With Omar Wally
Ousainu Darboe was born in 1948, in Dobo, Central River Region. He attended Bansang Primary School and then proceeded to Banjul, where he studied at Saint Augustine’s and Gambia high schools. Young Darboe received a Commonwealth scholarship to study law at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and did master’s in law at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
He was called to the Federal Bar of Nigeria in 1973 and upon return home in May 1973, became a state prosecutor. He was called to the Gambian Bar in November 1973, becoming the first Gambian lawyer from the Mandinka ethnic group to do so. He then worked at the Attorney General’s Chambers, firstly as a state counsel, then as acting registrar-general, and then as a legal draughtsman, before resigning in 1980 in protest against the government’s alleged use of draconian legislation to suppress the opposition.
He then entered private practice. Following the failed 1981 coup against Jawara’s government, Darboe defended many of the accused including lawyer Pap Cheyassin Ousman Secka and Sheriff Dibba who were both tried for treason. Darboe also represented the majority of those detained under ‘Emergency Powers’ following the coup.
He provided advice and representation on a pro bono basis. He served the Gambia Bar Association for several years as its vice president and was also a member of the National Advisory Committee on the selection of judges to the International Court of Justice.
In August 1996, Darboe became leader of the newly formed United Democratic Party and first ran for president in the 1996 presidential election, where he came second to Jammeh. In June 2000, while on the campaign trail for the 2001 election, his convoy was ambushed by supporters of the Jammeh regime. One attacker, Alieu Njie, was killed in the process. Darboe and 20 others were arrested and held in Basse Police Station before being transferred to the high court in Banjul and granted bail. He ran again unsuccessfully in the 2001, 2006 and 2011 elections.
Darboe along with some of the top members of his party were arrested in April 2016 for participating in a protest demanding the body of their slain comrade. He remained in jail during the period leading up to the December 2016 presidential election. Shortly after Jammeh’s defeat in the election, Darboe and 18 other opposition members were released from prison. On 1 February 2017, Darboe was sworn in as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. Anchor Omar Wally sat with him and began by asking him first things first:
The initials in your name are A.N. M. I presume the ‘N’ stands for Numukunda, is he your biological father?
I do not know my father. Numukunda was the one who brought me up. Yes he was not my biological father but he was the one I know as my father.
In the famous book Enter Gambia: The Birth Of An Improbable Nation, the author Berkeley Rice, an American journalist painted an unsavoury picture of Numukunda as a hustler politician.
That was Berkeley Rice’s view. I don’t think he was charitable to any Gambian politician at that time. He wasn’t charitable to most of the people he met. He had some unjustifiable opinion of them and he was satirical, painting a picture for him was reminiscent of the attitude of some white people towards African politicians. The way he painted MC Cham was disrespectful. I don’t know what he meant by hustler politician but the word hustler is really uncharitable and I don’t think he was right. He was patently wrong. The way Numukunda carried himself did not show that he was a hustler in any sense of that word.
Today, whether you agree with it or not, you are regarded as the ‘Great Big Hope’ for many Mandinkas, yet you proudly identify yourself as a protégé of PS N’jie, who many regarded as anti-Mandinka?
Well I do not see myself as a big great hope for Mandinka people. I see myself as great hope for every Gambian. I think time has come when we should stop pigeonholing politicians, me in particular, on tribal lines. People should stop seeing me with the lenses of being an advocate of Mandinkanism. I’m above that and I have always been above that.
I hope that Gambians and non-Gambians will see Ousainu Darboe as one who stands for the interest of every Gambian and promotes the values of unity and diversity. Yes, I was a protégé of PS N’jie. He brought me up. Berkeley Rice paints him as an anti-Mandinka politician but how could he be anti-Mandinka when he brought up so many Mandinka children in his home and for lots of them, he paid their school fees. The late Honourable Abou Karamba Kassama, late chief of Saaba Mr Singhateh and his younger brother Kebba Singhateh, Lalo Samateh and Solo Samateh all lived with him. So how could he be anti-Mandinka? But that’s how Rice painted him. Maybe PS N’jie’s attitude towards Jawara may have been translated to be his attitude to the entire Mandinka ethnic group. I think it was very unfair.
What dictated PS N’jie’s attitude towards Jawara?
You know politicians hit at each other and when they do not really mean what they say. They use words and project in ways that will really pull them down. And that is why you have politicians now trying to project me as the hope of the Mandinkas, trying to make me look like one who has an ethnic agenda; an agenda of Mandinkas. So, I see Uncle PS’s attitude to Jawara in that light and not to the entire Mandinka ethnic group. After all, he had great friends among Mandinkas like Chief Tamba Jammeh and Seyfo Saikouba Jarjusey. I saw how he related to them and other Mandinkas.
How would you describe PS N’jie to someone who didn’t know him?
I will describe him as a generous and very supportive person.
In March this year, I interviewed Lamin Waa Juwara and he said it was not a surprise that UDP derived its name from UP of PS N’jie?
I don’t know what is his rational for saying that. After all UP and UDP have different names and we never resuscitated or revived the UP. If we want to do that we would have chosen the green as our colour and umbrella as our emblem, but we didn’t.
Did you support the 1994 coup that toppled Jawara?
That was the worst thing that happened to The Gambia. We are [still] struggling to rebuild and redeem [what has been destroyed]. It should never have happened whatever the reasons. I think we could have gone through constitutional means and ensured that there was no unconstitutional change of government in this country. On the second day of the coup, soldiers went to my house in Pipeline, then I was with my second wife in Kanifing and the first person they met, they were trying to see how they could get someone to do something about their decrees. When I got the news, I went into hiding because I didn’t want to be associated with the regime in anyway.
Why did you abhor Jammeh and AFPRC?
Even though they were a military government, one has to accept the reality of the fact that it was the government in place. If it was a benevolent military regime… but they just went out trampling on people’s right even to the extent of ensuring that the fundamental human rights provisions were suspended by a decree, I think Decree No. 13. Decree No. 1 maintained the fundamental human rights but subsequent to that, they suspended the fundamental human rights. My objection to them was because they had overthrown a democratically elected government and after doing so they were disregarding the rule of law. That was why that year, I boycotted the Legal Year celebration and also influenced quite a few of my colleagues not to attend.
I could not attend a ceremony rubbing shoulders with soldiers who had overthrown the Constitution and behave in a way that is unconstitutional. I cannot listen to them speaking about the rule of law when they are not abiding by the rule of law. I was on BBC on that day. And when my views were expressed on the BBC, I visited a friend in Bundung and people came there and wanted to attack me. It was a big push and pull and my shirt was torn. I went to the police to report but [laughs]. They were not doing things in accordance with law: violating the rights of the people, arresting people in broad daylight, humiliating and torturing and confiscating their properties without any reason.
Jawara was seen by many as a democrat but others say he overstayed in power, what is your position?
Jawara was a democrat because elections were held freely and fairly and those who were not satisfied with results of elections had access to the courts. And they had their cases properly adjudicated on and they all left satisfied. There were challenges to elections of members of the opposition and the court rejected those challenges. And there were challenges by members of government against some members of the opposition and the rule of law was demonstrated and upheld. The judges could not care who was in power. They were not concerned whether you belonged to the ruling or the opposition party. It was an absolute democracy.
Overstaying? That is the view of some people but that did not make him undemocratic. Of all the petitions, I never heard that government misused its influence or took advantage of incumbency or the government adopted unorthodox methods. There were flaws and they were highlighted but they were not flaws that one will say were institutionalised. When you could see in Jammeh’s time army trucks ferrying soldiers in uniforms and senior civil servants were forced to go to their family members and urged them to vote for Jammeh. It was not like that in Jawara’s time. Yes, he stayed thirty years; maybe he should have [stepped down as he announced] in Mansakonko. Maybe he should not have changed that decision. He should have held on to that decision – that it was time for him to leave – and said I’m leaving.
You talk glowingly about Jawara, why then were you opposed to the PPP and instead supported the NCP?
I don’t know why anybody would think I was an NCP supporter. Because I defended Sheriff Dibba [in court]?
Can you clear it here once and for all: Were you an NCP or PPP supporter?
I was not in support of any party. I had some of my best friends in the PPP and in the NCP. Let me tell you this, when the seat for Sami became vacant when Kebba Nyama Leigh had to leave, I was approached to contest for PPP ticket. But I felt at that time there were few people from provinces in the legal field. I thought that I was doing some work for the people from the countryside and I should continue doing that. By being a Member of Parliament I don’t think I would be able to do so.
Then I approached Sarjo Touray and recommended that he should come in and together with others, we pushed forward his candidature. If I were anti-PPP why would I have been commissioned to organise the National Youth Conference in Janjangbureh and Mansakoko? There was a gala dinner, I was in the social committee of the PPP for fund raising and Hon BB Dabo put me on editorial board of [The Times] the PPP paper. I defended Sheriff Dibba because that was my profession and I believe that all the stories about him were false. I would not have gone with my professional senses, if I declined to defend him and I did defend many other people.
During the First Republic elections, who did you vote for, Jawara or Dibba?
I have never voted until 1992.
Maybe I was careless, I didn’t register. It was in 1992 that I registered and maybe I should not have registered. Maybe my voting in 1992 election led to the overthrow of Jawara [laughs].
How and where did the idea of the UDP come about?
A group of people formed the GPP, PPP, NCP and others got together that they must form a party to stand up to the military regime. This was in reality a military government that decided to don civilian clothing. Among them were Kebba Tamba Jammeh, Sam Sillah [of Bakau], Kemeseng Jammeh, Mbemba Tambadou. They decided that we should have a party. In fact they worked on the constitution.
I was away in Atlanta attending the Olympic Games. I understand they looked for leaders and approached several people and nobody was willing. When I came, I was approached. I really couldn’t give any answer. As in many other things, the opinions and views of family members are important particularly in that situation if you have to face Jammeh the negative repercussion will not be limited to only yourself. Members of my family can suffer in it. I consulted them.
If they had said they would not support it, I would not [have accepted] because I know that when the chips are down, I will be left with [only] my family. When I was approached, I couldn’t give an answer until when I got the go ahead from family members both in The Gambia and abroad. I found the UDP formed but without a leader. I became a leader and had to look at the constitution to bring it to my legal mind. It was then we decided on the name and Mbemba Tambadou, myself, Sidia Sagnia and Kebba Jammeh tussled with lots of names and then came up with the UDP. The emblem was Mbemba Tambadou’s idea – the handshake, symbolically is one of unity. We agreed on the golden yellow which in our view epitomises the maturity of food. It is when they are mature that the colour turns to golden yellow.
To be continued next week…