Lamin J. Darbo, A top Gambian Lawyer

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With Alagie Manneh

Lamin had showed signs of promise at a very young age. When he was a teenager, he won a global essay competition as part of activities marking International Year of the Child. A former journalist, he attended Gunjur Primary, Saint Augustine’s and Gambia High schools and worked for Action Aid The Gambia. In 1989, Mr Darbo left for the United States and went on to attain the highest degrees in law in the US and the UK. He returned to The Gambia in 1997 and worked in the Judiciary as Senior Assistant Secretary. He was later reassigned as Magistrate in November 1998 and posted to Banjul. After a controversial case where 35 porters workers were accused of vagrancy, and acquitted the following day, Darbo got his marching orders to Brikama.

Mr Darbo, you are from the Atlantic town of Gunjur, where there is noticeable high number of luminaries and intellectuals. What do you ascribe the cerebral nature of the people of Gunjur to?
[Laughs.] If you go to any community today you will find successful people there in virtually all spheres of life. Yes, Gunjur has its reputation for producing scholars, both of the western and eastern variety but it’s not in our well waters obviously, maybe it’s hard work and competition between people. Some people would say the prayers of your ancestors. Indeed, we have many, many achievers there.

Why did you choose to study law?
I guess it was destiny because law was not my first choice. When I obtained my first degree, there was this conservative, as in political conservative white American. He told me to do PhD in history and I would have but then maybe I would still be in America. Somebody said study law and I said yeah, that’s a good idea. I am glad I did. It gives you independence; the ability to work for yourself and not to be employed by the government.

You returned to The Gambia during Yahya Jammeh’s reign and worked as a magistrate, can you expound on your reported clash with then AG Fatou Bensouda?
In 1999, as a senior magistrate at Brikama, I inherited the explosive case of IGP v Imam Karamo Touray, Lamin Waa Juwara, and others. Due to its high octane political nature, the case languished on the docket! For some eight months, the presiding Magistrate played for time and indulged endless prosecution requests for adjournment. When I took over as Principal Magistrate at Brikama, I allocated the case to myself and quietly announced to the prosecution and defence my intention to accord the matter utmost priority. In my third week at Brikama, the prosecution closed, and the defence, led by Lawyer Ousainu Darboe, opened with a no case submission. Having dedicated countless hours to the file, and having minutely perused the record, I ruled for the defence and terminated proceedings by acquitting all four remaining defendants. With a truckload of armed paramilitary personnel surrounding the Court premises and environs, it was a dramatic day at Brikama. Although terrified, I was clear about my responsibility as a judicial officer sworn on oath to defend the Constitution and impartially apply the law. On the very next morning, I received a direct call from the Minister of Justice, currently the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and therefore distinguished global custodian of international human rights. She claimed my decision put her under a “lot of pressure” and demanded information on why I acquitted the accused. I told her to read the record. She wanted to know why, in just three weeks, I completed a case that was before another magistrate for some eight months prior. Again, I suggested she read the record. She demanded to know whether I even read the file, and yet again, I suggested she consult the record. Stunned, the then Honourable Minister and current global champion against international criminals, angrily relapsed to the staple mentality of PPP-era officialdom and demanded if I knew who I was talking to. “With all due respect”, I said, “you know what to do if you don’t like my decision”. She hung up! It was to be quite a busy morning for me. Within the hour, I received another call, this time from Aminatta L. R. N’gum, Judicial Secretary. During my first six months at the Judiciary, I worked directly under her as Senior Assistant Secretary. She asked if I “read the papers”. I answered that the story she was alluding to missed that day’s papers. Mrs N’gum then informed me that she just concluded a conversation with Chief Justice Alghali, and that the Minister of Justice lodged a complaint I “insulted her”. Mrs N’gum demanded a written apology to the aggrieved Honourable Minister. I refused, and informed her in no uncertain terms that I would rather be dismissed than apologise to a politician for a judicial decision… Mrs Bensouda was in absolute error when years later she told Al Jazeera: “I have to say, you know, quite frankly that my work as Justice Minister has never been interfered with …” Without question, Mrs Bensouda’s legacy must incorporate all of her record. In celebrating her ‘fight’ against impunity and international lawlessness at the remote theatre of the ICC, we must also remember her as the Honourable Minister of Justice who threatened a local magistrate. Unquestionably, her dramatic, ill-advised intervention in the Brikama imam and co trial is an indelible part of the ICC Chief Prosecutor’s public record.

From your side, it is now clear there was state interference in that case, what exactly did Bensouda and the government want?
The interference was clear; the government wanted them to be convicted. Yes, even if they didn’t say that, that was the intention of the status quo. I believe that was why it went on for so long without a resolution. The case was based on a lie. One of the witnesses was an inmate at Mile II, he didn’t even know what happened. I uncovered that during the hearing. But nobody told me what to do. So to call me and protest, like the minister of Justice did at the time, was immature and unprofessional.

Subsequently, you left the judiciary. Did you jump or where you pushed?
No, I went to do my bar, but I am glad that I left at the time I left. A senior business executive told me one day the late Baba Jobe asked about me but he didn’t tell him anything. Why was Baba Jobe interested in me, I don’t know.

During the struggle against the Jammeh dictatorship, yours was a very loud and respected voice, you could have, like a lot of other intellectuals, stayed silent and continued to butter your bread but you did not. What was your motivation?
I have seen in the United States and the UK how the rule of law works. Of course it was a difficult choice but somebody had to do it… I could not keep quiet. I am thankful to Allah I did not work for Jammeh at all.

Now post-Jammeh, how would you define the change?
Except for those freedoms which weren’t even given by this government, not much has changed. Those freedoms must be tolerated whether government wants to or not. Gambians have now claimed their rights and it will be very difficult to take that from them.

The sociologist and politician Halifa Sallah said we had a change of government and not a change of system, do you agree?
He is right. It is a change of personnel that happened, but there is no change of system. No changes have been introduced to convince us that Barrow’s government is different from the government of Yahya Jammeh. This is very disheartening and is one of the reasons that a lot of people are opposed to Barrow. Why would you reshuffle people like Mambury Njie, Tangara and Yankuba Sonko as ministers in a revolutionary government? What happened here in 2016 was nothing short of a revolution because people did not think it was possible. I thought it was possible because I was a consistent advocate of a coalition to remove Jammeh before 2016. Also, the police keep stopping people on the roads and harassing drivers on a daily basis. Therefore, the system has not changed because a system that has changed will not bring into the system people like Mambury Njie, Mamadou Tangara, and Yankuba Sonko. After 1945, have you seen any of Hitler’s ministers appointed in any post-war German government as cabinet ministers? That is not possible. The president himself said they were not going to absorb them because they have enough qualified Gambians to appoint in these positions and these are Gambians who were not tainted by the Jammeh regime. Look at the chief protocol, the person who manages the schedule of the president. It is a disgrace. I have to tell you, for the chief protocol of ex president Jammeh to remain as chief of protocol for President Barrow, that is a disgrace. What happened was a revolution. You do not have to absorb your enemies’ people you fought against; people who were fighting for the continuation of the dictatorship. You don’t absorb those people into government and expect not to be criticised. Look at Omar Faye and others, what did they do to deserve coming back into government at the level of a cabinet minister?

What do we need to change in order to have that system change?
Well, we have to have a president who understands and believes in accountable governance. If I were President Barrow, a transitional administration of five years would be enough. Change the system, bring in reforms and leave. That will be a fitting legacy for him. We must have somebody at the helm who believes in the rule of law; who believes in accountability in government and ushers in a system that would make this country the envy of Africa.

Last Monday, the 3 Years Jotna movement took to the streets, what is your take on the 3 years vs the 5 years debate?
The years thing is a complicated question. The law is very clear; the president’s mandate is five years and I support that, but we need to understand that the only reason why this movement gains momentum is the issue of governance since the change. Several complicated factors including the dismissals of cabinet ministers who were part of the coalition also gave rise to this movement. The most serious of those dismissals were those of Amadou Sanneh, Ousainu Darboe, and Lamin Dibba on the same day. The president went to war with the UDP, and that is something very difficult to understand. If you can reshuffle people like Tangara, Mambury Njie, Omar Faye, Yankuba Sonko, and chief of protocol Mr Ceesay, and even Seedy Njie who now has access to State House, what about people like Ousainu Darboe, OJ and Mai Fatty? Several things are at play in this whole matter. The three years emanated from the frustration of the supporters, the directions of the government especially in appointments, and the politics of insult from cabinet ministers and presidential advisers. If you add all these, it builds up the 3 Years. I know of political leaders who provided transport to people to attend the protest. We are in this climate because of the way the president himself conducted the Office of the President. He himself made a lot of utterances that are not in line with his office as Chief Executive of this country. He needs to be very careful and even though he has the mandate to replace whoever he wants, he must do it with dignity.

A lot of people thought you would have been hired by the government in some substantive position or as head or member of the many commissions set up, why didn’t that happen?
I don’t know why that did not happen. I could not have been hired as cabinet minister because I am a British national also. I was approached when Mai Fatty was fired for the Interior position by people very close to the president. They said ‘it’s yours if you want it.’

Do you believe that there is discrimination and cronyism in Gambia Bar Association?
I am not sure about those things, they don’t matter to me. I don’t want any position in the Gambia Bar Association. I’m not interested in whether they discriminate or whether there is cronyism there. I’ll give you an anecdote. When the members of the Constitutional Review Commission were appointed, I wrote to say that the appointment was not in accordance with the law. The minister of Justice Baa Tambadou said… because he was the one who gave himself and the Chief Justice those powers and it then went to the National Assembly and the Assembly was sleeping by passing a law that excluded them from participating in the process of appointing members of the Constitutional Review Commission. How can you do that in a democratic society? I wrote about it and Baa Tambadou went to the ‘For the People by the People’ show to say that I attacked him personally. I have no interest in attacking Baa Tambadou. He said on that show that he contacted Gambia Bar Association but they submitted six names and my name was not among those but the Gambia Bar Association has an email platform. That advertisement did not come to that platform. So who were the people who gave him six names and excluded mine from it? Again, I am not bothered about whether the bar association nominated me or not. On that basis, if what Baa Tambadou said is true, you can say there was cronyism and discrimination. I have written more on public law than any at the Gambia Bar, than any lawyer in the country.

Some people talk of the Fajara bar vs the Brikama bar, is that a reality or just an urban myth?
Maybe it’s a myth. I don’t know any law office that is situated at Brikama. It’s probably a myth.

You are the legal adviser of the Kombo Yiriwa Kafoo, do you share the feeling as many Kombonkas including members of the Yiriwaa Kafo that the people of Kombo are neglected by the Barrow government?
We have Ebrima Sillah who is from Jambur and he is in the cabinet. We have ambassadors from Kombo and others appointed in senior positions. We have the majority leader who is from Kombo. I don’t know whether you can say that they are neglected.

Thank you