Fabakary Tombong Jatta became the shoo-in interim leader of the Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction (APRC) after former leader President Yahya Jammeh was forced to go into exile 2,989 kilometres away in Malabo Equatorial.
Since then, Mr Jatta who served as National Assembly Member for Talinding and House Majority Leader for several terms, has been trying to bring a semblance of order to the topsy-turvydom caused by the sudden eclipse of President Jammeh around whom, like the lodestar, everything orbited in the party.
Last week, Mr Jatta was invited to the police headquarters in Banjul for questioning over comments he recently made that the dozen-and-a-half soldiers under custody mainly at Fajara Barracks were being detained because they were either members of the APRC or Jolas.
Bantaba anchor, Omar Wally, sat down with Mr Jatta for a testy one hour Q&A. Excerpts:
Bantaba: Mr Jatta, you had a very interesting political life, where did it begin?
I joined active politics during the advent of the July 22 Revolution. The reason was, I wasn’t very comfortable with Jawara’s government. In 1996, I was elected divisional chairman of APRC for the Kanifing municipality. In 1997, I was elected Member of National Assembly for Serekunda East Constituency and was selected the [parliamentary] desk officer for Kanifing municipality [in the APRC]. I was in parliament for 20 years – from 1997 to 2017 – ten of which I served as the Majority Leader and Head of Government Business in Parliament.
I was among the founding members of the Pan-Africa Parliament in 2004. And as you know, I’m the current head of the APRC party on a tentative basis. APRC has not gone through the process of electing its leaders. I came in to ensure that our party, which has been threatened with dissolution, does not die. That is what motivated me to take the challenge of leadership.
The APRC is not dead, but it appears to be dying. Do you agree?
You will see how resilient we are. Under very negative conditions, we are able to survive. When the former president left and I took over, we were evicted from our bureau without notice; our vehicles were seized and Jammeh’s [bank] accounts and properties were frozen. Our own APRC accounts into which we, as members of parliament, ministers and others, through fundraising, put money, were all frozen. Yet with all those things, we were able to fundraise, participate in the parliamentary election and held a very successful victory celebration in Kanilai. So as we move, we are gaining momentum.
You said you were evicted from your bureau, but were you not occupying it illegally? It belongs to Abou Denton [the late Accountant General in the Jawara regime] and you were not paying tax.
I don’t know what you mean by illegally occupying it. If it was illegally acquired which I am not sure about… but making a statement… probably it was out of the commission that the bureau was given out. But whatever it takes, if something is illegally done, you go through the due process.
Would you describe The Gambia today as a free democratic country?
Democracy is not always complete. The greatest democracies still have shortfalls. That’s what people must realise. All countries must aspire for democracy, especially its fundamentals. In politics, there are times when political leaderships take interest above all others. I think, we are moving gradually and the good thing is, if people are enlightened, they will ensure that they put government to task and ensure that democracy, the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights come to play.
You have not answered my question. Is The Gambia a democratic country in your estimation?
You know that is difficult [to answer]. If you want to describe democracy as violations of rights, the Coalition government has violated rights. Haruna Jatta, a member of APRC was shot [to death] during a peaceful demonstration [in Kanilai]. Our people were selectively picked out [and detained] following a fracas between two opposing parties and only APRC supporters were picked out. Those things are undemocratic. [Opposition GDC leader] Mamma Kandeh and I were called for questioning while other political leaders made similar statements but where not picked up? So what we are saying is, yes, we may be moving little towards democracy.
Kandeh claimed ministers in the new government were sharing out loans contracted on behalf of the nation and you claimed soldiers were being detained for being Jolas or being APRC members. Don’t you think these were incendiary statements that could incite agitation?
We are not journalists; we are politicians. It is the responsibility of the government to clarify to the populace whatever happens. If they don’t do it, politicians will cry foul, so the ball is in their court to either prove us wrong or to say this is what has happened or they correct it. We are not journalists who would go from office to office to find out about facts. Immediately we get information from our people, we reserve the right to publicise it.
Mr Jatta, today you are clamouring for government to investigate the death of Haruna Jatta, but a similar thing – Solo Sandeng’s death – happened under your watch as parliamentary bigwig and you said nothing. Is this not political hypocrisy?
These are two completely different scenarios and it is not good to make the comparison. If our government has been described as dictatorship, undemocratic et cetera and a new dispensation came in and tells us, you have done those things and we will also do them, then where are we going? If you are telling people that APRC wasn’t democratic and didn’t obey the rule of law. Now you are in office and when people question you, your response is, APRC did that, what type of dispensation is that?
Mr Jatta, as a well-respected politician, people expected you at the time to condemn an incident like Solo Sandeng’s death and the torture of others, but kept quiet?
Go to the National Assembly archives and look into my records. I’m not one person who can be shut down easily. The Solo Sandeng’s case, I was able to witness a little but it was violent. Solo was not shot, he was arrested and died under custody, and I don’t know the cause of his death. But what I’m saying is, people should have peaceful demonstrations.
People ask me, why did I championed and strengthened the state of emergency. I’m proud to associate myself with that and I want journalists to ask me one million times and I will answer it proudly one million times. We all know there was an election and Jammeh accepted defeat and later refused to accept and went to court. In The Gambia’s electoral law, there is a two-month period from the day of the result announcing to the time of handover, during which electoral petitions could be resolved and court verdicts given so that we know what to do. When that happened, the judges were going to come from Nigeria and Sierra Leone. They should have come and decide on the case,.
If they decided that the elections were free and fair Jammeh would have given up because their decisions would have been respected. But rather than bringing those four judges, Ecowas and other international bodies recruited a massive military [force] to come and invade The Gambia.
What the Chief Justice of The Gambia at the time said was the Nigerian judges due to complete the complement of the seven-member panel were not available. He said they couldn’t examine the petition.
Listen, there was an election petition which was very delicate. However busy they may be, they [Ecowas] can bring in four judges – three from Nigeria and one from Sierra Leone – to determine the case. A country was going up in fire! Which other thing is more important if they were genuine? Instead, they started amassing troops from all over the sub-region calling them to come and invade an independent country. So, there is no excuse for that.
If you could reflect your mind back, UDP’s Ousainou Darboe lost an election and filed a petition in court but that did not stop Jammeh from being inaugurated. So, Jammeh could have done the same thing and allow Barrow to be inaugurated while he waited for the outcome of his petition in court?
No. Let us look at the spirit of the Constitution. You cannot do it the way you want it, you must go by the law. And which year was this and what were the laws then?
Jammeh himself said the Gambian elections were rig-proof and initially he even conceded defeat. Why did Fabakary Tombong Jatta spearhead the enactment of a state of emergency knowing Jammeh had clearly lost?
Don’t tell me that.
I just did. Again, why did you?
No. Jammeh admitted the first result on the grounds that the Independent Electoral Commission had done the job well. The IEC came back and gave us a different result which put the difference between the Coalition and APRC at 51,000 votes from almost 19,000 votes. A whole electoral office? They were not under pressure; they could have taken their time. It was about life and death.
You give one result today and give another result tomorrow! My friend, even yourself, you look at it twice. The reasons given were not convincing. Even if Jammeh had accepted the result or never accepted the results, every loser has a right to resort to court. So why are people so furious about somebody contesting a result in a court of law?
You are APRC interim leader, do you want to be made the substantive party leader and say, even contest the presidency?
APRC is a structured party. Three years ago, I told my people I was going to retire from politics and they should look for a candidate because twenty years for me was enough. I would be a backbencher but continue to give support, but I was going to leave active politics. I think I should not work until I die, I should leave and relax. But then I would be a backbencher who would be critical of what is happening that I couldn’t have done when I was in government. But man proposes and God decides and when things turn around, the high level members of the party met and wanted me to take over. I refused initially, but later said, now they needed me, it will be very immoral for me, because there may be [dire] consequences for me to deny them.
Are you in regular contact with former President Jammeh?
No. No regular contact.
How will you compare Jammeh and Barrow’s administrations so far?
My concern about the current government is, following nine months of leadership and with all the aids that are coming in – that Jammeh did not enjoy – Gambians are yet to witness one programme that they could call their own. And things are getting more difficult by the day. You know why I will die to associate myself with Jammeh? He brought unprecedented development to The Gambia. If you had told me in 1994 that The Gambia would be where it is today, I would have denied it.
Mr Jatta, if the Coalition government calls you to join them and share your expertise, will you?
It depends on the conditions and what’s on offer and on my health.
You sound like you will. Won’t you?
That is open to analysis. And I don’t want to make statements that people will make something out of. I can say depending on certain conditions, I can say yes. Een without pa, I can serve The Gambia. I want the best for The Gambia. I am not power hungry, I don’t even want to be president of The Gambia. I don’t intend, only God knows. I’m in to stabilise the party, put it on good footing and allow the party to go through its congress and come out with whatever leader they want for us to move forward.
During Jammeh’s 22-year reign, a lot happened that has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. As the interim leader, won’t it be in order for you to come forward to apologies to Gambians for the wrongs that Jammeh did?
But we have said that a million times. We acknowledge that we have made mistakes and there is no government in the world which does not make similar mistakes. Even the US took prisoners to Guantanamo Bay without trial and some died.
Recently, there have been calls for you to expel Jammeh from the APRC, so that the party can regain its sanity. Will you?
Those who do not believe in APRC are the ones saying that. Those of us who believe in APRC, believe that the party has sanity. All what we have gained has been through former president Yahya Jammeh’s [efforts].
So you are categorical, no expulsion of Jammeh?
No. You are expelled for a cause. Even myself, if I do anything contrary to the laws of the party, I can be expelled, but just to sit down and say we are expelling somebody because we want a good name, no, we don’t do that!
Is the APRC going to put up candidates in the local government elections in 2018?
When the times come, it will be proven. We are waiting for the right time.
You are in the twilight of your life as a politician, what’s going to be your political legacy?
I would not want to talk about that. People should talk about what they think my legacy is. I will not propagate my good or bad; it’s left for people to assess me. Posterity will account and audit my performance.
Thank you for your time, Honourable.
It’s a pleasure.