With Alagie Manneh
In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh talks to the popular young university lecturer Dr Ismaila Ceesay, about his life and politics.
Tell us about yourself
I am from Brikama. I did my high school education in Sierra Leone – form one to form five – after which I returned to The Gambia. I was supposed to do my sixth form in Sierra Leone but because of the civil war that wasn’t possible. So when I came home after my GCE O’levels, it was in the mid ’90s and job opportunities were very scarce and migration at the time was very central to the aspirations of young Gambians. We thought that the future in this country was bleak and that if you want to make it, you have to travel. It was the trend at the time. There were of course the push and the pull factors. The push factors were the hard economic condition at the time and the pull factors were at the time, when holiday returnees – those who are in the Diaspora when they return home, here we call them ‘semesters’ – when they come with wealth, the impression they gave was that life was better in Europe and if you want to climb the social ladder in this country you have to travel to Europe. So I also wanted to go and educate myself.
Your father was a veteran forestry officer who had many children, what was it like growing up in a big traditional family?
Of course I came from a very humble background. My father was a forestry officer, and they were the ones who started the Gambia Forestry Department and built Nyambai and other forests around the country. My mother was a school teacher who worked and served The Gambia government for over 30 years, ending up being headmistress in many schools. Obviously like you said, I grew up in a polygamous setting, which was very popular at that time. It was lovely, even though I and my mom and my siblings were living in a separate compound as opposed to the rest of the family but it was lovely growing up around that time in Brikama. The harmony was there in the family. We were all young and didn’t know what a stepmother was. What we know is we call everybody our mom. I wouldn’t even know who my mother was because everybody was taking care of us. Our dad, I think he was a very lucky man that he was able to preside over a very harmonious family where we didn’t see those differences in terms of whether we are from the same mom or the same dad. For my dad, I give him a big, big credit for that.
Are you a Mandinka?
[Laughs]. I am Gambian obviously, first and foremost. If you ask me my ethnicity, yes I am Mandinka. I don’t think ethnicity issues are really key in determining how we behave. I think what is important is how you behave and how you relate with other people. Your ethnicity doesn’t determine your life, it doesn’t determine the type of person you are, it doesn’t determine your success, and it doesn’t determine anything. It’s just an identity and identity is everywhere. First and foremost, we are all human beings, that is the common denominator. When I meet you, Alagie, I don’t see a Mandinka in you, I don’t see a Muslim in you, or man, what I see is a human being and I treat you accordingly. Yes, everybody would want to identify themselves with a particular group, it’s something that we found here, it’s something that we cannot avoid but it’s not something that should determine how we live our lives and how we treat other people. The most important thing is we are all human beings and we should treat each other accordingly, that’s how I think, broadly.
You showed signs of promise at an early age when you became head of the Gambian Association in Sweden. Why do you feel the need to serve your community?
I have always been someone who likes to engage in public service. For me, there is no better service than public service. When I moved to Sweden in the mid-90s, there was a vibrant Gambian organisation there; OPS, Organisation of Gambians in Sweden, which was established in 1975. The association was very active; nonetheless I also got engaged in community life in Sweden. How? I was the one who was organising African football tournaments in Stockholm. I would bring a team from Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal, The Gambia, Nigeria, six teams. We would bring Africans in Sweden together through football. Later on I expanded this tournament to include teams from Latin America from Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, so it became a big tournament. By organising these tournaments, and at the same time I started to play some kind of social leadership role in Sweden, where many people would always gravitate towards me and whenever they have issues would consult me. So my guys had a meeting one time and I wasn’t present. I was watching football at the time, they asked me to come over to the meeting place. They had already decided they wanted me to be the president of the association and said they had all voted for me. I wanted to reject it but they had confidence in me. We organised the most successful Gambian Cultural Week to have ever been organised in Sweden.
Why did you choose to read politics at university?
I have always loved politics. I have always been thrilled by political issues. I have always been interested in ways in terms of how to develop our society. For me, politics is development. I want to live in a good society.I want to be part of a team that can create a good society for our country, and that is politics; how do we organise ourselves, how do we ensure everybody around us lives in dignity, how do we ensure that we provide for ourselves our own needs and also prepare our country for the next generation to come so they can also live in dignity? These questions have been questions that I have been playing with since when I was in primary school. I have always been a type who wanted everybody around me to be satisfied. Because of that, I have been active since I was young. Because of that I said look, I want to be someone who wants to work with these issues. Then I have interest in politics. That is why I studied politics.
You could have stayed in Europe, worked and got more money. Why did you decide to return?
I have been in Europe for many years. I have travelled all over Europe and every country I go to, I got amazed at how they were able to build their country, how they were able to build a nation that is prosperous and successful, a nation where every child has a good school to go to, and every child goes to bed with a full stomach. I look at those countries and say, these countries are not richer than us The Gambia, yet we are poorer. Why? Since then I had decided that my education will be worthless if it doesn’t help improve the condition of not only my people in The Gambia but the entire African continent. That is why I decided to come back to improve the conditions of Gambians. I went to school to educate and prepare myself for the jihad ahead, because I knew that there will be a time when our generation will have to be the one to change the trajectory of this country. So I had to prepare myself and learn the art of war. That is why I went to educate myself to equip myself with those skills to get ready for that day, and that day has arrived now.
You were arrested by the police for telling a local newspaperthat the presence of Ecomig soldiers in The Gambia will not prevent long-term security risk if Barrow does not win the trust of the members of The Gambia Armed Forces. Exactly what do you mean?
What I was trying to say is what I observed as an expert on security issues from my extensive reading of the literature and also from observing some empirical data in security issues on the African continent. The army had played a certain role under dictatorship. The whole concept of security has also changed since after the Cold War. Now, I am a researcher, when we do research, we collect data and speak with the relevant people. And I see a trend that you cannot rely on external forces for the longer term. Ecomig was supposed to come as a stabilisation force, to ensure that this transition from authoritarianism to democracy, is safeguarded, and delivered and with no destruction. That was the purpose of Ecomig. I saw a trend where there was a lack of trust between the army and the president. The army was feeling alienated and my point of view was that yes, Ecomig is here, but in the long term, if you want stability in The Gambia, you must gain the trust of your army because they will be the ones ready to die defending this country, so gain their trust. Go visit them, have a word with them that will give them some confidence. That was what I was saying. I wasn’t speaking to incite violence; I was just speaking as an expert. I was advising Barrow that our men and women in uniform want to serve and be loyal to him, but he should also reach out to them.
Despite widespread condemnation following those comments, a prominent US based professor Abdoulaye Saine said you should have been applauded, and tapped for a senior security advisory position in State House, rather than getting arrested for raising a national security dilemma that is apparent. Do you agree?
He was right. I tell you something, when Jammeh was in power, I used to criticise him a lot, whether you know it or not. I was using my platform at the university to criticise Jammeh. I was the only university professor, during the dictatorship to organise seminars and symposiums and conferences at the university to talk about Jammeh’s human rights abuses, but Jammeh would never arrest me. You think he didn’t know? I had NIA personnel in my class, in my Introduction To Politics class. Jammeh wanted to know what I was teaching… The first batch of students dropped the course material after I gave it to them because the materials I was using were considered to be seditious at the time and included Amnesty International’s condemnation of Jammeh. But he would never arrest a popular university professor.
After you were released from police detention, you took to your Twitter handle and wrote “the fight to consolidate our democracy has begun, we won’t be u-turned into dictatorship.” Are we losing our democracy?
Our democracy is fragile I can tell you. It’s a young democracy. You see, the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is fraught with difficulties. Democracy is a process. We are yet to achieve a consolidated democracy. Therefore, we must handle it with care. It’s still young and delicate and needs to be fed and we must be very vigilant but, you have to understand one thing; the structures, the processes, the social institutions, the laws that created authoritarian system, the dictatorship of Jammeh, are still intact. They are not disintegrated yet totally. That is why we say reforms come up with new laws, new electoral laws, new media laws, doing civic education, the social institutions, the hypocrisy, the sycophancy. The idea was to not only remove a dictator, but the conditions that created that dictatorship must also be dismantled through the reforms. If we don’t destroy those structures that created dictatorship, we would just revert back to another dictatorship. That is what they call democratic back sliding or democratic recession. Even though it’s not a brutal dictatorship, even though it can be a benign dictatorship, nonetheless it is a dictatorship.
To be continued next Friday