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Jainaba Bah, former Gambian ambassador to Russia

Jainaba Bah, former Gambian ambassador to Russia

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Your excellency, you hailed from Chaku Bantang, the town of commerce. Can you talk a little about your early childhood?

Jainaba Bah: I’m from very humble beginnings. I was born in Banjul at the RVTH. My great grandfather owns a compound there in Liman Street. Of course, I grew up in Farafenni, Chaku Bantang, the land of the Blackman. It was there I did my primary school and then went to Serekunda school were I sat my common entrance exams. After that, I went to St Joseph’s High School in Banjul, and later to St Augustine’s High School for my sixth form. After that, I traveled. I left the country with my family.

Was is not because of your student activism at the Movement for Justice in Africa Gambia section (MoJa-G) that forced you and your family into exile under Sir Dawda’s government? Can you expound on that?

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It was very hard. I had to leave The Gambia with my husband together with our child. Moja-G was an underground movement. This was a movement that was formerly built in Liberia with Samuel Doe and all these people but later, it proliferated, and people got inspired by the ideologies that those people had. And then there was a Movement for Justice in Africa, and you have the Gambian Section. I was a student activist during those days, and we had a student union, and a student paper that was called the Organ of the Revolutionary Students (ORS). These were just basic student leagues like the right to an education. Maybe you wouldn’t remember, you were too young, but there were days during the First Republic when parents used to carry chairs and tables for their children to school and back. We felt there was a misplaced priority. For instance, in a tourist hotel you can have two beds yet a tourist can’t sleep on two beds. All the time, our students don’t even have a table or chair to use. Many other issues including the lack of enough school buses. Students used to wait for buses for hours and it was very difficult. But the thing that motivated me to join Moja-G was that I had traveled the length and breadth of the country, and in that series [Breaking the Omerta] you could see that I walked by foot to see how ordinary people were living. People were living as if time stood still. Up till now, people are living the same life. It hurts because if you see the world moving forward, you want to see your country moving forward. Farmers were not getting what they should get. Seeing the poor conditions that most Gambians were living, that was what motivated me to join Moja. I believed I could be part of something that would bring that change.

In the compelling series Breaking the Omerta, you spoke about the political environment which had persecuted the Moja-G militants and made it impossible for them to operate. In the first place, why was the movement in trouble with the law?

Moja’s ideology, at the time – it was very revolutionary. The movement was also seen as a group of people who were ready to take up arms and attack the State. This was what people believed, even though Moja was a movement that did not believe in coup d’état. When you questioned the status quo, the system feels threatened. Looking at what Moja stood for – a kind of socialism – it was too radical for the government of the day. So, later, when Kukoi, a member of Moja came, and without authority from Moja he did what he did [attempted coup]. Some Moja members were also part of this resistance called the Balangba. When Kukoi was going to do the coup, there was a meeting and people were supposed to go to the countryside and mobilise the cells there. That was what they were supposed to do when they received information that a coup had already taken place. The leadership were not informed of the coup, but since The Gambia and Senegal invoked a defense pact which would see Senegalese troops enter Gambia. Some Moja members decided that if Senegalese soldiers enter the country to quell the rebellion, they will stand up to them, not because they are with Kukoi, but to defend the motherland. So, the members took up arms and made a resistance. They fought against the Senegalese soldiers. It was a bitter struggle, and Moja’s newspaper came out of that Balangba, that is the resistance, that we don’t want Senegalese soldiers on Gambian soil. Later, there was a confederation and Senegelese soldiers were deployed in different strategic areas in Brikama, Yelitenda ferry crossing, the Barra terminal, and Denton Bridge until later when the Confederation came to an end.

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Eventually, the movement was proscribed, and its leader, Koro Sallah arrested. Why do you think Sir Dawda banned it?

They were suspected of having guns, but what they found was like a bow and arrow toy, sort of. They were later released, and the movement went underground. The movement was banned because Moja was seen as revolutionary and too radical. They would be violent and can take up arms and carry out a revolution like in the Cuban arms struggle. It was just too radical a movement that the State couldn’t wrap its head around.

You also talked about the physical abuse you suffered in the hands of state agents like Daba Marenah. How do you deal with the emotional trauma?

It was a terrible ordeal that I and others went through because we were suspected of being in the ORS, a student newspaper that was printed and distributed in schools. It was like bringing awareness to the students. In tracing that, we had the Special Branch at the time. We had Samba Bah who was the head of the Special Branch, and he had people under him. Daba Marenah, Abou Njie and a guy called Secka Bai were some of them. And there was this guy, a driver called Sowe, who was also one of them. They were always tracing, trying to be a step ahead of the student movement, trying to see who these people are and of course, they made a connection that this had something to do with Moja. Then the arrests started. My name came up and at that time, I was attending an insurance course when these people came asking for me. They said I must follow them to the police station. They refused to show their IDs or informed and did not tell me why I was being arrested. They said I will know when we reach the police station. This was under the chief leadership of Daba Marena. Finally, I found myself in this car but it passed the police station on Buckle Street and I realised we weren’t going to the police station. They took me all the way to Brikama. Before we arrived at the Brikama Police Station, we were in Nyambai and that was when they asked ‘can you tell us where you live’? They have done their homework; they know I live in Brikama. So, we went to my home and whiles they were searching, they found a copy of the ORS. I was one of the editors. I had my writings on them, and they were asking where is this paper from? I said I don’t know. Of course, I know, but the implications are so drastic for you to say you know. So many people’s lives are under it, so, rather I don’t know, suffer the consequences, is better than saying I know and then having to explain yourself. I took that defense mechanism; I don’t know. I was arrested on a Tuesday and by Friday they were tired of asking me and getting ‘I don’t know’. They said they were going to take me to school. The whole idea behind school was to torture you. Flanked on either side of their vehicle, they took me to a seaside and there, Daba Marenah said ‘once again, Jainaba, we are asking you, what is the ORS’? I said I don’t know, if I know anything, I would have told you. ‘This newspaper we found in your home, where did it come from?’ I said I don’t know. They said, you know we are very nice to you since Tuesday. They had this small machine which had wires to it and it’s like one of those hand sewing machines. So, they would take the wires and wrap it round my fingers. It didn’t dawn upon me until they started to wine it, and it felt like an electric shock. It was so painful, and I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy to go through that. They were also asking about a specific person that is Sarjo Jallow, who is now my husband. ‘What is Sarjo Jallow’s role in MOJA?’ I don’t know. It went on till my nose started to bleed and then Abou Njie brought a cloth and they decided this is enough. I went on hunger strike and refused to eat… After my release, we left The Gambia to be a refugee in Sweden.

When Sir Dawda Jawara lifted the ban on MOJA-G in the early 90s, you were the first to return from exile, later followed by others like your husband. Was it difficult to come down?

For us, the political situation was difficult, and we had to go as political refugees. I missed my mom and my dad passed away while I was in exile. In exile, you are always longing, a longing that’s like an emptiness in the heart that nothing can fill. So, it was difficult. When Sir Dawda, finally realised that these people also love the country like I do and are not a threat, he decided he was going to lift the ban out of his own good judgement. He was generous enough to extend that olive branch and then he gave us amnesty. That was so welcoming. The urge to see my mom, my sisters and my family, my friends, was stronger than the fear that I might be tortured if I return. It was very welcoming. And I pray for Sir Dawda – wherever he may be – may his soul rest in perfect peace.   

How did you make your entry into Gambian politics?

Whether you want to call it the political lifeline of The Gambia or the development of The Gambia, I have always been very vested with what is happening in The Gambia and have always made my stance known. More so following the April 10/11 uprising which left me shocked because I couldn’t believe… I was like no, Jammeh didn’t do this. Jammeh was part of the ORS, or so he claimed. Even when he came to power, Jammeh was calling on MOJA members to come out. In fact, Jammeh wanted me to come back and work with him. When the students were massacred, I couldn’t believe it. It was like something in me died and since then I became active and talking about the atrocities that have been committed. Even the writing of the series Breaking the Omerta, was a response to Jammeh, in a way. I wrote that as a sign to let people know that they can stand up to these things and fight for their rights. So, I have always been part of Gambian politics.

Why did you gravitate towards the UDP instead of the other parties?

When I returned from exile, the first people I spoke to were Halifa Sallah, Sidia Jatta and sister Amie Sarr. I was looking forward to seeing how MOJA and PDOIS can come together because the ideologies are very close. I also sat with Halifa and spoke at length and I realised that the way we resonate around practical things, it was not the same. I came to the UDP… I was studying UDP even though it was never my number one option from the onset. I was asking after their manifesto and wanted to peruse it. But as history progressed, I found out that this is a party in transformation and this is a leader, Ousainu Darboe – of all the politicians in The Gambia – is the man that has really grown so much in his political life and transformed. For me, what I appreciated was the way Mr Darboe transformed… the Solo Sandeng thing – when that happened, the decision that he took that the leadership of the party be in front of the protest march, and the rest behind them, it is like unprecedented. That is historic. That is what a leader does. He gave his life on that day because Jammeh could have said you know what, throw life bullets at them, kill them all…  

Do you think that opening a diplomatic mission in Russia is justifiable for The Gambia considering our meagre resources?

It is good to have an embassy in Russia. The time that I spent in Russia, I was impressed because the Russians have the interest of developing countries at heart. What Russia did, and what people perhaps need to find out is that they came and they supported the liberation struggle of African continent. They demanded for the independence of Congo. They helped Guinea Bissau and then they helped Angola at the battle of Quifangondo, or Death Road, in what was a defining moment for the history of Africa. Russian education in Africa – they have clusters. They have southern Africa where Zambia is the cluster hub. And they have east Africa. In west Africa, we [The Gambia] won a cluster and The Gambia is a hub. What is beautiful about Russian education is that, even Russian aid… for example, this FAR limited that we are talking about coming to drill our oil, what am asking the government is do they have an education component for this FAR limited? Because if you have an education component you will train your people to know these people who are coming to drill, because part of it is to train ordinary Gambians to be able to know how much oil they are drilling per day. But you give a right to drill yet you don’t even know how much oil they are drilling. If it were Russians, they would have an education component to train Gambians. When I was there, what we were to build in The Gambia was a hospital. I hope the ambassador who is there now would continue this work. I was able to secure a hospital that was worth 80 million dollars. This hospital has a helicopter landing place. This hospital would have been one of a kind in Africa, with staff quarters and a mixture of European and African doctors. Russia is one of the countries that has the best doctors for spinal injuries. There is a minister here, I wouldn’t name him, his brother was crippled and was going to die, but I was able to arrange for him to travel to Russia and they fixed his spine. In Russia, they don’t give you brown envelopes as development aid, but they would come and train your people to be able to be better doctors, to be better nurses, to have patience in our hospitals. That they would have dialyses machines. People are dying at the RVTH. My cousin’s liver has collapsed. The professionals there – nobody has patience anymore and the machines are not working there.  

President Barrow made you ambassador to Russia but later removed you. Did it have anything to do with the rift between him and Darboe?

Yes, very much so. We all know the story; President Barrow was UDP and went on a UDP flag and he had to resign from the UDP, but it was UDP that nominated him otherwise he wouldn’t have been nominated and he wouldn’t have been president. We say the truth, the fact as they are. But when the fallout came between him and Mr Darboe, that became a spill over. Like anybody who Mr Darboe had nominated to be ambassador or to work in any other place, it’s like he had a broom and swept all of them out.

Many observers tag those to be the ‘UDP ambassadors’, what do you say to that?

I’m one; HisExcellency Kemeseng Jammeh; Her Excellency Ramzia Diab; His Excellency Amadou Taal; Sedat Jobe, yes. Who else was there? Mr Faye Ceesay in China. I don’t know for the others regarding the conversation that transpired between them and the president, but for me, it was like I have to make a choice between him and Darboe. They were even feeding him information that I took a UDP lady to Russia. But the lady was very sick, and I felt it was my duty to help her. And thank God she has been treated and is fine. When she came back, that was the time they started; ‘oh she is bringing UDP people here’, but they forgot that the minister, who today… I can even say it – the information minister – his brother came, and I paid for his ticket. They didn’t talk about that. They forgot. I paid for his brother’s ticket twice. They didn’t say UDP. Doctors told him you were going to die or crippled. The president sent people to me, saying he doesn’t know where my loyalties lie, that he wanted to know why after he fired Mr Darboe and the others, I didn’t I congratulate him and say, you did the right thing. I said I wasn’t there when you were hiring them.

They said that you showed your preference of Darboe over President Barrow, to his face, and that was why you were removed as ambassador, is that true?

Preference? What are they talking about? Because the thing is, Barrow was the president, and Mr Darboe, we were all, I mean we were part of the government. I was an ambassador and Mr Darboe was the foreign affairs minister and later became the number two – the vice president. What preference is there to show? If they must talk about the preference, it was when he posed the question regarding my loyalty, through a third party. I got upset because I was with him less than 24 hours before. I said he could have asked me, in my face, and I would have told him if it was with him or Darboe. When he fired Mr Darboe and others, I said I was going to resign. When it happened, I was here on a visit. I told my guys I’m leaving the government because he fired you guys. I said I know where this is going; I don’t want to be in Moscow and Barrow fires me. I don’t want to give him that pleasure.

Political observers predicted the December 4 election to be a tight race between NPP and UDP Did the outcome surprise you?

I was not only surprised, but I was also shocked, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Why? Not because I underestimated Barrow’s popularity, not because I felt Gambians don’t love Barrow. There are Gambians who love and voted for President Barrow. But that President Barrow won the election, I was surprised, and I was shocked at the margin. Why? Because, Mr Manneh, I was on the campaign trail with the UDP team. We went the length and breadth of this country… our final destination was in Aljamdu, where they don’t have water. They have gallons and you must take a little to have shower. In one of that meetings, one speaker decided to provide a borehole for that community not because of UDP or Mr Darboe, but as a Muslim to a Muslim. With all that the government is talking about, there are people who are living without water here, who are living below the poverty line and are unable to provide three square meals. And you are talking about building roads. I think the livelihoods of the people – everybody was complaining – it’s so expensive. It’s like our economy has been hijacked. Gambians don’t have any space, and this was why the UDP’s five-point agenda was important. Even to nail a roof, an immigrant must do it for you. Why? Because we don’t have the vocational training centre. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe in the election result and that is why I didn’t congratulate Barrow. And I have made a statement when I was calling for a boycott of Muhammed Jah that I will not congratulate President Barrow. I was traumatised. I couldn’t believe it because I have seen for myself the suffering of the masses.

Your excellency, public opinion has been against you recently with you receiving a backlash for releasing a viral audio in which you called on the UDP supporters to boycott the commercial enterprises of QGroup CEO Muhammed Jah. Many people said that was not becoming of a diplomat.

Was it a backlash? I’m not even aware. You see, this is why it is fun when you are not on Facebook. The thing is, as Gambians also, we are not used to calling on such actions. Gambians are very good at ‘it’s Allah’s doing’. It’s not like I hate Muahmmed Jah. I taught Muhammed Jah in Form Three in Muslim High School. He was a bright student, and I had a liking for him as a good pupil. But this thing about the boycott, I wasn’t trying to kill Muhammed Jah’s business; it’s to bring him to think. Sometimes, you might be doing things and you think it’s okay, and it’s not okay. The connection with Muhammed Jah, and why I called for the boycott is that when the PIU came and teargassed Mr Darboe at his Pipeline residence, his wives were there, his family was there, and UDP people were there. These were people who didn’t do anything. They just came, they sat there. It’s trauma for all of us UDP to say that we didn’t win the election because we were very confident of victory. We had hopes that we would win, and then that didn’t happen. People were coming to show their solidarity with the party leader and the party and to just comfort each other and feel okay. There were people there who had asthma. It was devastating – the terror that I saw that day. Why would they do this? We were mourning the loss of this election, and they said no, it’s not enough, let’s add teargas onto their injuries. And presidential advisers like Alkali Conteh were laughing and jeering thinking that was okay. Muahmmed Jah’s role was, he was a financier who was helping Barrow, just as he was helping Yahya Jammeh in the lead up to the 2011 election, handing over car keys and saying that people should vote for APRC. He is doing the same thing with Barrow. Anything that appeases Barrow. Barrow’s nomination lasted a whole day and night on QTV, and then it was replayed, and replayed again. But I have not seen anywhere where Muahmmed Jah has said okay, this five minutes is for UDP. If we must pay for it, yes, we can pay for it. What I want people to understand is that I don’t have an issue with Muhammed Jah loving President Barrow, he can do that. Even if he wants now, he can go to Equatorial Guinea and stay with President Jammeh for some time. I don’t have problem with that. What I have problem with is showing it publicly, making preferences and not acting fair and balance. We went the length and breadth of this country, Muahmmed Jah could have sent a TV crew to follow all these presidential candidates, but he did not. If he wants to be paid, he could be paid but he did not do that. So, Muhammed Jah, what I am saying is that I am not advocating for you to go bankrupt, no; it’s like food for thought. As a businessperson, you cannot make your business by siding with a president who goes and teargasses the opposition, yet we are giving you our money. That is why I called for the boycott.  

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