With Alagie Manneh
Ebrima has always been a staunch supporter of UDP and a vocal opponent of Jammeh during his time in exile. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh talks to him about how things started and, more recently, how he fell out with President Adama Barrow
You started politics at a very early age, probably in your preteens, what motivated you?
In early 1997, after presidential elections, during parliamentary election, we had this famous candidate in Brikama called Wasa Janneh. During his parliamentary election, I followed all his rallies and the drumming was so nice with this barawuloo. Then I joined the youth group. Wherever they organised rallies, I’d go. I can say I’ve been influenced and motivated by a former police officer in Brikama called inspector Fatty, who onetime headed drug squad but is an executive member of UDP. He saw me in the crowd and said ‘Ebrima, you are always following us, why don’t you join the youth wing’? That’s how I joined the youth wing and was given assistant youth wing position at the Kombo Central then. I become part of the Kombo Central executive body and up to now I am part of the Central committee of the United Democratic Party.
Why the UDP?
Throughout my career in politics, I’ve always seen UDP as a party that has strength, that’s what motivates me; the euphoria, the strength of the party, the movement, they always move with the crowd. I think this is the right party to follow; because majority always carries the vote. The leadership also, I am highly impressed with their leader, Ousainu Darboe. He is calm. When addressing crowds, he addresses issues. The guy is always well-presentable. He is someone who is really charismatic and in terms of leadership, he addresses the needs of the people, more than any of those leaders.
Before we move into more serious issues, give us a synopsis of your educational background
I started with Brikama Islamic Institute Mahadil-Islam, from there I went to Crab Island. Unfortunately, I did not attend primary school. I felt in those days, in order to be able to fit in this society, you should have the basic standard education system which I consider English. In our government system, you must have English background, so I switched from Mahadil-Islam and from there I proceeded to Crab Island Junior Secondary School. From there I went to Nusrat Senior Secondary School and after completion I went to Edmonds College in the United States.
Who were some of your contemporaries in the UDP, back in the day?
Well… you know, I am always with the elderly people. In those days, my contemporaries were not that much into politics. Your brother is one of them, Jaw Manneh. I and Jaw; Jaw was a young journalist, and I, a young politician. If you look into our crowd, present parliamentarian in Talingding Fatoumata Jawara, was also part of the youth group and there was a young protocol officer Wuday Ceesay. These were the young people, really, few among young Gambians. My big koto Sheriff Bojang was a big-time journalist in those days. But my contemporaries in politics those days were very hard to find. Most of them are into football, “vous”, and the like.
But would you say times have changed now, that more and more young souls are building interest in politics?
Oh yeah, big time, big time. If you look at the arena now, it is more of young people; university students, college students, high school students, we even have under-18 UDP. So now when you look into the crowd, you will see 65 percent of youth, dominant in politics compared to the early days when we started in 97. And we in the UDP, we have high hopes and high plans for the youth, when we come into government, they will be happy.
When did you travel to the USA and how?
I traveled to United States after completion of my high school. I applied for a college in Edmonds Community college. I went for an interview and I was lucky to be given a visa and I traveled to United States in 2003, almost 17 years ago.
But some people said you went to the USA through the UDP asylum visa scheme. Is that true?
Well that’s… Well let them prove that. In fact, I am one of those that secured my asylum without even a dot from the United Democratic Party. I went to US… I told the party leader the day that I met him in Kanifing that I am going to the US and he was like ‘Ebrima I know you, you can do this’. He gave me advice and his blessing and I went to the US. UDP didn’t give me even a single paper work including my asylum case. I had my asylum through the Gambia Students’ Union because I was among the people who got arrested in 2000, got tortured. When I presented that, I was able to have my political asylum.
What were you doing in America?
First, when I got to United States, for two years I worked as an ordinary person, employed by others. After two years, I became completely independent; I had my own small business in the United States. I started that in 2015. I had my own small grocery store. That’s what I did until the day that I left the United States.
Is it true that you closed your store in Seattle after Jammeh left?
I sold the store, I didn’t close it. I got appointed by the government and I was no longer living in the United States, there was no need to keep the store, I sold it to a young, beautiful lady called Jongma Camara. That store is getting bigger and bigger and the name that I gave that store still exists – African Superman.
How did you later get posted to the Embassy in Jeddah?
Every government that comes, looks around for people who can support it, who can promote their foreign policy and service, regulations and I, being very active in the United Democratic Party and have traveled at a young age, they know my capacity. Also, I have background – both English and Arabic. Very few Gambians have that background; you either learn English or Arabic but I am very lucky I can speak and write in both languages. I got appointed by the Foreign Service to go and serve The Gambia.
How well do you know Adama Barrow as a person and as a member of the UDP?
Oh yeah, I know Adama Barrow very well because I was a party coordinator, you understand, in the United States and he was treasurer. Okay Amadou Sanneh was our treasurer but then he was in jail and so Barrow automatically became our treasurer and whenever we did fundraising I coordinated with him. Whenever I came to Gambia also, I would see him during executive meetings. I didn’t know him prior to 2006. That’s how I became closer to him. Yes, I know Adama well before he became president.
When Darboe was relieved as vice president, you released an audio in which you castigated President Barrow and praised Darboe. Many people said this led to your sacking. Is this true?
Yes, that’s the reason that they gave. That’s the reason that they wrote on my termination letter.
And what is that?
They said because I showed allegiance to the former vice president and that he is the man I would choose as my leader and not president Barrow. President Barrow called me in December, face to face, and told me he is having issues with Ousainu and that he is the one who appointed me, that I either support Ousainu or I support him. I said when that time comes, I will make the decision and when he fired Ousainu, I told him that I am with Ousainu. I said if you wanna fire me too, go ahead and do it and he said ‘okay get out’. Then am out. You cannot fire Ousainu and you expect to work with me. If Ousainu had done something wrong, I mean as a matter of principle I would have stayed, but you don’t like Ousainu because of his political affiliations?
Surely you cannot work in the Gambian Diplomatic Service and show such gross disrespect and disloyalty to the president
I am not that type of person who would massage the truth. President Barrow was getting outrageous. He was too much. He said you must support my agenda and I said we have the agenda for the country not your agenda. You said you have a blueprint, that’s a national agenda, not your agenda. President Barrow’s agenda was for him to go for second term in UDP, to serve as our candidate. We told him to go through the right procedures, right process, go to the primary. He said no, if anybody wanna contest against him, that is coup d’état. We told him you don’t understand our constitution. We are saying no, you are interested; somebody else is interested, go to the primary. So this is why we have a problem.
Who would you say is at fault in the rift between Ousainu and Barrow?
We should ask Barrow because he fired Ousainu without giving any reason. Ousainu is an important person in this coalition. If you fire him, you should tell the people why, otherwise people would say because he thinks Ousainu didn’t support his agenda or his ambition, to go for second term. He wanted to go to congress with people who are not eligible. Lamin Cham is a civil servant, cannot hold an executive position in the UDP. The Gambian Constitution said you cannot be an executive member as a civil servant. Alkali Conteh, he is a civil servant. They all want to come and participate in our congress; we said no, you cannot. They went back and felt the relationship is finished. Lamin Cham used to be an executive member when he wasn’t a civil servant
You were close to Barrow, how would you describe him as a person?
Well President Barrow changed after being in office. Before, he was one of the kindest, humble and a very good character. We really had high hopes in him, but after coming to power, he broke all the promises that we had and as a leader, you shouldn’t renege on your commitments, you shouldn’t just go out of your limit because you think you have power.
Does President Barrow have good advisers?
No, I think Barrow surrounded himself with people who have no background, with people who are poor and with people who are very greedy because remember, if you were only living in a room and parlour and then suddenly you see yourself in a big apartment, you think oh, you don’t want to let that go. So you go to the President and said ‘hey, we want you to remain as president’. They don’t give him any idea, the only idea they give him is how to remain in power, while they would be bringing in all these corrupt businessmen, enriching themselves, receiving monies from them, selling our diplomatic passports… selling it to bad people. I know this because I was there. When I reveal this when I got terminated they said no, he is angry but no, I know, I was the head of political division. I know whatever was going on. We are all in trouble.
Some said Darboe’s remarks to take legal action against any individual or group who demand Barrow serves three years only emboldened Barrow’s resolve to stay on
No, he said ‘whoever wants to force’. You see, let people understand this statement very well. He said if anybody wants to force him out, because Barrow has five years mandate, which is true. If he wants to resign as a gentleman, let him resign. What Ousainu said is true; if the truth should embolden somebody to become arrogant then what type of person is that human being? Remember, Ousainu said this at a time when there was a push and pulling. That statement should not embolden Barrow to have a free licence to do whatever he wants to do.
What is your view on this 3 years 5 years debate?
My personal opinion is that Barrow has a constitutional mandate to stay for five years, but it is also up to Barrow to honour his promise as a gentleman, failure to do that, we will teach him a lesson in 2021. The three years five years shouldn’t be a problem in the country. People have a right to demonstrate, let them demonstrate by showing him they are not happy with him reneging on his promises.
If you are going to advise President Barrow today, what will you tell him?
I will tell President Barrow to step down, to honour the agreement that they have, to protect his integrity, the future of his kids because tomorrow, his son might have ambitions to run for president but we will tell him ‘no, your father had promised here and failed, perhaps you would do the same thing’.
Tell us some of the “corrupt practices” that you claimed President Barrow wanted to involve you in for his political gains?
When President Barrow first called me when he was in Fajara, he said ‘Dibba, you are young and very active, very energetic, and I want you to come back here and we work, I want to build bureaus.’ He said a lot of good things. He said ‘in fact, I want to create millionaires, like Abdoulie Wadda did, and I have this friend Mr Waggeh, he can give you merchandise up to four million. I talked to my friend, who is now the Mayor of Banjul, and she said to me, no, stay away, this guy has intentions to stay in power. That was a very good advice because I was going to take that offer. When he first saw me in Saudia, he said Dibba, we were discussing something but you ran off. He invited me for a talk again, and I went to see him and he said the same things. Once he started behaving like this, I said no doubt that’s why this man wants to hook me up. Because if he gave me that four million by now of course I would have been one of the Barrow Youth Movement.
But do you have evidence to prove these grim allegations?
Well it’s going to be very hard to prove it but now people have seen him giving brown envelops to other people.
Where did Barrow get it wrong?
Barrow is desperate, very desperate. This is the guy who attempted to split the UDP, he failed. He went after the APRC folks, he failed. Now he is tribalising but he is going to fail and keep failing if he doesn’t honour his promise. People are disappointed with Barrow because of his own behavior. He has always said that Ousainu is his father, now he is turning and saying Ousainu is a bad person, because he didn’t support you?
People said corruption in government is quite high; even the US said the government is not fiscally transparent…
Remember Barrow went to GIEPA, and the investment director, Yankuba Saidy, he gave him an office at State House and whenever investors come, instead of going through right channels, they go through the back door, contracts are awarded without going through proper procurement, that’s a sign of corruption. His wife has a foundation, they wrote to me more than five times in Saudi Arabia and I told them I am a diplomat, if you want me to do this, write to me officially, that’s when they stopped what they were doing. I know their names; Fatou Ceesay is one of them, herself Fatou Bah Barrow – they have this foundation to use it as a fundraising avenue to enrich themselves. She said they used her account to fast-track a transaction in that D35 million dalasi scandal. What she fails to understand is that she is not in government, if a government transaction is delaying, let them pay directly to the source, not to her, so something was fishy in that deal. And they cannot tell people where the money is. When the UDP comes to power, we are not going to have any commission, we will investigate them, take them to court and if found guilty, take them to jail. They should tell people where this money goes. I heard Fatou Bah’s best friend Maimuna Ceesay say that they only used her account for the money that she didn’t use. If they use your account for any illegal transaction, nobody cares. If you go to the US and a huge money got transferred into your account and you telling people I don’t how it got there, they would take your ass to jail.
Is Darboe a tribalist?
A tribalist will not marry a woman from a different tribe. Ousanu’s wife is Aja Mai Ndure, she is Serer-Wolof. Sally Boufei, is Aku-Jola. How can you call that person a tribalist? His children are more fluent in Wolof. He was brought up by Pierre Njie.
Will UDP form the next government?
Inshallah. When we form the next government, let the youths be comfortable, let them know that we will not use state resources for our party affairs. The UDP is like a religion, it is growing.
Who will lead the party in the next presidential election?
Inshalllah Ousainu Darboe. If this guy rules this country for five years, he would transform Gambia to another level.
Have you forgiven President Barrow for firing you?
In fact he has raised my status. Walking in the street, people would stop me Dibba let’s take a picture. I’m like a celebrity.