pretty young.
BB Dabo: You are right that it has been quite a while since then. And yes, there are today many Gambians who were not around at the time, or were too young to understand much about the period. I became Vice President in 1982 at the age of 35. Prior to that I had a typical upbringing of a Gambian youngster of the time, had a pretty sheltered life and went on to pursue educational and work careers inside and outside The Gambia. Born and raised in Dumbuto, LRD, I was just your ordinary guy around the corner!
After my first degree I joined the government civil service in 1967, because public service was what I felt passionate about; I still feel the same way today. Appointed administrative officer, I served both in provincial administration [assistant commissioner in Basse, commissioner in Kerewan] and as middle-level manager at ministry head offices [Prime Minister’s Office and Local Government]. Deployed in 1969 to the Ministry of External Affairs, my career from that point veered into essentially diplomatic work, except for a 5-year interlude when, seconded to the state-owned Gambia Commercial & Development Bank, I became a banking executive tasked with general management functions and responsibilities from 1974 through 1979. My stint within the diplomatic service, for which I trained and got confirmed as foreign service officer, included work as assistant secretary at the ministry head office, director of economic and technical cooperation at the Senegambian Permanent Secretariat and High Commissioner to Senegal, with concurrent accreditation as ambassador to the republics of Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Mali and Mauritania, as well as the Kingdom of Morocco.
Recalled from this last position in September 1981, at a time of a major political and security crisis in the country, I was nominated as Member of Parliament, appointed as Minister and assigned the portfolio of Information and Tourism. In the 1982 general election, I contested and won the parliamentary seat for the Western Kiang electoral district for my party, the PPP. In the cabinet line-up, following the election, I became Vice President with the portfolio of the Civil Service added to my responsibilities. Concurrently, I became Leader of Government Business in Parliament. These same positions and responsibilities were again assigned to me from 1987 through 1992, with the addition of the portfolio of Education, Youth & Sports and Culture. From May 1992 to 1994, I was Minister responsible for the economy and public finances. That’s all there is to my background and work in The Gambia!
For well nigh on two decades, you have been in exile. What’s been the experience of life away from the place you call home?
Difficult to know where to start. Putting it simply, I should say that exile by ordinary meaning implies being uprooted from one’s natural environment. It is typically accompanied by a feeling of being torn away… from home, family, associates and one’s very way of life, accompanied with the pain and inconvenience of making inevitable adjustment to a new life. So there can be no over-stating the challenges attendant to life in exile; the range of challenges encountered varies with individual circumstances; how well or quickly one overcomes them is largely dependent on personality and the spirit in which you take on the challenge. Speaking for myself, I should say I managed to adapt to my new life relatively painlessly, thanks partly to the support of family, friends and associates. What is more, my new life in foreign lands, offered me opportunities that more than compensated any downside to life in exile. I had many new and rewarding experiences, acquired new knowledge and critical skills and got to widen my circle of associates. I am today a better informed person than I was when I left The Gambia, with enhanced confidence in my own competences, and therefore better equipped to be useful to myself and society. So, exile has not been a totally negative experience for me. It has clearly passed the profit-and-loss test in my own experience.
With your experience and education, your services might be useful to the country. Do you have plans to serve the new government under a new democratic dispensation?
I feel passionate about my country, the desire to contribute to its progress has always been a key determinant in what I do and source of motivation. Should my experience and abilities today be required, I will be available; but I am not agitating for any position, as I accept that no-one is indispensable and there are many others that can be called upon to provide whatever can be asked of me.
Without meaning to be disrespectful, some say you betrayed Jawara by serving under Jammeh as Finance Minister. What informed that choice of yours?
Well, “betraying Jawara” is a mischaracterisation, likely arising out of a misunderstanding of the relevant issues and the circumstances that prevailed at the time. We must remember that at the material time, our country and helpless people stood on the precipice of what those with the right level of awareness saw as potential disaster. At the time I saw the prospect of military rule as a recipe for catastrophe for our fragile country and poorly mobilised society. My personal experience of military rule in several parts of West Africa, with associated pervasive mistreatment of defenceless citizenry was fresh in my mind. Of course, events were to show that even that experience could not have prepared me for what our people were to encounter under our own “soldiers with a difference”. I knew Sir Dawda too at the time harboured similarly grave misgivings over the turn of events. Like me, and like some other Gambians too, he felt at the time that the greatest danger our country courted was for military rule to take root. For both of us, anything that could be done to undo the coup, or to at least make military rule last the shortest possible life span, was viewed as worthwhile. My acceptance of the invitation to take up office under the junta was no more than a desperate attempt to spare our country from such a fate, when all other attempts at the time had proved fruitless. Furthermore, I set out and proceeded on the basis of a clear agenda to devote what influence I could muster from within to work for the earliest possible exit of the military from our public life in order to limit or contain potential, indeed likely, damage in order to spare our country from precisely what became our plight.
Prospects for our country looked gloomy; I saw our situation as desperate and did not hesitate to try what I saw as possible option thrown up, however slight the chances, after securing pertinent assurances from the junta. The issue was never perceived in terms of whether the move represented loyalty to, or betrayal of, the person of Jawara or any other individual, for that matter.
Sir Dawda did not at the time advocate or pursue any other option incompatible with the approach I tried.
In the event, the junta lost little time in displaying insincerity and bad faith over the assurances given and, once I sensed there was no chance of success for my agenda, I saw no point in continuing my association with the junta, hence my resignation two months after accepting their offer. That I failed to achieve the objective I pursued is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret – you just have to cast your mind back to all the mismanagement and mistreatment suffered under Yahya Jammeh and his militaristic system during these long 22 years, and how good it would have been to have spared such horrendous experience! But I have no regrets to have stepped into the ring, at the cost of considerable personal risk, to see if the military could be convinced to restore genuine and early constitutional rule. To reduce my action at the time to betrayal is to miss the point altogether; the suggestion can only arise from ignorance, at the least, or cynicism.
What was it like working with Jammeh who is known for his brutality, eccentric nature and bizarre statements and under what circumstances did you leave?
You have to remember that my work association with Yahya Jammeh, which lasted only 70 days, came about at a time when he had been new, and unsteady, in power. It started when Jammeh had been in office for barely one month; one can say the true colours of the beast were not as yet too evident. There were, of course, unmistakable signs of eccentricity in his ways, but one tended at the time to dismiss lightly. More ominously, apart from his manifest cluelessness about state and statecraft, and his inelegant manners, I was quick to discern signs of more fundamental character flaws in Jammeh which very early made me feel uncomfortable. Repeatedly, I saw in him a propensity, an almost compulsive urge, to tell lies, hiding behind aggressiveness; he repeatedly contradicted himself in his statements to the media and even in meetings and official discussions. Secondly his greed for money, a lot of it and by any means, became evident from the type of company he quickly started to keep. But at the time I only had fears and suspicions which did not lead to any incident I can recall. All the same, our working relationship, which did not take off on an exciting note, was for the most part rather sour. As head of state, I did not find him supportive of my work as it related to the direction of economic policy or sound management of resources; steps he on occasions took, and which touched on my domain of competence, were often incoherent and repeatedly I had to advise against or simply resist such initiatives as inconsistent with policy and detrimental to national interest. The point which I concluded on was that he was simply allergic to the discipline and rigour required in the matters he chose to dabble in. All too often, running short of argument, he would resort to confused mumbo-jumbo in an attempt to shift blame on our development partners. No, working with Jammeh was no fun for me; often it felt like maintaining an obstinate donkey on a narrow path.
Did you expect Jammeh will lose election to Adama Barrow and what do you make of Adama Barrow?
Did I expect Jammeh to lose the election? No! I knew for a fact that the system under Jammeh was skewed and twisted and offered no prospect for fair and transparent election! I had a strong sense of the abuses likely to flow from incumbency, and of course I admit I underestimated the resolve and determination of the electorate. Those who devised the coalition approach for the opposition forces deserve credit for coming out with a formula which clearly caught the imagination of Gambians looking for change. I do not know President Barrow enough to form firm opinion about him as a person. For now, I rely on his public utterances and other statements; he sounds well-intentioned and clear in his ideas. I notice he is a good listener and his personal comportment is most reassuring. We are all hopeful about the future under his leadership.
Do you have any regrets for anything you did in your long and illustrious political career?
Well, there have been errors and mistakes, as one should expect in any human endeavour. Perhaps too many to rake up here, I can cite the most keenly felt one. I do regret my own part in the collective leadership failure on the part of my party, the PPP, when back in 1992 an opportunity presented itself for change and renewal at the head of our party and yet we failed woefully to show courage and demonstrate responsible leadership.
What do you see as the major challenges facing the new government in terms of development goals and how they can be met?
Focussing on “in terms of development goals”, to use your expression, one can identify the challenge of sorting out the economy, in terms of correcting the macroeconomic fundamentals, e.g., fiscal policy and sound budgetary practices, sound monetary and exchange policies and practices, improved investment environment, all of them geared to improving our balance of trade and current account positions as well as to foster the creation of badly needed jobs, especially for the youths. In the social sector, there is the huge unmet demand for housing, for a performing healthcare delivery system, and for the urgent revival of the virtually collapsed education system, among others. So you will agree with me that the challenges are many. In point of fact, the difficulty is not in identifying or defining them, it is in determining the right priorities in the face of so much needing to be done. Of course, there is also the issue of justice and accountability given the horrendous wrongs inflicted on so many individuals and communities through the lawless actions on the part of an irresponsible and reckless executive that misruled the country for so long.
Life in exile is not without the pangs of homesickness and nostalgia. Please share with me your best and worst day in exile and why.
Life in exile means life within a setting completely different from the one you knew back home. The best days therefore, and there have been many, were those of acquiring new experiences, through meeting interesting people, living new situations and broadening one’s range of abilities and competences. As for “worst days”, these must have been the days when I received news of adverse developments from back home, for example, death of loved ones, or other forms of setbacks suffered by our communities or instances of mistreatment which the Yahya Jammeh system had the unique secret for inflicting on our people.
Last words and anything else you would like to say?
To complement you personally, and through you to commend the Gambian independent media for their steadfast stand all these many years in support of good governance in our county and peace and justice for our people.
By Sainey Darboe