With Alagie Manneh
Ousman Jatta, better known by the sobriquet ‘Rambo’, is Bakau’s marmite man politician, admired and disliked in equal measure. A former UDP strong man, he cross-carpeted to the then ruling APRC party and became one of the most trusted and loyal close aides of Jammeh in his final years as president. Earlier this week, he was named deputy party leader of the APRC. Bantaba anchor Alagie Manneh sat with him for a marathon interview and walked him down the long memory lane of his colourful and chequered political career. Excerpts:
You are born Ousman Jatta, but better known as ‘Rambo’. How did the nom de guerre of a brawny American actor come to stick on you?
It is a long story. Far back in 1989, when I returned from Sweden, I built a lot of muscle and an English man gave me a singlet, and the picture on this singlet was the image of Sylvester Stallone. That’s how the name came about. That was when the first Rambo movie was released, and he was holding a very powerful gun on that picture. That’s how I got the name. When my people see me, they say, ‘Hey Rambo, hey Rambo!’ The name stuck on me.
You had a bourgeoning local tourism business that you could live off, why did you get involved in politics?
I got into politics because of the profits I was making from my business. I was helping, and I’m still helping, a lot of people, secretly. I was paying school fees for a lot of children. I was helping a lot of families to stand on their feet from the proceeds of my business. And when the councillor for Old Bakau and Cape Point Ward, who was Etu Faal, absconded to the UK, because I was also engaged in a lot of community work, like removing garbage … I think I was the first to start that in Bakau, removing garbage and dirt. And so when Etu absconded, there was a by-election. The people of Bakau thought I was the most viable candidate for that position, so that’s how I got into politics.
Why is politics such an intense issue in Bakau unlike for example, Sukuta or Yundum?
I believe [some people in] Bakau lack political maturity and political tolerance because Bakau is not the only place where politics is played in this country, but wherever you go in The Gambia they would say to you ‘al-la Bakau…’ (your Bakau!). I think it’s not only about politics, it’s about personal grievance against each other but it is manifested in the times of politics. That’s my view.
When party political activities were allowed in the run-up to the 1997 presidential election, why did you opt to join the UDP instead of say the NCP, PPP or PDOIS?
I was in the NCP. I was the youth secretary for Bakau. I enjoy being in the opposition, to be honest with you. I enjoy to oppose, not for the sake of opposing, but based on facts because it is the opposition that normally show the government its mistakes. The government does good, but we always say they could have done better, just to push them to more work. That’s what I enjoy in politics; not to be standing on a platform and using the microphone to make allegations and insults. That is not my kind of politics. All those who know me in the political field know that I am not that kind of person. I am not a violent politician.
You rose to the high rank of national youth leader in the UDP, why do you think you were selected?
I think it was the trust, the commitment, dedication, and loyalty to the party. That was in 2010, or thereabouts. We went for a congress, so some people thought I should fill that position.
It was said it was Adama Barrow, the young Brikama politician, Pa Manneh, and others who campaigned for you at the congress in LRD when you were elected.
To be very honest with you, I don’t know Adama Barrow personally in UDP. Maybe, I might have met him in one of our gatherings without knowing that this man is Adama Barrow but, that name was never popular in UDP when I was there.
So he never campaigned for you at that congress and you didn’t know him?
No. Not at all. Barrow never campaigned for me. The one I could remember campaigning for me was Pa Manneh and Ousainu [Darboe] recommended me. I didn’t even know I was going to be selected National Youth President for UDP that day. It fell on my birthday. I never expected it. I even cried that day. It must have been Pa Manneh who instigated it.
Before joining the APRC, you were arrested by the police, presumably acting on orders from President Jammeh and held at unknown places for about a year, what did you do and where were you held and what happened to you during your detention?
Actually, my that arrest had nothing to do with Jammeh. There are people, still alive in Bakau, I think they should be asked that question. That was instigated by politicians, or some quarters in Bakau.
Who are these people? Tell us
No. I will not call names for now, but I know them. I mingle with them. Even when I came to the APRC, those were the people fighting me. That was instigated by the people of Bakau and the police. I was under police custody throughout my detention. I didn’t do anything. I was never charged. They just detained me incommunicado.
Where were you detained?
I was picked up from my office, to the Bakau police station, and they were talking on the phone to who I don’t know. Then from there, they took me to Gunjur Police Station, where I spent three hours in a wet cell, during the rainy season. I developed malaria. Then the doctor came, and after he did some tests on me, the following day, they took me to Sibanor. I spent three weeks in Sibanor and I did my Koriteh there that year. The day after Koriteh, I was transported to Fatoto. Fatoto was a very rough ride, to be very honest with you.
Tell us about it?
Well, from my observation in the car, they were four people including the driver. After my release, I wrote a memoir of that detention. The ride was very rough because by then, the road was not paved. It was in one of those AU Hyundai SUVs. Very, very bumpy ride. I noticed there was 20-litre gallon of patrol at the back of the car. I thought they were going to burn me alive (laughs). It was a very disturbing ride. We drove all the way to Basse and branched off towards Koina. I wanted to use the toilet and when the car stopped, I saw one of the escorts with a fully loaded pistol. I said, ‘wow, so today is the end’, but I also said, ‘no, be hopeful,’ to myself. We continued on another bumpy road. The road from Basse to Fatoto which is around 32km, was worse. The driver was driving at full speed. He didn’t care it was a government vehicle. I think they were given a deadline to reach Fatoto. So, we drove farther and then I sighted a health centre and then a guard post. Finally, I said this must be the place, because we journeyed so far. He drove into a police station. I was dumped there.
Were you informed of your alleged crime?
No. Never. I was 100 percent sure I didn’t commit any crime, it was political.
Many say the former government was brutal and had no regards for human rights. Where you tortured during your detention?
I was never tortured. No officer for a second, or for once, laid a hand on me. I was never tortured. And then, from Fatoto, five days to Tobaski, I was transported in cuffs with heavy guards in a Land Rover with four paramilitary officers carrying AK47s. On that day, I cried.
Because I was being treated as the most wanted criminal in this country. That is what made me cry. I was being punished for a crime I didn’t commit. So we crossed the ferry at Foday Kunda and then we went along the north bank. After two hours, around maghrib we arrived at Sare Ngai. There was one detainee in Sare Ngai. He was a teacher, something Tamba. He had since passed away. First time I met him was in a cell in Sibanor and, after I met him again in Sare Ngai, we exchanged words. The small money I was having, I gave it to him. I told him I thought he had been released. He said to me no, I have been here since. What I didn’t tell you was, when I met that man, I forgot my case, because the man was handicapped and in severe pain. His bone was almost drawn out. Despite that, he was detained like that, throughout, without any medical attention given to him. His detention by the police, like mind, wasn’t a directive from H.E. [Jammeh]. I had a conversation with the man, and he told me he only went out on the street to welcome President Jammeh when he was on a tour. According to him, a politician went to him and said to him, ‘move your kids from here before I give you trouble’, but he told the politician, ‘no, I am not doing that’. He thought the politician was joking. But that night he didn’t sleep with his wife. The politician was a lowlife just like in my case in Bakau. They arrested the man and took him to Bansang Police Station and then to other places. I exchanged words with him and told him I was still here. For what? I don’t
know. I was in Fatoto for almost nine months, in a very serious condition. Deplorable. There was a Fula boy who normally brought water for me to bathe, because one must fetch from the community well early in the morning, otherwise no water for you. As for food, whoever was on duty at the station would give me to eat whenever they brought his food. I was mentally tortured, but I know I could survive it.
How did you come to be released?
I came to be released when Amnesty International got involved. There was a lot of noise regarding my issue and finally, Amnesty people came to Banjul and hired a tourist taxi together with a journalist called ‘Dampha’. It was around 3pm one day when we were sitting outside, taking air – in that part of the country it gets hell hot – when we saw this mini van parked and people emerged from it. I was seated where I was. I didn’t move. The Amnesty guys, a Nigerian and the British man, said to the officer that they were from Amnesty International, but the officer didn’t understand what Amnesty really meant. He didn’t know what those people stood for. And I thought that was funny. It was the most enjoyable part for me, that day. I said, ‘Wow, thank God!’ After enquiring about me, the officer told them I am ‘Mr Rambo’ and that the state took me there for detention.
“What is his crime?” they asked. “No, they didn’t tell us,” the officer responded. “You have to talk to my S.O.” Then the S.O. ordered me to go into my cell. They asked the SO what my crime was and for how long I was here. The S.O. became uncomfortable. In the next cell, a pregnant woman was locked there, and when they asked about her, the officer just said she was involved in a fight. But I said to myself he is lying. It was very funny. They asked the S.O. if they could talk to me but he told them they must go to Basse and seek clearance from the authorities. I later learnt they were arrested on the way, after the NIA man posted at Sare Ngai reported their visit.
So early next morning, I heard on BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that two Amnesty guys were arrested in The Gambia trying to locate Ousman ‘Rambo’ Jatta. I said my prayers have been answered. On the third day, I was released. I was fixing my torchlight – in Sare Ngai, you must have a torch all the time – when suddenly, one Colley asked, “Who is in charge? Can you come and answer to your commissioner?” After sometime, officer Daffeh stood and said Jatta you are going home. He said, “You are released unconditionally and you are to leave our station at once”. I said thank God, I have been waiting for this for over one year. I called my people and they became very emotional. That was just a day before Koriteh. I called my wife, [who just passed away] and my brother, to start driving that night and come meet me. We reached Barra around 6pm but ferry services were closed, and we slept there until the next day. In brief, that was what happened. I was never tortured, and my detention was never ordered by President Jammeh. There are few people in Bakau who are responsible and I have clear evidence. President Jammeh never had anything to do with my detention, to be very candid with you.
How can you be so sure?
During our 2016 tour, when we were in Farafenni, by then I was a permanent secretary, he invited all the PSs and ministers and the Speaker of the House and during the chat, he said, “Rambo, you were once my guest.” I said “Sir?’ he said “You were once detained,” and I said, “Yes sir”. Then he said, “Rambo, I am not responsible for your detention. I said “Sir, I don’t understand.” He said, “Rambo, I came to know of your detention in the papers and then I immediately called the then IGP and the then NIA director to my office in State House and asked them who is holding this man. The NIA said they never arrested you. The IGP also denied it.” But police stations are under him, from Gunjur to Sare Ngai. Jammeh then told me that he knew if he forced the issue, they could have done something that might not be good. He said he then asked for my picture but since that day he said they could not provide my picture for him. So things such as my case, and many others, happened and people think it was the president who made them happen. Now, he is out of the country, he is out of power, let them do their own internal investigations and see what findings they are going to come out with. I am not backing President Jammeh. My detention was not commanded by Jammeh. The people who did it, who masterminded it, are from Bakau.
In the run-up to the 2011 presidential election, you shook the country when you were paraded at the July 22 Square and it was announced you had joined the APRC. Why did you join APRC, the party you hated so much?
Why I joined the APRC was very clear and it’s manifesting now; it is corruption. It was corruption at its highest level in UDP. That was this visa scandal. It is something that was really happening in the UDP. You know, you recently asked me how I was selected national youth president. You know, when this thing came up, our first executive meeting, I asked for the password to the party’s email inbox. That was a very heated debate. I shouldn’t have asked that because I didn’t know there was this clique of people who were doing this. To be honest, in that visa scandal, Darboe was not involved. He knew about it but couldn’t do anything about it, but he was not part of it. So when the issue came, I said I needed the password to the inbox. They said no, that was hell. We pushed and pulled, pushed and pulled and finally Mr Darboe intervened and said now, let us vote by raising our hands. Who are in favour for me to have the password? So we won six to five and I was given the password. When I came home that very night, I put on my computer and went into the site and entered the password and there was an invitation from the International Union of Socialist Youth, IUSY, of which the UDP youth wing is a member and they do invite or send invitations for party militants to attend congress, meetings and so on. And for that trip one, they were inviting 12 people, if I am not mistaken. I print the invitation and sealed it in an envelope and wrote on it Mr Darboe. I called Solo Sandeng, he was my secretary and I told him I have a letter here for Mr Darboe so that you can drop it to him. I told Solo of the content of that letter. Some days after, Mr Darboe called me and said Jatta, “What visa issue is going on?” I said it must be either one of us; me, you or Solo because I gave the letter to Solo to bring it to you. I am just waiting for your recommendation on the issue, that’s why I thought you even called. He said, “No way”. So someone has already started selling those visas and I think that trip was to Switzerland. So we had an executive meeting and this issue came up and I was very quiet, Mr Darboe asked, “Rambo, today you are moody, what’s up?” I told him, “Sir, with respect I don’t mean to disrespect anybody but I don’t have the feeling to be with you people in this house right now. I just spoke my mind.”
But who do you think was responsible for this fraudulent act?
Anyway, I know it was not Darboe and it definitely wasn’t me…
So this is the primary reason you left the UDP?
That was my primary reason. When that scandal happened, I did my own investigations before attending that meeting, and I was well informed this thing had been happening. You know, John Loppy [allegedly] went with such visa, to America. He just seized it from them and said this time I am going. A lot of people who sought asylum in the diaspora, it was through that visa thing. According to the information I got, during my findings, some of the visas are sold to Sarahules and that money never benefited the party. So I said now, this is just like monkey works, baboons eat. I was detained for almost 385 days, the UDP never sent a dime to my family much more anyone of them stepping their foot to see how my family was doing.
But Darboe made efforts on your behalf, he was representing you at court.
Of course he was representing me in court, but was it done properly? Because you know sometimes we have to swallow our pride. No matter how good a lawyer you are, sometimes you must bow down, it’s Africa, it’s not Europe. They never give my family anything to uplift them. But when I was released, I said, ‘Ah, just forget those trivial things because those were not my primary concerns. I am that kind of a person; If I am yellow, I am yellow, if I am green, I am green. So after that small push and pull at that meeting, I silenced myself but before I left, I already made my decision to quit UDP. So I sat for almost two months and whenever they told me of programmes I would say I don’t have time, I can’t attend. So, one fine day, Major Solo Bojang called me through somebody and said he wanted to talk to me. So we scheduled and met and he introduced himself. He said the message is very short: “I am sent by the big man”. I said which big man and he said, “I am sent by President Jammeh”. I said for what, and he said, “The big man would like for you to join hands and work together for the development of the country”. I said that should not be a big deal. I am in. Without any precondition, without any demand, I agreed and joined.
Your supporters including family members queried you joining that party without informing them, so that must have meant you took the decision hastily?
No, that decision was not hastily made. It happened like I explain to you. I took the decision knowing that people who follow me politically, will come with me. This is exactly how it happened, so that should not be a big deal. That should not annoy anybody. I didn’t go to tell anybody to come with me, even after when I jumped wagon. Those who see what I know, they came with me, and that was good for Bakau, obviously because my those few months in Bakau, I brought a lot, compared to those who were there for 22 years. So that was why the infighting was just too much.
Yet some people believe you joined APRC because you were facing a possible jail term for fighting with one Basiru Bojang, your business neighbor, at Cape Point?
That was a misdemeanour. How long will you get? Two months. I was jailed for 385 days. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. No, that is not true, honestly speaking. And for that case, I was fined D1, 000 which I paid. I knew the offence and knew what the fine was, so that should not make me to switch political allegiance.
Your joining APRC however, created a big division in the APRC in Bakau because the former APRC executive said you refused to join them and wanted to work solo?
Yes, I wanted to work solo because I already knew what was going on. Not actually wanting to work solo, you cannot work solo in a political party, but that group, I don’t want to associate myself with them. Even when I was in the UDP, we used to hear something had come and few people have gone into the house and shared it among themselves. So I didn’t want to be part of that and it was those same people who were responsible for my arrest. So that’s why when I came to the APRC, they want to make it hard for me but sometimes it’s good to be stubborn. Stubbornness is good in some societies. When I came to APRC, the first months was tough but I know I have undergone things harder than this so these people cannot shake me off. I didn’t quit the UDP because I was given money or was promised positions. When I came to APRC, I was given two managerial positions at KGI, which I declined. Pa Bojang is a living witness to it.
Jammeh has gifted you a lot of money. How much would you say he has given you in total?
The fist amount given was D100, 000. The second was D60, 000. Another D100, 000 was given to me through Amadou Samba. D60, 000 was at Kamalo. D300, 000 was given when we went for victory celebration in Farafenni. Now let’s add it up. Altogether it will give you D460, 000, that’s how much I benefit from President Jammeh in fiscal cash. I then bought a rice-milling machine because the women of Bakau were complaininig even though all these were my money. They were gifts to me. They were personal gifts to me.
It wasn’t for development purposes?
No, no, no. Not at all. The president was giving me all these monies because he knew I have people behind me as a politician. So I cannot get these monies and keep it to myself. Rambo is Rambo because of people. This is why I shared the money for the benefit of all by purchasing a rice-milling machine, building the stage at the community centre, making concrete slabs for the gutters around the bantaba and the front of the mosque. These were all done by me. I also organised a football tournament. I did what I am supposed to do for Bakau. People would think even this storey-building, my house, was built by President Jammeh. That’s a big mistake. I was a businessman before I got into politics. It is that business that got me into politics. I should have built three or four of this, if I wasn’t a philanthropist. When I was in the UDP, I was doing more. Why are they not talking about that? The amount of money I spent in UDP, I didn’t spend that in APRC, but people are not talking about that. Just like when I said let’s stop envying each other, people went on and accused me of insulting the whole town. I didn’t insult the whole town. I never stood and insulted the whole of Bakau. I will never do that.
To be continued…