With Omar Wally
Lamin Bolonding Bojang was born in 1954 in Brikama and attended Crab Island Secondary and Gambia High schools between 1968 and 1974. In 1974, he won a scholarship to study medicine in Egypt. After qualifying as a doctor, he returned to The Gambia and was hired as medical assistant in 1982. After a period in Nigeria, he was registered as a doctor in The Gambia and later established a private practice in Brikama. Years ago, Dr Bojang wanted to join the opposition People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) but he was not impressed by its “left-wing” politics and instead formed his own party, the PDP in September 1991.
In the 1992 presidential and parliamentary elections he came fourth among five presidential candidates garnering only 6 per cent of the votes. His party also had only 7 per cent of the votes in his native Kombo Central in the general elections. From that time, he stayed out of politics and in the 1996 presidential election, he openly supported President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for two years following the 1994 military takeover and was running for president as a civilian for the first time. Five years later, Dr Bojang withdrew his 1996 support for Jammeh and in February 2001 called for the impeachment of the Jammeh government for its “inability to govern effectively”. But again in September 2003, he said his party, the PDP, might enter into an alliance with Jammeh’s party. However, nothing was heard about this bid and his party effectively disappeared from the political scene. In the run-up to the 1 December 2016 election that removed Jammeh, he emerged as leader of the NCP and played an active role in the convention that elected Adama Barrow only to retire into political shadows before the election with the NCP naming a new party leader. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talks to him about his double passions – medicine and politics – and related matters.
What motivated you to study medicine?
I always wanted to help the poor and the sick. That was primarily my motivation not financial.
In that case why didn’t you work in the public sector rather your home clinic?
In government you can do very little.
Isn’t it true that the reason you quit as a doctor at the RVTH was, as your records show, you were accused of malpractice leading to the death of a patient?
It was victimisation. This is Africa and everybody is gifted in a way. When I formed my party in 1991, I came across people who said they went to Mali on behalf of Sheriff Mustapha Dibba to remove Jawara. They were told that Jawara was not going to be removed by SM Dibba no matter what he did. They were told Jawara was going to be removed by a politician yet to come but he would be a medical doctor. They told Jawara that if I formed my party he would be removed and they conveyed the message to him. I fell into the trap, so it was a complicated story.
Tell me how did those patients die?
There were two cases but the patients did not die because of me. The first was a newly born child who was bleeding for some reason and it was seen by Dr [name withheld for legal reasons]. He requested for blood to be transfused. When I came I said blood should not be transfused. What you do is replace transfusion; you have to withdraw completely and put in new blood. Dr […] did not do that and the consultant at the time maybe had forgotten about that. The following morning when the consultant came, she was asked to review the case. She was very furious and removed my normal saline. She asked for blood and they transfused the blood. After five hours the child passed away. The second was a road traffic accident. The car was carrying passengers and ran into a house in a village where a mother was with her two kids. She was knocked unconscious and one of the children had a limb that was almost amputated. They went to Sibanor for first aid and they were rushed to RVTH. Usually we should have two doctors on duty but I was alone then. I decided to treat the mother first. But before I set the IV line for her the child passed away. When they came, they said I killed the child and I told them I didn’t kill the child.
Why did you prioritise the mother above the child?
The mother is responsible for many children; the child is just beginning its life. In the family set-up, the mother is more important than the child. I can only work on one of them at a time. We should have two doctors working at the time but I was alone. I was carrying my duty but the other one [doctor] was not and they forgot about that one.
What is the name of that absent doctor?
I can’t tell.
So you do not feel responsible for these two deaths?
I am very innocent. In fact there was a third incident involving a man who went to look for mangoes in the evening. Unfortunately, he fell from a mango tree and damaged his liver. When he was brought in, usually we normally have two doctors but they always put the emphasis on me. I did the surgery and the following day the director called me and told me if the man died I would be responsible. I told him if I were to call [and wait for] a consultant at the time the man would have passed away because the time factor was not to my advantage. These were the three cases.
You eventually left government service and set up shop as a family doctor in your home in Brikama west where you regularly see scores of patients daily. What are the major health needs of a peri-urban settlement like Brikama?
Treatment is an indicator of failure in medicine. The most important thing is to prevent people from falling sick and several factors are considered; their earning power, feeding – eating adequate and sufficient amount of food – and education. All these are lacking and they are all important factors.
You now have a thriving clinic. What do you owe your success to?
The price I charge for my treatment. I remember, when I came, I started with very few patients but as time went by I was seeing eight patients a day. I remember when going to bed, I would have only D300 in my pocket. And for consultation they pay nothing, for treatment usually some people pay D2 or D5, very few paid D15 in those days. So because of the low charges I had lot of customers.
As a student in Egypt you were subjected to racism and because of that you rejected Islam when you returned to The Gambia. Tell us about that.
Well Islam is much understood not only by Muslims but by entire human race. If you take the trouble of reading the Qur’an, what the Qur’an says primarily is there is one God and only one [true] religion. There can never be two if the Qur’an is understood. But mankind failed to understand the Qur’an.
So why did you reject Islam then?
I didn’t reject Islam. I rejected what people call Islam.
What people are practicing. What Islam is saying, people are not practicing that. Islam is misunderstood.
Your parents were alive then. How did they react?
It was something I didn’t tell them and they wouldn’t know.
Are you now a full time Muslim?
All along I was a full time Muslim.
Now to politics, your uncle, Jamil Bojang served as driver to President Jawara and even nannied his older children, why didn’t you support the PPP?
Africans look upon politics as making themselves rich. Their primary objective should be the welfare of the common man around them and I believe politics should be all about that. It is like a combination of communism and religion. Politics should be about the well-being of the community, not the politician. If you look at politicians they have their cars, fat salaries, beautiful compounds but the ordinary man is dying. You go to RVTH, basic necessities are not provided in the hospital and people have to go to Banjul Pharmacy [across the road] to buy medicines. It is deplorable.
You are a politician and if you had succeeded, you would have had same nice cars, a fat salary and so forth.
That is why I contested the1992 presidency to change all those things and make sure ministers are paid reasonably and not to be given all the fancy cars and fat salaries.
Politicians promise to build bridges even where there are no rivers. You are saying this because you are not in power.
If you look at that aspect you will be wrong. Look at my medical practice. How many qualified medical doctors will treat a patient for D2, D5, or D10? You can tell a man by his actions not his words.
Upon your return to The Gambia you joined PDOIS but left because you said you were not impressed. What was it about the PDOIS that did not impress you?
PDOIS have brilliant ideas and they are people with a heart. They are people-centred and people-oriented. The problem with them is that the people they are speaking to are not educated and they are not understood by the people. What they need is a change of language that is going to be conducive for the people they are talking to. That was what they fail to realise but otherwise what they say and write are perfect.
In September 1991 you set up your own People’s Democratic Party but only managed 6% of the votes in the 1992 presidential election. You actually got only 7% in your native Brikama. Why such a dismal showing?
Well in those days people in Brikama said they are the founders of PPP and they will support the party until death. So they had that concept, though it is a wrong concept. They have a set of beliefs that they have to support Jawara because if you join a cause you should not abandon it whether it is doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Even in my compound and people I was treating free did not vote for me.
In the 1996 election you supported Jammeh only to withdraw your support years later and even called for his impeachment. Why?
I had differences with Jammeh from the very beginning. The first day I met Jammeh we had a debate, I put emphasis on democracy and he was talking of revaluations. And those revolutionary ideas did not appeal to me at that time. That was the difference that emerged.
You grew cold on politics but in the run-up to the December 2016 election, you were announced head of the moribund NCP. How did that come about?
I had actually wanted to register my party PDP, but I was asked to pay one million dalasi, which I could not afford and I gave up. And NCP members approached me and said they are looking for a leader. I was lucky enough to be selected. But they have found me dreaming of removing Jammeh from power. Jammeh [allegedly] said he will start a civil war if he wins, that motivated me to join the opposition to remove him from power because I did not want a civil war in The Gambia.
You attended the Coalition meetings and made a memorable speech where you delivered a Martin Lutheresque ‘my dream’ speech only to part company with the NCP soon afterwards. What happened?
This is something I will not divulge to the public. What matters to me primarily is the second world not the world we are living in. I did some research and prayers about what will be my fate in the next world if I were to be the president and I was not happy with the things I saw. So even if I were to win, I would probably not be practicing politics afterwards. In 1992 I did not know about that. If I had won in 1992, I would have taken the post but in 2016, I would not have taken up the post. In fact I don’t want any political post.
The Coalition went on to win and your replacement as NCP head was made Environment minister. You would have been made Health minister if you had stayed. Do you on hindsight bite your fingers for leaving?
No. [My decision to back off] is based on Islam.
So you did not regret quitting at the last minute?
I did not regret it at all. But if President Barrow happens to do something abnormal, I will join politics again and remove him from power. I join politics to make sure that I contribute fully towards the development of my society.
What ‘abnormal’ thing?
Say if he were to become corrupt and wants to overstay in power.
What means will you use to remove Barrow from power?
I will join the bandwagon and campaign for his removal. I have followers, at least eleven thousand people. Every vote counts and those 11,000 votes could in fact decide who is going to be president.
As a Kombonka, do you think the Coalition government is ignoring the region in terms of allocation of top government positions?
To me Komb doesn’t apply because I’m looking at people as individuals and what they can contribute towards the development of the society. I’m a Kombonka but I’m contributing and working for my society. But being a Kombonka and wanting to be a leader of a party does not apply to me.
You were part of the Coalition convention, should President Barrow serve three years as agreed or five years as the Constitution stipulates?
If he is a man of principles, he should serve for three years; if he is not, he can go in for five years and even ten. Well, if I were him, I will go for three years. That was what we agreed.
What are your assessments of the Barrow government in its first year in power?
I’m not interested in what President Barrow has achieved one year into his presidency. What I’m interested in is stability in the country as opposed to Jammeh. Jammeh was a danger, he was talking of civil war and Gambia cannot afford that.
What are the urgent things it needed to do now?
Barrow government should focus on education, agriculture and health.
Any final words?
We have to give Barrow a chance. I’m not expecting much from him. But I want peace and stability and democracy. I want him to build an atmosphere of democracy in the country.