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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Adama Barrow President of The Gambia

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On Tuesday, His Excellency Adama Barrow, President of the Republic of The Gambia, granted an exclusive interview to the editor-in-chief of The Standard newspaper Lamin Cham at the State House. The Standard interviewed the president after naming him Gambian of The Year for 2021. In the hour-long wide-ranging interview, the head of state talked about the 4th December presidential election and what he intends to do in his second term. Excerpts:

Your Excellency, congratulations on your re-election and on being named Gambian of The Year by The Standard newspaper.

Thank you. I am very happy and I would like to thank The Standard for recognising me for this award.

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How do you feel joining the list of only 29 illustrious Gambians including Dr Lenrie Peters, Dr Ibrahim Samba, Justice Hassan Jallow and Sir Dawda Jawara who have won the award?

First of all before I tell you how I feel, I just want you to know that I have been a political animal all my life. I always follow what happens around my environment and so I have been following the ‘Man of the Year Award’ by Swaebou Conateh with keen interest. I am proud to be named as Gambian of The Year because normally if you look at the criteria, they select just one Gambian out of the whole population of over two million.  That means the selected one must be one of the most outstanding in that year. Sometimes they might be wrong. But it means the lucky one must have put in lot of efforts in supporting the country and the people to be named Gambian of The year. I was expecting to be Gambian of The Year in 2016-2017 but it was the electoral commission chairman who got it. So whenever we meet I always crack a joke with him. I would tell him the competition was between you and me. So I always call him man of the year but he in turn always replied to say ‘you are the Man of the World’. So you see 2016 was very outstanding in my life because when I was elected to be a candidate it was at very difficult time in this country and as you know very well my opponent at that time President Jammeh was a very strong man. Not many Gambians were ready to challenge him. Even myself it was very challenging because for example, my family, friends and people who really loved me were afraid and uncomfortable with me challenging President Jammeh. But all the same I did not become Gambian of The Year at that time but I think the IEC chairman deserved it that year because he really was very brave. It was a very brave move he made and it made a huge difference for The Gambia and it was also significant because it was the very first time that an opposition candidate defeated a sitting president in The Gambia. That was very interesting. So I am happy that I am named Gambian of The Year, this year. I think this year too we did very well, because we conducted the most transparent, the most organised, and most peaceful election. We created an environment where no one was afraid. I think this election was outstanding and my victory too was also outstanding, unprecedented and a clear landslide. So I am happy that The Standard recognised that and chose me among Gambians as the man of the year.

On a light note, it might interest you to note that two of your current cabinet ministers, Bai Lamin Jobe and Isatou Touray, earlier won the awards in 1998 and 2008.

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I am not surprised by Bai Lamin Jobe winning it. You see I did not know Bai Lamin personally at that time but I followed his work and success at Gamworks Agency and I knew his removal was politically motivated. So knowing all that, I personally picked his name to join the cabinet. So I am aware of them winning the award previously and it is something they deserve because they were outstanding in the work that they were doing for the Gambian people.

Your Excellency, five years in office, what would you rate as the outstanding successes of your administration?

Well you know many people always overlook the most outstanding success of my time -peace and freedom.  The maintenance of peace, stability and freedom over the last five years is very outstanding. But of course you have to count infrastructural development as another major success. To me, you cannot just achieve much in terms of development in the country if you don’t have infrastructural development because it is crosscutting. You cannot develop the health sector without infrastructure. So it is basically about everything. Even agriculture, you cannot develop it without infrastructure. That’s why right now we are building permanent and durable canals to ease access to rice fields and farmlands and even marketing of agricultural products. So all these require good infrastructure such as roads. Even a good security operation depends on a good road network.  For example, in the past it would take ages for security to respond from Basse to Fatoto but now they can respond within 20 to 25 minutes because of the good road network which also applies to the bridges there. In the past, one could stay for whole day waiting to cross the river but now you cross easily on arrival. So infrastructural development is very outstanding in the National Development Plan and what we have been able to do in the past five years has been very outstanding.

And what have been the major challenges and failures?

Well there have been major challenges but our biggest challenge is resources, because resource mobilisation is not easy. Yes there were a lot of goodwill but we were in hole, a deep hole for that matter. When I came our debt to the GDP was 120 percent. So we spent almost 60 percent of what we collect as debt repayment. Our foreign reserves were less than one month cover and our interest rates were at the highest level [23 percent]. Our salaries were very poor and we needed to increase salaries with limited resources. At the same time our resource mobilisation was constrained because we were so indebted that we cannot access loans any more. So that was why part of the resources mobilised at the Brussels donor conference could not be accessed. It was after a lot of hard work that we started accessing them. But we still have to meet a certain criteria to be able to access more. So all these were major challenges. And our country is a tax-based economy. When I came we were collecting just under D500 million a month and we even sometimes struggle to collect even D400 million.  But we have been able to improve over time and now we are collecting a billion dalasis a month. So our system was broken and we needed to fix the system. So now it’s improving but our major challenge definitely has been [lack of] resources.

Inflation stands at a little over 7% and many Gambian households are concerned about the high prices of basic commodities like food. In concrete terms, what is your government doing to ensure that these high prices are kept in check and brought down?

Well the matter of daily bread is very important and yes inflation may be at 7 percent but as journalists you people also need to look at the other side of the coin because growth too is 6 percent plus. It used to be between 1 to 2 percent. There has been a tremendous achievement in spite of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy.  So growth and inflation are in good balance and if you look at our exchange rate too, we are doing very well in The Gambia.  Many people including even fellow presidents often wonder how little Gambia could manage to have the dollar exchange for just about over D50. In other countries their currencies are hundreds to the dollar. I know people are concerned about high cost of living but this is not unique to The Gambia and we all know the Covid-19 pandemic is not helping in all the things we want to do here. Before the pandemic, rice came down up to less than D1,000 per bag when I was coming to power. It’s more or less the same as it has not increased. When I was coming to power sugar was much more expensive then than now as it was D1,800 per bag minimum. But you know people don’t look at these things. I know these things as the principal. I told you I always follow what happens around my environment. When I came flour was around D1,500 or D1,400 per bag. The flour factory owners were the first people I attacked when I came because they had enjoyed exclusivity and were exploiting the Gambian people. When I came I lifted that exclusivity and there was a lot of war between me and them because they claimed they signed a document with government and I told them I don’t care about that and what I cared about is what affects the Gambian people. I allowed in other people to operate in the business and the price came down up to D800 until they finally regularised their system and we have agreement now based on one condition – they cannot increase prices without informing the government and that has helped us because recently they want to increase and we said no. We requested for the overall cost of the wheat and once we got that we felt that they are not genuine so we sat with them to calculate it and allowed a reasonable increment. So these are all the things we are doing for The Gambian people. But cost of living is expensive everywhere, even in England. And you know we are not producing and that’s what we are now trying to do because you cannot rely on imports. We now have the Roots Project which is focusing on two main areas – industrialisation of rice production and gardening. The Roots Project is working with farmers in gardens as well as providing storage facilities – 15 in total – so that the perishable farm products can now be preserved and sold at the farmers’ own pace. The project is about US$80 million and is one of the biggest projects in agriculture [in The Gambia]. It also includes building canals and road networks to the fields adding value to the products by packaging them which is very important. So very soon when you go to a shop to buy rice you will find a ‘made in The Gambia’ packaged. That is what we are working to achieve. But the irony about those talking about high cost of living is that they are only talking about goods coming from outside and not locally produced ones. That too should be affordable. Look at coos which is produced locally yet it is much more expensive than rice. I think I should also mention that this year the secco price for groundnut is D28,000 per ton, D5,000 more than last year’s price. The government is paying D12,000 as subsidies on each ton just to make sure that the farmers get good price at the secco. So sometimes when I hear some people talking outside on these kind of debates I get a bit disturbed but then of course, I know and understand that they don’t have the information I have.

Mr President, the Economist Intelligence Unit and CepRass predicted that you would win the election. A pollster in Birmingham, England predicted the UDP would win. When the marbles were dropped and counted, you had 113,000 more votes than the combined opposition total representing 53% of the votes. What were your campaign strategy that brought you success at the polls?

(Laughs) You see that poll you are talking about from Birmingham is a UDP poll. You see all international pollsters and that of the UTG or CepRass all indicated long time ago that I was likely to win because they know what is on the ground. You see when people say UDP will win I used to tell my people that I think Ousainu Darboe should have intelligence report on what is on the ground. In politics I don’t fool myself and that was what UDP were doing – fooling themselves. They would call a central meeting, call all their supporters. They come and gather as a big crowd because they want to prove that they have support. But you know I have always been telling the people that if UDP tries or starts a countrywide tour, they will expose themselves because they will go to communities where they cannot draw crowds and that’s what happened all over the place. Sometimes out of three planned meetings they would only hold one. When they came to the Kombos did they campaign in the whole area? No. They just organised central meetings.  In Serekunda for example, they had only one meeting – in Bakoteh – where they drew all their crowd. Finish. This was what they were doing. I was campaigning sometimes with three simultaneous meetings with big crowds, everywhere. We also decentralised our campaign so that we were everywhere at every time.  In some regions we even held ward meetings every day. We also staged a big media campaign using 21 radio stations and minimum they talked about me 8 times and maximum 20 times a day. So it was a massive campaign using different layers, the first of its kind in the history of the country. We were well represented in the villages too. So in all, we campaigned at village, ward, constituency, regional and national levels. No party has put up such a type of campaign and that’s why we are the only party which had agents at every polling station all over the country. Even UDP did not have agents all over the stations across the country.

Many observers, both local and foreign, said the 2021 election campaign brought out the worst in Gambians with tribalism being publicly used as a vote getter. Your critics say you encouraged tribal identity in politics by holding meetings at State House with tribal groups, what are you going to do to unite the people of a very divided Gambia?

I did not manipulate anybody and I am not tribal, because I belong to all these tribes. So I cannot be called a tribalist. I don’t believe in tribalism. However, it is obvious that our communities are settled in tribes. If you go to some places you will be told here is a Mandinka village, there is a Fula village, there is a Sarahule village and so on and so forth . That is the way we settled in this country. So if any of these communities want to come to see the president, well that diversity has been there and when they come I address them in their languages because I speak all these languages. What I am saying is that there are for example a Fula association here that is registered, you also have the Sumpodokati with only Sarahules as members and they are registered. So would I tell them no if they want to come and see me?  Equally Fulas are registered here   and so are Manjagos. So may be we should start by deregistering them and urge them to register as Gambians. May be that’s where we should start. But again most of this tribalism thing is only present and exaggerated on social media. When you go into our communities you find all tribes staying and inter-marrying among themselves. So it is the effect of social media. Even when this election was coming some people were afraid there would be violence but I always tell them there will be no violence because I know some of these unnecessary tensions are only fuelled on social media. In real life people live with each other in peace despite their differences. My father is Mandinka who was married to Fulani wives. I speak Fula and so the Fula take me as part of them, the same goes for the Sarahule. I think we should control the level of exaggeration and incitement of these thing on social media.

Writers say one campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. You yourself said so in your own inimical way. Do you intend to keep all the promises you and your ministers made to communities across the country during your rounds of tours before the election?

We will try our best to fulfill all those promises. That is the thinking and that is the direction and we are guided by the NDP. And of course we know our priorities. Anyway I once read a book which raised the question, what is the best way to win elections? It went on to give the following answer: “When you are campaigning, say you can do everything and what you are not able to do, you can explain later.” (Laughs) But I don’t believe in that anyway because most of the promises I made in 2016, I fulfilled them. I am not a politician but a businessman, that is why most of what I promised I try to fulfill. It was very difficult to fulfill the road project in Kiang because of financial constraints but we did everything possible up to the last minute to make sure that we fulfill that promise and I also promised them that they are going to have electricity and some parts of Kiang now have electricity. The Kiang road project is still on and I am sure before the National Assembly elections, we will start tarring it. I am here for all Gambians whether or not you vote for me. People have the right to make a choice but as president you have only one choice and that is The Gambia.

The machinery of politics is oiled by money, what is your opinion on regulating campaign financing to create a more level playing field in Gambian politics?

It can be regulated but it is very difficult to do that in Africa. We have not gone to that level in Africa because if you want to regulate that there must be a control measure. Most countries in Europe use the banking system or other formal systems in any financial transaction including campaigns but here all the systems are informal. May be we will get to that level later. At the same time if you want to control campaign financing government should provide funds which is not common in most African countries. But even if that is going to happen, there has to be criteria, a threshold because you cannot have a small party of say with a support base of 1 percent and you say you are going to give them campaign funds. You see in Nigeria I think any party that cannot pull say 5 percent of the votes gets deregistered. So those controls must come and other groups like civil society will come to say everyone should be given equal opportunity. So it is very difficult. In the US it is easy because there are only two parties and you have an option to raise your own funds or government to fund you. For example Barack Obama raised more than enough and did not take government funds. But they have a control measure. When you spend you have to account for it. The same method can happen here but I think it will take time. It cannot happen automatically. But it is a very good idea because I believe in [having a] fair system. In fact, that is why this year we provided security for all candidates to ensure a free, fair, and levelled field.  That’s why the campaign was free from violence because the police ensured that there were no clashes.

Mr President, will you contest the 2026 presidential election if you are fit and capable? In fact how long do you intend to rule Gambia as president?

Definitely I cannot give a definite answer to that. Today, right now, my focus is this five years coming. And my immediate focus is my swearing-in and from there I will immediately start work for the next national development plan. That is my focus. But whether I will contest in 2026, I cannot give a definite answer as at now. But I can tell you one thing, I will not stay in power longer than Jammeh did.  In fact I will not stay up to 20 years. I can assure every Gambian that I will not be in power for 20 years. No, I don’t want to be in power for 20 years.

As you work towards putting together a new team, what shape of cabinet should Gambians expect?

Well majority of my cabinet will come from the coalition. No doubt about that.

Are you not going to choose technocrats?

I said majority. Technocrats may be part of it but the majority would come from my coalition because you cannot have people who supported you, fought for you and then you go and select other people who are sitting at their corner.

But some people who are not politically inclined might have better things to offer.

Yes but in politics loyalty is everything.  So what I am saying is that the majority of my new cabinet will comprise members of the coalition.

There are too many parties in your coalition, meaning 90 percent of the jobs may go to them.

Not exactly. It could be 60 percent or 70 percent. I just say the majority will go to the coalition.

Over the weekend, the TRRC report was made public. It called for the prosecution of certain individuals some of whom are serving in senior positions in the government. You took a lot of flak for cherry-picking who gets a carrot or a stick from the Janneh Commission report. Can you assure Gambians that when you issue the TRRC white paper in the coming months, there will be no sacred cows?

No, you see the trouble with critics is that they just look at one way and rarely compare notes to get the other side. These decisions are not Adama Barrow’s decision but government decision. And when these issues come to cabinet we debate over them and most of the times it is the majority that carries the decisions. And in looking at the recommendations we also check the report itself because sometimes the people doing the recommendations can themselves be biased. So we look at the report and recommendations together and compare them. In fact in the case of the Janneh Commission we accepted 75 percent of   their recommendations which is very rare. The commission members were happy about the high percentage acceptance of their recommendations in our white paper. However, there were areas we feel that the recommendations were not in the supreme interest of this country, be they national security or others. These are all factors we  look at. So we will look at all those factors and [do a] postmortem [of] everything. But we want to assure Gambians that we will do justice to this report.

What specifically are you going do with those implicated and are still serving?

Well when you are talking about a fair system there are still some processes left. You cannot put the cart before the horse. I think we should allow the process to be exhausted.

Will the Essa Faal factor not impact on how you assess and act upon the TRRC report and recommendations?

This is not a personal issue so the Essa Faal issue has nothing to do with it. This was a project and yes Essa Faal may have been part of the project but you have other people in the background who may have done more work than Essa.  I don’t want to lean on personal things but on principles. The principle is that the report is here and we will look at it and make sure that we do justice as far as the report is concerned. But let me repeat this to the Gambian people: I am the architect of the TRRC. I am the face of it. So no one has more interest in its success than I and that is why I will never use it for politics. I have never tried to garner support using the TRRC because I feel it’s about victims and I cannot use victims for politics because that would mean stabbing them in the back. So it is unfortunate that some people are using them for politics. I am not happy about that at all. But may be it is their opinion and we are a democracy and there is nothing I can do about it but definitely I was angry about using the victims for politics.

Still on TRRC, many people think the best way to get justice could be a fast and adequate compensation for the victims. Don’t you agree?

Well sometimes you have to look at our resources. Most of the time we are constrained by [lack of] resources in many things we want to do. And also precedents have been set in that people have been compensated in some cases and we have to look those precedents. But despite all that this is about The Gambia and about making sure that people are adequately compensated and there is justice.  Justice is very important so we would do everything possible to make sure that we address those issues. We will discuss it as a government and with our minister of finance to see how best other partners can support in helping the people. But definitely we want to help.

Mr President, poll after poll, has shown that by far the greater majority of Gambians do not want the continuing presence of foreign troops – including Senegalese and Ecomig troops – on Gambian soil. Can you give us a timeline of when you would want them to depart?

I will not be able to give you a timeline but according to our partners in Ecowas, the Ecomig’s mandate is coming to end very soon and they would change to a police unit and I am sure that process would start very soon. Sometimes I am very uncomfortable when people talk about these things.  Is like you, Lamin Cham, have your farm with lots of work to do and a very genuine somebody comes voluntarily to help at no cost. Why should you be worried or complain? And obviously Ecomig has contributed positively in this country to our national security. They have been patrolling with our security and our security also have been using them as back-up teams in anything they have been doing and they keep reporting that Ecomig is very cooperative. If you ask senior officers of our security forces they will tell you that these people have been very helpful. They have provided training to our people. Recently they availed our citizens training opportunities on heavy weapons and other forms of advanced training in Senegal. So they contributed positively to the country and even to our economy. You know how much money they have spent in this country in the last five years? So we are enjoying all that and we still complaining.

What should Gambians expect in the next five years of a second Barrow administration?

I will never be a dictator. It is not in my nature. As I have always said the presidency does not change anyone, it only reveals who you are. So I will never be a dictator. If you look at my background I am more of a pan-Africanist. I follow a lot of events that is why I told you earlier that I am a political animal, and my mission is to help the Gambian people and to maintain peace and stability and also develop this country. I want us to get to another level. That is my thinking and that is my direction. And that is why I am calling on Gambians to come on board whether they are NPP or opposition there is no party colour now. The only colour is the national flag colour to which everyone belongs. You see me I have nothing against my opposition. I had a very good working relationship with Ousainu Darboe when I was in the UDP and I will never forget that. But in politics when everybody is canvassing for votes, there are lot of things you talk about but you don’t mean them. But that campaign is over everybody is my friend and I think that relations would continue and we should be talking. I was talking to certain presidential candidates during the campaign and we promised each other that if anyone wins we all will accept and move on. I have got to that level now so that is Adama Barrow and that will not change. But we will make sure also that if you are given responsiblity you deliver or we will not keep you there.

Just before I came on air with you the Supreme Court struck out the UDP petition against you. Did you know about it?

Yes and we are even starting celebrations here

What does this mean and what is your message to Gambians.

Gambian people have given us a big mandate to represent them well. I want to say this call is for all Gambians and not just Adama Barrow. Politics is now over and what is left is for us to emerge now as Gambians, not as political parties. Party colours are now gone and only one colour, that of the national flag is left. Let us drive the agenda of The Gambia because that is the only agenda I have.  So that would be my final message.

Mr President, thank you for granting us this interview.

Thank you Mr Cham and the management of The Standard newspaper for the man of the year award. I appreciate this and I am honoured to be   accorded this award. I have been following this award and I never thought one day I would be a recipient. I may have been wondering what can I do for The Gambia to earn this award but God has destined it today. So thank you very much for all the support because now it is going down in history President Barrow was made man of the year in The Gambia. So definitely it is well noted and I want to thank the management and staff of The Standard.

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