Lamin Manneh, disability advocate, executive director of NODD

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With Alagie Manneh

The Standard:  Mr Manneh welcome to The Bantaba. You are the executive director of the National Organisation for Disabled and Orphans (NODD). What are the objectives of NODD?

Manneh: The organisation was registered in 2007 at the AG’s Chambers. We operate both locally and outside The Gambia. We are also legally registered under the umbrella body of the Gambia Federation for the Disabled. NODD is formed to uplift and bring to attention the issues affecting the life of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), who are vulnerable. In sub–Saharan African countries, like The Gambia, PWDs are being marginalised and segregated. So, this organisation is established to draw people’s attention to their plight with a view to uplifting them. 

You are from Sukuta. Tell us a little about yourself, and your level of education?

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I was born and bred in Sukuta. My father is from Brufut, but my mother is a citizen of Sukuta. I did my primary and secondary education there. Later, I did my private O Level at St Augustine’s High School with the support of a legendary former principal called Father Joseph Gough. Many Gambians know him. He used to help everybody. One of the Gambia’s female tycoons, Musu Kebba Drammeh, also financially supported me during my course. I attended the former British Telecoms Schools and studied telecommunications. Later, in 1984, I was posted at the Quadrangle to be a supervisor, to control the hospital at the then Gambia Public Works, the Education and other sectors within it. That was my job, which also includes controlling the entire communications of Quadrangle. Later, I did courses in Ghana on satellite communications. In the early 1990s’, I was posted at the Office of The President to mount the entire digital satellite communications network. When I was posted there, Yaya Jammeh was part of the Presidential guard and Lamin Kaba Bajo, deputy commander, States Guard.  I also worked for Gamtel.

And how do you remember young Yahya Jammeh then?

Well, I remember Jammeh very well. He was a close friend of mine, to be honest with you. I know him a lot.  And so when I learned in July 1994 that Jammeh staged a coup, I wasn’t surprised. I have so much history with him. Even on the day of the coup, I was the one mounting the communications with one lady called Isatou, my junior. The coup happened in my presence. I asked who did the coup, and they said it was Kanilai. That was how Jammeh was called [Jammeh] Kanilai. I ended up working under Jammeh’s government until in 2017 when he left. Jammeh respected me very well and he was a fighter who fought for the vulnerable, and stood up for the truth.

You also worked with the former VP Dr Isatou Touray at Gamcotrap. How do you remember your time there?

When I was working with the government, I realised that there’s an institution called Gamcotrap going round to villages fighting to end FGM, which I supported from the beginning. Through that organisation, I was linked to Dr Touray and She invited me early in 1991 to partner them so that Person’s with Disabilities [PWDs] can also be involved in the fight against FGM. You know, my advocacy is not today. My advocacy started during the Jawara era.  I have been going to Radio Gambia voluntarily to advocate the cause of PWDs. If I am privileged to go to school, and complete my education and get employed in those days as a PWD, the least I could do is to advocate,otherwise, many of my colleagues will be left behind. When it comes to issues surrounding disabilities, I was always at the forefront. Even at the Gamcotrap, I used to organise seminars to enlighten them. So, I was contributing a lot to Gamcotrap.

What negative effects did your disability have on you?

I am proud to be a person with a disability. But I was born a normal able bodied person, playing football with great colleagues. However at the age of 11, I was struck by polio but that did not stop me from playing football, going around everywhere. I told my parents that my condition doesn’t mean the end of my life and that life continues as long as I am privileged to have access to education, to know my religion, and to read the Qur’an, there will be doors opened. I believe that almighty God never closes all doors.

You have been speaking out publicly and loudly in your weekly radio programmes about the plight of PWDs in The Gambia. What has been the impact? 

A very big dividend. It got us to a whole lot of places. There was a big scarcity of wheelchairs for the disabled, guide canes and braille for the visually impaired students to use in their education, but through my advocacy, it changed the scenario completely. Let me tell you, as I am talking to you now, one second-hand wheelchair costs D8000. This is unbearable. From 2010, the government of the former regime of Jammeh and now Barrow, have never placed  attention on the vulnerable people, particularly PWDs. Never. Jammeh failed to pay even a mere subsidy to the Gambia Federation for the Disabled (GFD), which has 19 disabled organisations under it.

But you were close to the man, and even served him for decades. Why didn’t you draw his attention to the plight of PWDs?

Of course. I always… in fact, I once asked him to permit me to try and engage a particular foreign embassy to get some wheelchairs. He allowed it, and we ended up getting 500,000 wheelchairs from the Taiwanese embassy. But those wheelchairs are not compatable to our standards because they are tubeless and they don’t last long. Even hospitals benefitted from that. Since then, Jammeh never put any attention on the plight of PWDs. And now, the government of the day continues to do the same thing. And we supported the coalition. Barrow and his entire team including OJ can attest to that.

When the National Assembly failed to pass the disability bill in 2021, you blamed minister Fatou Kinteh and the government saying that they have decided to place the interest of women entrepreneurs above PWDs in order to win women votes in the December election.

In fact, let me clarify that for you. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Bill, like our bill, was under the same minister, Fatou Kinteh. We supported the coalition until they succeeded. When Jammeh said he was not going anywhere after the election results, I mobilised 185 PWDs to meet the coalition at the Kairaba Beach Hotel, to empower them and to tell them that this is our Gambia and that we fully support them. That tells you how committed we PWDs are in the development of this country. So to put our bill aside like the minister Fatou Kinteh did was [unacceptable].

Following the end of the tenure of Honourable Ndey Yassin Secka in the 5th legislature, PWDs now have no rep in parliament. What does that mean for their representation in a democracy?

It is a complete case of negligence by the president. He continues to completely marginalise, and to segregate PWDs directly. The Barrow administration knew that putting Ndey Secka there was the right thing to do. She was there to speak on our plight. Ndey would be in a better position to draw their attention to issues affecting us. But by removing Ndey Secka, that tells every Gambian that the Barrow administration has failed in their duty as duty bearers. One sector of life cannot be functioning when the other sectors of life are dying, slowly, when they have no voice, and when they are being totally segregated, and marginalised. During election times, they made sure that the PWDs vote for them. They would even send vehicles to come get the PWDs to ensure they vote for them. If they are voting for them, then it is their fundamental human right, not a privilege, for them to ask for the national cake. They should get a fair crack of the whip. So removing Ndey Secka from the parliament without replacing her with [any other PWD], is a complete failure by the state, particularly for Adama Barrow as the head of state. That was not Barrow’s promise when we met him at the Kairba Beach Hotel. I still have the audio. He cannot deny that. Let me tell you, Barrow, Isatou Touray, and Amie Bojang know that when Jammeh said he was not going out, I was the one working directly under Jammeh to bring classified information to Barrow at Taf. I did that in order to save Barrow, in order to save the entire nation. Now, we have been left behind in a democracy that we immensely contributed to.

Was that why you made a failed attempt to become the National Assembly member for Sanimentereng?

That was the reason. Because I have seen that all what they promised, especially when they are in a bad situation, like for example when Jammeh was here, are fake. I stood for two reasons in Sanimentereng. One was to ensure that even if I lose – and I lost – the incumbent loses because he is a rubber-stamp. He cross-carpeted from the UDP to the NPP. Fine, that’s not my business. But he is there to serve the constituency, and not to be a rubber-stamp. So, him being a rubber-stamp MP felt like a total failure. I would rather we have a competent person representing us than a rubber-stamp called Baba Galleh.

They said that you are a UDP sympathiser?

No, I don’t support UDP. Me, I never supported Darboe, let me make that clear. Since we took over in 1994, I said ‘we’ because I was part of the system, I never supported Darboe.

Although yours is a powerful voice on the airwaves, your critics say you are rude in some of your statements?

I deny that. I respect everybody, but I feel I should hit the nail on the head. it is totally wrong to suggest that I am sometimes rude. If you tell the truth, they classify you as a politician, or some even call you a critic. They can call me whatever they want but my principle is to say the truth, and nothing but the truth. And I will always continue to hit the nail on the head. The betterment of The Gambia lies in the hands of everybody, whether you are able, or disabled. Remember, it is me today, it might be anyone of them tomorrow. So, this is why I always speak out and tell them the truth. You know what, I served this nation for 39 good years, and retired on medical grounds. Gamtel needed me on contract, but I said no. It was time to call the attention of the authorities to plight of PWDs. Left to me alone, I would not go to the radio to advocate. I’m contented, and have my own family looking after me. Some of my kids are in Europe. Let me tell you this, I am the first PWD to drive a car in this country. I broke the glass ceiling and now PWDs are driving everywhere.

You have also reportedly received threats in the course of your advocacy. Can you discuss their nature?

I face a lot of threats from some so-called Gambians who think they can do something to me, but they can’t. Even on the side of the government, some people would call me and say, Mr Manneh, what you are saying, and the way and manner you are doing advocacy is wrong. I said invite me to any platform and we face each other. There are some Cabinet ministers who think they can buy this country. It is not possible; they cannot buy this country. The country belongs to all of us. My principle is to always say the truth, nothing but the truth. Let us be frank, we have PWDs in our communities, in our compounds. Look at them, look at how they are surviving, how they are living. Are they up to standard? No. No scholarships for them. Even if they attend and complete school, they don’t get employment. They can’t even access public buildings.

Indeed, the discrimination and stigma is quite obvious.

That discrimination has affected their education, and it is only education that can empower a PWD to be independent, not to be dependent, not to be a subject. I condemn it.

What do you think should be done in order for us to have that equitable society where the national cake will be enjoyed by all?

There should be proper inclusion [mechanisms]. There should be justice in all spheres. There should be no discrimination, and no stigmatisation against PWDs. The doors opened for the abled, should be opened for the disabled. There is no enabling environment for PWDs when the state fails to buy a wheelchair, when it fails to buy a guide cane for the visually impaired to use. That is a total failure on the part of the state. Covid came and went, nothing was provided for the PWDs. Only 50 bags of rice and 50 gallons of oil for over 4000 disabled people in this country. That is an insult. Our challenges are numerous.

After a long battle, the disabled community finally got its long-awaited disability bill passed into law. In your estimation, how is this going to ensure fundamental rights and freedom of PWDs are respected?

I thank first of all Gambians and non-Gambians who contributed in one way or another. The bill has been idling and gathering dust from one desk to another since the Jammeh days. But thanks to the enabling environment, thanks to the new dispensation, we were able to get the disability bill enacted. And I thank Gambians and none-Gambians for that. But there is no sign of implementation of the bill so far. Implementation has always been a big issue for The Gambia.