Madi Jorbateh Rights activist

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With Alagie Manneh

Madi Jobarteh is arguably the most vocal resident critic of The Gambia’s political leadership. From journalism to activism, Madi has consistently fronted efforts to transform the country and the government, by speaking openly against corruption and mismanagement. Anchor Alagie Manneh sat with Madi and they start from where it all began.

Tell us about your early childhood
I was born in Boraba, CRR. I went to school first in Janjanbureh, Banjul and then Serekunda.

Your last name is Jobarteh, are you from a Jali or griot family?
Yes, traditionally.

Do you play Kora?
No, I don’t play Kora. I love it though, but I don’t consider myself as a Jali because I don’t believe in feudalism. I don’t believe in caste system. In the context of The Gambia, every citizen is a sovereign citizen. I appreciate the history of Jobarteh – where it came from. I understand within the Mandinka society how socio-political, economic, institutions, relationships, systems are structured but it doesn’t mean those systems, beliefs and practices have to still remain valid, no. Today I recognised my history, I appreciate it so much but I don’t see myself as a Jali. I don’t see anyone as a Jong’o, or Foro, or Numo. I think we need to abolish that. We are a Republic, and in a Republic all citizens are equal.

As a presenter at Radio Gambia in the early 1990s, you co-hosted a programme Weekend Spectrum, but it was abruptly stopped, what happened?
It was a programme on Saturday morning to pick up on the current affairs over the week and other issues that may not have been discussed. Over the period we’ve lot of reporting about, for example the mining at Sanyang or Kartong when it was supposed to be banned, only for us to go there and found that Yahya Jammeh’s people were mining it. It was difficult to bring that story. In fact, the story never came. Eventually, I decided to include press review in the Weekend Spectrum programme and amazingly the information I got was that the president wouldn’t want that to happen. I said well if I don’t have the programme in the way I want it then I’m not also going to do the programme. In the end, the programme stopped.

Later on you went to work for GRA. Why GRA, is it because of the belief that it is a get-rich-quick place of employment?
No, otherwise I wouldn’t have left after two years. I went to GRA at the time because I had also left the UN after two years. Together with friends we have this organisation called FLAIR – Foundation for Legal Aid Research and Empowerment, so my idea was to work build that organisation, which is considered to be the first indigenous human rights organisation. I think someone alerted me to a GRA advertisement and I applied. I think I have forgotten about the application only to be called one day. Until the interview I wasn’t sure whether to go there. I don’t want to go and work where I would be restricted. I went there and was excited by the fact that it was a new organisation. As head of corporate my job was to bring a whole new culture. My advocacy has always been that we are not going to build another Gambian organisation, this has got to be an organisation thriving on international standards. All of my efforts were really to build this institution with integrity, with professionalism, particularly given that it is a revenue collecting body. It was pretty exciting for me. But I began to realise that this is not my kind of organisation to be because I saw direct interference from State House.
Precisely, was that why you left?
That’s one of the things – that arbitrariness. Probably the first reason was the way Jammeh was plundering our resources. People were really paying tax with their loans. So to now have one man use that money and plunder it anyhow… remember Jammeh gave every under-17 player a million dalasi. I felt I can’t be part of this and I decided to leave.

You then went to work for Tango, the umbrella body for NGOs, what did you achieve there?
I found at Tango serious challenges, lack of resources, and capacity but also the image, even among its members a lot of folks don’t have much regard for Tango. When I came there, basically it was to transform Tango. I have done that of course with the support of the staff. Within a few years, we got to a point where our members became interested in Tango. Even the private sector, people were focusing on Tango. Many banks engaged us, even foreign embassies. We began to receive unannounced US ambassador, the British High Commissioner, UN would call to request for a meeting with us. In all policy meetings… gradually Tango began to have a bigger voice and I think that trend is continuing until today.

What are some of the major issues affecting the work of NGOs in The Gambia?
I prefer to call them CSOs, because sometimes NGOs give the impression of some higher level bodies with a lot of money, but like Civil Society Organisations, you would find some that are very small, they are not focused on the whole country but on a particular area, region for example and they often don’t have the resources, but also they don’t have the capacity to even develop proposals to be able to get resources. If you are weak, or don’t have all those systems in place, you cannot meet the requirements of those who give funding. It would be difficult for you to obtain funding. That’s a huge challenge. Also, the capacity to do programme design, to write proposals, but also implement. Implementation is just to organise an activity, but you need to report on that activity, you need to produce financial reports. All of these are challenges that CSOs face in this country. And of course to large extent funding opportunities are limited. It’s pretty competitive. Not to also forget the element of corruption. When systems are weak the element of corruption becomes a huge challenge. Above all this, I would say the major challenge would be how we impact on society. The weakness has been advocacy. When you look at this country, over the years since independence that has been the biggest weakness. That culture of activism; protesting, writing petitions, naming and shaming, all of those are stuff that we are not doing as civil society.

People point out that after the ouster of Jammeh, the Tango leadership became vocal in condemnation of Jammeh but that you pointedly refused to allow the opposition parties to meet in your conference hall while Jammeh was present
That is false information that some folks propelled at the time. Well before 2016, our opposition leaders used to meet at Tango, privately. Nobody knows. One can ask Ousainu Darboe, OJ, or Hamat Bah. They used to have private meetings at Tango, and we allowed it. Tango was the first to initiate a political debate in this country… I remember one political event when people were swelling into Tango and anyone who was passing by and see that group would conclude this is some political partisan activity taking place here. And the director raised a genuine concern because you also know our environment; if you hold this meeting here the NIA can come and pick Yabo. They can close down his office. I remember Lang Marong interjected ‘no, I can guarantee that Yabo can walk from here to Brikama nobody will touch him’. I told him that is not a valid comment. I told them if you people are seeking power in this country you also need to exercise responsibility; that you care about the safety, concerns of citizens particularly organisations like Tango. As we were talking, it was this Falangko Sonko who came ‘bang, bang’ on the door saying ‘look lets go, we are going to have this meeting by force’. I told Yabo, it’s okay, let them have their meeting because at this point you cannot stop this. At home I read on Freedom that Tango denied opposition parties to meet at Tango, and then the paramilitary came to Tango and Madi and Yabo took to their heels. It’s a lie.

Many people say you only started to speak out publicly and loudly after you left The Gambia for studies in Europe, what do you say?
It’s people’s opinion, rightly or falsely. I can’t tell when I decided to speak up. If one wants to know when I decided to speak up, I will refer you to Yahya Jammeh himself. Yahya Jammeh knows me well before I got into the civil service, when I was a reporter at Radio Gambia. By 2000, I was informed by the director general of GRTS Tombong Saidy, that Yahya Jammeh said he doesn’t want to see me, or want to hear me or to interview any government official or so. I was put under that ban. So… when did I start speaking? You see Alagie the thing is, a lot of folks also don’t know what was happening in the past. A lot of Gambians became involved in 2016 coming forward because of the Solo Sandeng arrest. Eventually social media became the only platform where we can express ourselves. And so a lot of people who were running weren’t involved with the issues in The Gambia. When 2016 happened, people realised that social media is the only place to get to express yourself, so everybody went to register on Facebook. Because you are there, you begin to see Madi, Demba and Pateh. You begin to know them, but you didn’t know what Demba was doing 10 years before. So for those people, it is very easy for them to say ‘Where were you’? I can refer you to Daily Observer archives in 2001, I wrote an article published in all the newspapers called ‘Killing the Voice of the People’. Today I could not have imagined writing that article in 2001. That article, I don’t think I have written any more severe critic of the Jammeh regime until today. That article was so hash that it was referred to by parliamentarians in one of their sittings. Strange, a lot of those comments also are not coming from individuals who are necessarily interested in the bigger picture. These are folks that are usually supporters of various political parties so that if Madi speaks against UDP, UDP folks would say ‘where were you’? If Madi speaks against PDOIS, PDOIS folks would say ‘where were you’? They have all come to attack me on that base, because they don’t like anyone to hold their party or leaders to account. Suppose I never spoke against Jammeh, suppose any citizen never spoke against Jammeh, does that mean today you should not speak up? I had lot of folks insult me when we were raising issues on this new government. Today, some of those folks are the greatest critics of Barrow, far more than me.

You came under fire from many quarters for saying that it was the people and not God who made Barrow president. Islam teaches predestination; of divine will, don’t you subscribe to that?
Yes, I know predestination is one of the six pillars of faith. I know that, very well. Anyone who understands Islam, I am not an Imam, I know as a Muslim you should read the Qur’an and know God. I have read the Qur’an, I have read Islam. I don’t need to listen to anybody about Islam. I know Islam as a Muslim. And I know what I am saying is what is in Islam. I want to repeat it here, God did not make Adama Barrow president. God did not remove Yahya Jammeh as president, we the people of The Gambia did. Simple. If anyone said God is the one who removed Yahya Jammeh, I think you should go and seek forgiveness of Allah, because you are really insulting God, yes. It’s a huge insult, an act of disbelief to say a statement like that. How on earth can you take your individual action, or decisions, and put that in God’s hands. So people need to go and read their Qur’an and Islam, so they know. But of course that is another paradox of this country; there is Islam by name but in practice there is no Islam in this country. I don’t consider Gambia as a Muslim majority country. I don’t see Muslims here.

Owing to this and your views on secularism, some people have questioned whether you are not anti-religious
I’m not religious, certainly. For me, I perceive religion as one of the greatest institutions and tools of oppression and exploitation in the history of the world. I know there are many religions in the world and they have good values, good messages. Islam teaches great values of hard work, responsibility of justice. Christianity, Buddhism and others all teach these great virtues. The reality is religion has never been used for that, or has been less used for that. The fact is most of the time, in all places of the world, religion has been used as a means to oppress, to exploit, to discriminate, to perpetuate injustice. That is the reality, since the beginning of time until today. Again, it is not our religion, these are foreign religions that came to us in conditions that are not pleasant. I am not excited about Islam or Christianity.

Some of your detractors said you want to appropriate the position of being the nation’s conscience by talking about almost everything. Don’t you think you will suffer overburn?
I am a citizen, a human being, I live in my society and I say something when I see it. How is that going to exhaust me? As far as I know, I’m a living-thinking human being. I analyse and respond to things, issues, and that will continue forever.

What is your political alignment, which political party do you support or vote for?
I don’t support any political party in The Gambia because I consider all political parties in The Gambia to be undemocratic, badly governed and poor leadership. So I don’t support any political party. Of course I may vote for one candidate for strategic reasons when elections come, but it does not mean I am a supporter of that party or that candidate.

Some accuse you of being a closet UDP supporter?
Again, people have also accused me of being a PDOIS sympathiser. It’s their opinion. Maybe they need to go and ask Ousainu Darboe and Halifa Sallah.

Political scientist Ismaila Ceesay famously labeled Barrow as a “clueless president”, don’t you agree that that term is pejorative to the head of state?
No, no, it’s not pejorative. It’s his right to say so. We can disagree whether Adama is clueless or not clueless, but the statement is not derogatory in any way. I stand with him to defend him in his right to say so. Personally, I don’t think Adama Barrow is clueless, I think Barrow as our president is not being honest to Gambians. I know the president is not educated to any significant level, yes, and when he talks about some things I can see there is an element of ignorance in him. I remember him talking about what is the big deal about the Barrow Youth movement, there are associations all over the place, why people are worried… that’s either out of ignorance or dishonesty when he spoke about that in that way. There is a reason why people raised concern about an organisation called ‘Barrow’ youth movement. He doesn’t seem to recognise what is the meaning of a president of a Republic. The issue really is, is he someone with a vision? Is he someone who is honest with Gambians? Is he someone who is clean, to serve our people? I don’t think that’s the case with him.

You once told me human rights was under threat in Gambia almost three years after Jammeh. Is it still under threat?
I think human rights is still under serious threat in this country. You can see this government seeking every means to stifle human rights by preventing citizens from expressing themselves. Dr Ceesay’s arrest is one manifestation of that. Many times Gambians want to protest but they have been denied the right to. Gambians have protested, only for this government to send police to shoot down Gambians and to beat and slap people up. We now have more checkpoints, further limiting the movement of citizens, not to mention these bad laws still in our books.

How do you rate Barrow as president and his government?
I think he is a complete failure. The cheapest thing any government can do, is to build a road or bridge, or hospital. You can go to China and take a loan and they will build a beautiful bridge for you. You can take tax payers’ money and go and build a road, that’s easy. Let’s start from independence, to date with 22 years of dictatorship, one would realise that this country is severely misguided, our public service is severely politicised, weak, our security sector is severely politicised and weak and corrupt. The entire culture in this society, the perception of the people, are such that it supports dictatorship because people still respond to elected officials as ‘Mansa’ or ‘Alpha’. For me any president coming, immediately after Jammeh, is to initiate a system change immediately, and at the heart of that is accountability, to ensure that in the public service there is huge accountability so that civil servants deliver efficient service that will change the lives of people. But to have a government like this come two years, our civil service continues to be politicised, continues to be so corrupt, so inefficient, not to mention cost of living and the mismanagement of public resources on the activities of the president, turning our State House into a political bureau, I think that is a huge tragedy. I don’t see any effects of Barrow’s leadership on The Gambia after two years. There is so much wastage of public resources. To present the kind of budget they presented in 2018 and 2019, to go further to even propose the supplementary bill, is a huge act of corruption and irresponsibility. I really don’t see any progress this government has registered. That is very sad.

What are your views on Barrow’s sacking of Darboe, is it politically wise?
Overall I don’t agree with the way and manner Barrow is running this government, so I don’t agree with all of the actions he has taken. It’s a shame within two years you had two vice presidents sacked. That is terrible. That speaks to the leadership I have talked about overall in this country. Ultimately, the way Barrow is right now is the fault of the UDP and Darboe, is the fault of PDOIS, and NRP and PPP and those coalition parties that created this government. They have failed as a group to secure the vital interest of this country by making sure the candidate they put forward, who has won, and has formed a government and they are all represented in the parliament that they would sit by, to watch that president and that government continue to flout our constitution, to plunder our resources and to threaten our lives. So I take them to be wholly responsible for the mess that we are in right now. Is the sacking of Darboe wise or not? In the first place the very manner of the leadership of Barrow is not wise.

Three years or five years, which side are you on?
I think after three years Barrow should step down. The constitution said five years… again this reflects the failure of this Coalition. They said they signed an MOU, now they challenged each other that the MOU wasn’t signed, it was signed, yet none of them has come out to show us this MOU. We should not allow Barrow and the Coalition to come to us and tell us things and we agree on that, we hear them only for them to abandon what they told us. If that happens what guarantee do we have that Barrow would even respect the constitution of this country? That is the beginning of national failure. He should step down after three years or come back to seek the consent of the people. But we should hold him to account for what he said. We must not joke about it.