With Omar Wally
Dembo Bojang started public service as an evaluation officer at the Ministry of Local Government before moving to Agriculture as clerical assistant under Abou Denton. In 1973, he went to study in Egypt. In 1978, he joined politics and became Member of Parliament for Bakau for the opposition National Convention Party and won subsequent elections he contested. After the proscription on political parties was lifted he joined the newly formed United Democratic Party, which party he is currently the national president. He was the chairman of Coalition 2016 and was appointed religious affairs adviser to President Barrow. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talked to him about his life and work.
How did you get your political moniker ‘Dembo By Force’?
I got many political slogans. Before the election in 1978, I was called ‘Dembo By Force’ because the electorate in my constituency said I was going to win by force – by hook or by crook. After serving in the civil service for fifteen years I retired voluntarily. They say voice of the people is the voice of God, so when they approached me, I couldn’t say no. I referred them to my parents and they agreed and so I contested on the NCP ticket. We went to polls and I won by 648 votes. In my first term, it was ‘Dembo By Force’. The second term, they added another slogan ‘Dembo By Force Maa Tey!’ In my third term, they added yet another slogan ‘Dembo By Force, Maa Tey, Maa Langaa’. In my fourth term it was ‘Dembo By Force, Maa Tey, Maa Langaa, Mbang Wuleng Keh!’
How did you become the dominant political force in Bakau for a greater part of half-a-century?
I think Gambians should look at me in the front line of politics because I scored a world record in politics. I became MP in 1978 and won elections five times. That has never happened anywhere in the whole world for a politician to contest five times and won under the umbrella of opposition. I have a legacy but Gambians don’t know my legacy, they ignore me. In other places, I would have been in the front of politics and they would have even knighted me as a veteran politician.
You sound like you are still not satisfied with the recognition given to you
Is it true that when you were an agric officer and the people of Bakau asked you to contest for the NCP, you made them to take a vow in the name of Allah that they will not betray you?
Yes I did and they never betrayed me. It was the elders that had the power and their voices were heard everywhere. Together they selected me, so I couldn’t say no to them.
Why did you oppose the PPP and Jawara?
When I was in school, I read a bit of political science. I realised that Jawara was a good leader but there were loopholes that needed to be filled. For example, our market women will grow vegetables and after harvest, they didn’t have places to sell their produce and sometimes everything rots.
Did you join Sheriff Dibba’s NCP like some other people because you felt Jawara betrayed the Mandinkas?
No, some people are saying this but I’m not a tribalist. It was not my belief that Jawara betrayed the Mandinkas. The set-up of Jawara’s administration was that each tribe had a place in the civil service.
Why did the NCP fail to make any significant political gains or pose a real threat to Jawara despite being seen as a predominantly Mandinka party and Mandinkas forming the majority of the population?
People seem to misunderstand the situation. Sheriff Dibba was not a tribalist and likewise Jawara. I joined the NCP with the belief that we were going to do better. In certain areas like Baddibu and the Kombos, NCP did very well.
Why did you join the UDP and why didn’t you go back to your old party, the NCP, after the ban on it was lifted?
Before the ban was lifted, NCP leader told us that he was on the verge of forming a new party, as NCP was banned. After two weeks, they called us and said opposition parties met to form a party called the UDP. Dibba told us to join UDP. When Ousainou Darboe was chosen as the leader, we followed him, through the mandate of the NCP executive committee.
Your former party leader Sheriff Dibba later ganged up with Jammeh and even became Speaker. What did you make of that? Did you feel he betrayed the cause you people were fighting for all the time by allying with the APRC?
I need not mention names but I was approached that Jammeh wanted to give three positions to the NCP and I was to be give one. I declined, between me and my grave, because democracy was in my mind and I believe it. A coup d’etat government has never been in my vocabulary. I shall never join such a government.
What position was Jammeh going to give you?
Minister of Local Government.
Who were those who approached you?
I don’t want to mention names now; these are people I’m in the same party with. It was twice and Jammeh called me that I should go and answer to him at his office. I deliberately ignored the call. My brother told me, your nephew [Yahya Jammeh] called you to go and answer. I declined because I was hinted that he wanted to appoint me a cabinet minister.
But your party leader answered his call and was made Speaker. Did you feel betrayed?
Yes, [but] it was his liking. In politics human beings are like chameleons they change colour any time they wish to change but I declined the offer and maintained that.
Why did you decide not to stand for election as National Assembly Member for Bakau for a successive number of elections when you stood a good chance of winning?
That is a very good question, a question I want to answer. There comes a time when one should give chance [to others]. If you want to keep everything by yourself, obviously at the end you will be a loser. That was why I gave chance to youngsters.
When Ousainou Darboe and other executive members of the UDP took to the streets to demand the body of their slain party member Solo Sandeng, you as the party national president were conspicuously absent. Why?
We all met at Ousainou’s house and after the press conference, Darboe said he was going to go out to demand for body of Solo Sandeng dead or alive. When we wanted to move, he said, no national president. Darboe said he wanted me to stay away so that if anything happened, I will continue with the party. This was why I stayed together with the deputy party leader, deputy national president and few others. Had it been all of us went, the party would have gone off.
Now coming to the Coalition 2016 efforts, it is said you played a pivotal role in getting the UDP to select Adama Barrow as its candidate while Darboe and others preferred other people. What qualities did you see in Barrow that made you to root for him?
He is capable.
On hindsight, with his lack of experience in government and relative average education, do you think he was the best choice?
He was our treasurer working under me in the same party. He is sincere, faithful, religious-minded and respects people. Educational background…I don’t think that is all that important. What is more important is that you have your cabinet and they are able to do what they are supposed to do, you as the head you are free. Adama is very careful. I wish you sit down with him and discuss you will see the qualities. For me, he is a good and intelligent leader.
But you cannot be a president and leave your government in the hands of people. You have to have a final say.
On 2 Dec 2016, the results showed Jammeh lost. But later he refused to step down bringing about the impasse. What would have happened had Ecowas not intervened and he refused to step down?
This is something we thought of before the election. Even the electorate were worried about it but we told them there is Ecowas and other institutions that would take care of that if he refuses to go. Even without Ecowas other people would have come here and picked him up.
Who are those people?
They are in isolation. Hahaha!
So you were going to bring mercenaries?
No, I don’t believe in mercenaries.
Who are those people then?
We had a military agreement with Senegal. Even Senegal alone without Ecowas can get him out.
One village in Baddibu, Salikenni, had two ministers selected from there while the whole expanse of Kombo and Foni did not produce one minister. Is this a wise political consideration?
The two Lamin Dibbas come from different parties. The Forestry Minister is from NCP and the other one is UDP. The agreement says each party has to be represented.
You are the special adviser to the president on religious matters, a rank equivalent to that of a minister. Halifa Sallah was also appointed but he declined to be paid a minister’s salary or be given a vehicle. Why didn’t you do the same?
Halifa declined to be paid.
Why didn’t you do the same?
I did that for 22 years. I was in the opposition when I decided that I’m not going be a parliamentarian, I served 22 years without salary, so I did what Halifa didn’t do. I received the salary for the purpose of my family. It came to a time that my family cannot keep to what they were keeping up to. Some were born in politics and found me in difficulties. And the difficulty is that I will get Jammeh out of power. So if Jammeh is out and I decline my position, what is my family going to think of me? It is not a matter of feeding that was the reason, I took the position.
You publicly condemned Jammeh’s decision to make The Gambia an Islamic state. How can you as a Muslim say no to making a country an Islamic state even if you hate the president who declared it?
I was the first to speak against it. When I was going to school there was a governor and his colonial secretary who were Christian and the whole component of government were all Christians. At that time the governor could have said all Gambians should be Christians but he did not. They prepared a tentative constitution which mentioned that The Gambia is a secular republic. Why should it be changed?
Mr Bojang, when Coalition 2016 was put together, they agreed that their candidate, if elected president would serve only three years. Now some are saying this is not in consonance with the Constitution and that he must serve the full five-year term. Now some Coalition members and some ministers are saying Barrow will serve five years, others three years. What is your stance on this matter and why?
In fact, every now and then people will argue and debate about this question. Gambians should wait until the completion of President Barrow’s three years in office then the Coalition stakeholders will sit and discuss three or five years. In the absence of that, when I talk on any side, I will make a great mistake and as chairman of the coalition I will not reveal or debate on it until I call them and we discuss the issue.
You sound like you are in support of five years?
Not actually. It depends on the Coalition committee. We will meet and I will tell them, the three years is about to end and the five years is forthcoming. If I should say my own thing [now] it means I’m a dictator.
Another accord reached by the Coalition 2016 members was that the person should step down and not contest the fresh election for president. Analysts say the formation of the Barrow Youth Movement is indicative of his desire to contest. Would you support such a move?
Everybody is entitled to form your youth movement. If we have UDP and Adama has a youth movement that is within UDP youth movement, there is no separation.
Key Coalition member, Mai Fatty, was unceremoniously removed as Minister for the Interior. During his party’s recent conference, he seemed to have directed some veiled criticism at the President for removing him because of his ‘popularity’ with his people and because of his efforts to strengthen his party, the GMC. Was his sacking justified? And is it politically wise?
When Barrow was appointing Mai, he did not contact anybody. If a position is given to me and is taken away or the president sees that I’m not moving in the right direction, he appoints and sacks.
There is open talk of a growing rift in the UDP, that is, the Barrow camp and the Darboe camp. Where do you belong?
This doesn’t happen in United Democratic Party. The camp remains UDP and President Adama Barrow is in that camp. Barrow was elected through the Coalition. He was the treasurer of the UDP. Whatever comes from the UDP is UDP, there is no fraction in the UDP.
Of course there is fraction in UDP, and most of your members including National Assembly Members have openly voiced their discontent with the way certain things are being done
Hahaha! That is why I say it is mere talking. Any president anywhere must be criticised one way or the other. Some will say they fought tooth and nail and they are not employed, that is constructive criticism, but there are some unnecessary criticisms too. Rome was not built in a day. This is newly born government.
It is one year, how long will they continue to wait?
That is right, in a few months, those who fought will be rewarded. The government is working towards creating employment for people. Companies are coming and not everybody will be in civil service but we created employment for over two hundred people at random. The youths are the future and they fought the battle and won so they have to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Your critics in the opposition say you are guilty of corruption and nepotism because you got your daughter and your nephew despite not having the requisite qualifications appointed to diplomatic positions in Gambian embassies in Cuba and Malaysia. What do you have to say to that?
My daughter has her qualification. You want to tell me my daughter cannot take my place in Bakau as National Assembly Member? She is qualified!
How important to the UDP is the April local government elections?
It is as important as the parliamentary election where we won thirty-one seats. This time round we will win all the chairmen’s places in other regions and the two mayors. We want to regain the mayoral seats so that they can be UDP seats.
Bakau people in the Diaspora are upset with you because they say you seem to support Talib Bensouda over their choice Musa Jammeh or even Papa Njie.
No. Nobody ever saw me with Bensouda. That is why I abstained myself. That is why I don’t even to go the bureau when they were selecting delegates, I did not go there because I did not want them to stain me as the national president.
The Supreme Islamic Council says they will petition the government if Ahmadis are issued a TV licence, where do you stand?
It is not a complicated matter. It is a religious matter. The Ahmadiyya Jama’at has written to government and copied the Council. It is left to cabinet to discuss over it. Not for the president to say yes or no. They run high schools and students from all religions go to their schools. They did not say if you are not an Ahmadi they will not enrol you.
Any final words?
I commend media houses for the campaign to root out Jammeh. Gambians should be patient as all of them cannot be engaged at one time. We are trying all we could to get them engaged. Democracy has a limit; let us not go beyond that limit. Some Gambians are abusing democracy by using abusive terms.