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Monday, November 29, 2021

Fatoumata ‘Touma’ Njai National Assembly Member, Banjul South

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In the last few years, you have become a household name in The Gambia but few people outside Banjul knew Touma Njai before. Tell us about your life before entering politics

I have always been a shy person. I’m still shy, but when it comes to addressing issues, I have always spoken my mind irrespective of who I was talking to. I think it’s the way I was brought up: to be fair and just, to be equitable, to share the little that I was privileged to have. I was the type of child that would not even want to have two or more shoes. I thought it was not necessary to have more than you need. I don’t look up to anyone, but I also do not look down on anybody. I try as much as possible to work along with people. I am that type that would stand up, confidently, and say what’s on my mind.

You are a scion of the Momodou Musa Njie family. Your grandfather was reported to be the richest Gambian in his day. Your father was CEO of a national bank, and your aunt was first lady. Does this glorified pedigree in any way inform your decision to enter politics?

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Personally, I don’t believe in pedigree. I believe in earning your own keep. I have been in parliament for the past four years and have never leaned on my family heritage. I try to do my best and for people to believe and trust in what I do and what I can offer. I have always been very close to the former president Sir Dawda, who happens to be my great uncle because he is the same mom and dad with my maternal grandmother. I think because we lost our grandmother at a very early age, he took over my mom and our siblings and cared for them as though they were his own. Any time he came to my grandfather’s house, he would put me on his lap. We had a great bonding. During his exile, we became much closer. I’m an early bird, and a great cook. So, I would make breakfast for him, and we would have discussions on politics. I studied politics and international relations because of the conversations we used to have. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. Although that never influenced me, I never thought I was going to be a politician. I always thought I was going to be an international civil servant representing The Gambia.

Your father Housainou Njie ran the Gambia Commercial and Development Bank to the ground through sheer ineptitude and corruption. Are you proud of his legacy?

I am very proud of his legacy. Thank God, before he died, we had a conversation about that. I came home in 1999, and he died in 2002. I was very close to my dad and one day, in his office, we discussed about his work at the bank. And I’m really proud of what he envisaged for The Gambia because if we look at the business industry today, most of it is in the hands of non-Gambians and this was exactly what he envisaged and tried to prevent. Yes, there are buts, but The Gambia is very small. All those people that were given loans for example, to start the NTC, to start… there was a cleansing service… all those were well-intentioned. He tried to ensure our businesses remain in the hands of Gambians. My father never gave himself a loan. He died… I won’t say a poor man because he can’t be poor coming from the family that he came from. Most of the monies in the bank, were also his father’s. So, he cannot cheat himself. When I hear people saying that he gave his family loans, how can you give your family what is rightfully theirs? My father was a very humble man. He died living in a two-bedroom apartment. He’s never lived a lavish lifestyle. Yes, he gave us the best, but he gave us what was necessary.

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Was it not because of that corruption his in-law President Jawara removed him as head of the bank?

And I applaud Sir Dawda for that because that decision showed there was no nepotism. My father was his greatest brother-in-law. They were very close. Great friends. It was the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), the World Bank that recommended and Sir Dawda implemented. And I applaud him for that… with all due respect and modesty and everything, I’m not disrespecting anybody but so many people are somebody today because of the generosity of my father. That is one reason I’m very proud of him. Many are generous to us now because of what my father did. And that’s why I am proud of my dad.

Why didn’t you join any other party beside PPP when you decided to enter politics?

From the onset, I knew that this PPP, I mean since its proscription and re-emergence, was not going the right way. And I saw that Sir Dawda was completely out of politics because of his integrity and his respect for the promises he made. So, I said to myself, if I am going to join politics it will be PPP and it will be for its revival. It’s the party that I was born in; that I grew up respecting; that I grew up valuing. I have known all the ministers of the PPP, all the kingmakers and most importantly, the former President Sir Dawda whom I have always been very close to and have always been proud to say that. I’ve been invited by many parties when I declared my intention to enter politics. I decided my heart doesn’t belong to those parties. If I were given the opportunity in February to run the party, it would have gone past where it is now.

You must admit that the PPP is past its sell-by date, that it has long ceased to be a force to be reckoned with in Gambian politics.

I agree that the PPP is as good as dead. But I believe there’s chance for revival. If you go to Sierra Leone now, the SLPP, they thought it was as good as dead but they are now back in power. That’s how I see the PPP. With perseverance and the determination that I have for the party, and for my late father… My father died a UDP supporter. I could have joined the UDP but I believe the UDP was established for a purpose. Like you said, the PPP has passed its sell-by date, but I think it is the UDP that has passed its sell-by date because it was built for a purpose, and that purpose has been achieved. So, the people from the NCP should have gone back, people from PPP gone back and people from other parties also gone back. But the way the PPP was re-established, it was the wrong way. I think OJ [Omar Jallow] is not a defined leader, because a defined leader should… look, those people at the UDP are PPP at heart.

Analysts say even the seats you won in Banjul were because of the support from the Tahawal Banjul lobby than the popularity of the PPP per se.

If I disagree, I will be very unfair to Tahawal Banjul. PPP wouldn’t have had a seat had it not been for Tahawal Banjul. I will not blow my trumpets, but I was behind Team Tahawal Banjul because I believe in Banjul. People were saying that you would have won your seat anyway but the credit I give to Tahawal Banjul. It was only in the eleventh hour that I declared I was PPP. I never campaigned under their name.

The PPP is in a fratricide that it might not survive, what is your reaction to that?

As long as I live, the PPP would survive. Take my word for it. I don’t see myself as being in the middle of… I see myself as forging ahead towards the end. As long as I live, the PPP would survive. It will be the PPP that the founding fathers envisaged; not the PPP that would just say I’m PPP without even understanding the values and principles of the founding fathers.

Kebba Jallow and his people said they have expelled you from the party and you have rejected it. A purported court order however said they have no authority to expel you from the party but the Kebba Jallow camp said they are not aware of any court order. If this expulsion were to stand, will you continue in politics and will you go solo or join another party?

I’m PPP, that’s all I can say. And I don’t believe that anybody can expel an executive member of a political party without due process. I still am representing PPP at the parliament. The matter is in the court. I can’t say anything about it. But I’m PPP.

Some observers believe that the PPP is hijacked by OJ and that he has this sense of entitlement that when many abandoned the party during the Jammeh years, he alone put his head over the parapet to defend the party. What do you say to that?

People can say whatever they want. PPP is not owned by any person. I will not say OJ was the only one carrying the party [during the Jammeh regime]. OJ doesn’t have the shoulders to carry all that. It was all under the UDP. We all went and joined the UDP. I think if he has that in his mind… I have never heard OJ say that he is the owner of the PPP. PPP is not owned by anybody.

You come across, in the estimation of some, as rude and even vulgar in some of your statements. Is that a fair observation?

People have a right to say what they want, especially when once you present yourself as a public figure, people can say anything about you. Yes, I am outspoken. And on this side of the world, being outspoken is termed as being rude. Being assertive is termed as being arrogant. And I am proud to say that I’m assertive and outspoken. However people define it, it’s not my problem. I don’t allow people to define me; I define myself.

You took a lot of flak for the way you also acted when your mother and child were quarantined because of Covid-19 regulations at a hotel for which you were arrested and briefly detained…

People can say whatever they want to say. I was arrested. I was sitting in my car, I was practically dragged out of my car and this [a fractured finger] is where I got that. If I had been to remove my mom from that place, I wouldn’t have been sitting in my car. I went to drop them off. And I was sitting in my car, waiting. In fact, what happened was unfortunate. They tried to move my mom and I told them they should not only move my mom, they should move everybody that was there because it wasn’t about my mom. If a place was not being used for two years, you cannot just take people there. They are humans. They should be protected, not exposed to hazards. Those are the critics, and I’m a public figure. I don’t mind being criticised. It means that I have made an impact. It’s good to be criticised.

The local mullahs and in fact a lot of ordinary Muslims bayed for your head after you called for the removal of mosques from State House 4and other public places. As a Muslim and a representative of a majority Muslim constituency, that is rather impolitic, don’t you agree?

I never said removal. I said change it to prayer places so that everybody can have access. We are all equal in the eyes of the law. I respect my religion. I respect other religions, so, I would never ask for mosques to be removed. Like I said, it’s politics, so, people can say whatever they want. And I think Alagie, you are fortunate because I don’t discuss that anywhere. For me, whatever I said in parliament, is not open to discussions.

You cover your air, are you religious?

I am a practicing Muslim. I pray five times a day. I’m not a fanatic, but I believe in my religion. Yes, I always cover my hair and wear modest clothes. In fact, I just had the hijab on, but I had to remove it as a public figure so that everybody can have access to me. I thought myself how to read the Qur’an. I made sure my children also follow the religion. I won’t say I am more religious than any other person, and I don’t judge anyone.

Why did you say OJ is not a defined leader? 

I think a defined leader should know the right steps to take. I’m not disrespecting him. He was my dad’s friend and I grew up under them. His children are my friends. However, when it comes to work and personal relationships, there’s a line and however thin, I try to identify that line, to strike that balance.

The defenestration of the Jammeh dictatorship has engendered a lot of enthusiasm for change but almost five years down the line those hopes have all faded. Where did the Barrow regime get it wrong?

It was the people that removed Jammeh, not any political party. The people voted Jammeh out. If Gambians want change, they should hold us accountable. Personally, I do not point fingers but the diversion came into being when our elected president went on to form his own political party. I wouldn’t have allowed that to happen, not at least after the transition. But I’m only an individual with one vote.

We have seen a surfeit of political parties in the country with very little ideological differences. It seems like politics in The Gambia is based on personalities and not principles or ideology. Is this good for our democracy?

That is the nature of democracy. You go to other countries like Nigeria, yes its bigger than The Gambia but they have nearly 300 political parties. For us as leaders, we should make sure we teach people the values of democracy so that they can use their judgment. We have now about 19 political parties with the same ideology. What do they want? Do they all want to lead? With less than five months to the elections, I have never seen any party come up with policies as to why they should be voted into office. I wouldn’t remove my party from that list. We are in a dilemma. We are at a crossroads. I believe Gambians should demand for a contract with any government that is coming. I believe that this current president is being given a free ride. I was listening to an interview on QTV, and I was a bit disappointed. I notice that he is more confident now, more fluent. But the utterances I believe, most of them were a betrayal of trust. And once you are trusted, and you betray that trust, for me – I’m not sure about others – it will be very difficult because the trust was unconditional. I never heard of Barrow before he was nominated by the coalition members to be our leader. If you break that trust, there’s no way you can gain my trust again.

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