By Omar Wally Essa Bokar Sey was born in Kuntair village in North Bank Region. He enlisted in the defunct Gambia National Gendarmerie following completion of high school. He served for five years and in 1990 was discharged at the rank of Sergeant and went to study in France. He rose through the ranks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs eventually serving as ambassador to Taiwan and the US. Following his sacking by former president Jammeh, he stayed in exile in the States and joined forces with others in “the struggle’ to oust the dictator. He now heads the OIC public relations office in Banjul. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Omar Wally talks to him about his storied life as a para-military police, diplomat and dissident. Omar Wally: Where were you on 4 July 1994 while Yahya Jammeh and company were toppling Jawara? I was not part of the coup but Mawdo Touray and I were at the airport on the day of the coup. I was of course detained but released quickly. Let me give you the scenario of the day. I saw a plane bring Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister and saw the troops’ movement in the tower. Mawdo said he thought it was a military exercise and I whispered in his ear that no military exercise will take over a control tower without sending a warning to the public that they will be engaging in military activities. I said this must be a group of disgruntled soldiers or there must be a change of government. Jammeh was your peer in the gendarmerie before he moved to the army, how do you remember him? I was one of the people who were closest to Jammeh as I was in the same room with him. I said it over and over not to show off but to make references and judgement for people to know why I am qualified to say something about him at that time. Brutality and saying he will crush any guy who crosses his path…that is the character of Yahya Jammeh, even in jokes. But I never thought that the threats of brutality will turn into reality. So, I was surprised seeing him act that big. Not surprised because he can’t do it, I was surprised because of the complaints I used to hear from Jammeh. What were those complaints? When he didn’t like what some officers did, he would complain, like saying it was unfair the amount of fuel they took; it was unfair when we eat bad food at the dormitory while the officers go to the officers’ mess and eat better food. Jammeh was a reservoir of complaints and whingeing. That is his nature. So, when he went to a higher level, it just amplified and expanded. In 2003 you were removed as ambassador, why? There are controversies and what I like about some of the controversies is that people say their versions but written versions are there. People can go to the archives of the Daily Observer where they said Ambassador Essa Bokar Sey was replaced for undisclosed reasons. And then I look at Washington Post, where they said Essa Bokar Sey’s recall was under a normal routine as he was just asked to go home. It was the most controversial and nosiest recall The Gambia has ever had, and people were so interested! My own perception of things is, I was recalled. I was never fired but some journalists insisted that I was fired… You decided to stay in US, why? Sometimes you don’t need somebody to tell you your situation is not safe. I can’t say who but I have contacts in Washington. One of them called me and said he knew what exactly was in my file. He said, ‘Essa we know you are a good man, we like you, don’t go back’. These were his words, that is all what he said. He said, ‘You don’t need to know who I’m and don’t call me back.’ I was like ok, I think, I know. So, I was invited to Texas. Jammeh’s people were writing all over, he went mad kicking fridges, breaking windows. I was on the plane transiting by Chicago and then Texas where they gave me a big home. Imam Baba Leigh slept in that house. He can come out and tell the whole world I was not suffering. Why didn’t you brave it and return home and join the struggle on the ground against Jammeh like others but instead stayed very far? But Omar, who am I? These are genuine criticisms I want to hear and this is my opportunity also to explain. Let me tell you one thing. Mark Braff is in Texas. Rachel Haywick is alive. If Gambians were to ask them what happen they will tell them. What I wanted to do at the time, I told Mark I was going to Hungary, I had some contacts there and if I go there, I’m going to enter Gambia and Jammeh knows I was not bragging. So you went to Hungary for military training? No, for contacts to face Jammeh and fight. Like Charles Taylor did in Liberia? I don’t know. I don’t want to compare myself with Charles Taylor. I said to come and fight, I never said with arms. Why did you change your mind? I didn’t change. The structure was going to be designed by people. I can’t mention those people, I’m sorry. In facing confrontation, you see the best fighter is not the one who uses the arms. The best fighter is the one who uses strategies in terms of intelligence. You can remove somebody by using that faster because in such fighting you can use earthquakes, volcanoes and fusses. I’m not bragging but Jammeh knows who is Essa Bokar Sey. You are accused of being an agent for Senegalese intelligence. Are you? That is one of the accusations. They said I’m an agent of Senegalese intelligence. One should be very careful of saying such things. It is a dangerous and slippery terrain. Gambians are very good at assumptions and making pronouncements publicly. I once confronted somebody who said I’m an agent of a certain country, not Senegal, because they knew where I was working, I was training people and I have access to security. I said that is true but that does not make me an agent. So you were never an agent of Senegal? Why would I leave the Ministry of Defence of the United States? Just answer that Omar Wally. I was never an agent. Maybe the Senegalese might have used the dice to their advantage. But the Senegalese intelligence, if they have access of saying that, it wouldn’t be direct. Someone, who is in America working within a stringer circle, a circle more advanced, wouldn’t reduce himself to come and work with Senegal. You will just stay where you are because that place overshadowed every place in the world. Do you believe in a Senegambia union or confederation? Logically speaking, you cannot say it will happen today. But you can’t deny the fact that it may happen along the way. But I would go rather with unity based on the calculus of strategies than unity based on force and emotions because that is not unity. Look at Canada and United States. They are very close and economically they are very close, that is why we have the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Organisation of American States but that doesn’t mean that they are not the same in terms of economic integration and all that. So we can unite with Senegal without it becoming political. Many are of the belief that Senegal has too much influence on President Barrow. Senegal is not micro-managing The Gambia. I don’t believe that Senegal has [undue] influence on President Barrow. As far as I know he is independent, I’m very serious about that. How did you become appointed at OIC? I was invited from US by Lamin Sanneh, the executive director of the OIC office here. I have never seen or known him. He was working with ABD at one time. He called me and said, ‘Essa we are trying to get the best out of the best’. He said he didn’t know me but he can convince me to leave my salary and come back because they really think I should come. I told him, I need to check with people I work with because I know that and Allah knows that I have a very good job in US. So the job was not publicly advertised, you were handpicked? I wouldn’t say I was handpicked, I don’t know whether they advertised the job or not Omar. I’m not protecting myself. Let me tell you and you can write it in your newspaper that coming here is losing a job. It is not about the money. What I know was that I was contacted. Why would they select you from hundreds of thousands of Gambians? Why me? If you were in Lamin’s position won’t you see qualities in Essa Bokar Sey? Other people said you got the job through former vice president Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang’s connection. Laughs! Yes Mama, people make up stories in any way they can but what matters is when the duration of the contract ends, nothing will be hidden as far as Essa’s hiring is concerned. Fatoumata Tambajang has never ever spoken to me about a job here, never in my life. When Barrow took over, many said you were expecting a job, and when it didn’t materialise you became critical of him, now that you got one, you have gone quiet? Let them bring out any article anywhere where I was being critical of the government. Essa Bokar Sey can be judged by his writings and videos. I never unilaterally got up to criticise the government. They take the job too big, maybe one day if they provoke some of us we tell them how much we used to earn and how much I’m earning privately compared to what I’m earning at the OIC. They will keep quiet. What is your opinion on the current political situation in the country? Barrow can succeed with the right team, period. Recently, I criticised the permanent secretaries and deputy secretaries and said Gambians should blame politicians, be they the president, ministers, soldiers or the police. Barrow can succeed with the right team around him in all areas. Some are of the belief that he is busy consolidating power at the expense of focusing on policies and realistic development, do you agree? Reforming the civil service I will agree with you or another person who says that. It doesn’t mean that Barrow will fail because he is just about two years. There is this Mandinka proverb which says ‘Even if you dance on water, your enemy will tell you are raising dust’. I was once asked by a journalist what advice do I have for the leadership? I said the leadership has to be very tolerant because executives have one suitcase of tolerance but politicians should have three to five or ten suitcases of tolerance. When I look around and see some people who are figures in politics asking some of us to say what they should say… They went to the IEC and registered political parties. I am just a concerned citizen. What is your reading of The Gambia’s security situation? You see that is why we have transitional justice and security. Wherever you hear security reform in any country, know that the situation they were from was not conducive. Being a police or army officer under a dictatorship is much easier than being a police or soldier in a democracy. People misconstrue the difference between democracy and anarchy. Freedom is very expensive so when you get it, keep it safe. What we need is not only security reform, but reform in all other institutions. You were critical of former vice president Isatou Njie-Saidy, what was the problem? Omar, now I’m going to warn you; you have no right to enter in our internal family matter. I was critical of both Jammeh and her. She came on the radio and was being interviewed and said I was a distant relative. That is the height of anything you can imagine. When my mother died, she was one of those who provided vehicles and everything. So why would you distance yourself from somebody’s son when you know that you are closely related? When other people came out insulting her, I made a video and said any person who insults her parents, I will pay back on her behalf because that is not politics. And I was not only on Isatou Njie-Saidy, I was on Omar Sey former minister of health. I never spared Prof Kah, former vice chancellor of UTG. I’m not angry with Isatou Njie, I was just being critical, Allah knows I don’t hate her. Critics say there is not much visibility of OIC ahead of the summit. It depends on what they see as visibility. If you look around along Bertil Harding Highway, there are places where I see marked red. Society is complex they will never say their side. There are some people who encroached the buffer. This has been there for years and some of them know it. Right now some of them are lobbying saying they shouldn’t move their business and so forth. In a situation like that, what do some people expect us to do because, all these are part of the processes. You are a poet. What is the state of Gambian literature? That is a wounded area. It is something we need to take away from emotion. We should take it away from people suffering identity crisis, because there are writers who suffered from identity crisis. They always wanted people to know that I’m the pen or ink guy this and that. That is why I’m not a member of the writers association. Not that I look down upon them but I need to understand how the structure was formed and the criteria. The area needs to be restructured.]]>
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