With Alagie Manneh
Momodou Sabally is a son of Baddibu, born in Banjul and bred in Lamin. He was the first valedictorian of the University Extension Programme in The Gambia. He did brief stint as a youth worker before moving to the Central Bank and then Ministry of Finance & Economic Affairs as director of budget. He went to become secretary general and minister of presidential affairs as well as secretary general of the APRC. He also served as head of GRTS and Daily Observer newspaper. He was later removed, jailed and released. Mr Sabally, a husband and the father of several children, has written several books and is today one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the country. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor Alagie Manneh met him and rolled with him on the ups and downs of his life.
You are called The Gambia’s pen, how did you come to get that title?
I have answered this question a couple of times. The good thing is, you asked the question the right way ‘you are called’, because I am called ‘The Gambia’s Pen’. It is not a self-acting title as Nyang Njie claimed recently, in his malicious Facebook post. I have been in the business of writing for more than ten years, published several books and essays both in local and international publications. I guess my fans have been very happy with my works. One fan wrote on Facebook on the eve of my many book launches Mr Sabally, “Now you are The Gambia’s Pen”. Some people call me “The Gambian Pen”. I don’t like it that way. When Ousman Rahman made the Facebook post, I told him this title might give me a lot of trouble because of envy, but I will embrace this title no matter what! As expected, people didn’t like the fact that I am called “The Gambia’s Pen”. They said it’s a title I gave myself.
Do you really believe you deserve that name given established writers like Nana Grey-Johnson and Baaba Sillah are around?
That’s not my business. What I know is, there’s been writers here writing before I was born, nobody called them The Gambia’s Pen. Somebody called me The Gambia’s Pen. I didn’t ask or pay him to do so. This is the grace and favour of Allah. He gives it to whom He wills. I am brave and bold enough to accept it.
But you could have said, thank you Mr Rahman, but I am not deserving of the title?
I am honest. Naturally, if I tell you you are the finest journalist in this country, you will not cry. You will say thank you. That’s natural but what would not be natural is for me to know that I love this title, because of fear of mortal human beings, or false sense of humility, I pretend that I don’t like it, and reject it. I will not do that. I saw it as a favour from Allah. I am not claiming that I am the best writer in this country, even though I am a fine writer. I know people like Lenrie Peters, Nana Grey Johnson, Baaba Sillah – who I think are one of the finest writers this country ever produced, Hassoum Ceesay and your old boss, Sheriff Bojang who happens to be my favourite Gambian writer. This title though is here to stay!
Before anything, you are an economist, what should the Barrow government do to improve the economy?
I know why you are asking me this question because of late, I have started making commentaries about the economy, which was unprecedented before. I never did any critique on the economy but of late there are some policy decisions that I found very scary, that I found very unconventional, that I found not actually in congruence with sound economic thinking. I had my fears about the economy during this very difficult transition period. I had fears of currency crash, rising inflation, all of those things didn’t happen, our currency is largely stable, inflation stable. Largely. So, when the current Finance Minister announced a fifty percent increase in salaries, without explaining to either the National Assembly or the public how he was going to raise the resources to do that, I went into panic mood, literally. I have been working within the microeconomic management system for two decades, I have never seen anything like this. Jammeh is known for rash decisions but he’s never done anything like this! I told the Finance minister in my open letter to him, to be honest I am not against an increase in salaries but to have a one of junk of 50 percent knowing that there is a huge quantum of resources in the annual budget dedicated to payment of salaries, I think is ill-advised.
The Finance minister did not come up with any tangible policy or strategy as to how he was going to raise the additional resources. And two, it is basic tried and tested – especially within our small LDC environment – that if you do a dramatic salary increase it leads to inflation. This is a no-brainer. So what’s the point in making such a huge increase in salaries only for inflation to come and catch up or even overtake… and potentially, if inflation rises – if I said – to a high level, the increase in salaries would be meaningless because the real income, what we call ‘real income’ in economics of the salary earners could be just stagnant or even might drop. There are a lot of policy missteps that happened in the past two years. This decision is ill-advised, and it could complicate an already alarming situation of domestic debt.
You have a demonstrable interest in education, therefore given the very poor past national examination results, why is education in The Gambia in such dire straits?
It’s a complex problem, and there is no easy solution for it. It requires concerted thinking, concerted planning and concerted and well-coordinated implementation of reforms. This problem did not happen overnight. Nobody would blame the current administration for this problem; it was inherited. This government has to recognise that the system of education they inherited was not working properly, they would need to fix it. I am not saying this in any derogatory way to make the former administration look bad. I am a product of the investment in education of the former regime, and I think they did well. I was shocked and disappointed when this new government came and their new Education minister made a pronouncement that the education system is working, that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, when all of us know that the writing was on the wall, that we are practically going through a crisis in our education system. Our development partners are partly culpable, too. There was a ‘big bang’ approach here to education, expanding access and all that. It was a World Bank-funded initiative. There was also this fast-track initiative, there was the remedial initiative of female teachers. And in the process of expanding access, quality became the victim. In my thoughts, after ‘the big bang’ approach, which expanded access at the detriment of quality, we need now a ‘deep bang’ approach to make sure that the quality of education is high. This is a real problem. I call on government to call on all stakeholders to a serious dialogue to correct the errors in our education system.
When you were at the Central Bank and later director of budget at the Ministry of Finance you wrote books in praise of Jammeh, was that why he appointed you Secretary General and presidential affairs minister?
I have never written any single book in praise of Jammeh. That is a lie. It’s not true and it’s motivated by nothing, but the perennial Gambian psychological bug. Envy.
What were some of your key achievements during your tenure of these high offices?
To be honest, personally, I have said this, any job that I have held at any point in time, I have always regarded it as an opportunity to learn. I am a life-long learner. Especially my tenure at the Central Bank, as a research economist… we had some really fine economists back then. Our boss was Modou Cessay, director of research, Barjo was the governor, and we had people like Basiru Njie. One thing I really remember is the initiation of the Monetary Policy Committee during the tenure of the late Famara Jatta, former Finance minister who became Central Bank governor who actually became one of our most effective governors. So we as technicians under the leadership of Jatta, started the Monetary Policy Committee, which is, to this day, the highest policy-making body at the monetary authority. Based on that track record, I was headhunted and taken to the Ministry of Finance as budget director where we started reforms in the budget process like shifting from line item budgeting to performance based budgeting and the medium term… within the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and those processes are still on.
And what were some of your key failures?
At Central Bank I had a boss that was the director, and the governor was there. Whatever failures that are there cannot be attributed to me. I was just a technician. As budget director, I had a boss – permanent secretary – and the minister was there. Of course the environment was not perfect but as part of the team that was operating then, I am glad we were able to maintain a microeconomic environment that has been relatively stable.
Observers say you were too pompous and arrogant in your demeanour, utterances and actions while you were SG at the Office of the President?
Those are the naysayers who are envious of me, and they like to say things. I am a person who is blessed with a healthy level of self-confidence. I am a very highly independent-minded human being, and even though I come from a humble background, I have a sense of self-esteem and will never bow down to anybody. Some people don’t know the difference between arrogance and self-confidence. I am not afraid of public opinion.
They said you were eyeing the Vice President’s position and that created bad blood between you too. Is that true?
The job of a VP would be boring for a young man like me. If you know the power dynamics of government; the secretary general is actually, in reality more powerful than the VP. These are petty jealousies and petty backbiting going on. I heard them. I just brushed them away.
You went on air to read a statement castigating Mandinkas. Why did you do that?
The statement was labeled ‘Gambia Government Statement’ just like all of those statements made by Jammeh were labeled. He asked me to read it. We knew that parts of that statement were very critical of a particular ethnic group, offensive actually. I with the communication minister Nana Grey-Johnson with the help of Nuha Touray, the secretary to cabinet discussed this among ourselves. We thought it was inappropriate. Jammeh wasn’t in office and we had to send him a memo to advise him against releasing the statement. He was very angry and insisted the statement be read. I read the statement. I was not happy about it.
You later apologised for the statement…
Yes, I later apologised but the point is, there are some vested interests who misconstrued the statement in several ways. One of the things they said that I said that if being a Mandinka was like a gown, I have taken off that gown, I would never wear it again. All sorts of things. These people were jealous of me. Some of them had a political agenda. They would only convince people who don’t know me. It was Jammeh’s making that fell on my desk at the time. I apologise for it then, I apologise for it now. I am a Mandinka, born of two parents who were both Mandinka. I am very proud of my tribe and my ethnic heritage and I have done as much as I could to propagate that.
You were unceremoniously dismissed and jailed, what were the reasons for your downfall?
I am sure when I was fired, nobody was surprised because everybody knew the position of secretary general under Jammeh was the most volatile. Everybody who knew Jammeh knew that Jammeh did not need a reason to fire anybody. I performed way beyond Jammeh’s expectation. Everything was cozy. Contrary to the perception that many believe, I was advising Jammeh against some of the things that he was doing. I also took the risk to do a written memo to Jammeh about certain financial transactions that I felt were not right. Certain people within his circle started telling him stories about me. Of course Jammeh was very paranoid.
Have you forgiven Jammeh?
I don’t hold any grudge against Jammeh or anybody. There was a time that I was really angry, especially when he jailed me after filing bogus charges against me. My family suffered through all this.
Your critics say you are guilty of serious economic malfeasance for your role in Jammeh’s theft of monies from government coffers?
Let them prove it. I have never been charged [with] or convicted for any such crimes. These are petty talks that I will not respond to.
Others said you are an intellectual prostitute and opportunist for your recent show of support for Barrow. What is your response to them?
The Mandinka poet and religious singer Landing Kinti-baa, said if people are sick in their heart, especially with the sickness of envy and jealousy, there is no cure for it. Is it a crime for any human being to support the democratically elected sitting president of his or her country? These are people who don’t wish me well, they don’t want me to have the space to say the things I am saying in this interview. If they had their way, I would not even be featured in this paper.
Many people who work under you say you were hardworking and creative. What makes you tick?
I am a motivational writer and speaker, and if you are in that kind of environment your ambition and vision keeps rising. I am always into things that can take me forward, and the young people I’m mentoring. For me, there is a challenge to catch up with the rest of the world. So long as that mission is not concluded, I’m not sleeping, whether I’m in government or not, I will always push the agenda for a better, bigger and more inspired and more prosperous Gambia.
What is your relationship to former vice president Saihou Sabally?
Nice man. We all come from the same village Kaataba, in Sabbach Sanjal District. I am related to him both from my maternal and paternal sides because my parents were both in Kaataba. He was my mother’s uncle. Saihou is like my grandfather, but I always had a very cordial relationship with him and he is somebody I really like.
Given your degree of community engagements, are you creating a political base for yourself in Sabbach Sanjal?
No, no way. Sabbach Sanjal is my home. We don’t play politics at home. I am just doing my duty. They are my people and they love me. I love them. I keep going back there to do inspirational youth programmes. Not politics.
His Excellency Momodou Sabally, is that a dream you envision?
I have never dreamt about it. Maybe ambassador.
UDP people are up in arms against the PBYND, why are they worried?
I am not sure your premise is right that UDP people are up in arms because I know a lot of UDP people who are members of the President Barrow Youth for National Development. It’s just a segment of UDP who seem to be ranting against this. It’s their opinion. Those who formed the President Barrow Youths had a good intention to come together and support the president. Those who are speaking against it I think are just exercising their democratic right in our new dispensation. Those who formed it are determined, they are very action-oriented, positive, patriotic, law-abiding Gambians and I have strong confidence in them and hope that they would conduct this non-governmental organisation within the ambit of the law and they would contribute positively towards national development as a legally registered organisation.
It is being rumoured that you are groomed to be appointed as governor in one of the rural regions, is it true? Will you accept it?
Amen. I will be very glad to be a governor. If I am appointed, I will take it. It’s something I wouldn’t mind at all!
Even your harshest critics express admiration for your wife Jai Sarr, what does she mean to you?
Not just Jai, they express admiration for me too! A lot of the criticism is just envy. Jai is a fantastic young woman, really. She’s one of the smartest human beings I have ever met. She believes in my vision and mission and she supports me a lot. I am so proud of her, so lucky to have her. Beauty and brains married together, married to Momodou Sabally! Isn’t that a blessing? Alhamdulillah.
What do you make of the Janneh Commission?
It is a legally instituted commission set up by the president and I happened to have appeared as a witness before it. I think legally it’s not wise for me to comment about them in the public space.
If they recommend for you to be banned from holding public office or that you be prosecuted, what will you do?
I don’t see any reason they will do that. By the way, nobody can prevent Momodou Sabally from holding public office, it is only Allah Who can do that. I am not afraid of prosecution. I was prosecuted under a dictator and I went home free. The Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi said “to undergo fierce treatment is like a proof; no proof and you’ll lose your case. Don’t be disturbed if the judge demands proof: give the serpent a kiss to obtain the treasure.”
The Sabally Leadership Academy has done a great job mentoring and organising young people to take leading roles in nation building, how do you raise the funds to sustain it?
I always have young people around me. I brought them together; university students, young professionals. They were coming to my home on a weekly basis to listen to me give motivational speeches. It was supposed to be a one-off but the team that came didn’t want to disperse. Then my wife came with the idea and decided to have a charitable organisation called the Sabally Leadership Academy. We are supposed to graduate that cohort and take a new one but they refused to go. This was during Babili’s time, when people were afraid of gathering in professional settings. It has been going on since then, especially the SLA’s Cultural Choir that is doing a lot of stuff now. The SLA I think is a game-changer in youth work in this country.
What is your assessment of The Gambia’s future?
Unfortunately, after uniting and ushering in a democratic change of government, this country is more divided now than it has ever been. I hope that we choose the path of forgiveness, reconciliation, unity and progress. If we do that, we shall be well. But if we entrench hatred, and the urge to get evil and to revenge and the urge to divide people for personal and party partisan interest, we will be doomed together as a nation.
Your friend Dr Ceesay says Barrow is clueless, do you agree?
I don’t agree with Dr Ceesay. I would not have made that statement. I wish Dr Ceesay had not made that statement. It’s his right to voice his opinion, however.