The Standard: You are a son of Sitanunku. Can you tell us about your early childhood and education?
Minister Jammeh: Yes, I’m a native of Sitanunku in the Upper Niumi District. I was brought up in the community there, and it was also there that I did my primary education. I went to Sitanunku Primary [School]. From there, I proceeded to Berending Technical Secondary School and after graduation, I went into teaching as an unqualified teacher for four years. I later went to Gambia College, and did my Primary Teacher’s Certificate, PTC. Upon graduation, I went back into teaching until in 1996 when I was appointed district Chief of Upper Niumi. I went into traditional administration. I stayed as a district chief for another 16 years until my elevation again and appointment as governor of the North Bank Region. Effectively, this was from February 2012 to February 2017 when the APRC government fell from governance. We had lost the 2016 December election, the historic political revolution of The Gambia. My services were terminated with retirement. But I was being paid my benefits, specifically, my gratuity. But politics had become a career, and I became a member of the NPP. We went into the second round of elections in 2021 and President Barrow had a landslide victory. Following the National Assembly Elections, a new cabinet was formed and I got appointed as the minister of information of The Gambia.
Even during your time as a traditional ruler, you held a degree, and that was uncommon among the traditional chiefs. Why did you feel the urge to attend university?
Yes, it is true that I went to the University of the Gambia (UTG). The inspiration came from two people. One was my own brother, the late Muhammed Jammeh. At the time of his death, Muhammed was the head of economic and public administration, or something like that, at the UTG. He was key in providing me with the inspiration to achieve higher heights in learning. The other one is my head master, who is also my uncle and father. A veteran educationist by the name of Kebba Sankareh. These were two people who were very important in providing the requisite information that was needed to motivate me to climb higher heights on the education ladder… I read development studies at the UTG, and I minored in sociology.
You served under Jammeh for donkey’s years first as chief and later as governor. What motivated you to toil and moil in the interest of a man largely regarded as a corrupt murderous dictator?
Yes, a lot of names have been given to Jammeh. Some of them are terrible, some of them very attractive. All these were given to the man. But then, you will also bear me witness, Mr Manneh, that I had a relationship with President Jammeh at the time. The relationship I had was more driven by my role than it was by personal, anything. Society has functional prerequisites. In order for society to work, society must be able to identify what the societal needs are. It must be able to identify what roles are needed in order to meet those needs, and identify the assignment of responsibility to individual performance. It was in the light of this position that they were created. It was in the interest of this that as an actor in the society, I was identified and entrusted with the responsibilities that I had. Giving the responsibilities that I had in the APRC regime, qualified me to understand the president at the time to some degree. But whatever knowledge I might have acquired about him, would also have had its own limitations. Limitations because the proximity between a chief and a president is quite a range. The relationship between a governor and a president had a range, especially in those days. So, that was that. I knew his Excellency Yahya Jammeh at the time in his official capacity, mainly. Little did I know about him in his personal capacity. The relationship was based more on official than informal.
President Jammeh lost power in elections in 2016 after meeting his match in a coalition of political parties. You predicted a 90 percent victory for him. Did the outcome of the results shock you?
Yes, you know, political pronouncements are not sometimes as real as scientifically they may… put differently, hardly would you see anybody on the political platform who would openly accept defeat. Nobody accepts political defeat on the platform. Unless you go to the ballot, you don’t accept that. It is a weak political tendency for any politician to accept defeat in his campaign while on the platform with the audience. That is that. But there were significant indications at the time that the APRC was losing grip of what it had. One of my chiefs used to tell me governor the signs are already on the wall. That was our private life, which is different from our public image. In private, people discuss the real, and in public sometimes, they discuss the desirable. So, that was that. To say that people had a 100 percent surprise, may not hold. There were reasonable suggestions, near and far, that the APRC was losing grip of what it had, and the possibility of a change could not have been ruled out.
Why did you advocate for President Jammeh to be made king in The Gambia?
As a traditionalist, whilst I was a chief, my PS and I, were strongly attached to the maintenance and development of traditional culture in this country, and probably beyond. It was our realisation that whilst modern civilisation was growing so fast so widely, it was doing all these at the detriment of traditional culture, which was almost diminishing. It was losing grip, and it was being reduced in scope. It wasn’t given the right value of attention that we thought it required. And because of this, we became concerned that development starts from thinking, and from thinking it goes into sharing through discussions. We realised it was time now we put up an agenda, an agenda that will attract public attention for a thorough discussion. We felt, at the time, that given all the innovations in development that the APRC government under President Jammeh had done, it was not going to be a bad start to have president Jammeh becoming a constitutional king because of the numerous good deeds at the time the government had done. Especially in the development sphere, considering the construction of roads with the advent of the AFPRC. When the Kerewan road was built, you remember, the giant AFPRC hospital then in Farafenni, the Gambia television and a lot more. So, it became our thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad start to start with him. Because it was something that had not existed, because The Gambia is a new creation that had been formed after the partitioning of Africa by European powers in 1884. It is relatively a new creation. In the traditional setting, there wasn’t anything like The Gambia. All that we had at the time were the traditional lower Gambian states such as the Kingdom of Niumi, Baddibu, Kombo, Kiang, Jarra etcetera. And because nothing had ever existed like that, traditionally, there wasn’t any family, clan or group of people who could have been identified as the traditional heads of The Gambia. We felt because it is going to be a new creation, it must be defined by law through consultations, through dialogue and sharing with the Gambian population in whom lies the sovereignty of the land.
Eventually, the idea failed, and you were seriously criticised and condemned for advocating it. Do you have any regrets about your role in this matter?
You see, in a democracy, unless you do not respect your partner, you cannot blame people for thinking what their thoughts are. Even in the modern setting that we call modern democracy was an idea that had developed from somewhere. When the Greeks thought of democracy in the city state then, little did they know that it was going to earn a global influence. We felt we had the democratic rights to think whatever our thoughts were, and what was more important, is our responsibility to share this with our Gambian partners and to the extent that it would be developed, would depend on the acceptance or rejection of the Gambian people.
Consequently, the Jammeh regime fell. The initial euphoria has since been met with disillusion and you joined the NPP. Why?
You see, my philosophy is based on the thinking of what we called in political literature ‘divine rights theory’. I believe that leadership is destined only by Allah. At the right time, at the right place, under the right circumstances it is bestowed on a person. And because of this strong belief in me, I made a conclusion in 1987. Prior to 1987, I was more sympathetic to the opposition. But in 1981, there was an attempted coup in The Gambia, and a lot of people had suffered. Subsequently, there was a government policy, they called it ERP – Economic Recovery Program. That required retrenchment of the civil service. The government felt that the civil service was overloaded, and that people had to be retrenched. Then there was serious scarcity of our staple food rice. Within those periods in the 80s, I felt that sufficient conditions had happened for people to make a new realisation of voting out the PPP government… I made the conclusion that if PPP wins in 1987, I would also write to the PPP as a political institution and become a member so long as acceptance is given to my application. I made the commitment, from that time on, I will not subscribe myself to anything except what is brought forward by Allah. So, I wrote and became a member of the PPP. Up to 1994 when the July 22 revolution took place, I said this could be a test on my integrity. I have committed myself to Allah that from that time on I will only be supporting what is brought by him. Then I rendered my support to the military regime that was later metamorphosed into the July 22 Movement, which of course further developed into the APRC. When the APRC lost in 2016, The Gambia had a new government led by a coalition of parties. And as soon as the dust had settled, I became a supporter of President Barrow’s agenda, knowing that he was what Allah had destined for the material time… [Initially], I supported the UDP as an important senior member of the coalition. That was why I supported UDP. But when the NPP came into being after the separation, of course, working on the bases of my philosophy, I did not have any option but to become a member of the NPP.
Not many people imagined former Jammeh loyalists like yourself would be appointed in key government positions in the so-called New Gambia. In your case, how did you come to be appointed by President Barrow?
In the first place, I doubt why people would not accept the appointment of people of my calibre into government positions of this nature simply because they were serving members of the APRC government. I do not take that as a reasonable justification at all. It was constitutionally required that The Gambia runs as a democracy. Under the bases of a democratic setting, people were entitled to support the political parties that they desired, and therefore, supporting any political party was not a crime. The untested generalisation that people would put to say because this was the general picture of President Jammeh therefore, his regime and anybody therein was affected by it, cannot be something reasonable in my view. Any government that comes, constitutionally would originate from the will of the people. Jammeh came through a military coup d’état that was unconstitutional, but the AFPRC later legitimised themselves through performance. It was here that the legitimate support of the citizenry was given to the APRC. For anybody to sit down and think because Mr X has been part of… I therefore discredit any assumption that Mr X must not be in such a position by virtue of his past.
What do you hope to achieve during your stint here as information minister?
Fundamentally, it is to achieve the core mandate of the ministry, which is the provision of relevant information for public consumption from the side of government, and to create the enabling environment for the media to contribute towards meeting this specific objective. By this way, we hope information readily available, proactively disclosed, given free access to everybody would lead us to another stage of development in the information value chain. And this is going to be the stage when the rumor mongers would have been proven futile. They rumour because information is not readily available. But if information is readily available in a proactive manner, rumour mongering would be useless. So, that is the biggest target we have as a ministry, and as a minister in this ministry.