Alagie Saidy-Barrow, former TRRC investigator, author

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With Alagie Manneh

The Standard: You were a captain in the US military before your resignation in 2014. However, you came into prominence in The Gambia following the December 2014 State House attack. Can you talk briefly about your early childhood in Kiang?  

Thank you for having me. Yes, many more people heard my name after the December 30th attack. But some of those who were in the struggle heard my name way before that. You see, unlike many Gambians, I wasn’t just sitting in America and watching Gambians get killed by Yahya Jammeh and his band of thugs. You can go back 22 years and you will find my writings online. I was not hiding, and I certainly wasn’t supporting the abuse of my people. My position has never changed from standing up and standing by the victims of the APRC. And let me note that if anyone had reason to not care, it should have been me because not a single member of my immediate or extended family was ever violated by Yahya Jammeh. And so, like many Gambians, I too could have simply not cared enough or just resigned myself to helplessness! But I chose to never be silent as our sisters and mothers get raped, our fathers killed, and our brothers imprisoned for no valid reason. You asked about Kiang Kaiaf where I was born, my parents lived in Kiang and the people there looked after them. That’s how it used to be in the old days. People looked after one another. Nowadays, we don’t care about each other as much. It’s all fankung fankung. That’s why many can never understand why someone living in the USA making over one hundred thousand dollars a year back around 2014, will choose to leave that comfort to fight for people he doesn’t know! But I cannot blame such critics. The Yoruba said that a person who has been a slave from birth cannot value rebellion! Look around you: we are slaves to our base instincts of greed, government positions, corruption, opportunism, tribalism, regionalism, partisanship, and above all mental slavery! Until we free ourselves from the slavery of our base instincts, we will continue to only care about ourselves and our family and not the collective. We will claim to be free as individuals even while everyone else subsists in poverty, abuse and destitution. And that is the tragedy confronting Africans. This thought that we are supposed to lay and play dead while someone is killing others around us is not a thinking I subscribe to.

Why did you study criminal justice?

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Ever since I can remember, I had always had the desire to stand up for others who are unable to stand up for themselves. I wanted to be a lawyer and I thought being a lawyer would provide me with that opportunity, but I got disillusioned quickly. I was enchanted by military service and so I became a soldier before becoming disenchanted with that too.

Did you leave the army purposely to be part of the December 30th attack?

I don’t see a greater cause than sacrificing oneself for the freedom of others.  Let’s put it this way, I am doing better today than I was when our people were being killed and raped. My conscience allows me to sleep. My mind is at peace. When I sit and reflect, I can put my hand up and say I stood up when it mattered. I can say unlike those who preferred to eat meat in slavery, I chose to eat mushrooms in freedom.

Can you describe your role in that ill-fated attack?

My role was to simply assist the Gambian soldiers accomplish what we all desired: the end of the killings and rape of our people in the hands of one man and his mandarins. You hear the detractors claiming that I ran away and left my comrades at State House. I was the second person on the ground here and on the team. I was the last person to know the attack failed because I was not even at the State House. How can you run from a place you were never at?

How did that plan fail leading to the deaths of captain Njaga Jagne, Lt Col. Lamin Sanneh and others?

If you read Cherno Njie’s book, you’ll see how Gambian soldiers betrayed one another. How, out of fear and a lack of commitment to the ideal of freedom, some of these soldiers tried to play both sides. Do you remember Saul Badgie performing ablution and saying he was never part of December 30? I’m shocked that you, the journalists, are not asking why he needed to do that! If you do a bit of digging, you’ll find that many more people were part of the attack. Some are senior military officers still in the army today, and others are very senior government officials today. I am not saying Saul Badgie was part of it; I am what was the need for him to come out and say he wasn’t part of it. But yes, as usual, Gambians betrayed each other just as we usually do with any collective endeavor! May the souls of Njagga Jagne, Lamin Sanneh, and Jaja Nyass continue to rest in freedom.

Many plotters within the Gambian military launched unsuccessful coups in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2006 to remove Jammeh. What gave you the audacity that you could succeed where many had failed?

These endeavors you mentioned are the ones many Gambians are aware of. There were many more efforts to dislodge the tyrant and his band of thugs from power. To answer your question, I learn from the actions of others but I don’t judge myself according to the actions of others. Just because others didn’t succeed at something should not mean everyone else should give up on trying. No one with a bit of conscience should be at peace when their people are suffering.

You are an advocate of constitutionality, why did you think the violent overthrow of a legally-elected president, albeit a dictator, as in the case of Jammeh, was an option?

Let’s make some corrections to that question. One, I am not an advocate of constitutionality, especially these African constitutions that often lack the imagination to address the realities faced by Africans. I am certainly not an advocate for Jammeh’s constitution. If your readers read my book, they’ll come across my position on how the law can be used to abuse and violate people. It’s called legal abuse. I also have a short chapter on legal opportunism. Find me an African constitution that has the right to revolution in it and I may become an advocate. In fact, most Africans have never heard of the right to revolution! We have been conditioned to be tame and docile in the face of tyranny. Google the Magna Carter, Google the right to revolution and you will see that several constitutions have the right to revolution inserted in them by the people. No other people think they must obey unjust rulers except us Africans!

Let’s remember that slavery was constitutional, colonialism was constitutional, and apartheid was constitutional, too. What’s happening to Palestinians in Israel is also legal. Ditto the abuse of Idi Amin. In our case, go and see what your constitution allowed the NIA to do to you in the name of security. Go and see what powers were given to Jammeh and his mandarins to legally abuse you. In most instances, it was your constitution that allowed Jammeh and his band of thugs to rape your people, kill them and give directives for his hapless minions to drive to the central bank and come out with boxes of money. He had unchecked powers to do as he pleases and unchecked power always leads to tyranny. The constitution was his instrument of abuse. How can I be an advocate for any instrument of abuse? But like the obedient slaves, many of us remained loyal to the foremost instrument that allowed one man to violate us. You hear such mindless people say things like the “law is the law.” Or, “I hate all forms of violence.” Yet the religions they practice condone violence. Go read about the Crusades or about the Saif Al-Bahr platoon. The governments Africans subject themselves to use the state’s monopoly on violence to keep them subservient, but yet Africans insist on obeying these terrible laws. You cannot help but feel sorry for the mindless African! He’s as dangerous as the tyrants that keep Africa down. To them, Kunta Kinteh is a criminal because he should have just obeyed and remained an obedient slave. Mandela is a criminal because he should have just accepted the abuse of his people. MLK is a criminal because he should have allowed America’s racist governments to continue abusing Blacks.  Shaka Zulu, Malcolm, Cabral, Edward Francis Small, you get my point. All criminals in the eyes of abusers or tyrants and their supporters!

Second correction: legally elected is one of those simple-minded phrases people, especially Africans and specifically Gambians, use without bothering to examine what it means. Again, just because someone claims they did something legally doesn’t mean it’s right! A sham election can also be legal you know. That is why the electoral fallacy is alive and well in Africa. Politicians know that all they have to do is hold elections and win. They can always call themselves “legally” elected. But how about legitimacy? Does that matter to us? Let’s look at our situation: Let’s say I come to your home with my friends, chase out the head of your family, and make myself your family head. Along with my friends, I rewrite all your family rules to suit me, and organize elections based on my rules. These elections are supervised by people I select and they are answerable to me. As part of my rules, the worst crime anyone in your family can commit is to try to do to me exactly what I did to the head of your family! Then I select my own people and elevate them above all others in your compound. I kill your family members when they do something I don’t like, I imprison them when I feel like it, I beat them when they disobey me and then I take most of your money to live a lavish life while you suffer in poverty and fear. Isn’t that what Jammeh did? My friend, if you as a son or daughter of that family sit by and watch all these, then you should reflect hard on whether you are a worthy son or daughter of that family! Sadly, in Africa, even when the ends of governments “are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual,” the African thinks prayer and hope will somehow deliver them conscientious men and women who will better their lives. I guess dreaming is free and denial is comforting! And this hypocrisy about violence, remember that a man far better than all of us combined, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) utilized violence to defend his people in the Battle of Badr. But leave it to the ignorant and docile Gambian to spew programmed nonsense about hating violence even as a means to free himself from abusers like Jammeh who can go around arresting their mothers and fathers labeling them witches! Malcolm X advised us not to struggle only within the ground rules that the people we are struggling against have laid down! Frederick Douglas said that power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them! And people wonder why Jammeh abused us for twenty-two years! It’s because we accepted it!

It doesn’t sound like you have any regrets about your involvement in the matter, do you?

Not at all. I wish many more Gambians stood with the victims and defended ourselves from a murderous tyrant! Sadly, many more chose to eat meat under the tyrant and played dead when it came to the abuse of their fellow country people. Today these are the people pretending to be the paragons and guardians of what’s wrong or right! Is there any wonder why we are where we are as a people? I cannot regret an action I know was meant to end the abuse of another human being.

After Jammeh’s exit, you came down and got appointed as director of research and investigations for the truth commission. Your appointment was greeted by likes and dislikes. For your critics, it dented the credibility of the TRRC. Is that a fair observation?

Gambians who admire and respect me far outnumber those who for tribal reasons or political mindlessness dislike me. Ask them what I have done wrong and all they’ll tell you is he was part of those who attacked our tribesman and benefactor, Yahya Jammeh the tyrant! Ok, they wont be that honest but you get my point. They have no other reason than to say I did exactly what Jammeh did. The difference being President Jawara (RIP) wasn’t killing Gambians at will while he Jammeh is a murderer, rapist, and thief. Thankfully most Gambians I come into contact with appreciate my sacrifice for the people. After we came home in 2018, we were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers and hailed as heroes. The people at the airport alone far exceed the ignorant critics. But again, I remind you of the Yoruba quote, a person who has been a slave from birth cannot value rebellion. Where are the critics today? With their tails tucked in and hiding! And you have to realise that the Tombong Sayyindi Jattas, men with no spine whatsoever and willing to do anything including selling themselves to the highest bidders, will say anything to appease their masters! I can only pray for him because people like him are beyond redemption. I am a far better human being than such people. For other critics, it was personal. And I only feel sorry for them because the hate within them will only end up consuming them if they keep it up. 

Many people who work under you say you were hard working, distinguished, and exemplary. What makes you tick?

I do my best and I expect the same from all my colleagues. I’m sure not everyone I worked with will say such positives about me. And that’s how it should be. If everyone I worked with loved all I did, it means I did a terrible job!

In the compelling book, the Dictator Is Us, you singled out two main pillars – fear and reward- upon which, you argue, the Jammeh dictatorship was built. Can you simplify?

Fear of Jammeh’s security apparatus, specifically the Junglers, the NIA/SIS, and Jammeh’s justice machinery. Reward with government positions and business dealings. You have to read the book for more.

Why did you blame the UDP, albeit partly, for the sustenance and nourishment of the Jammeh dictatorship? 

I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I urge you to read the chapter on the UDP again. In fact, a few who read the book also said I was too generous to the UDP which I don’t think was fair either. But in the end, I guess it balances out. If you read that chapter in a wholesome manner, I doubt you’d say I blame the UDP for sustaining the dictatorship! That summation will be unfair to the party. I see UDP as victims. I can never blame victims for what happened to them. You know you have tons of people who are all over the place claiming to stand for the victims today. But when it mattered, many of them were nowhere to be found. Ask some victims you come across about me. I was there for many when many more turned their back on them. What I did is lament the fact that the UDP turned its back on accountability and chose what was politically expedient! That is not the same as blaming them for nourishing the Jammeh dictatorship.

A whole chapter of the Dictator Is Us is dedicated to gender-based violence. Why do you feel the need to shed light on SGBV?

Just how SGBV takes root in our society and not based on what others told us, but based on our own value systems. For instance, undressing detainees old enough to be one’s father or mother. You can walk around here but you will not see any sane person walking around in their underwear but that’s what our security forces used to do to detainees! It’s humiliating and degrading treatment.

What is your general assessment of the book Sweat is Invisible in the Rain?

Cherno Njies’s book is an excellent read. It details the life of an ordinary man from Banjul who went to the USA and became a millionaire! More importantly, it details the man’s love for his people and his willingness to forgo all those millions of dollars to see freedom in his country. Let’s put it this way, I wish there was just one more Cherno Njie in The Gambia! While many of the rich and elites of The Gambia were busy cuddling the tyrant even as he raped and murdered their people, Cherno chose otherwise. He realised that his freedom is only meaningful to the extent that his people are also free. He chose the freedom of his people over his own life. Many Gambians will never understand the Chernos or Alagie Barrows because if they were in our shoes, they’ll never even think about the other Gambians being victimized. And because they will never do what we did, they project themselves onto us by claiming Cherno only wanted to be in power or like Jam Sarr said, I was paid five thousand dollars to be part of December 30. Because these pitiful people will do anything for money and government positions, they think everyone else is like them! Look at their footprints and all you’ll see is inconsistency. One day they belong to this party, the next day they belong elsewhere. One day they are pro-Adama Barrow, the next day they are against him. One day they’ll write a book castigating Yahya Jammeh, the next day they’ll say the book is full of their lies. Go back twenty-two years and you’ll see that Cherno’s position, as well as mine, has remained constant. That is because we see our people first and foremost! We have values and we are not motivated by greed, hunger for opportunities or material wealth. In other words we are not hustlers on the backs of our people.

Saidy-Barrow, you have always been writing for anyone who cares to read that first, the ‘foundations must be dismantled’ if The Gambia is serious about reaching the promised land. Can you be specific?

Well, look around you. Point to one project, one institution, just one, and tell me it is working as it’s supposed to be working. We claimed independence over half a century ago and we still survive by begging and borrowing from others. We celebrate charity and think pledges from EU countries are a monumental achievement. Go and ask any child if they want to grow up and become beggars and borrowers. No one wants to grow up and be a beggar but yet, we see nothing wrong with our country subsisting on begging and borrowing. Where’s our pride and dignity especially given how we look down on beggars? It beggars belief. And it’s not because we are too stupid to realize that no nation ever succeeds by begging and borrowing, it’s because the foundation we continue to build on is rotten. It is meant to only benefit a few to the detriment of the majority. It was meant to benefit the colonial abusers and not the people. Now it’s meant to benefit those in government first and foremost, the people if anything is left. Don’t you think we need to go back and dismantle every system and re-examine its utility? I mean there’s the saying that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Isn’t that what we are doing? Surely, we are not insane, or are we? I ask that question bearing in mind that continuing to subject oneself to mental slavery is a form of insanity.

In a recent BBC interview, you blamed all Gambians for not doing enough, and that is why the dictatorship thrived. 

No, that is not an accurate quote. I cannot blame all Gambians for the dictatorship. Saying Gambians doesn’t mean all Gambians. Even if it’s ten Gambians, we can say Gambians. That doesn’t make it all Gambians. I know Gambians who lived in The Gambia and lost so much fighting the dictatorship. I know Gambians who lived outside and lost so much fighting the dictatorship. It would be unfair to lump such Gambians in the same basket as the unrepentant dictator enablers. In fact, I consider that insulting. So no, I don’t blame all Gambians. I do say that we could have all done better by each other. And that’s based on my position that if you can quantify what you have done for your country, then it means you have not done enough!

The downfall of the Jammeh dictatorship engendered hope for change. But six years later, however, those hopes faded. What happened?

What happened is that as usual, Gambians betrayed one another. Remember what I told you about our tendency to betray one another in collective endeavors? Same people, same problem. Our associations are hardly ever based on values. It’s often about what we stand to gain and we have no qualms about betraying one another if it gets us what we desire. Because those who were at the table when change came did not have shared values, interests soon took over and the center could not hold. Things quickly fell apart. Lies, duplicity, greed, hunger for power soon took over.

Is Barrow good for Gambia? 

Hahaha. Well, depending on what you mean by good, this Barrow speaking to you is good for Gambia because I love my people. I hope my Fula and Mandinka ancestors will look down on me with pride. Our ancestors often chose death over shame. Sadly, shame has long since died in many of us. I hope that when I meet them someday, they too will say Alagie Saidy Barrow, you were good for your people because you stood up when it mattered, you sacrificed when many self-preserved, you spoke when many were silent, you gave when many only wanted to take, you stood for freedom when many opted to remain slaves under a tyrant.

You have to ask my Bandam Adama Barrow if he’s good for Gambians. Or ask Gambians if Adama is good for them. I have no say in that because the Yahya Jammeh constitution they still use against us says I cannot even decide who presides over my affairs! I cannot vote and over 22 years, thousands of Gambians had zero say over who presides over their affairs. But that’s what the simple-minded among us call democracy! If I were to choose, I definitely would have chosen Adama over one or two of his colleagues. But that is not saying he is bad or good for Gambia. May true peace and freedom prevail someday. Not the kind where those in government have some peace and freedom, while the majority subsist in destitution and subservience. I pray to live to witness that day even if I’m not hopeful of it.

Thank you for speaking to The Standard

Thanks for having me, sir. It’s been a pleasure.