With Omar Wally
Mai Fatty, was born in Kerewan village in Nyakoi, Wuli West, Upper River Region. He started school there and eventually found his way to schools in Banjul. After completing sixth form, he studied in Sierra Leone and Cyprus. He qualified in law, returned to The Gambia and started at Amie Bensouda’s chambers before setting up his own shop.
After a storied decade as barrister, Mai went in to self-exile claiming there was an assassination attempt on his life.
He later formed Gambia Moral Congress (GMC) in 2009 of which political party he is still the leader. He had been resident abroad until in the run-up to the 2016 December presidential election when he returned and was appointed Minister of the Interior in President Adama Barrow’s cabinet. On 10 November 2017, he was relieved of his duties. In this week Bantaba anchor Omar Wally, sat down with the sharp-witted politician and asked him questions for 50 minutes.
How did you get your first name, ‘Mai’ sounds very feminine?
I was named after my grandfather Mai Fatty. My grandfather was call ‘M’m’ that is how it sounds, unfortunately it sounds like Mai, and his real name is Ahmed. My real name is Ahmed, so I assumed the name Mai by which my grandfather was popularly known.
How did your political activism started?
Oh! It started a long time ago, since school. I was a student political activist; this was way in Jawara’s days in the First Republic. My first exposure to politics was during a class, it was shocking. A teacher of mine called Kebba Badjie saw me very graphic pictures of people in South Africa under Apartheid. I think it was the picture of Steve Biko and other bodies that were mutilated and I was too young then and that was my first look at a dead body. He explained why that happened and in my little mind at the time, I couldn’t manage the inhumanity of person to another person. For me, it must have been so great for people to be willing to die for something like that; so the idea of freedom came to me for the first time through the picture of Steve Biko.
And I grew more interested, in that, there are other people in other parts of the world who were really fighting so hard just to have their freedom, basically to exist as human beings. That was what whet my appetite and raised my conscience about what liberty is all about – freedom. As a young person then, we did not have those problems here, I was free in my society. From there, there was the National Mobile Library that used to go around with big trucks around the country and used to go to my school and I will borrow books from there and when they come back two to three weeks later you return the books. I was introduced to a book written by Kwame Nkrumah. From there, I got to know a little about politics. My political consciousness begin to emerge with my curiosity and look to other societies and compare to mine, what is it that exist in theirs that is not in ours and how far have they gone with human progress versus mine.
When I got to high school, I realised that there were too many poor people and it will become the responsibility of the government to take care of these people. A lot of people were in my position – people who came from the provinces and did not know anybody outside Banjul or very few people. Some of them had to live in Brikama or beyond and they didn’t have enough money to go to school. Their parents did not even have enough money to pay their fees, plus transportation and uniforms. Some were going to school late, others were not going for days and I tried to find out, why my colleagues were coming late and some were not even coming for days? I realised their parents were poor and they had guardians who did not live in Banjul because all the schools were concentrated in Banjul except, Nusrat, St Peter’s and Armitage. I began to organise students in order to see how we could present a common position to school authorities and government. That was how I got involved in student union politics.
During your student days, were you a member of the Movement for Justice in Africa – Gambia (MOJA-G)?
I was one of the students who were identified by MOJA in those days. They were looking for what they call ‘political conscious students’, and I was considered at the time among those who knew his left from right in terms of personal rights. I was recruited in MoJA but first I was recruited in to an organ of MOJA which was called Organ of Revolutionary Students (ORS). The responsibility of ORS was to recruit other students to the leftist movement at the time but to also spread the propagation of the ideas of MOJA through its organ, which was a clandestine paper. We used to distribute it in schools and other areas in order to get more students conscious politically and to recruit them in to the young MOJA league.
Jainaba Bah, now Ambassador to Russia, made rather disparaging comments about you for your ‘cry baby’ actions when police from the CID arrested you and her and other MOJA members?
Jainaba was my teacher, she was arrested two weeks before me and Alpha Robinson a teacher was also arrested. I would say Jainaba consolidated my recruitment in to MOJA. Before that, there were others like Saikou Samateh, Kora in Brikama and a number of people. Even Demba Ali Jawo, the current Minister of Information was a strong activist at the time; he was a vanguard of the struggle for liberation for Gambians at the time. I was arrested in broad daylight in school while in uniform by the late Daba Marenah, Ebou John and commander Mbye, while I was attending in history class.
The principal, Sheikh Joof, called me to go and answer. I told the principal, well I was a student and in class at the moment, and school hadn’t closed yet, my parents were not there and I was a teenager. Was he going to allow them to carry me? Joof said that was not his problem. He told me I had been stubborn and that I had said and done things [to warrant them to] come for me and that it was my responsibility. So, Commander Mbye, Daba Maraneh and others took me to the police station in Banjul. At the time, they had what is called ‘Special Branch’ and their commander was Sydney Riley. That Special Branch metamorphosed into the National Security Service (NSS) and NSS was changed to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) now State Intelligence Service (SIS). The Special Branch was in charge of investigation, surveillance and political espionage and we were a great subject of concern to them at the time. I was too young [but I was] put in a cell with eight or nine other adults. It was a very small cell. We even had to answer the call of nature in that cell. It was terrifying for me and an extremely horrific experience as a young person at the time, to be placed in cell with grown up adult criminals. Whatever Jainaba will say, I will be grateful to her for helping me build up my personality and elevate my political consciousness. I’m not going to say more than that.
Exactly how old were you and how many days did you spend in the police cells?
I think I was about 15 years or so. It was in the 1980s. I can’t recall but I think I was there for two weeks.
Were you tortured?
Yes, I went through some torture. I was released eventually because it was a kidnap. They took me from school, they never informed my parents or guardian. Nobody responsible over me was aware that I was arrested by the Special Branch and put under lock and key. There were few friends at the time who knew about my arrest and they were visiting and buying bread for me to eat.
Who were your mates at the time?
I will mention people who were involved in political activity with me and one of them was Abdou Karim Sanneh [now environmentalist, from Brufut, resident in the UK] and Abba Hydara (now consultant doctor from Brikama). Of course I had other friends like Musa Jawara [nephew of President Jawara], the late Kebba Dibba of GRTS, and Adama Barrow [now presidemt].
What was your relationship with Barrow at the time?
It was quite respectful. Adama was always not so very quiet but he was a calm person. There was mutual respect and admiration.
While a student you resided in the compound of a Serahule businessman and later you wanted to marry his daughter but he refused. Why did he not find an eligible young man like yourself fit to marry his daughter?
Well I don’t know. What I would say is, the man you are talking about is Alhaji Saibo Tunkara from Allunghari village. He is late. The man was my father; he loved me and I have seen him as a father figure and he taught me a lot of what I know today. I have profound respect for him. I cannot put in words how much I revered this man. I would not want to drag his name into any controversy. I think it will be very disrespectful for anybody to make any imputations to the contrary.
You went to Fourah Bay to study law, but one of your professors the distinguished Henry Joko-Smart, said you failed your exams, but you claimed that he failed you because you shared a girlfriend. Please explain?
Oh! You see, all these are petty things and I would not go in those. These are matters that anybody can fling out there, I don’t think these are issues that I want to entertain in any civilised manner?
But did you fail your exams at Fourah Bay?
Like I said, all these are issues that I would dispute and disagree. I don’t want to go personal.
You went on to complete your studies but your critics thumbed down your qualification and derisively call your certificate an an ‘online degree’?
Look when I was practising law, the Gambia Police Force conducted a wide investigation because then I was defending people who were considered enemies of the state at the time. Essentially coupists, particularly Abdoulie Sonko. These were people who were alleged to have attacked the Farefenni [Military] Camp. The government’s intent was jailing them, but I was a stumbling block.
I put up a very spirited defence for these people. Every person is entitled to presumption of innocence and every person has the right to have effective legal representation which I was doing. Government tried to malign me in any way that they could. They did it in very disparaging manner but right beyond that also; you had the case of Baba Jobe who was also considered an enemy of the state. No matter how evil a person is, he/she is entitled to legal representation and a lawyer doesn’t choose his or her client; clients come to lawyers. And by our oath, we have to defend our clients, but unfortunately in defence of your clients you come across very powerful forces that would also confront you and they would like to see you downed. So in my defence of some of these clients, The Gambia state under the
dictatorship did everything in order to make me different. But it failed because the very police that were used, were the same police that came out to say that they hadn’t seen any wrong with my credentials. And, I was vindicated. So all those are part of the history of this country and part of my history, which I’m very proud of.
One of the most popular cases you were involved with was Baba Jobe. Controversially, you were said to have convinced Baba to give you a power of attorney over his properties why? Is that ethical?
That is false. But I’m not going to discuss anything that transpired between me, Baba Jobe or any of my clients because this is covered by confidentiality. I can recall late Baba Jobe was not a stupid man, he was very smart politician. I am sure he has detractors also who would say all sorts of things. I wouldn’t go in to his politics but I could say professionally, I put up a very strong defence for him and a very strong defence team. And to prove that some of these allegations are vicious and vindictive, my personal relationship with the family of Baba Jobe is stronger today than it was during his time.
You were involved in a widely publicised motor vehicle accident. Can you tell us the circumstance and the extent of your injuries?
It was near-fatal because I almost lost my life in that vehicle accident. I was unconscious, I was not aware of what happen afterwards. In the dawn of that very night, I was airlifted to Senegal with very severe life-threatening injuries. I was administered intensive medical examinations and I was stabilised after a while, but then other injuries were very grave and life-threatening that could not be dealt with in Senegal and from where I went to Europe to secure better medical facilities.
Did you suspect any foul play, like an assassination attempt?
That was what many people alleged and that was what investigative journalists came up with and the same information came from some people who were privy to the conspiracy to eliminate me.
That’s what they say, but do you believe that?
That was my belief.
But some say it was you who hit the vehicle in front of you?
That was not true. I didn’t hit the car in front of me, it was an approaching vehicle which was coming from the direction of what was then called President Jammeh Officers’ Mess. It was a truck carrying a container, so it was not a vehicle in front of me. It was a vehicle that ran into me.
You spent extensive time convalescing in Europe. Who paid your medical bills?
Those are not important. Those are not matters I want to discuss [publicly].
Later on, you formed your own political party, GMC, some say it is oxymoronic in that you are not considered a very ‘moral’ person, yet you named your party ‘Moral Congress’?
Well, you know I don’t know what is oxymoronic about that because anybody can have any opinion, view or perception about any person. I can say Omar Wally is a very good person; another person will say he is horrible and another person can say he is really a saint. So it is neither here nor there. But the idea of the name moral is very significant; it does not suggest that the people who formed this party are perfect. What it seeks to do is to look at what is wrong with our politics. What is wrong with our politics is because politics without morality will not take our society anywhere.
The word moral is very conspicuous. It is intended to provoke the conscience of the nation towards issues of morality, so that morality will be taken as a specific issue and it will form part of our political discourse. Now the reason for this is, look at it, there are too many decent people who don’t want to go into politics because they believe politics is associated with cheating, lies, corruption and all kinds of negative things. That is the common perception about politics. Tell anybody you are a politician, immediately they will define you, as a politicians you will fail your promises, say things that you don’t mean, you are selfish… all these are the sorts of things people associate with politicians. But politics itself is noble because it seeks the advancement of human society and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is something is wrong with the politicians and it is the moral issue that is wrong with politicians. When we restore morality into politics, it becomes a way of life which influences policies at every level. With morality or moral considerations we will care about corruption, lying and cheating. And when we put morality at the centre of discourse and it influences our behaviour as political beings, then we will see the issue of morality, honesty, integrity, goodness, decency of labour… So what we seek to do with the word ‘moral’ is put morality at the heart of discourse permanently. But it doesn’t mean that we are moral police or trying to moralise politics. We are imperfect like any creature but what we seek to do is to restore morality in politics.
Your critics say you are not a serious politician because you were permanently resident abroad, yet your political party is in The Gambia. You only come to the country during elections and after few days leave.
Let me just say this, I don’t know what is unserious about that because it is very difficult to work under a dictatorship. We have established a political party and one person cannot do that. By law, just one person cannot form a political party. And to form a political party, you have to have representatives all over the country in all the regions and from all the tribes. So, if you say Mai Fatty lives outside but GMC existed in the country and has participated since its formation at every major political event, both for the opposition and for the country, I don’t know what is unserious about that. We have been in the process to liberate this country and GMC has done tremendous amount of diplomacy outside the country. In fact it is the party that has done more work on external diplomacy to liberate The Gambia than any political party. And I challenge anybody to prove that wrong. It will be wrong to say we are not a serious party; we are serious players in this process.
And that was why when a law was set up for every political party to have offices in all of the seven regions in the country, GMC already had those offices established. It will be unfair for anybody to characterise us as unserious. We had an alliance with UDP in the 2011 presidential elections; I personally was in the country and campaigned everywhere to raise the conscience of Gambians. We pumped in a lot of money from our personal resources that was not donated by anybody else. We go to work and save money and we put it back into liberating this country. It will be very unfair for anybody to say that [we are unserious].
You travelled across the globe as GMC leader, what was the source of your party funds, since you yourself were not working?
We financed the party from our own pockets. Occasionally, we have few help from a number of Gambians but not substantial enough. It was tremendous amount of sacrifice that we did, travelling the globe and talking about The Gambia, meeting governments and international originations. This is very important for us and for our country because we are talking about saving lives.
You talk about ‘we’ in the context of GMC, who exactly are the executive members of GMC because many see GMC as one-man party?
I don’t agree with you, I don’t think people see GMC as one man-party because we have the executive in the country even though, I was out of the country and they have been meeting with political parties. They were so many inter-party committees, there were events that happened on the ground that involved opposition parties and all opposition parties were participating. Calling GMC a one-man party would be unfair.
Exactly what role did the GMC play in the formation of Coalition 2016?
GMC contributed significantly towards the nomination of Adama Barrow as the coalition candidate. We provided 70 delegates like all other political parties. We contributed in electing Adama Barrow as the coalition candidate and beyond that also campaigned for him and put in our resources to get him elected. So in the liberation of The Gambia from dictatorship, the history will never be complete without mentioning GMC. It is impossible! GMC is a people’s party.
If GMC is people’s party, why is it that it could not even win a single seat in the last parliamentary election?
Well that is not a determinant for the relevance of the party. You can see historically that is always not the case. We have seen President Adama Barrow, he contested as the parliamentary seat twice and lost but he won the presidency. So that is not the logic, it doesn’t follow.
These are completely different things Mai?
No, no. Here is a person who contested as member of parliament and lost and contested for presidency and won.
Barrow won because he contested under seven political parties plus one independent. If we stretch the argument, GMC is a party that couldn’t win a single seat, how do you expect that party to win the presidency?
That is not the case… not winning a seat, there are various things associated with that. I think the first thing is GMC has never contested in parliamentary election. That has never happened, this was our debut. Secondly, we did not have all our structures effectively functioning under the dictatorship. You see that UDP has won more seats in the last parliamentary election; it has never won that much under Jammeh regime.
We came out of the presidential election, I was out of the country, I came back, we won an election and in January we were very busy to get Jammeh out of this country. In February, effectively cabinet was constituted, then March we went for elections there was no enough time for GMC to campaign. And we could not raise enough resources at the time; we were too busy with the after-effects of the election. On the contrary, other parties that were here for many years had systems and structures and they pulled it through. We couldn’t pull it through that time because of circumstance. But I am sure if the election is re-conducted today, GMC will have different results.
You famously said when Jammeh was leaving, he emptied the Central Bank of $500 million. What was the source of that information?
The source of my information was Ministry of Finance and Central Bank combined.
It seems you attract supporters and haters in equal measure.
I have lots of admirers, supporters and people who loved me.
And detractors too?
Every politician has decorators, even Omar Wally, has detractors.
Your decision to move the Ministry of Interior from Banjul- Bertil Harding Highway and rent a complex for D3 million per annum, was condemned by many. What do you have to say in your defence?
It was not my decision; it was the decision of the government. Well, people can condemn and not condemn, not every decision made by government will be popular with everybody.
You were accused of taking bribes from Semlex, is that true?
I think those issues were clear and settled.
Did you receive from Semlex or not?
What do you want me to say, I think that is very clear.
Has Mai Fatty ever received a bribe in your professional work?
Now, to the all-important question, why did, President Barrow fire you?
Ask President Barrow.
I am asking you.
I don’t know.
Really, you do not know why the president fired you?
I don’t know, you should ask President Barrow. I think you should ask President Barrow that question why I was relieved. I know that the president has the authority to hire and fire a minister and based on that I accept his authority. Now you should ask the president why he fired me.
Did you do anything that was not in line or broke the law?
No, I did not do anything to the best of my knowledge that would warrant me to be relieved from my responsibility.
Did your sacking come as a surprise?
I have heard from many quarters that you have been telling people that you are destined to be the next president because Ousainou Darboe is old and ‘finished’ and Barrow will serve only three years?
That is false.
You were said to have a frictitious relationship with your staff notably your permanent secretary, why is that so?
Go and ask him.
Others claim that since you became minister, you became inaccessible and people who want to see you had to go through layers of security in order to see you, that is, if you want to see them at all?
That is false. Anybody that wanted to see me has to go through an appointment system. A minister of state is not as free as an ordinary person, particularly a security minister. So, I was not accessible as I used to be and there are state responsibilities that I have undertaken. So if you want to see me you go through the appointment systems and there are people who were responsible for my schedule and they determine it.
Have you been redeployed to the Foreign Service as announced?
So what was said in the press release that you were relived and going for Foreign Service was not true?
I want to tell you that I have not been assigned any particular foreign responsibility.
What next for Mai?
Greatness, the best is yet to come.
Do you dream of becoming president of The Gambia one day?
First of all, it is up to God. And God through the Gambian people. I don’t know what I will become in the future. If God destines that I will be president, yes I will be. If Gambian people have that trust and confidence [in me] yes, I will be and if they don’t I will not be.
When you were relieved so many people welcomed the news. Why?
On the contrary, I think so many people were unhappy.
But people were gloating?
I’m not aware of that. What I’m aware was that many people were unhappy.
How do you feel about being pushed out of the house you help build?
I didn’t feel I was pushed out. I’m still a member of a political party of which I’m the leader and that political party is part and parcel of the Coalition.
3 or 5 years, what’s the ‘honourable term limit’ for Barrow?
Why no comment?
Any final word?
Gambians should stop talking and start working. We should begin to cooperate and work together and work for our country. We should support the government’s agenda for development and come together to see what we can do to take The Gambia to the next level. We should support the president’s development agenda that will set The Gambia on new heights. We should shun tribalism, regionalism and come together as one people regardless of political affiliation, put the best interest of The Gambia forward and then The Gambia will move forward.