Dr ML Sedat Jobe Former Foreign Minister and Ambassador

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With Alagie Manneh

Momodou Lamin Sedat Jobe was born in Bansang in 1944. His grandfather, Suku Jobe, was a celebrated Sufi poet and his father, a native of Dankunku, was a health inspector. His mother was a granddaughter of Musa Molloh and his mother’s uncle, Bakary Darboe, is said to have founded Bansang. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh aided by TheStandard’s chief reporter Omar Bah, sat with Dr Jobe at his Fajara villa to talk about the warps and wefts that seamed to make his life. 

Why did you leave your job as director of culture for Unesco to work for the Jammeh regime? 
This is where people blamed me… I think I shouldn’t even say that. Why did I return? Let us say that at various moments in our lives, we become idealistic. In my second year of lecturing at Howard University with Sulayman Nyang who was in the African Studies and Research Programme with me, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow [then head of Unesco], said since 1948 they have never had an African in the Division of Culture especially the literature section, and they had this programme which is the translation of the representative works of world literature, and that he would be very pleased if I could accept that post as it will will be good for Africa.

That’s how I went to Unesco. I had to go through many interviews, you know, the UN system! Now to answer your question, while I was at Unesco, it would seem that Jammeh who heard some of my speeches at Gambia High School and so on, asked about me. He asked for me, so I came. I brought in a lot of books through for the Ministry of Education. Then he said he wanted to appoint me as an ambassador-at-large to help him develop the country as I had a lot of contacts. I accepted. But then nothing was done about it because there were a group of people who never wanted me to come back to The Gambia. When the president appointed me an ambassador-at-large, they went and told him I declined the offer.

Who are these people?
No, no, I don’t want to name them. And these are people I helped, you know. I was in charge of their scholarships and all that. It was Bolong Sonko who told him. But I was eventually appointed ambassador-at-large and later foreign minister.

As foreign minister, you led an unsuccessful delegation to Guinea Bissau to try to negotiate a settlement to the country’s civil war that erupted in 1998. Why did the mission fail?
[President] Vieira wanted all the surrounding countries including The Gambia to provide troops to help him. Senegal and Guinea provided troops but Jammeh was a bit uncomfortable about sending troops to Guinea Bissau because of the link with [Général Ansoumane]Manè.

In a meeting with Jammeh and Alieu Ngum [secretary general] and other ministers, I told him instead of sending troops, I will volunteer to go as foreign minister to mediate things. Vieira was not pleased. Senegal and Guinea felt that The Gambia was trying to undermine them and trying to show that The Gambia was a peace-loving country and they were bellicose. When we landed there with the French navy, can you imagine there was bombardment all over the place? The only way I could be able to reach Manè and the others was to go to Radio Bombolong.

I had to talk from one of the national radios where the Senegalese had all their big weaponry and were very angry with me. It was then that they said I really came to Guinea Bissau to see the rebels but not the president. The mission did not succeed because I couldn’t negotiate anything if I didn’t see Vieira. On my next trip, it was successful because it was Vieira who gave me all the vehicles and the protection to go to talk to the military. We were finally able to convince both sides, before it flopped again. Singlehandedly, I decided to go back to extricate Vieira, whose troops were defeated. I brought him back and that was very good for our diplomacy. Yahya Jammeh, instead of coming back to Banjul to see Vieira, said Vieira should go and meet him upcountry. Vieira was very angry, and so he left with the Portuguese.

When Jammeh expelled the deputy British high commissioner, Bharat Joshi in August 2001, you resigned as foreign minister. Why?
For a very long time, the president started being very angry with the West. At some point, Baba Jobe and others were telling him that I was working with the British and the Americans to topple him. I went straight to Jammeh and asked him about what I was hearing about I being with the Americans and British. He told me, ‘Don’t mind them’. Anyway, Jammeh was not happy about a lot of things that Joshi and others were doing, especially about meeting the opposition. After warning Joshi, and telling the president look, if you remove this man from here, we will be in a very funny position because by then I was one of the…let me even say, best friends of Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, in Africa. I told him, let him tolerate them. He told me he will not expel him. But Fatou Jahumpa, Yankuba Touray and others went to him and told him Sedat is trying to undermine you so that the opposition will win. He did it in my absence. When I returned, I wanted him to go back on his decision but he said he cannot. He wanted me to go back to the British and tell them it was he who did it and not me, which would have made me a very foolish foreign minister. That’s why I resigned.

Eventually you went into self-exile in Dakar.
When I resigned, I stayed here in The Gambia for 10 years. During that period, I was appointed by the OECD to do a few missions. I was also appointed by the African Union. Jammeh even gave me a diplomatic passport. It was when he killed those nine people that it coincided with my trip to Dakar. I was with Buba Baldeh and Dodou Jobe. I told them I was leaving The Gambia because I was going to condemn the president. I had to stay in Dakar for about seven years before he fell down.

How did you manage to work for so long with one of Africa’s most brutal dictators?
There was some sort of respect, and me being a naïve believer that I will be able to make him a structured president. I always had the feeling that I could change him. I can tell you, I resigned on two occasions, once in Saudi Arabia in Arafat when he had an attitude there and… I think these are too minor to talk about. I told him I resigned. I also resigned in Algeria because I told him to say something in a certain way but he said no, I will say it in another way. But really, it’s not for working with a dictator because I left a salary of US$25,000 to come and work here to receive about US$1,600 a month. I had a lot of following in the Foreign Service abroad and that was why but it was not really to humour Yahya Jammeh. The advantage I had with Yahya, I never encouraged familiarity. As soon as I brief him, I go away. The ministers were building familiarity with him and that was why it was easy for him to crush them all.

It is widely reported that during cabinet meetings, Jammeh would shout at ministers, even insult them. Were you ever shouted at by Jammeh?
No, he never shouted at me. Sometimes he does very childish things. He would call ministers, especially there was a lady who was very close to him, Susan, he would squeeze her hands, in public, and would be saying all sorts of things. He would be saying some funny things, and I would be busy writing. He would say, ‘Dr Jobe, are you with us?’ I would say, ‘Yes, you are talking about so and so’. But I have seen him blast ministers.

What was the worst that you experienced under Jammeh?
My worst experience was when they started arresting people and keeping them away, and this was the case of Shyngle Nyassi. To be frank with you, he had a lot of respect for me.

To be continued next week