Baba Leigh was born in the early 1950s. He spent six years under his father’s tutelage in the Qur’anic dara before moving to Senegal for another three years of Arabic scholarship. He returned to The Gambia and was appointed an Islamic teacher at St Therese’s Primary School. In 1976, he was given scholarship to Libya and underwent Arabic, Islamic studies and electrical engineering in the maghrebi country. After 11 years he returned and was employed by the national utilities company, GUC, for 25 years. When the Kanifing Estate Mosque was built he was appointed imam.
Imam Leigh also engaged in organising the hajj and the mini-hajj the umra until early 2000s when he was banned by the government. He took voluntary retirement from his professional work as an engineer and focused on religious and social activities. He was among the founders of Gamcotrap, a human rights organisation fighting FGM. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talks to the vocal imam about all things temporal and spiritual.
Many Gambians who study in Libya, prefer to special in Islamic/Arabic studies, why did you elect to try electrical engineering?
Islam should be able to produce professionals, highly qualified engineers, medical doctors and the likes. That is why Islamically, all professions were taught by prophets. If you ask me which prophet taught medicine in this world, I will tell you, Eesa Ibn Mariam [Jesus]. Ibrahim taught construction and constructed the Kaaba.
What got you interested in politics, was it because of your relationship with PPP leader and agric minister, Omar Jallow?
Not at all. In fact I don’t have that relation with OJ in terms of politics. I believe politics is life, nobody can live without politics. It depends on what politics you are talking about. Is it party politics, social politics for development or unification? Politics has lots of branches; even Islam has its own politics. I’m not a politician. You may not be partisan but human beings are politicians generally. And being a community and religious leader, you have to have very good relations with any regime that is in power as long as that regime is on the right path.
You may not have ‘that relation with OJ in terms of politics’ as you say, but what other relations do you have with him?
On my father’s side OJ is my first cousin. On my mother’s side, OJ is my grandfather. So we are connected on both sides.
You are an imam, the spiritual and moral guide of your community yet your daughter won a beauty contest and was given a vehicle which you proudly drove around when Islam completely forbids such contests. How do you square that circle?
It depends on the way you view it. Some people are just negatively associating people and thinking. The purpose of my daughter becoming a contestant of that competition as she told me and that was what she did exactly… She told me Baba, I want to join Africell competition and I asked her why? I told her if it is a beauty competition she cannot join, but she said no Baba. She told me Africell said they can dress any how they want and appear in any way they want. What is important is your talent. She told me girls in this country think going naked is beautiful and she wanted to introduce a dress that can show that one can cover all your body and still show you are beautiful. I asked her if she was not going to expose herself, she said never. Everybody knows my daughter covers her body all over.
So that is a good enough justification?
You are saying lottery, it is not gambling. Go anywhere in the world, even in Saudi Arabia there are things call jahasia. It means you did something excellent to be awarded. At times you go to a shop, you buy a cloth and there is a number on those white gowns. If that number is the winning number, you can win a car, compound or millions. That type of competition is to not haram especially when your intention is teach people manners and good characters and good Islamic code of dress. But some of us are naive and some are jealous that a daughter of Baba Leigh becomes known, is pacesetter in this country. But how many daughters of imams do you meet in nightclubs? Have you ever met my daughter in a nightclub? Never!
I don’t go to nightclubs.
Oh, thank you. Nobody has ever met them in nightclubs. Thank God my children are doing well academically, morally and socially. So those who are talking otherwise have their right to view anything they want in anyway. It is also my right to train my kids and family the way I want.
Almost all the religious leaders in the country were for FGM, you were one of few opposing it. It seems like you enjoy bucking the trend and defying conventional wisdom.
With the other scholars, we have a different understanding of FGM. I was privileged to specialise and did research at a university in Sudan and other countries like Malaysia and Iran on FGM. So I gathered knowledge that they didn’t have. When you talk about FGM and they want to Islamanise it, it is because of their ignorance. But if they put themselves in the same shoes and empathise with their daughters and see how this operation takes place and the negativity in it, cutting a living organ without medical care and call it Islam, that is an insult to Islam.
So you didn’t allow your daughters to be cut?
I broke away from my family residence when they put pressure on me to mutilate my daughter. I’m somebody who lives by my words. I don’t want to pretend as an angel when I’m evil.
Your critics said you were given money and that was why you supported Gamcotrap.
Ask them if they gave me money I’m not somebody who can be corrupted; I’m not in need of money for somebody to control my views or opinion. If that was the case, Yahya Jammeh gave some imams millions, I could have got millions because I know Jammeh more than all of them. Jammeh worked under me when I was at Kotu Power Station. I introduced Yahya Jammeh to OJ and Baba Jobe. So if I was looking for money since day one, I would have been close to him and be a praise singer to him. I have never even received a salary form Gamcotrap. What I was receiving was, if there was a workshop I would get transport refund.
You had a public falling out with Jammeh and he ended up locking you. What happened?
I still don’t know the reason why I was arrested. During the time they were interrogating and torturing me, they were asking me why I hated Yahya Jammeh. Why was I giving information to the American Embassy, Western agencies, working with Gamcotrap condemning FGM and condemning Jammeh for executing the 9 death row inmates. I was tortured to near death.
You hated Jammeh?
I don’t hate anybody but I hated what Jammeh was doing.
Were you passing information to the Americans?
That was a false accusation. You, I and everybody knows if America wants to have any information from anybody they have agencies to do that not me. I was never involved in government to know their secrets. Yahya is not somebody who needs to be investigated, if he wants to kill somebody he will stand in the public and say he will put a person 9ft deep in the ground. He once said if he got hold of me, even the maggots will not see my corpse.
Many said another reason why Jammeh pounced on you was that he was interested in the shrine by the Gunjur’s Atlantic beach?
I’m 100 per cent sure it was part of it. Jammeh was someone who doesn’t want to see anyone make progress. He is the most jealous person on earth as far as I’m concerned. When I took over that place, within three years the kind of people and the popularity of the place for ziyara increased and he wanted to get rid of me because he wanted the place. And to get that place and convince people that Baba is evil, he attacked me.
Does Islam enjoin the faithful to go to such a place where men and women take off their clothes and bathe within eyesight of each other?
Well taking bath or not, Baba will not take a bath there. That place was discovered years before [even] Sheikh Omar Futi. I go there and perform my prayers.
The other reason you were arrested was an interview you granted The Standard newspaper condemning the execution of the 9 Mile 2 inmates. Other imams defended it, but you spoke out against it. Why?
Before the execution took place when Jammeh called religious leaders, he told them he was going to execute all the death row inmates. I publicly appealed to him not to execute them. In my sermons [in the mosque], I said those people are already behind bars so they are no longer a danger to the society and killing them will never bring a good name for The Gambia and that he should please forgive them. He went ahead and executed them and after three days, I saw a press release from GSIC and in that press release they said Yahya hadn’t killed anybody, that the killing was Islamical. Gambia Supreme Islamic Council tried to justify it. They wanted to take the brand of Islam and justify the executions. I’m not somebody who will keep quiet about those things. I met the president of GSIC but I could not convince him because the release was already out. I invited all the newspapers but unfortunately only The Standard, The Point and Daily News published my story. When I spoke, I paid the price.
It was reported that they asked you to say The Standard misquoted you so that they could pounce on the newspaper and its editors but you refused. Is that true?
They told me several times that if I wanted to have my freedom I should tell them I was misquoted by The Standard and that the American Embassy sponsored me and that Alhaji Kebba Touray of Tobacco Road, Banjul was sponsoring me to go against Jammeh and his government, that OJ was the one who dictated me to go against Jammeh and spiritually I was backed by Cherno Abdourahman Barry of Bogal in Senegal. These were the conditions, and if I say so I would be free. I refused because I cannot implicate innocent people.
Who tortured you during your six-month detention?
I’m not confortable to talk about that hard moment because it renews my anger; I’m learning how to forgive. So all I can tell you is that I was severely tortured, I was almost killed.
Have you forgiven Jammeh?
It depends on how apologetic he will be. I’m praying for him to be arrested and brought to justice. What I have been praying is to face Yahya in the dock and ask him a few questions.
What are those questions?
I’m not going to talk about them right now.
Do you think you will have that opportunity given that the President of Equatorial Guinea said he will not extradite him?
He is putting the cart before the horse. Nobody asked for Jammeh yet. Equatorial Guinea is part of the world and we have seen Hissène Habré. He was protected for 25 years but ended up facing justice.
Habré faced justice but don’t think you Jammeh may escape justice like Mengistu Haile Mariam who lived in Zimbabwe for 30 years after he was toppled and the long arm of the law could not reach him?
It is very possible, but it depends on how energised the Victims Centre is and how the
victims demand for him. For Haile Mariam, he was hiding and keeping quiet and he had no political party that was talking on his behalf. You know when you hide somewhere you should keep quiet and people need to keep quiet about you that will help you to hide. But if you hide and are throwing stones to others you will be seen and that will reenergise the efforts of victims and the world to bring you to justice.
What do you make of GSIC, do you think they acted in good way in the past 22 years?
GSIC from the word go, was the mouthpiece of the government. They only spoke on behalf of President Jammeh, and they rarely spoke against Jammeh’s regime especially in those days. They were among the big enablers of former president Yahya Jammeh in whatever he did.
Now to matters of esoteric spiritualism, you are a disciple of Sheikh Omar Futi Taal. Why didn’t you follow other masters like Baye Niass or Ahmadou Mbacké?
That is a familial and spiritual relations. I’m a Tijanni and I believe in sufism. Sheikh Omar Futi was one of the scholars who introduced tarikh Tijaniyya in The Gambia. So who ever may be a Tijaniyya in this region you took it from Sheikh Omar Futi. And we belong to the same family and tribe from Futa Toro. So the family decided to select me as their representative in The Gambia.
Wahhabis and other fundamentalists oppose Sufism saying it brings biddah (innovation) into the religion.
Well to know biddah is difficult. Most of them are doing biddah and they don’t know. Biddah in general terms means innovations, that is, what has been innovated after the death of Prophet Muhammad. But how many things have been innovated Islamically and are accepted? Some of us see some of the biddah as acceptable and some not. We believe that the prophet was a sufi, so being a sufi cannot be biddah. Sufism means only memorising Allah’s name in secret and in the open, so calling us biddah is ignorance. When the prophet confined himself in Mecca and in the mosque for ten days, that was sufism.
On the issue of Ahmadis, all the imams are united in their condemnation why are you the lone voice saying they should be given a TV licence?
I wish people know where I’m coming from. Maybe I’m more exposed than those imams, more knowledgeable and more concerned about the people of this country and that is why I’m always on a separate river swimming alone against the tide. As far as I’m concerned Ahmadis have never been accused of any crime. They are very peaceful and humble citizens of The Gambia.
Do you consider them Muslims since they do not believe in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad?
I’m not selected by almighty or anybody to determine who is a Muslim or a non-Muslim. I myself have been accused of being a non-Muslim by being a Sufi.
Now who is a Muslim?
A Muslim is someone who protects his colleagues and neighbours and are comfortable to be with him. Someone who witnesses the oneness of the Almighty Allah, performs daily prayers, keeps fast, performs hajj and takes out zaka’at. I’m the least qualified to determine who is a Muslim or not. I see it as an offence to point a finger to someone who claims to be a Muslim and say he is not a Muslim. I have seen people who claim to be Muslims and they don’t pray or keep fast and no one points a finger at them. [Personally, I believe] Muhammad is the last prophet and whoever doesn’t believe that, it is his business.
Are you satisfied with the way the country is being governed?
There is no government in the world that can satisfy her people 100 %. I’m satisfied with some but not with other things and that is normal. I’m pleased that today I can be at my pulpit, deliver my sermons and come back in my house and eat my benachin, go to bed and sleep. I came from a situation where even my dead body would not have been accepted in The Gambia. Even when I sent stuff from America, I used somebody’s name for it to be delivered at the ports. But now, I’m happy, like a flying bird.
Any final words?
Let us all come together and work for peace. It is only peace that can help us fulfil our dreams. We should not condemn each other. Let us know this country belongs to all of us no matter what tribe one belongs. Being a minority doesn’t deny you your rights or being a majority doesn’t give you superiority to dominate other people. Let us be inclusive in all aspects and not to discriminate. We are calling on diasporan Gambians not to abandon their country and I’m urging the government to open more doors for them.