Berkeley Rice on MC Cham (Excerpts from Enter Gambia, Birth of an Improbable Nation)


He wore narrow black trousers, pointed black patent leather boots, a sport jacket and an olive green fez. In a loquacious mood, he relaxed in a deck chair and chatted with the other passengers about his start in politics. After high school, Cham worked for two years as a minor civilian clerk at police headquarters, then left when the department decided to make all civilian employees enter the uniform service. While some officials recall other reasons for his departure, Cham claims it was a point of honour. “I refused to put on the uniform. Our police force was a place where young people with some education wanted to work. But I worked under semi-literate bosses who were jealous of me. As a civilian, I was not subject to them, so I refused to join the uniform force. About that time, my people in Tumana wrote to me, inviting me to resign and stand for election to parliament. I did, and I won.”

Besides their annual salary of US$1,340, up-river Members receive small travel and hotel allowances to cover the expenses of attending parliament sessions in Bathurst. Since all districts are only a day’s trip by Land Rover from Bathurst, and since MPs can usually wrangle free passage on the Lady Wright, the government considers their travel allowance ample. Momodou Cham does not. “We MPs incur more expenses than ministers, because we are not stationed in Bathurst. [This was odd, since the cost of living in the provinces is negligible compared to that in Bathurst]. Asked if he supplemented his salary with any other work, he replied, “Some MPs have extra jobs, others do not choose to have them. I do not choose to. You see, the only place you could look for employment would be with the government or else the commercial firms. I would not want to work for them since I would want to criticise them”.

“Are you satisfied with the way parliament runs now?”


“I think the House sitting should be more often, for we have much to say. But that would take an act of parliament, and it won’t happen because most of the members do not vote sincerely, according to their heart.”

“You say that most politicians in The Gambia are not sincere?”

“Some of them may be sincere, but politics in The Gambia is not properly organised. They call people ‘party chairmen’ in a district, and all they do is a little paper work. In Basse, Georgetown and Bathurst, where you have a sufficiently sophisticated area, party members pay dues. The rest of the people pay nothing. The PPP sells party cards each year to raise money, but some of their boys are corrupt. They sell some people many cards. They tell them they will be better qualified members if they have several cards.”

Asked for his views on the prospects of a merger with Senegal, Cham was uncertain. “In fact this Senegambia business, I can’t make out a thing.” He did offer one suggestion, as a means of pressuring Senegal in any negotiating – closing down the Trans-Gambian Highway. If implemented, this move will undoubtedly be effective. It would cut Senegal off from its agriculturally rich Casamance region, and probably bring the Force Armee Senegalaise down upon Bathurst.

When a group of students return to Bathurst from their spring vacation gathered around Mr Cham, he asked them what they planned to study. Most said they wanted to study politics, in order to work in the administration. This roused Cham to anger. He told the boys they were foolish. “We have so many administrators who have nothing to administrate.”  Several students complained that they were unable to get a proper education because the government did not offer enough scholarships for study in England. This also displeased Mr Cham. “By education, you mean purifying yourselves in Britain. All our students go off and get their heads stuffed with Western ideologies. This country is already too full of Western ideologies. Even our African universities are Western. Their systems have been introduced by Westerners. We have been condemning these foreign advisers, yet you are all trying to copy them by studying under their people. Do you think that people who go to UK and study English law and what not should come back here and tell our fathers in Basse how they should live?

“This is all part of English imperialism, Britain’s policy of retarding the development of The Gambia. There must be many changes of the system left over from colonial days. But with our present leader they won’t be changed quickly. We [the United Party] don’t like his ideas, but we have no hatred for him. The question of revolution does not depend on hatred. If we have a revolution here, it will be peaceful.”

Momodou Cham’s revolutionary ardour was dampened when the purser came over and berated him for having signed his father on for the up-river trip as “Cham, MP” so that the old man travelled free. Though caught red-handed, Cham remained unruffled. He explained to the students that all MPs have the right to authorise free transportation on the Lady Wright for legislative purposes. “It is taken for granted that we will not abuse the privilege.”