In this edition of Bantaba, news editor Alagie Manneh talks to the distinguished international lawyer and presidential hopeful Essa Faal.
The Standard: Your father, Mbye Faal, was a school principal who had impacted many lives, what memories do you have of him growing up?
I was raised in a household wherein the first son was not even Wolof; he was a Mandinka who was given to my father at a very tender age. My father brought him up. Some people wonder why I speak Mandinka. Some people, especially my detractors, are trying to suggest that I am trying to speak Mandinka because I am trying to win Mandinka votes. I would tell those people that they don’t know me. You see, it is cynicism, it is politic season, so, they would attack me with that. When I was doing such a gracious job at the TRRC, saying things in Mandinka, in Wolof, for the greater population to understand, everybody hailed me. Now that I am in politics, they want to use that as a weapon against me. It will not work. You can’t have it both ways but I am not here to respond to detractors. It’s a waste of time. Let them say what they say. But you know what, I was raised in a household where my father was all-embracing. A lot of Mandinka people were sent to our home in Banjul to be educated. Many homes in Kartong for instance, the Jabangs, the Bojangs and the Fattys would be sent to our home in Banjul to do high school… I recalled growing up as a child in form one, I slept on a bed with two other people; when I turned right, I hit a Mandinka, when I turned left, I also hit a Mandinka…
Why the emphasis on this, is it because of the rising ethnocentric bigotry in the country?
The other day, I said we should stop the politics of badinya faasa and the politics of mbokanise. They picked up on the badinya faasa, and they forgot, conveniently, the mbokanise. What I was trying to say is, I was sending a message to the Gambian people that people should not just see me as a Wolof and support me because I am a Wolof and people should not just see another candidate just for their tribe and support them for their tribe. I was saying that Gambia we are above that; we should focus on knowledge over ignorance; experience over neophytes. I was saying that we should focus on meritocracy and not on parochial values. But its cynicism in politics, people will try to use that as an attack weapon against me. It won’t work. The Gambian people are far smarter than that.
In public estimation you are a rich man… flaunting expensive SUVs…how rich are you?
That is not a matter for public consumption. I am not a rich person. A lot of the time I am broke, not because of my own issues, but because I care a lot about other things other than myself and that keeps me broke a lot of the time. So, I don’t think I have enough savings to take care of all the things I want to do. But I am not suggesting that those things are my own things. But I don’t want to sit here and talk about me, me, me. That’s not the reason why I am running for office. I would want to
answer questions about what I would want to do, how I can contribute to national development. Those are the issues of concern to the Gambian people, and not how rich or poor Essa Faal is. I think my richness is what is in my heart for the Gambian people.
Your critics say you are a showman and that it became evident during the televised hearings of the TRRC. What do you say to that criticism?
If you don’t know a person, you could say a lot of things about the person, [and] you would be speaking from ignorance. In fact, the people who know me, they think that I am too serious, to the point that I am boring. You see, TRRC is a different ballgame and people don’t understand it. One, we had to make it interesting so that the people will watch. You know why, because the whole essence of the TRRC is for people to learn from the ills of the past so that they can remedy them for the future. If people don’t watch, if people are not interested in knowing what is going on it in, then it is of no use. And I would have failed massively in my duty if I didn’t make it interesting enough for Gambians. And that is why sometimes, I would joke, sometimes I would spice it up with little things, just to make it interesting. What is showmanship in that? Some people even say that, well because I dressed too well… in my profession as a lawyer we are taught to be very well dressed. And I take that very seriously.
You were a prosecutor for the ICC but then left to be a defense counsel for President Kenyatta and vice president Ruto. Your critics say it was because of money that you turned coat from being a prosecutor to a defence counsel in the same court. Is that not problematic ethically?
A lot of people don’t understand the system. They don’t understand what we lawyers do. I will give you an example, our chief justice, Hassan Jallow, is a very eminent lawyer, respected all around the world for a lot of things including his honesty. Hassan Jallow, from being minister of justice, became a defence lawyer. From being a defence lawyer, he became a judge, and then he became a prosecutor again. Now, he came back to become a chief justice. There is no problem about that. Let me give you another example. The former prosecutor of the ICC Mrs Bensouda, she was an attorney general and minister of justice. When she left, she became a defence lawyer and was taking cases against the same government to which she was attorney general. I will tell you another case, the Attorney General vs Ahmad Baba. Ahmad Baba was accused of having killed somebody. He was being investigated for that case while Hassan Jallow was attorney general. He was prosecuted after the coup in 1994. When Hassan Jallow ceased to be attorney general, he became a defence lawyer. He was prosecuted by Dr Alagie Marong at the Ministry of Justice. I don’t recall who represented him at the trial, but he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Then he went on appeal. He was represented by Hassan Jallow at the appeal, the person who was AG at that time he committed the offense. And I represented the AG’s Chambers during that appeal. You see, when people talk, a lot of the time they don’t talk from an informed point of view. They just talk about things that they don’t understand. For us lawyers, these things don’t matter…
You also represent Saif Al-Islam the son of Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, another unsavoury character. Ultimately, as a defence counsel you worked to free these people. Is that not at odds with your image as a stickler for human rights?
Well, for a lot of people who don’t know, for us as lawyers, we have ethical obligations. There’s a cab-rank rule that you represent people when they asked for your help. How do you know that he is an unsavory character? The media can write anything. These days, a lot of people are writing things about me – how I ‘betrayed’… I don’t know what I have betrayed. I was given a job, I did the job, I completed it. I left. Simply because I am challenging the status quo, and the status quo is so panicking, they are so inconvenienced by that they hired these goons to call me a betrayer. But who is the betrayer here? The person who set up a commission to establish the truth so that there could be accountability and later turn around to go to bed with the same people that are being investigated with a view to put aside the outcome of that investigation, or me who did my job and completed it and decided to go out and challenge them? Who is the betrayer here? Isn’t it palpably obvious? But look, this is politics of personal attacks, and I am not interested in these things. The fact of the matter is any objective observer would know that I am on the right and they are on the wrong…
One curious episode of your distinguished legal career is your decision to serve as counsel for former Liberian president Charles Taylor who had wreaked havoc in the sub-region and is believed to have been responsible for the mass murders and mutilations of thousands of innocent civilians in Liberia itself as well as Sierra Leone. Why would you represent such an odious character and reportedly pro bono?
In fact, I represented Charles Taylor pro bono, and there’s an important reason. All these superpowers, they give weapons and ammunitions to rebel groups to go and fight. It’s a known established fact. Charles Taylor did the same. Why should Charles Taylor be sentenced to 50 years for doing that when nothing happened to George Bush and Tony Blair? Charles Taylor was not convicted for crimes he committed in Liberia; he was convicted for crimes Sierra Leonean rebels committed in Sierra Leone. Show me the fairness in that. Should we let that injustice to continue?
It was claimed that you were being paid 10,000 dollars per month at the TRRC. That’s almost half a million dalasis. Don’t you think that is exorbitant given that there was no money for the victims?
I would say I agree with you, completely, that would have been excessive, super excessive. Thanks to God, I was paid almost less than 90 percent of that. It’s a big fat lie. It was just intended to smear me. Working at the TRRC was a loss of income for me. Truth of the matter is, I lost a lot of money working at the TRRC. It was a huge sacrifice. I was never paid D500,000. Never. Far from it, when I did the math, I miscalculated. I was paid less than 80 percent of that. Okay let me say it, I was paid D100,000 dalasi. And you know what, I did a lot of things with that D100,000, things not related to me. And God knows it. And everybody who works at the TRRC, knew that. Look, it was a huge sacrifice on my part to be at the TRRC and to concentrate on that.
Dou Sanno, an influential adviser to the president hinted that the president may not accept the recommendations of the TRRC and that you would be blamed for that. What is your reaction to that?
I will clap for them. You know why that would be the biggest distortion of the truth The Gambia has ever seen. These people never had any intention of implementing the TRRC report. What they have alleged against me is more serious. What they did is just a clean disclosure of their intention, and they want to blame it on me. These people have not even seen the TRRC report, and they are now telling you that they will not implement it because there was this guy called Essa Faal who worked at the TRRC and was not present when they submitted the report. What a flimsy excuse. This is all a political calculation, aimed for two important reasons. One is to cozy up to the APRC so that they can have a coalition with them without which they stand no chance of winning. And the second is to smear my character and try to ruin my reputation, but they will fail woefully. Because every Gambian knows what was going on. They have done everything possible to stop me from running for president because they know it creates an impossible part to victory for them.
Many observers question your conspicuous absence when Amie Bensouda was testifying at the TRRC. Can you explain the reasons for your absence?
C’mon, let people be realistic. Can Essa Faal lead every single witness at the TRRC? Must I really be the person to interview everybody? That was just a matter of coincidence.
Former secretary general, now UDP surrogate Momodou Sabally accuses you of being narcissistic and hijacking the TRRC for political expediency. What is your reaction to that?
Look, do you think I should really respond to that? Should I really respond to that? There are certain things that are not worth responding to. I am sure when they hear this, they would say he has nothing to say, but everybody knows what the situation is. I don’t want to be drawn into the mud by people. If they choose to live in the mud, let them remain in the mud.
There is a plethora of parties, why didn’t you look for one you could work with instead of setting up on your own?
It’s a funny question. I have answered this question severally. Why must I be expected to go and join one of 21 parties when we have 21 parties because none of those 20 parties decided to join the one that existed? Just think about it. We have 21 parties simply because 20 of them refused to join the one that existed, and I am now being asked why I did not join the 21. Just think about it.
If your ambition was not driven by personal advancement, why couldn’t you join one of the many parties or independent candidates?
In fact, you are telling me that all leaders of the 20 parties were also driven by personal ambition. That is what is implied. Because I am doing exactly what they did; standing up and saying me and my team together, are going to challenge the status quo and vie for the presidency. I am not driven by any personal ambition. I am driven by my anger for what is happening in this country; that the youths don’t have work when they have paid dearly to go to school. Our sisters are suffering in these hospitals; it is a death trap, and a lot of people are dying. The cost of living is so high that even our police officers are deprived of what it takes to maintain a decent living… I am driven by those problems. Those problems make me angry. Corruption is endemic in this country. I am mad about that. These are the things that drive me; not personal ambition.
It is conventional wisdom that the December fourth plebiscite will be a two-horse race between Barrow and Darboe. What gives you the impression that even with your popularity, money, and messaging that you could win the election?
I think people are misreading the situation. That statement would have been right weeks ago. It’s no longer right. It’s no longer the case. The thing is, they are not now concentrating on those who were in the race before I came in. They are only focusing on me now because I have upended the situation. The situation has changed completely, and that is why they are attacking me.