With Alagie Manneh
Ald. Samba Baldeh has never been easily deterred, according to those who know him. He followed his curiosity from Africa to Maddison to the City Council presidency. He has since been breaking barriers as he now becomes the first Gambian-American to run for State Assembly in the United States. Mr Baldeh was born into the nomadic Fulani tribe in 1971 in Choya, Niamina West. His family lived on subsistence farming, but his father passed when Baldeh was about 4. His relatives still live in the country including his mother, who visits Maddison once a year. From a young age, Baldeh learned to be self-sufficient and after attending boarding school in another remote village and sixth form, a two-year college preparatory program, moved on to college. An unapologetic activist, he later moved to US where he studied and lives with his wife, Fatou Baldeh. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh discusses his meteoric rise to prominence and his political ambitions and related matters.
You grew up in the remote village of Choya in Niamina West with little access to education, yet you managed to climb the ladder of success. What does working hard to succeed mean to you?
Obviously when you work hard, the likely outcome is success. This however, is not always the case. A lot of factors play in addition to hard work for one to succeed. So just because one is not successful does not mean lack of hard work. I left The Gambia for the United States as a young man with basically no money, but a big heart, to work hard, learn hard and be successful. Through good fortune and the assistance of many people, I have been able to achieve many things that I could not dream of when I first came to this country. I have however, not forgotten my own experience of great poverty. I know that many in my community do not share my good fortune.
When and how did you travel to the United States?
I left The Gambia for the United States on a B1 Visa about twenty years ago.
What did you study in the US?
I studied Information Technology as a Software Developer. I also went to school for Information Technology Project Management. In addition, I have QA certification with the American Software Testing Qualification Board and Amazonas an Amazon Web Service (AWS) Cloud Developer.
What drove you into politics, and eventually running for Madison City Council in 2015?
I chose to run because I believe the time is right to have a council that is as diverse as our city. For the first time a Muslim and an African immigrant was elected to the Madison City Council. The perspective I bring to the table is unique. The time is right for unique perspectives that reflect our growing and diverse community. My experience in community service, project management, and community-based leadership, is needed so that we have that broad spectrum of understanding to ensure when decisions are made at the council chamber, they are a reflection of the entire community. I am also not afraid to speak my mind or ask the tough questions that will be needed at the council chambers. In the end, I am always thoughtful, transparent and honest in decision-making processes. I ran to make sure my community is reflective of what I imagine it to be but also bring the voice of the voiceless to the table.
Common council elections in Madison are officially nonpartisan but you were affiliated with the Democratic Party, why?
Yes; local government elected office is nonpartisan. As a registered democrat however, I identify more with the democratic party ideals than the republican. An example of these ideals includes voting rights, Medicare, climate change and immigration.
What would you list as your biggest achievements since holding political office from 2015?
When I was first running, my community felt like they were not listened to and their issues were not advocated well at city council. I am a strong advocate for my community on the important issues, safeguarding our water quality from PFAS and securing a new library and community centre. I have been able to increase the city child care program budget by over two million dollars when I was the council president. In the last year budget, I introduced half a million-dollar budget amendment to provide down payment to minority businesses who want to purchase property and expand their businesses. I have been able to introduce many people to city government by advocating their appointments to city committees and in some cases some of them end up running for political office. When I was elected to city council, they had a sister city program that had existed for over thirty years but had no sister city in the African continent. Today we have two sister cities in The Gambia and Ethiopia. I also blog regularly to reach out to my constituents and educate on issues relevant to the district. This is my blogpage: https://www.cityofmadison.com/council/district17/blog/
You are currently running for State Assembly against other Caucasian opponents in a white majority district. Considering your background as an immigrant, do you think you stand a chance?
Yes; however, it is not going to be easy and, one can never say for certain what will happen until you get to the end. I and my campaign team are very optimistic. Voters will cast their votes base on experience and who represents their best interest.
Running for political office in America is a very expensive business. How are you managing to fund your campaign given the cost?
You are right elections in America are very expensive. I have been able to put together a strong campaign team which is helping with fund raising. We are building a list of potential donors and I have regular call time scheduled to call donors. So far, we are doing very good. Our budget is to raise fifty to sixty thousand now against the primaries on April 11th. And, up to hundred and twenty thousand by the November general elections if there is a republican in the race. The campaign is being funded through generous donations by people who believe in my platform.
It’s been two years since your last visit, how strong are your ties to The Gambia?
Very strong. My sibling and family live there. I communicate to them regularly. I also still have friends whom I communicate with. I lightly pay attention to events in the country under normal times. Also, through the sister city program I have ties to Kanifing Municipality. My last visit to The Gambia was in December of 2018. I was planning a trip later last year but by the time that trip could materialise, the corona virus pandemic had begun. Hopefully I can visit soon again.
What is your assessment of the state of affairs back home in The Gambia?
I believe a change of government every so often is good for democracy. Like many Gambians, I am glad that after 22 years of APRC government, we now have a new government. I think that is refreshing and promising. That being said, it is not enough to have change of government every so often. African governments must be able to move the continent forward and be key global players in a world that is very complicated and yet interrelated. This year marks the fifth year of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change and environmental degradation, and to ensure that no one is left behind. Last year was the mid-point of the first 10-year implementation plan of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which seeks to promote a prosperous Africa based on inclusive and sustainable development; and an Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children. However, African countries, especially those in West Africa, are simply not doing enough to meet these regional and global goals. In The Gambia, we are still struggling with the most basic essentials for any economy to nurture and strive. Electricity, clean drinking water, access to health care, good road networks are basically nonexistence. When I visited in 2018 it will take about an hour and a half to drive from Senegambia hotel to Kanifing if one is lucky. Electricity will go off in the middle of the day or night. Water supply is only available to a few and none on a regular basis. All this after fifty years of independence! I am not blaming anyone but stating the obvious. It is all our responsibility to move Africa forward and The Gambia in this case. No one is going to do it for us. I think all African leaders should look around and ask themselves “what are we doing?”. The Gambia government must have a strategy to genuinely engage its citizens in this endeavor if they are serious about changing the status quo.
Lamin Waa Juwara was a very powerful and influential politician. What marked improvements, politically or otherwise has he brought to CRR?
When Mr Juwara was the commissioner of McCarthy Island Division, I was going to Armitage Hight school. He was the firebrand politician who was very passionate about what he believed. I am not sure I can speak to exactly what improvements he brought to Niamina but I know he had a huge fight with the political establishment in Niamina.
Which party or candidate would you support in the upcoming Niamina West by-election?
While I followed political developments in Niamina before the pandemic, I have since been focused on my campaign and not paying too much attention to the details of what is going on in that by-election race. If I were to support any one it would be a candidate-based not necessarily party. We have so many political parties in The Gambia. I am not sure what really differentiates them to an extent, which one party represents a good chunk of my political ideology. There are politicians that I admire as individuals but I have not been able to affiliate with one party since I left The Gambia. I think the new constitution should have included a two-party system. This, in my opinion will save us a lot as a country and put on the path to real development and democracy.
Before anything, you are an IT man, is the government doing enough to support the Gambia’s ICT sector?
The fact that I am not based in the country, it is difficult for me to answer this question with accuracy. I am not privy to the relationship between your Information and Communication Technology industry and the government. Generally, though, government is responsible for a range of vital services for people and businesses in defined areas. Among them providing opportunities for growth and access to resources. What I know is when I call people in The Gambia, the connection is almost always not very good. Government should partner with the private sector and build the ICT infrastructure.
Some say if astute and educated Gambians like you continue to work and live and hold and run for political offices in US, The Gambia may never reverse the brain drain or achieve any meaningful development. Is that a fair assessment?
Highly skilled people are valuable factors in any development. They are key to creating a more educated and professional society. This is one reason many countries where brain drain is high loses the ability to progress. Emigration can make it difficult for a country to maintain a high intellectual standard, as many of its educated and most intelligent people leave. However, there is a reason why talented people born, raised, and in some cases educated in their native countries leave and seek employment and greener pastures elsewhere and reluctant to return home. African governments are quick to give citizenship to visiting African-Americans, which is good, but makes it very difficult for natives who live abroad to come home and participate in the socio-economic development activities of their countries. I think this is more of a question for African leaders or in this case Gambia to answer – are you interested in tapping into the brain-drained diasporans? If Gambians want to come home and give back and participate in the development of The Gambia, what process is in place right now?
Looking into the future, ten years from now, what can we expect from you?
To be honest, I’m not hundred percent sure what the next ten years of my life career will bring, so I can’t say with certainty that I know what you should expect. But I do know two things for sure. The first is that the day-to-day work I’ll be doing will include strong advocacy for my community on the important issues. And the second is that I will be more involved in the African Agenda which is transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.
For those who want to support your campaign financially,how can they help?
Just to make sure we are not breaking any campaign finance laws in the United States, only American citizens or Green Card holders can contribute financially to a political campaign in the United States. Only American citizens can vote in any election in the USA. This is how people can help the campaign; visit our website at www.samba4stateassembly.com, fill out the “get involved” form to volunteer and or the “donate” button to donate to the campaign. We also have a Facebook www.facebook.com/sambaforstateassembly/ page. You can visit the page and like us and, share our post with friends particularly those in the USA.