With Alagie Manneh
Amie Bojang-Sissoho is the image maker of President Adama Barrow. In this edition of Bantaba from State House, anchor Alagie Manneh talks with Mrs Sissoho about her work to end FGM, the Barrow government and about her father, a renowned Islamic scholar of global repute.
You are the daughter of Hatab Bojang, one of the preeminent Islamic scholars in The Gambia. During the Jawara era, he was put in jail, what were the circumstances of his fall-out with Jawara?
He was the pioneer of Arabic Islamic education in The Gambia, under the ministry of education. He was a preacher and was a very vocal person. He was courageous. From a family perspective, a very cordial person. He was so modest and used to chat with me a lot and it was through that relationship that I was able to get insight into who he was. We talked about why he was jailed during the Jawara era. And according to what he told me, it was about an article he wrote about poverty in Africa, in The Gambia and the need for support. In that article, the publishers put a photograph of some east African children who were very hungry or whatever and attached it to that article and published it. There were people who were not happy with that and reported the matter to the president at the time. They also made it look like he was undermining the government and the country, which was not his intention. He was arrested in our home in Serekunda… and taken to Mile II. Interestingly, he had a good friend, who was a lawyer, the late Ousman Sillah… they were very close. Ousman stood by him. He was at Mile II for almost a month and I used to go and visit him. They eventually had to let the case go.
You started your career as a local news announcer under Suwaibou Conateh at Radio Gambia in the ’80s, why did you leave to go into activism at Gamcotrap?
I’m not sure I left it for that. Even at Radio Gambia, I was an activist. Maybe people at the time did not recognize what activism was all about. Activism, for me, is about believing in a cause and following it, advocating for people to be aware of it to change attitudes and perspectives about that particular cause. That was what I was doing at the radio; I used the radio as a tool to change perception about women, about women’s issues and the like. But the regime was following everything as petty as ‘what music you people play’ [on the radio]. I was doing that job out of my love for it. I was passionate and believed in it. I was not just an anti-FGM advocate, I was advocating against cultural issues affecting the lives of women. My bosses were not comfortable at the time perhaps owing to the saying that ‘the media reflects the society as the society reflects the media’. I was sort of discomforting people, but for the right purpose, if I may say so. One evening I came to work on news duty, and found a notice that none of us should talk about FGM on radio. I said no, I cannot stop talking about FGM. Amie Joof Cole was my head of section and we all believed in the same thing but the challenge was whatever I did was seen negative and was offending some authority. It was a difficult decision but I had to make it… I did not resign; I retired voluntarily because I had the service length. They wanted to force me to retire on marriage ground but I said no. I was not retiring to be a house wife. It was the late Ebrima Sanyang who was the acting director or director at the time.
You spent decades advocating for the end of FGM, looking back, do you think you have done enough because the practice is still prevalent despite a 2015 law banning it?
Bravo! I am among those who have broken the silence over something that was never spoken about. Bravo! For challenging the state to realise that the rights of women and children are human rights. Brave! To be able to train people to take up that cause while you are away. Bravo! It’s a life-long challenge to change culture and mindset. Remember, FGM is a cultural practice that is misconstrued in some quarters as a religious practice.
Now that you brought it up, Imam Fatty once cursed you and said your father would not have sanctioned your anti-FGM activism, would your father have allowed you?
He didn’t know that my father married Wolof wives who, in their culture do not practice FGM. They should have told him that. Two, my father was a very open-minded person and he would go by knowledge, not emotions. I remember discussing family planning and contraceptive issues with my dad.
Yes, that’s why I was a strong supporter and advocate of family planning. If you go back to the history of Radio Gambia and listen to the radio programs you would see, because I discussed it with my dad. I was lucky I was married when my dad was alive and discussed a lot of issues with him that today made me stronger, empowered me and made me understand from an Islamic perspective some of these issues. It was my father who first enlightened me to understand that it is not haram to practice family planning. He educated me about some of these practices during the prophet’s time. He was the one who educated me on these things. That is why I am bold, I am courageous enough to stand anywhere and challenge the issues, because I know that there is misconception about Islam and some of these cultural practices, they link to it.
So you believe Imam Fatty and others misconstrued FGM by saying it is Islamic?
I don’t think so. I think what is happening, from my understanding of listening to some of their sermons, is that they fear that, if you start empowering women, they reach a stage where you cannot control them, so don’t give them what they want. If you give them what they want, you cannot control them. That perception is affecting their sermons on these issues. Remember that we come from a background where they believe if you go through the western education ika kafiriyaaleh [you become an unbeliever]. Because of that, anything you do, they don’t believe that you can look at it from a perspective that is objective without being influenced by outsiders, westerners and their concepts. These are some of the challenges regarding not only FGM or but any issue you touch on women… remember, they will challenge you because it’s their perception of who the woman is and where she ought to be or do.
You and the leadership of Gamcotrap were accused of embezzling the institution’s donor funds and put on trial under Jammeh, were you in fact stealing money from Gamcotrap, or do you feel those charges were politically motivated?
It was clearly [politically motivated]. In fact, one of the officers who was on the case, came to apologise personally that it was not their intention and that they were forced to make sure that we are incarcerated. From that perspective, I just assume it was politically motivated. What I want you to understand is that, if it was a criminal case, or had we committed the crime, we would not have survived that case. It was over two years, seven months, 13 days, 66 court appearances – in the history of The Gambia. You think if we were criminals, we would have survived that? No way.
You and your boss Isatou Touray then decided to leave advocacy and entered politics, why?
It is all part of being citizens. At one point in your life, you have to make a decision. We left that advocacy work for a national call. At the time we were leaving, everybody, anywhere, every Gambian with a conscience was craving for something that will change this country and give us the liberty and freedom we needed.
Who should be credited for the ban on FGM -Jammeh or Gamcotrap?
Jammeh’s regime did not do it out of love for the children of The Gambia.
Why did they do it then?
They did it thinking that’s the only way to keep some of us quiet. They thought that’s the only thing we believed in. They failed to realise that we were talking about women’s rights in general. This is not about me or Dr Touray; it’s about The Gambia.
It was speculated that you had a hand in getting your former boss Dr Isatou Touray being appointed vice president. How true is that?
Why do they think so? As far as I know, I got to know about Dr Touray’s appointment as vice president just like everybody. Those are decisions made by the president. Whoever thinks I was part of that…well, I wish you luck. I know Dr Touray. She deserves it [ the appointment]. Whatever position she holds, she holds with compassion.
Dr Isatou Touray entered politics as independent, has she now joined the NPP bandwagon?
[Laughs] Is this an interview about my former boss? If you want to interview her, go to her. As far as I know, she joined this government as a coalition member to support the change that has been fought for and the change is still on, the fight is still on. As far as I know, if you want to know whether Dr Touray supports NPP or not, I will send you to her and interview her to speak for herself.
How did you become such an indispensable aide to the president?
I don’t know whether I will or can answer that question. What I know is that when I was offered this job, I committed myself to serve the country under the leadership of Adama Barrow, being the one who identified me to do that service but I’m not working for him and he knows that. I’m working for the country. But he is the one who is driving that agenda [of the country]. Therefore, if you believe in something, and you commit yourself to it, what you need to do is to make sure you stay professional. My relationship with the president is professional. He knows that, and those around us know that. What I do, I do with professionalism. I don’t go to the president to lie about people or talk about people or idle. I don’t have time for that.
What do you exactly do at the presidency?
My job as the Director of Press and Public Relations is to look at what will bring visibility to the presidency; what the president does, his programs, his policies, his engagements to ensure it is out there for people to understand and to appreciate. In doing this, I work with a team that comes up with a series of strategies as to how to do that… And that is why we have social media platforms, our six-monthly newsletter, and the Presidential Diary which are all attempts to bring visibility to the presidency and its activities. We also support in terms of public relations issues.
Don’t you have any role in preparing his speech and coaching the president on presentation given the many mistakes he makes?
Human beings err. And most often than not, people who don’t speak any other language apart from English always err. So that’s part of human nature, it’s not deliberate. To err is human.
Now, there is the Minister of Information who in certain countries or systems is the government spokesman, and then you have the government spokesman, Ebrima Sankareh and then you as DPPR, isn’t that too much duplicity in your work?
Well, I can tell you about my work; it’s to make sure that anything dealing directly with the president, I take the responsibility for that. If it is broader government issues, the ministry and spokesperson take responsibility for those. My focus is on the presidency and what the presidency does.
Why did you stop the State House face-to-face interviews between Barrow and Gambian journalists?
Change is dynamic. You would realise that the work I do, to be able to do that briefing is linked to other officials. It depends on the officials and how much information I would receive that would warrant calling for a press briefing.
Was it not because Barrow could no longer face reminders about his failed promises and the many simmering issues involving governance?
I don’t think so, because President Barrow is always updated like his technical team through Cabinet, through other means of communication, through the secretary general. It’s not about lack of answers.
Nfally Fadera said the comportment of some journalists led to that decision, is he right?
The comportment issue is a fact. Most of it is attributed to that. I would just encourage all of us to continue to explore the opportunity we have as a country and do our jobs without focusing on personalities. It’s good to be critical, however. I don’t believe that being critical is negative.
You had a fall-out with several reporters at the presidency namely Awa Ceesay, Lamin Baba Njie, Mafugi Ceesay and lately Sanna Camara, leading to their removal from State House, why were you unable to work with all these people?
I have never worked with Lamin Njie. Lamin was part of the press corps that comes to State House for press briefing. That one is wrong. Two, I never had a fall out with anybody. You are referring to staff who have been employed at the presidency. I don’t want to go into the details of that but personally, I am telling you, I have no personal differences with any of them. The challenges were professional, and that’s it.
What do you say to former DPPR and CEO of TFN, Fatou Camara, who said President Barrow’s PR team has no clue what it is they are doing at the presidency?
I know Fatou will not look me in the eye and tell me that.
What made you say that?
Because I have not done anything to warrant that. If she is talking from a professional point of view, is appreciated. It will make us reflect on why we are clueless. That is what I have to tell you.
It was rumored that while you and the president were in Senegal during the political impasse you, Barrow and Mai Fatty, benefitted monetary gifts, was it true that you were given money?
Money from where? Ask them where the money is from, who gave it to me, when it was given to me and where.
People who know you said you are a good Muslim woman whose heart is full of love, what makes you tick?
I don’t go out to intentionally offend people. I’m a human being and I have my shortcomings, like a lot of other people. But I am a mother who wouldn’t see her children suffer… knowing what it takes to give birth to a child. Personally, whoever I get engaged with and it feels confrontational, it’s not because I have a problem with you, it’s always on issues. And the next time I see you, I will greet and hug you and move on because I know it’s the work that brings us together.