Mr Omar Sey: I would say sports is closer to my heart because I have been in sports since I was a child. I have always been involved in sports mainly football since my early days in Basse where I was born and brought up. I took more of an interest in sports when I went to St Augustine’s. I came to Banjul in 1953 and started at St Augustine’s where I picked up other sports. I played football and was a member of the first basketball team in St Augustine’s in 1957 even though it was very rudimentary basketball. Afterwards I went to Yundum College where I played basketball and volleyball up to the level of representing The Gambia at the international level. So you can imagine how close sports is to my heart. I played cricket and became a cricket umpire. I played football up to second division and then picked up refereeing. I progressed in refereeing up to the level of officiating international matches all over Africa.
You have worked at executive levels with Caf and Fifa, what did your work with those bodies entail?
I have been involved with Fifa and Caf. I was director of youths and sports in 1973. In 1972 I attended a Caf congress and a Fifa congress in Paris. I was then secretary general of the Gambia Football Association. And then in 1976 at the Caf congress in Addis Ababa, I was elected executive member of Caf in which I served from 1976 to 1990. As a member of Caf, I was also a member of Fifa Referees Committee. Being a member of the Caf executive committee meant attending their meetings, policy-making and deciding on various issues concerning African football. It is not a permanent job because you do your job at home. In the Caf Referees Committee, I was chairman from the time I was elected in 1976 to 1988 which involves preparing African referees, coaching, selecting and designating them and bringing them up to the standards.
In what ways have you contributed to the development of sports in The Gambia through your work with these bodies?
Well I was director of youths and sports and the first one for that matter. I think I played my part and made my contribution serving in that position. You see, when you work with Caf or Fifa, you are not there only for your country but for the whole of Africa. But I am glad to say that when I was in Caf, I was chairman of the referees committee and chairman of Gambia Referees Association. My God, I think we achieved a lot in developing Gambian referees during that period. Gambian referees were mainly local before 1970. For the first time in 1978, a Gambian referee was selected for the Caf tournament in Ghana which was played in Accra and Kumasi. Since then the sky has been the limit.
But I understand from those in the know that you could have been Caf chairman at some point. Could you please tell me about that?
When I was in Caf I was a trusted ally of the then president, [Ydnekatchew] Tessema. He trusted me and gave me a lot of responsibilities. In fact when he became very ill he chose me among the executive members to succeed him. He told everybody he preferred me. Both he and Fifa president Joao Havelange saw me as the most qualified person to be the president of Caf. That was in 1986 when Tessema fell very ill. But in 1987 I was named Minister of Foreign Affairs in The Gambia. I had to choose. Due to advices and influences and pressures from friends and family, I chose to stay at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That is how it ended, so at the elections for the president in 1988 in Morocco, we decided to let Issa Hayatou stand. He was one of my biggest supporters before 1988. So I supported him and he became president. Our relationship goes back to the ’70s.
With the benefit of hindsight do you have any regrets for the choice you made?
If I had to do it all over again I would choose the ministry. I would still choose to be minister of foreign affairs because it is directly for the benefit of The Gambia and being reposed with the confidence to be the foreign minister of The Gambia is the highest honour anyone could have. It was a big honour. The Caf job goes with other rewards personal and in football but being the foreign minister is more global. The experience of serving The Gambia as the foreign minister is one experience I could never have gained doing another job. I served the country, the region and Africa. There are issues that came up in which I made a modest contribution which I would not have been able to do.
What would you term as your legacy as foreign minister?
Well, I would leave that for others to judge. My colleagues and bosses could comment better on that whether I have done something or not. But I think I have assisted in formulating Gambian foreign policy. I think I put The Gambia’s name on the big radar screen not only in Africa but in the whole world by earning her respect through participation in issues in West Africa and Africa as a whole. The Gambia was a leader in Ecowas that formed Ecomog which did what it did in Liberia and Sierra Leone. We have the seat of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. I was foreign minister when the vote was taken in Addis Ababa and Hassan Jallow was attorney general. I convinced the other countries that the seat should be in The Gambia.
You served under Jawara whose administration was accused of corruption and failure to develop the country. What do you have to say in your defence?
That is a subject of its own. That is perception. People perceive things. I don’t think there is any substance to those perceptions. Yes, in every government in any country there are some excesses. People have done wrong and they are being punished. I think there is no substance to allegations that Jawara’s government was corrupt.
But a commission of enquiry arrived at the verdict that the regime was corrupt and many ministers lost their properties?
Well you have to ask people who were on the commission to tell you what evidence they had on those people because nobody pleaded guilty. I think that is an issue you have to investigate yourself. If you speak to me you get my side of the story; if you speak to somebody else you get their side of the story. You know what politics is like. I don’t want to go into that. It is for you to conclude and make your own judgment. People say whatever they want to say. I lost things. We were surcharged for things we did not agree with but we had to pay. You have to investigate what people have obtained legally and what they obtained illegally before you come to a conclusion.
What is your assessment of the achievements and accomplishments of the Jawara regime of which you were a part? You are criticised for being failing to build more schools and universities.
If you asked me you are asking the wrong person because I was right in the middle of it. You expect me to tell you my own version of what has happened. I don’t think such accusations have a basis in reality. You have to examine what happened in 1965 and then you can be able to know what took place. You have to look at all aspects of development. Consider everything.
But what accounts for the fact that you were not able to build a single university for 30 years?
Is it necessary to have many universities for development? Is that the only thing needed for development? There are other areas that you have to work on. I am even thinking that you are blind. Open your eyes and see. You can judge. I am not here to defend my legacy or Jawara’s legacy. There is a time for that. I am coming out with a book soon that will do all that. When you talk about development, people have a narrow view. But as an educated man, you should know what is development and what it is all about.
What do you make of the 1981 coup?
I was not in government then and I thought it was very unfortunate. It was ill-conceived and I thought the police boys wanted to create a problem. It was politically motivated. Opposition parties obviously were behind it. That’s what we believe. I was in the commission that examined those who were accused. The late Lawyer Drammeh was our chairman and I was a member. We found out that most of the people who took part and appeared before us were members of a political party. So that’s why I said it was politically motivated.
But on what evidence was Ousman Pap Cheyassin Secka found complicit in the coup?
I cannot remember because there were many people who appeared before the commission – over 200. We looked into the coup and perpetrators and went into details. We had lawyers and other Gambians of varied backgrounds that formed the seven-man commission. We looked at all the evidence. On the day of the coup, I was woken up at 5 o’clock in the morning by a next door neighbour. Then I was in an apartment in Haddington Street in Banjul, The late Alieu Kah rapped on my door. He asked me to wake up because soldiers had taken over the country. I was director of youths, sports and culture at the time. So I said, “This man is a joker”. I went back to sleep. I couldn’t believe it. Even if I believed it, so what? Actually I took him seriously but he was also a very agitated man. Some other friends called me too. I tried to go to my office and even made it to my office. Then things started unfolding.
Did you ever meet Kukoi after the coup and what’s your take on him?
Yes, I met him again. We did not talk to each other but he knew of me even though I didn’t know him as such. But I also know people who knew him. He was an ambitious young man. Ambitious for power because it could be only that to warrant him to do such a thing.
Are you still politically active?
No…have you seen me contest an election? I am not politically active.
But where does your political allegiance lie?
My political allegiance lies with The Gambia.
That is a very cryptic reply. Tell me something clearer.
What is politics after all? If you said party politics, I am not active in that. I have not been kicked out of PPP and PPP is a legitimate party. But how long can I go on in party politics? I am interested in politics. I watch and observe politics.
Turning to sports matters, you served as the chairman of the Normalisation Committee that ushered in the GFF. What do you make of the current impasse between GFF, NSC and MOYS?
I cannot comment on that because I have been away and not familiar with what is actually happening. All that I know is what I read in the newspapers. We are satisfied that when the previous football association was banned, we came in and the Normalisation Committee put together a constitution that was meant to regulate things and engender football development all over the country. Structures were laid down in the constitution and if those structures are followed then football will develop. We, the Normalisation Committee, are very happy we did that and we conducted free and fair elections the like of which was never seen in Gambian football. The process of registration and voting were of very high caliber -secret ballot and free. That is what we left behind us. What has happened subsequently is something I am not very familiar with. It is unfortunate that it has descended to this sort of thing.
How do you feel about Gambia’s expulsion from Caf competitions for two years for fielding over-aged players?
Well, I feel very sad that had to happen. It is beyond our control. Caf in its own judgment imposed the punishment that should be meted on us. I am not happy. I don’t like it, frankly. I am a Gambian and will not like it if The Gambia is stopped from playing football.
GFF vice president, Buba Janneh, initially accused the Normalisation Committee of not handing over the letter which is at the core of the debacle. What do you make of that?
There were attempts to implicate us in that but it was proved that Normalisation Committee had nothing to do with it. For me, that’s the end of the chapter.
What is the way out of the impasse do you think?
Well, I am not familiar with the inner workings of the current impasse. But I hope it will be solved in the interest of all and in the interest of the nation and Gambian football. I hope that it is resolved in a way that it is a win-win situation for all. Whichever way it is resolved, it is not supposed to be a winner and a loser situation. Either everybody loses or everybody wins. I would like to see a win-win situation not a win-lose situation. It should be resolved through dialogue and accommodation putting The Gambia’s interest above everything else.
With Sainey Darboe