Former Minister, Tumana politician
In this edition of Bantaba, firebrand politician and former Tumana Member of Parliament in the PPP government, talks to Ebrima Baldeh in an exclusive interview on pre-and post independence Gambia, and how a certain Western journalist, Berkeley Rice, wrote a damning book which prompted the Gambian authorities to expel him.
Can you tell us through memory lane on how the wind of change in the 1960s in sub-Saharan Africa, influenced Gambians to demand independence from Great Britain
MC Cham: Well, first of all, let me begin by saying when the so-called wind of change was blowing over Africa, states like Ghana, Guinea, Mali and others were achieving their own independence. Some of the smaller countries with particular reference to former British colonies – it was thought by the authorities that Gambia was one of them – may not be viable as states to be independent. The idea was flirted by Britain and France, the suggestion was made to federate with Senegal on the lines of the Cameroonian federation – Anglo and Franco.
How did it go?
Well the matter went to the United Nations and the UN did not oppose the idea but instead decided to arrange a referendum to ask the people because in The Gambia there was a lot of noise. People did not agree to a federation at the time, so this is how the referendum took place and there was a campaign for and against. Fortunately, those who did not want it (the NO camp) prevailed and that ushered in discussions and negotiations for full independence. Parties were consulted and got themselves engaged in the idea.
What were some the parties at the time?
The main parties at that time were the People’s Progressive Party headed by Jawara and the United Party headed by PS Njie. I think three to four parties later formed an alliance – the Democratic Congress Alliance. We discussed this in Parliament and the British government invited The Gambia to go to London and discuss with the British government the way forward to achieving independence.
Were you part of the camp that supported the expulsion of the American journalist Berkeley Rice from the country for writing the book Enter The Gambia: Birth of an Improbable Nation about the independence struggle?
Berkeley Rice was an agent. I have to remind you he wrote that book which is not good for even the kindergarten – the English was bad, there was no cohesion, no coherence, there was no agenda. The only agenda was to ridicule The Gambia. So that it will tally with the colonial idea of federation that we must lean on someone – that we cannot stand by ourselves. To refer to one graduate in the cabinet, five years after Gambia became independent? Nobody talks about or even reads his uninformed and uneducated book.
Apart from launching a scathing criticism on you, I learnt that you were also at some point ridiculed by Berkeley Rice?
He ridiculed everyone who was pro-independence and even me. He said I was speaking for five hours in Parliament so that it could run into the next day to enable me get allowance. I was not offended by that. I’ve met him several times. He also ridiculed Alhaji Momodou Musa Njie who was at that time not a Member of Parliament. Berkeley Rice said he visited Alhaji Musa Njie and the man opened lemonade and poured it in a dusty mug.
What is your frank assessment of the major development projects under the PPP compared to the AFPRC/APRC government?
Free education was done in Africa by the First Republic. I was fortunate to be the Minister of Education at that time. Self-help schools here are what produced the massive education in the provinces. ActionAid I must pay respect to, did marvelously well at that time. When that was introduced, there were no teachers to cover every area that wanted a school. The former government introduced UQ – unqualified teachers so that people who have been to high school can handle new entrants like Standard 1, 2 and 3 by then the Gambia College was improved and providing more teachers.
APRC loyalists say President Yahya Jammeh built this country from scratch?
I’m not talking about the Arch 22, I’m not talking about the TV, but there is hardly any other place that was motivated by common need, common desire of the population not politically-motivated and that is why they were putting round pegs in square holes.
What do you make of the Barrow government?
This government isn’t from the heavens, it’s from the people themselves out of protest, out of undemocratic application of law over everybody for nothing. So even before this government was sworn in, before it was signed in and the ink of the pen got dried, 37 million euros came in. That translates to three thousand seven hundred million dalasis. It’s already in the papers. I can even show you in one paper here and a lot of other promises are made but that is outside help. For inside help, everybody was enslaved. How many farms did the former president have? Was he paying people to work on these farms? were they his children or his family? No. people who were trying to save their necks and property transformed themselves into labourers and workers and they were doing all this. Where does the harvest go to? Who knows? Stories. So I am advising myself and everybody not to expect miracles from this government, especially within a period of three years against a period of 22 years. You know when you are making comparisons, you make comparisons between equals. You cannot compare a mouse and an elephant.
Who is the mouse and who is the elephant here?
The mouse is Yahya Jammeh’s achievements and the desire of the people for progress and development; his performance vis-à-vis the aspirations of the people. If you set that aside you will know the result. Somebody replaces him for three years and you want him to outdo 22 years with three years. Twenty-two years of damages! And you give somebody authority to remedy that within 3 years? It’s impossible. Within 20 years, that is even debatable. One thing I can assure you is that this government will deliver in most crucial areas in this country beyond expectations.
What are those crucial areas?
In life I always prefer quality even in the clothes I wear. I am in charge of my answers. My ideas and opinions I give here are personally mine as I read the national picture and as I feel the barometer. The university built by Jammeh is very good. Nobody will go against that and like human beings, it will continue to improve. I am sure you will agree with me that the level they are today, they were not at that level when they started. I hope this government will take it to a higher level. For the television, since it was established, it hasn’t been good. You and I know that.
In what sense?
Production, management, material, staff, the hiring and firing. There has never been any consistency. It was like a rolling stone gathering more dust. Tell me those who are the leaders at GRTS, were all of them mature, trained and able to handle it? Even if they were, they didn’t have the guts to implement good things that would maintain standards at the television?
So you have high hopes that this new government will improve the television?
Well if they don’t, I will tell them because they are not soldiers. They won’t arrest me. They are experienced and educated people. That’s the difference. I am sure these people will improve the television. First of all they need to purge the television. The manner in which people jump in and out that place like a change of clothes must stop. Good, experienced and trained people should be there. You don’t need a Ph D to run a television but you have to know television; you have to know the subject. You don’t bring anybody because he has letters. That will be worse than Pluto’s government. Square pegs in round holes! No one needs to tell you that it won’t work. And of all the institutions of the government, the issue of square pegs in round holes is more apparent at GRTS than anywhere else.
How did you feel when pictures of the prisons emerged?
I didn’t watch the pictures on GRTS. Ask my daughter she will tell you. I said I know about this so I don’t need to see it. I’ve gone through it. The conditions were worse than squalid. If they want to know about Mile 2 they should ask former inmates. If you are at maximum security, you are allowed out about 20 minutes to take a shower and your bed is concrete. You only have two blankets; one of which you use on the concrete. So you are locked up for over 23 hours! I worked in the police before and we used to have caterers for prisons. When I became Minister of Education in charge of the prisons, I gave them trouble there in the mid ’70s. One day I waited until they were supposed to come back from the market and then I drove to the prisons. I think I will drop this topic… (Laughs)
If you are invited to come and talk about these things on a TV platform, will you come?
Well you will have to invite people of my experience. You cannot bring hoodlums who were never there. I want to talk to people who have experience and people who were there. I will not talk to some of the people I see here who I have a lot of reservations for. I talk what I know and I express it in the manner I can. If there is any shortcoming, it is my fault. But what I tell you is factual. If you have that and I see your list, I wouldn’t have any reason to object, especially some of the people I see here debating on certain topics, especially politics. I heard the other day some people were talking about the history of the Gambia and I didn’t hear the name of PS Njie nor did I hear JC Faye and others, who charted the political history of this country. I was a witness. How can you talk about the history of The Gambia and mention certain names and not these names?
Next week, read the heartrending Bantaba interview with former Observer reporter Pa Ousman Darboe who last saw disappeared journalist Ebrima ‘Chief’ Manneh when he was picked up by state security agents and never to return to his family again.