By Omar Wally
Bantaba anchor Omar Wally this week talks to distinguished lawyer Sheriff Marie Tambadou about his passion for football, New Gambia, ‘Nduragate’ tape and his work as a lawyer
Omar Wally: How would you introduce yourself?
Sheriff Tambadou: I have been practicing law since 1991 after obtaining my qualifications in London at Inns of Court School of Law. I returned to The Gambia and worked as a pupil at Macaulay & Drameh Law Chambers for six months. And with the help of my late father, I opened my own chambers. Since then I have been in private practice.
Sheriff, you were once included in The Standard newspaper top ten Gambia rich list. We know you are a scion of the Marie Tambadou family, but are you that rich?
No I’m not that rich, I’m not rich at all. In fact when Standard made that publication, I wrote a letter of protest to the editor and threatened to take legal action. I thought it was unjustified.
Nobody contacted me and The Standard could not have known me better than myself. It was a speculation.
So The Standard did armchair journalism?
I don’t know what ‘armchair journalism’ means. My argument was what criteria did they use, but certainly it was not true.
So why didn’t’ you come good on your threat to take legal action against The Standard?
When I went to deliver the letter, I met the editor at the time he is my ‘toma’ (namesake) Sheriff Bojang. I met him, we laughed and joked about it and he promised to retract the story, but I just let it go. Because I thought, I will call too much attention by taking legal action.
You are known as a great lover of football. Tell us your love affair with the beautiful game.
I love football and it is a hubby. I did not play football except in school, jokingly with friends. I did basketball and table tennis, but I have been following football just before 1978 World Cup. I follow football around the world.
Which teams do you support?
I follow teams in most of the European and African leagues. In The Gambia, I support Wallidan, in France, Paris Saint-Germain; in England, Arsenal; in Spain, Barcelona; in Germany, Bayern; in Scotland, Rangers; in Bulgaria, Sofia; in Poland, Warsaw; in South Africa, Mamelodi Sundowns; and in Italy, Juventus.
I’m a Red member of Arsenal Football Club and contribute to the team annually, £45, and I have membership card. I received personalised letters from Arsene Wenger, calendars and memorabilia from the Arsenal Football Club. In 2006, I travelled to watch championship league final between Arsenal and Barcelona.
Impressive. Now back on terra firma, Sheriff, exactly what role did you play in the Coalition efforts that ultimately ousted Jammeh after the December 1 election?
As president of Gambia Bar Association at the time, the bar took up the challenge that law must be respected. The will of the people that was expressed through the ballot box must be respected. The Gambia Bar Association met and it is part of our mandate to defend the rule of law and that is what we did. We made a statement; called on the former president to leave to respect the will of people. And we asked the rest of the society to stand up to him and to ask him to leave.
You are a man of the wig, why didn’t you opt for the constitutional law to run its course in solving the political impasse by allowing judges to come than issuing a statement calling on Jammeh to vacate the presidency forthwith?
We were abiding by the Constitution, and talking about judges; it is not for the Gambia Bar Association to appoint judges. The president appoints judges, as it was said in our statement; we had been clamouring for the appointment of judges because cases were stalling in the Supreme Court.
We had pending cases and the case of UDP people, their applications were pending and it was difficult to move. Jammeh refused to appoint Supreme Court judges. When he filed the petition before the Supreme Court and then appoint judges to hear them… We thought any court appointed at that time would not be fair.
So Jammeh fell on his own sword. Had it been the Supreme Court was properly empanelled with judges, would you have given him chance to file his petition?
But even if there was a properly constituted supreme court with his petition before the court, he had to respect the will of the people. He had to step down. Adama Barrow should be sworn in as president and Jammeh could pursue his petition.
Let’s say Jammeh agreed to step aside and Barrow was inaugurated and judges delivered on the case and rule that he (Jammeh) won; would Barrow have agreed to step aside for Jammeh to take over?
I don’t know that answer. I’m not Barrow, but what I know and expect is for Barrow to respect the law and so far that is what he is doing. I expect that if Jammeh had stepped down, Barrow assumed the presidency, Jammeh petitions and succeeds, I expect Barrow to respect the Supreme Court decision.
Was it constitutional or edifying for the president of The Gambia to be sworn in a foreign land?
Yes, very much so. Our Constitution talks about the way and manner the president should be sworn in, but doesn’t say where he should be sworn in. There is no limit; it doesn’t say the president should be sworn in the Gambia physically. It was quite in order for Barrow to be sworn in Senegal.
If that was the case, why was he sworn in The Gambia a second time?
If you listened, the recital of Chief Justice, Honourable Hassan Jallow on the 18th of February at the Independence Stadium, gave reason as to why, what was going to happen is happening. And in one of the recitals, he said: ‘President Barrow having been sworn in Senegal and now it is desirous to have him take the oath in The Gambia, before the Gambian people…’ That was why it was done. The preamble stated why it was done not that it is required to be done.
Why did you, a private lawyer, and not the chief justice at the time Emmanuel Fagbenle, administer the oath swearing in Barrow in Senegal?
Well, I was in Senegal and Barrow was there too and it was an opportune moment, convenient and proper, that was why I administered the oath.
Is it not a breach of established convention or even of the Constitution for you to administer the oath?
Yes, by custom and convention, it is preferable that the highest office of the judge in the land, the chief justice, administer that oath. But in the circumstances prevailing at the time, that was not possible. In fact, the Gambia Bar Association had written a letter asking for the former chief justice to resign, because he was biased. He was seen campaigning for former President Jammeh, wearing APRC T-shirt and cap in the court premises. We protested and wrote a letter to him.
Now coming to points of law, Mrs Tambajang has been appointed vice president but she has not been sworn in. Is this not anomalous or even unconstitutional?
It is constitutional. You must remember the government has an attorney general, a chief legal adviser at the Ministry of Justice. He is competent, guiding and giving advice. And that is in line with the Constitution. The Constitution did not say you should be sworn in on the day of the appointment.
But didn’t the Constitution state that the vice president should be sworn in before he or she performs his or her duties?
I don’t think so, I am speaking from memory because I don’t have a copy of the Constitution with me here. I see a situation under the Oaths Act where it says where acts or subsequent acts done by the vice president cannot be invalidated or can be validated despite the fact that the swearing-in was defective or not proper. So, even if she was sworn in, which was not done properly, consequently that acts she performs as vice president would not be invalidated.
In the famous case of Darboe and Co. in which you were one of the counsel, the defence team withdrew from the case. Was that not an imprudent decision, given what was at risk?
It was very wise. Professionally and ethically, we can do so. When you go to court and every application you make is turned down which can happen, but if you see they are turning down because your clients rights are not being respected, the judge is seemingly biased or not acting according to procedure on law, you can walk out.
Now, Sheriff, do you have personal, political ambition?
No, I’m not a politician, I am a professional carrying my work to the best of my ability.
Many would say, you have earned your spurs, so in next five or ten years, if some Gambians come to you and say, Sheriff, we want you to lead our party, will you not accept?
What you have just said is impossible. You know in life, you never say never because only God Almighty knows what plans he has for you. But speaking to you now, I don’t have political ambition.
Out of ten, how would you rate the Barrow government?
So far, I will give Barrow 10 over 10 and his government 7 over 10.
Why such unalloyed support for Barrow? Is it because of his Serahulè connection?
Me, support Barrow based on ethnicity? I don’t support him base on ethnicity. But how did people even know that I am supporting Barrow? I have not done any act or outwardly demonstrating support for Barrow. He was elected by majority of Gambians, I certainly did not vote for Yahya Jammeh. This is a new Gambia; we owe it to ourselves to help change what was here, to encourage the government correct, advise and show them the way and participate. If Barrow fails, all of us fail. We owe it to him to succeed. Ethnicity? No! I work with all kinds of people and go along with everybody.
Why would you defend Tony Ghattas who had all kinds of financial dealings with the former president in the ongoing commission of inquiry?
I’m a legal practitioner carrying out my work. I am bound by the ethics of my profession to represent anybody who comes to me. That is what we call cab-rank rule. A lawyer is a taxi man who has to carry the passenger that comes to him with a few exceptions. My representation of Tony Ghattas is strictly professional and everybody has a right to a legal practitioner.
Even the Act that established the commissions of inquiry give the right to any person summoned as a witness or to assist the commission in its enquiry to go with a legal practitioner of their choice. People who commit murder, if they cannot afford a legal practitioner, the state provides them with a lawyer. Are you saying for example if Yahya Jammeh were to be arrested and brought to The Gambia and tried, he is not entitled to be represented by a legal representation, of course he has. I’m just doing my work.
Now, let us come to the famous Ndura Jawara case. You recused yourself from the trial of the former NIA officials because of the brouhaha that ensued following the leakage of a secretly taped conversation you had with her on the case involving her husband, former NIA head Yankuba Badjie. Did you regret having that conversation with her?
I have not regretted at all.
I did not do anything wrong. Like I said, I was doing my work, it is just that the greater public did not understand some of the workings as a legal practitioner. Everything that I did was legitimate. We were conducting plea-bargain, and we met with every accused person not only Badjie’s wife. His counsel had travelled and gave us permission to talk to the wife. I and a colleague were delegated to talk to her. She chose to record it and publish it herself that was up to her. I thought it was proper to recuse myself so that the focus will be on the case and not on me.
You were clearly heard in the leaked audio saying in Wolof, ‘suma sañon, case bu, du am’, which means left to you alone, the case would not have happened. That’s a very loaded statement?
I did not say ‘suma sañon’ and I did not want to go to that again. If you have somebody charged with a crime, there are different ways and if the person comes and pleads guilty that is the end of it. There was no trial at the time, they complained that the case was being rushed, investigations were not done properly and they needed to be completed and when everything is ready, then they could go to court.
Sheriff, that was one black spot on a very white slate in your career?
No. It is for those who did not understand the work of a legal practitioner or legal practice. There is what we call res ipsa loquitur, it means the thing speaks for itself. We are in The Gambia, we all know each other and know who is who, and if you are bad or good, people will know. If you do good or bad people know. I am not bothered at all.
What is the biggest achievement of your career?
It is to accept clients irrespective of their profession, ethnicity and their background. That has been my happiness. I am proud to look back that I have represented all kinds of people, it doesn’t matter whether they are a murderer, businessman, APRC or UDP. I represent everybody. That is my happiness.
What would be the one message you would give to an aspiring or a young lawyer?
To be a lawyer is not to get rich. You need to make your name, work hard. It is better for a lawyer to be reminded to be fighting for his clients, than for the car he or she drives.