With Alagie Manneh
In this edition of Bantaba, Mambanyick Njie, the spokesman of the Gambia Democratic Congress, talks to anchor Alagie Manneh about his work as broadcaster, civil servant and mouthpiece of the opposition GDC party.
You began your professional life as a broadcaster on Baboucarr Gaye’s Citizen FM, what led to the radio’s closure?
At the time, we were still in a quasi-military government. They took over under the mantra of probity, accountability and transparency but it was clear they didn’t like the translation of newspapers. It was easier those days for an entire household to purchase a radio receiver and listen to the news being translated into Mandinka and Wolof. The authorities didn’t like that. In fact, I can remember in the run-up to the 2001 election, they attempted to burn down the station but they failed. It was those Green Youths in their ‘afinjang’ pickup vehicles. During that same election, we had reporters across the country and were broadcasting results. That was what led to the folks raiding the radio station that night. When I called Baboucarr to convey some results, he told me there were NIA officers at the radio who said they had orders to shut the station down. They did it under the pretext that we were owing some tax arrears at the time. Even though we managed to pay off there so-called tax arrears, they refused to allow the reopening of the station. They didn’t want an informed population.
How was Baboucarr Gaye as a professional?
He was a very fine broadcaster and at one time the BBC reporter in the country. He doesn’t mince his words. I took some of his admirable principles. He was very principled and brave man.
What if any legacy, does Citizen FM, have?
In terms of informing the people, particularly the local people who were not formally educated and needed to know how their country was being run, we did a great job. We were the first radio station that started that. Up until the change of government, only one radio station, Taranga FM, tried it and it didn’t go down well. When the going was tough, when journalists used to worry too much about their life and safety, we were able to really have an impact in that 2001 election. Citizen FM played a critical role in terms of informing the people and helping them make informed decisions in terms of that election.
How would you rate broadcast journalism in this administration as opposed to the past administration?
The environment now is far better than before in the APRC government. There is still room for improvement though. Journalists need to be ready to learn and media chiefs too must invest in these people. It is because of these people that the newspapers are being bought and it is because of broadcasters that people tune in to listen to radios. Gambians have to learn from their Senegalese counterparts and start paying these people good money so that they may become more independent and incorruptible.
You served as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Youth and Sport. What are the challenges facing the youths of this country and what in your estimation are the solutions?
The young people of this country have a plethora of challenges. Young people in this country in particular and Africa in general, are desperate. They believe that there is nothing left for them in this country. They believe they cannot earn a decent life in this country. As a result, they are constantly being pushed to travel abroad. I would have thought that after many years of neglect, after many years of young people being used by politicians just for their own ends, it should be time for young people to be heard. It still baffles me, it still discourages me when I hear young people say we should be given a voice, that we should be involved in decision-making process. I think the mantra should be ‘we have to be involved in the decision-making process,’ not asking people to involve us. Let them belong to political parties or form pressure groups. Yes, they are facing a lot of challenges in terms of employability because the productive sectors of the economy which have the potential to create the jobs that we need, are still being neglected. It has been neglected by successive governments and, if we don’t strengthen those sectors we cannot create jobs for young people.
During your tenure as PS, the mass irregular migration to Europe known as ‘backway’ was at its peak, what are the push factors and how can this be stopped?
The fundamental problem is the issue of unemployment and unemployability. The problem is the issue of securing decent jobs, not just any job. The cost of living is going up. The prices of commodities are skyrocketing. When most of young people graduate from our school system, they cannot find jobs. Those who get jobs are paid pittance. All these young people you see, they are not going to the backway because they want to commit suicide. No. It’s because they want a better life. They want to build nice houses for themselves and their parents. They want to drive flashy cars and have big amounts in their bank accounts. They believe they cannot do that here. During my time as PS, they used to say ‘Barcelona or the [Barzakh]graveyard’. The Spanish tried to stop it and create something for these people so that they abandon the backway. Guess what? When the proposal was developed, almost 85 percent was channeled to security. They wanted to buy speed boat for the navy, and helicopters et cetera to chase after these boys after they already have left. One would have thought that the principle of the project would have been to create jobs for these people that they may stay. The Spanish money was meant to create jobs for young people, not to empower the military. If I were in their position, I would have made sure that fisheries and agriculture would get the chunk of the money we were getting from the EU. Fisheries, I would have asked the EU to purchase 25 trawlers for The Gambia, construct cold storages in strategic coastal villages and also fish processing centres…
You were sacked in acrimonious fashion from your position as PS and later prosecuted, what exactly happened?
Up until now, I cannot tell you why I was dismissed. Dismissal in the service at the time was a two sentence letter. No explanation. One would have thought that before you dismiss a civil servant, the PSC and the PMO should constitute a committee to investigate whatever crimes the person has been accused of committing. That didn’t happen. When I was dismissed, I went back to Barra. Later, operatives from the police fraud squad came to my office and said I had written a false letter to the Office of the President, which is not true. I received information even before their coming to my home. I could have fled, but I didn’t. It was a simple arrest. We crossed the river and went to police headquarters, I wrote my statement and was later granted bail. On 5 November, I was taken to Banjul magistrate’s court charged with one count of providing false information to a public officer. I pleaded not guilty and the trial lasted for two years. It ended in December when I was acquitted and discharged.
How did you come to join the GDC?
Mamma Kandeh and I knew each other when we were both at the NRP. He left the NRP before me. We met and he told me he was on the verge of registering a political party and that he would want me to be part of it. We discussed and agreed that this would be a different political party. You know, I was going to establish my own party and name it after the NDC of Ghana because I love Jerry Rawlings, even though I don’t like military coups. He smiled and said in fact, the name of my party is Gambia Democratic Congress, the only difference is the G and the N. That’s how I joined the GDC and since then I have found Mamma to be a politician with a difference.
Why is the GDC so popular with Fana Fanas and Fulas?
I am not a Fana Fana, I am a Serere. For me, I detest politics based on tribal sentiments and tribal lines. The truth is, whoever registers a political party today must come from one of the tribes here. That’s inevitable. It is also natural, that some of your king’s men will support you but it doesn’t mean to say the party belongs to a particular tribe. Politics is not about character assassination, it is not about using profanity against each other, and it is not about tribal bigotry. Politics is about compromise and about a contest of ideas for a greater good.
Is that your message to those people who say the GDC is a tribal party and and is anti-Mandinka?
When I am pushed to talk about tribalism in politics, I feel very bad. The leader of GDC is Fula, am I Fula? No, I am not. The deputy leader is a Mandinka, Sarjo Fanta Bojang [a Mandinka] from Brikama, the treasurer of the party is Lamin Bojang [a Mandinka] from Brikama, the deputy chairman is Kabiro Manneh [a Mandinka] from Brikama. That assertion about the GDC is not correct. You need to remember that since 2016, there were people who were hell bent on discrediting the GDC. Some even went to the extent and said the GDC was sponsored by Jammeh. Jammeh would have been the greatest fool on earth. So all these are idle talks. I thought that Gambians would have graduated from this politics of tribalism and understand that if you speak against the Mandinkas or the Fulas, you speak against God, because it was God who created them.
Why should Gambians follow Mamma Kandeh instead of people with demonstrated sterling achievements like Halifa Sallah or Ousainu Darboe?
Because he is a good man, and a good politician. Since the establishment of the GDC, his message has been of peace, of unity, tolerance and of cooperation. I always say that the most skillful politician is the one who is not afraid to negotiate and to compromise for the greater good. Mamma is very good at that.
Several key position holders in the GDC, like Yusupha Jaiteh and Batchilly, said they left the party because GDC is a one man (Mamma Kandeh) show. Your response.
I respect their opinion as citizens and also as former members of the party. That is their opinion.
What is your view on this matter?
That’s what I am telling you. Maybe they had their personal issues with Mamma. Maybe there are things they wanted him to divulge to them and he refused and did so with good reason. If they had known too many things about him, they would have been talking about it now that they are not in the GDC. I never criticised Hamat even after I left his party despite the many things I can say. NRP is a one-man party and Hamat knows that. But I never castigate him.
What is the position of the GDC on the 3-year versus 5-year debate?
Even though the GDC is not part of the coalition, the issue of the coalition has become a national issue. Remember, when the GDC was campaigning in 2016, it entered into a covenant with the Gambian people that if it wins, it will run this country for five years as per the constitution. APRC campaigned on the same line. But Gambians didn’t vote for APRC, neither did they vote for GDC. They voted for the people who told them we are going to institute a transitional government of three years and allow Gambians to go back to the polls. That is precisely why people voted for them. In this case, it was supposed to be a transitional government and transitional governments all over the world don’t have to govern or abide by the constitutional provision…
What is the GDC’s position on the recent removal of Ya Kumba Jaiteh as a National Assembly member?
Even though he nominated her, Barrow knows very well he cannot remove Ya Kumba. Now the ball is in the court of the National Assembly.
Why can’t he?
No National Assembly Member should say I am fearful of the fact that if I talk, somebody can dismiss me from their party and I lose my seat. That provision has been amended and they are safe. In order to give meaning to our democracy, institutions have to take responsibility. The GDC is not going to say anything about this until we see what the National Assembly, an institution that is affected, says its position on the matter is.
If Barrow refuses to stand down after three years or fails to agree to the Coalition MoU, certain elements are calling for massive civil protests to force him out. Will the GDC be part of this?
No, we will never be part of forcing Barrow to resign. We will only be part of an alliance to compel him to organise an election, fresh election. We are not going to force Barrow to resign in anyway.
Others are saying the UDP should use its majority in parliament to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president, will the GDC be part of this complot?
No, we have not been given adequate reason why impeachment proceedings should be initiated. The National Assembly knows what they should do when there is a violation of the constitution. We are not going to allow anyone to use the GDC to take over this country from Barrow, no matter who you are. Barrow should respect the gentleman’s agreement and hand over to the eventual winner in 2019.
What is the problem with this Barrow government?
Well, you should know what the problem is. These people were not prepared. They didn’t have an agenda. The fragmentation is defocusing Barrow. Some people keep telling us the coalition is intact. What an idle talk! The coalition has never been intact. There is a camp saying that Barrow should resign after three years and another camp saying no, we didn’t sign any document and that Barrow should serve for five years. Barrow himself, who is at the centre of this controversy, said it in many fora and media that they signed an agreement. He said after three years, he would honour the agreement and hand over. I personally have high regards for Barrow because he is very polite and calm, but if he allowed himself to be used by people who are only after their own interest, he will be doomed. Even if need be, consult members of the opposition because they will tell you the truth since they have no interest in any position in your government.
In 2019 or 2021, will GDC go into a coalition with any party?
No, it will all depend on the new constitution. It is our hope that in that constitution, there will be a provision for second round voting. In that case, you don’t need an alliance.
But will the GDC accept being a junior partner?
We cannot accept that. We will not even negotiate. Nobody can treat the GDC in this country as a junior partner. In fact, we are one of the biggest parties here if not the biggest.
Is this stance down to your performance in 2016?
Yes, and the growing support base that we continue to enjoy in this country.
Where does the GDC get its funding?
Why should I tell you that? We have friends and well-wishers who believe in the GDC and they help.
Many are saying there is no transparency in the party, especially financial transparency…
Have you conducted any survey to determine… because you said ‘many are saying’? That is your perception and the perception of a few Gambians.
Recently Imam Baba Leigh made a statement that Fulas need to bond together to secure and sustain political power, your leader Mamma Kandeh was at the event…
Are you sure he was there?
Yes, he was. What is Mamma’s position on the imam’s statement as many regard it as intrinsically tribalist?
Well you see, I would have thought, you would put this question before Imam Leigh, who made the statement. However, as a citizen of this country, I believe that what Imam Baba Leigh said was his personal opinion. I am not sure Baba Leigh said that to allude that Mamma should join with Barrow. I can assure you that if the GDC was to work with Barrow, it was not going to be based on tribal lines but our profound belief and conviction that it is the best for this country.
But would you agree, that at least, the imam’s statement was unfortunate?
I am not going to judge him based on what he said because sometimes also we need to understand the context in which something is said. What is harmful is when we bring tribes in our national discourse. If people think it was tribalist, it’s an opportunity perhaps, for the imam to be more careful when he delivers public statements.