With Alagie Manneh
Kebba Sanneh ‘Nyanchor’ was one of the vanguards of the diasporan ‘struggle’ who fought to dislodge Yahya Jammeh from power. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh talks to him about his life as an activist, ‘New Gambia’ and related matters.
Aged 19, you took the perilous ‘backway’ to Europe. Why?
Life took a different angle when my father passed away. I was at high school, two years before I finished fifth form. That sent a very, very terrible message to me, I felt like I needed to leave this country at some point. My father was the pillar of my life and he was not there. So I just wanted to go out of this country to make a better life for myself, with the thought that one day, I would get educated and return to this country. That’s what forced me to leave. I saw no opportunities for me in this country. Those days it was not what you know, but who you know. Apparently, I knew nobody in the system at the time.
You eventually settled in Scandinavia.
Yes. Getting to Europe through the ‘backway’ is difficult. After leaving Gambia, I went to many countries and ended up in Libya. From there, I went to Tunisia and then to Norway. It was in August, very cold, in autumn. The beginning was very tough but Gambians abroad extended the hand of brotherhood. But I couldn’t stay there. I left for Finland, and ended up marrying and settling there right after, I went back to high school. I was later making a living by teaching, but I first started as an engineer. I did a BSc in electronics and information technology. In 2000, I moved from Finland to Sweden, where I did a master’s degree course in Industrial Project Management.
Somewhere during Jammeh’s rule, you left your “comfortable life” in Sweden to join dissidents in Dakar. Why?
I don’t know why I did what I did, but when I look back today, I feel that being involved, being part of the struggle that brought the dictatorship to its knees, was a genuine cause. I think my dislike of injustice; my utter contempt for abusive leaderships, made me got involved with the Gambian situation at the time. I understood that there was military rule in this country and the rights and the dignity of the Gambian people were not respected. When my people are in trouble and I am sitting in this so-called comfort zone, then it becomes automatically my responsibility to speak on their behalf to make sure that their voice is heard to make sure that what is expected is what is delivered. The government at the time was very abusive, very dictatorial. The Gambian people were suffering. All I did was to shout, to echo their voice. I thought I was doing what every Gambian needed to do for his or her country.
You were said to have been instrumental in the formation of UDP chapters abroad and to have bankrolled some of the party’s activities. Why the UDP and not the other parties?
I knew we had to fight a dictatorship. I knew we needed to be part of groups to be able to tackle this very difficult situation. I became affiliated with a group named the UDP. I supported the UDP on two fronts. One, the UDP manifesto, which I read through, claim that they are a socialist movement. During my time in Scandinavia I was always part of political systems. I was a member of the Social Democratic Party of Finland, equally, a member of the SDP in Sweden. I campaigned for candidates to win and become members of parliament and local councils. While I understood that there were other parties in this country, the democratic and the political view of the UDP was what attracted me. The second reason is, the leader of the UDP happened to be a close relative of mine. I knew him for being a righteous person. As a kid, I looked up to him. I wanted to be like him. I knew he was heading this political movement. So all I could possibly do was to support that idea. But I am not officially a card-bearing member of the UDP. I became a militant without a portfolio. I just reacted to claims and accusations labeled against the UDP and its leadership.
You are one of the main petitioners behind UDP’s legal challenge of the results of the Kuntaur Area Council chairman election. Why are you contesting what was said to be a free and fair election?
It was free and fair but there were things that were done and we couldn’t understand how they were done. This case is the courts and I think few days ago it was heard by the judges at the high court. What took place there I would consider a dubious act. Was it intentional? I don’t know. Was it planned? I don’t know. Accidental? I can’t tell. All I know is that the results at the polling stations were different from the results that were taken to Janjangbureh by the returning officers. Since this case is before the courts, I wouldn’t want to delve into it but the truth will come out and I am still of the view that the UDP candidate Mr Aussainou Jorbateh, will be declared duly elected from my understanding of the numbers.
Your friends said the UDP has not recognised your efforts.
I think that the UDP is an organisation and they have people whose names are registered with the party. My name is not there. So I cannot accuse them of being… they owe me nothing. I owe them nothing. We had a political system, we both agreed – me and the UDP agreed that that system needed to go. So I don’t know what you mean by the UDP doesn’t consider me because I can’t see this government to be a UDP government. I fought for a Coalition government and I am under a Coalition government. If the Coalition believe that I have that qualification to work with them or for the nation, I guess they will contact me. But that’s not my mission. My mission is my country was suffering and I did what I could to save this country.
It was said you approached your cousin, Vice President Ousainu Darboe, for a job in the government.
I did not contact Ousainu Darboe on political grounds. I contacted Ousainu Darboe as a brother, which anybody would do. I did not only contact Ousainu Darboe, I contacted other brothers. I said, “I want a job, can you find me a job?” Because that’s the only way I can stay in this country. Yes, I asked Ousainu to give me a job or find me a job or a way to get a job, but I equally knew that Ousainu was not the labour minister. So I put no pressure on him to give me a job. Look, what I did…
Is it true that he told you to go back to teaching?
He told me to go back and teach. I said where? He said to the University of The Gambia. I said ok, but at the moment I don’t want to teach. Then he said why? I said because I came from a very messy situation – six months in Dakar, you cannot be under this pressure and stress and become a teacher. But he said, ‘no, you will go back and teach’. I said how? He said ‘you go and apply.
You have always called for Diasporan Gambians to have a permanent rep in the parliament..
The Diaspora is that constituency that I come from, and I know the contribution that it did towards freeing this country. We are talking about a population that could be bigger than some constituencies in this country. If we are talking about moving forward, developing this country, the most educated part of this nation lives abroad. What about tapping into that very vast resource of knowledge, experience and expertise, and bring that into this country and add that up with the experience and the expertise that we are having in this country… I believe that if each and every constituency in this country is represented by a member of parliament, the Diaspora should have a representative, sitting in The Gambia’s national parliament. And he would be there forwarding the interest of the Diaspora of this country. Not doing so will marginalise the Diaspora, and set them as an antagonistic movement against the movement that is here. The pictures are clear. One could see the cracks; the difference between Barrow’s vision of how this nation should move forward, and the vision that the Diaspora considered to be the way forward. I think there needs to be dialogue.
People who know you say you have forsaken the religion of your fathers and that you are an atheist. Are you?
People say a lot of things about people like me. If you mean atheist in the sense that I do not believe in God, throw that statement out. I am not an atheist. But I do not bow down and I am not inclined to hard-core Islamic or Christian values. I am only liberal. I want people to decide for themselves what to do with their lives, which religion to believe in and how to practice that religion. So I am not an atheist, but I am not a fundamentalist of any religion.
Your cousin, the VP recently harangued some people in Bansang for not giving him political support. Many believe the statement was petty. Don’t you agree that it was at best an unguarded statement?
I think that he was reacting because he was angry. Angry at what? I don’t know. I do know that a relative of his is running against his party’s candidate. Is his family boiling down to politics? I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on Ousainu and his politics.
Critics said Barrow’s government was full of people from CRR?
Well, I am from CRR and I am not part of Barrow’s government. I think Barrow’s government is a mixture of APRC and UDP people. I don’t know… Barrow’s own people.
What is your view of the Barrow Youth Movement?
I condemn that movement. I never liked it. What is the motive of the youth movement? I am telling you that Barrow’s youth movement is designed to be a political base for Barrow. For what? I don’t know. My belief is, this will become the stand for Barrow to rise up. I want to believe that he is out to build his own political party. Since he has no member or representative in the parliament, he is subjected to the powers, or the mercy of the UDP, which has the majority in that parliament. I am telling you that the youth movement, the women’s movement or whatever it is, is there as a base for President Barrow, his promises of white-elephant projects like building bridges across the Atlantic Ocean, all these are going to be the symbols that he would be pointing out at as tools of propaganda, while his youth movement will be canvassing through this country, disseminating those information to sideline the UDP. But I am telling you what will happen: Barrow will not abandon UDP. He will return to the UDP. After building his base and these monuments he will come and tell them I came from you and you made me an independent candidate. Now I want you to give me another five years as a UDP candidate. The UDP will refuse, and this will be Barrow’s march out of the UDP. Now with his youth movement, most of whom will be UDP members, plus the APRC that he is appeasing today, and some of these run-away political figures like Kandeh and others will align themselves, with Barrow.
You just called Mama Kandeh a run-away politician?
Yes. He has no base. He has no support. He has no education. The man has no clue as to how government and governments are running. He built his political party to make money, like most African political parties, to suck the blood of African people by enriching themselves. That’s why I do not belong to a political party. The poor people, children of the poor people – I am included – we dig the truth out in this country and will set the precedent for social justice. People have been using the poor of this country for far too long, and they come through political lines, religious lines. These are the reasons why I said genuine political reforms need to take place here. I am not happy seeing recycled, retained former hooligans of a tyrannical regime, running the show today. That hurts my feelings. That’s one of the reasons why I want to stay away from politics. I hate the hypocrisy that I’m seeing.
In a recent outburst, Barrow seemed to suggest that Diasporans are insignificant and “a goat’s tail”, and that their criticism of him and his government will not deter him.
I think he has every right to say what he wants to say. It’s democracy. But I am reminding him not to forget and not to start attacking the Diaspora. We are in this together. The development of this country cannot go without the Diaspora. I want him to see the critical analyses of his government by the Diaspora to be a constructive one. I don’t want to believe that that statement he uttered is anything to go by. I think the Diaspora cannot be a goat’s tail. I think the Diaspora is the head here. You see, if the Diaspora managed to have a representative in the parliament, then they could have addressed Barrow through there. Now what we are seeing is Barrow and his wealth, Barrow and his power, Barrow and his access to media, attacking Diasporans and belittling their efforts. I hate that. I don’t like that statement. It is like stabbing us in the back. I think of all the people, Barrow should be the last to think or say anything like that. I think Barrow needs to apologise to the Diaspora. And I think Barrow needs to retract those statements and call for an amicable relationship with the Diaspora. It will not be in his interest to start a fight with the Diaspora.
Is Barrow good for The Gambia?
If you are asking me whether Barrow is good for The Gambia, to me you are asking if change is good for The Gambia. I don’t call Barrow accidental because we put him there. I think he is the choice of the Gambian people. I don’t see any problem. I think Gambians believe that he can bring progress. What I know is that government is not an individual. I can tell you, they have very competent people in that government, and then, they have some very, very incompetent people too. There are saboteurs that Barrow needs to know, and needs to wipe out to move forward. Whether he is competent to run this country, I think so far so good.