With Alagie Manneh
To those who don’t know him, Abubakary Jawara is a mysterious figure, flamboyant and showy but to those who know him, a good man whose heart is full of love and compassion. A businessman by profession, Jawara came to greater prominence after the fall of Jammeh, setting up GACH tomato factory before spreading his muscles into sand mining. He was 18 when he left for Angola, where he made a fortune and is today one of the richest men in the country. In this edition of Bantaba, Alagie Manneh metAbubakary Jawara and rolled him on the ups and downs of his life, his business dealings and close proximity to President Barrow.
Alagie Manneh: They said you don’t like talking to journalists, what do you have to hide?
No, that’s not the case. You know journalists… well the English man said not all broadcasters or writers are journalists. But no, journalists are my friends. [Laughs].
You were a young man from Gambisara when you left for Angola where you reportedly became a millionaire, but not many Gambians know you. Tell us, who is Abubakary Jawara?
I was born in Gambisara, URR. My father was Alhaji Bejaejei Jawara, God be pleased with him. My mother is Aja Fatou Camara, may Allah protect her. I did my childhood in Gambisara until when I reached 18. I did my madrassa there and understanding the religion was a priority in my family. My father was a businessman who traveled far and wide. But I grew up under my grandfather, who died in 91. It was my brother who was in Angola who bought me tickets to travel to Angola. I went to Nigeria and then Angola and spent nine years there. But my brother taught me for seven years before I gained my own independence to start my own business.
What kind of business were you engaged in Angola?
There was a foreign GSM company that came to Angola and thankfully, I got lucky and started selling credit for the company. I started with one outlet and eventually, I gained a lot of money from that. It was then that I started traveling to Dubai, Hong Kong and other places to buy goods and take them to sell in Angola. I earned a lot of money from that. I then traveled to Mecca in 2003 for hajj but before that, my wife came from Gambia to join me in Angola. In 2003, I traveled to China and started a new business. I settled there and people from Angola including ministers would come to buy from me. It was very successful.
In 2006 President Jammeh appointed you honorary Consul to China. How difficult was it for you to strike a balance between your business and diplomatic engagements?
It wasn’t that difficult. Infact, in some ways, it has improved my business. I was given a diplomatic passport and an appointment letter. I was in that position until the change of government happened.
President Barrow wanted you to continue in that position and even reportedly gave you an appointment letter.That hasn’t happened yet, why?
They said I have to wait for foreign affairs approval but that still hasn’t happened. I don’t know why but I am now more focused on my business here than that appointment.
You are one of the richest men in the country, but critics said you made your fortune through 419 scams and dubious practices, what do you say to that?
That’s their opinion. Any person who is a good person, always has critics or haters but my conscience is clean. Whether or not my money is clean, God knows. I don’t deal in drugs or shady deals. I am a businessman just like my father and his father before him. This allegation is false. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I have no motive to engage in illegal dealings.
How did you establish Gach company?
It was with a partner. The company came about in July 2007 during a business trip to Hong Kong. Angola, China and Gambia are one of the main countries where I do business. The name Gach covers all these countries and the company has been registered in all these countries. In 2007/8 I gave the Gambia Under 17 team $20,000. That’s not today. That’s why when people say my money is not clean, I wonder.
You came under heavy criticism when authorities intercepted a cache of guns imported into the country by your company. The discovery sparked public concern and you were investigated. Why did you have to send those weapons into the country at a time of heightening security concerns and did you follow due process?
Yes, we are from a dictatorship and now in a democracy. And in a democracy, where one’s right stops, its where another’s begin. These are hunting guns. It didn’t start with me. A lot of people have been doing this here, others even smuggle it into the country. But I followed the law. The police gave me license to import. And it’s not like people just come and buy, no. There’s a long process and prerequisites one needs in order to purchase these weapons. The National Assembly made a conducted tour of the facility and were happy with how the hunting guns are being handled. I did not bring these hunting guns to harm the country. People talk about my guns and mining, but I have invested more than 10 million in this country before that. Why are they not talking about that?
What motivated you spread your muscles into sand mining?
It is business and it is often said that no development without sand. I have the license and the means, that’s why I am doing it. Foreigners were the ones doing it and no one said a thing about it.
When the explosive Malagen article on Gach and illegal mining activities was published, your company issued a statement disagreeing with its contents. Personally, what do you make of the publication?
The article is a witch-hunt. It’s even more than a witch-hunt. This is hate. As a professional journalist, you must do your research properly and not just do such a write-up because you don’t like a particular individual. I have not forgiven him for tarnishing my image.
Malagen said you exported over 16,000 tones of black sand since you started mining, is that true?
No, that’s not true. We exported only 15,000.
They said your company have been operating without environmental clearance which is against the law.
That’s not true. In fact, since I started mining, the bureaucracy that has been placed on my company has never been placed on any other. We did not do our own environment assessment impact because that has already been done, professionally, by a different company. After they did that, they had issues with President Jammeh and Jammeh sent them away. It is the same place and that’s why we felt it was not necessary to do our own environment assessment. In fact, it was the government who told me it was not necessary for me to do my own environment assessment. However, they later came back and demanded we do our own assessment, which we have since started.
Is it true that Gach has not been paying tax and owes a potential tax liability of more than D2 million?
That is not true. We started mining in 2018, and even before the Malagen publication, we were in touch with tax officers and paying what we supposed to pay.
Where did you pay those taxes because I was told Gach never made any payments at Central Bank?
I don’t know of other companies, but we pay directly to the Central Bank. We have paid close to 700,000 since we started.
You called the Malagen article a witch-hunt, and the author “enemy of progress”, but Mustapha Darboe is widely seen as a credible journalist, what possible motive could he have to tarnish your image?
I don’t know, but if I were a foreigner, he wouldn’t have done this publication. He wants to bring me down because I am Gambian like him but he doesn’t want Gambians to progress. I am trying to create employment here and this guy is trying to stop that by tarnishing my reputation. How many are surviving because of my success?
They said your mining activities have destroyed livelihoods in that area
That is simply not true. It’s a big fat lie. Mining was being done here far before I joined. If this was a foreigner, you will not hear any of these talks.
Do you accept that the story of mining in The Gambia is a story of corruption?
That is the author’s opinion. In fact, what he did is corruption because who knows, maybe he was paid to tarnish me.
You have been engaged in a series of philanthropic works in communities and I was told that in the last few years alone, you have taken over a hundred people for hajj in Mecca, is that true?
That is true. I did it because God told us to assist when we are able. I am merely following in my father’s footsteps. This is how I was raised.
How did you make President Barrow’s acquaintance?
I can tell you, what people are saying that Adama and I are close friends. I can say Adama Barrow is the president and we all have to respect the president. Adama Barrow is a good man. What I did for Jammeh, I did not do for Barrow. Adama is my president.
When your friend President Barrow was asked in an interview last year if he knows the name of your company, he claimed to have forgotten, some wonder how the president forgets the name of a company belonging to one of his closest associates
He is right, he didn’t know at the time. And to correct your statement, all presidents are my friend. He is the president but he has ministers and directors responsible for those things. He didn’t know.
They said he should notforget since you are reportedly the chief financier of his youth movement-turned political party.
That is not true. I have helped the Coalition and many other political parties. I don’t know where you get this information from but it’s not true. Show me the evidence that I am the chief financier of the NPP.
Accumulatively, how much money have you given to NPP?
Barrow’s party since he formed it coincides with this pandemic, so I couldn’t have given them any money.
There was a lot of hope and euphoria when Barrow first came to power but three years down the line the frustrations of a lot of Gambians are visible, what went wrong?
The hope is not destroyed. It’s people who have made things hard. It’s God himself who said human beings forget, which is true, otherwise considering what we are coming out of, people would be more considerate. It is the Barrow administration that is allowing the freedom we are all enjoying now. It is that freedom that made it possible for Malagen to tarnish me.
But critics point to corruption and lack of transparency that has gone pervasive under his watch.
That is not a fair observation. Since he came to power, he has done moregood than harm. I support Barrow because he is my president.