With Alagie Manneh
You are a grandnephew of former president Jawara, where is the origin of your granduncle?
My father’s father is from Mauritania. Ironically, the Jawara family attracted a lot of these people from Morocco, Lebanon and so on…
You grew up in Brikama, what are your childhood memories?
Very much fun. My childhood memory was extremely fun because in the ’70s and early ’80s, The Gambia was one of the best places to be as a child. The place was open, we were free, food was easy, education was easy and there was hope around us. The family ties were a lot stronger than now. We went to movies and schools and disco tech, break dance and all those. So, it was a very good childhood.
You wrote a book on the ’81 coup, what impact did the events of the coup have on you and your family?
The Week of Hell is the book that I wrote when I was in Afghanistan. I guess war zone triggers war memories. Nineteen eighty-one was a very difficult year. It was when Kukoi Samba Sanyang and few other broke into the country, took weapons and wreaked havoc on the country. Apparently, our family was targeted and on the second day of the coup, we got tipped off that we had to leave, so we left. My mom and some kids went one side and I and my grandfather and the other kids went the other side. That was a very good thing because that very evening our home was ransacked, everything was destroyed. When we came back after the ordeal, nothing was left. The rebels found out where we lived, where we were hiding and they came for us. Sheriffo Jawara was already caught. My siblings and I, when these people came, they just started firing their weapons indiscriminately. We ducked, crawled and ran… the family was eventually caught and we were to be transferred to Depot [barracks] in Bakau. But the road was caught off by the Senegalese and we had to be rerouted to Sanjally Bojang and deposited there. Sanjally took care of us. He took us to Nyanni Bere. You can imagine as a child; I was only 13 going through these difficult times. My cousin who was a psychologist, advised me to write the book and I did.
On 22 July, 1994 your granduncle was removed as president. Some political analysts said the coup happened because he overstayed in power, should he have left early?
I hear that all the time that he had overstayed. But I don’t understand that. There was no term limit in the constitution. The country was moving in the right direction. He goes to elections, they vote him in… so, I don’t know what they mean by overstaying. Was there a sign that should say that if you are 20 years you have to leave? Because I thought these things should be decided by the constitution. I think it’s not fair to say he’s overstayed. Maybe he should have thought about leaving, but to say he overstayed, I have a problem with that. If you are criticising, you have to base it on facts. Now we see somebody wants to serve two terms, he changed the constitution to stay three terms.
You were part of the people who came and launched an armed attack on the State House on 30 December, 2014. While others were killed, you and the coup financier Cherno Njie escaped and returned to the U.S. In his book Sweat is Invisible in the Rain, he criticised you for, among other things, admitting to the feds after charges were proffered against you, and leaking all the secrets. What is your response to this?
I was really, really taken aback when I read that portion of the book. I thought that somebody in his status should do a lot of research and talk to people before he writes something that is one, degrading and denigrating somebody else’s character and two, not factual. When I joined the December movement, the person who I spoke with to get in, I never named that person because I have my reasons. Until today, I will never name that person. But this was a personal choice. As a citizen of The Gambia, when I see my people suffering, I think that if I have the tools and the means to help alleviate that suffering, I think I should step in. It is easy to contribute finances, it is harder to go in front and put your life on the line and be shot at and shoot. Those two things are not easy. The author, maybe he omitted some of the things there because our first mission to State House, I remember Njaga [Jagne] suggested for me to stay back and I refused. I said, why should I stay back while you guys go? He gave me a task to guard the author of that book. We were in that safe house when we heard noise from outside. I was in my full gear. I signaled for him to go inside and I stood there with my weapon, looking outside, getting ready if we were ambushed to defend him. He never put that in the book. Secondly, it is obvious that our two teams went there while he was in the safe house. I was in the Bravo team. My teammates were there and, unfortunately one of them died. I was there when he died. When he fell, the battle was heated. We were being shot at from the tower right behind us. And there was a tower across the main tower that attacked team A, Alpha team. When we experienced casualty, I instructed through radio for Alpha team to let them know we have a casualty. We didn’t get any response. We tried three, four times, we only got static. I had to call off the mission because I was the leader of that team. If I cannot receive any response from that radio communication, it means only one thing; that they are dead. Imagine you go to war, with five people and now two people left, all the rest are dead, you don’t even know where they are. I had to leave. We implemented our contingency plan which was to go separately and try to get out. I did not get out of Banjul. That morning, there were people who actually I communicated with when I was in the hospital court yard… unfortunately, one of them got killed. For whatever reason, I was accused of causing his death. He was a good man. The place was so completely locked down. So, how else can I get out of that place? If I had to abandon my team, would I have been able to get out in the morning, go to the State House? I went to the State House, communicated with soldiers while the place was locked down, and there were people who saw me there. Maybe when they read this, they can verify these claims. I thought that the coup succeeded but when I saw all these squadrons, I had to come close to see whether it succeeded or not. It was only when I saw Isatou Njie Saidy’s convoy and the bodies of two of my comrades, I realised [it failed]. I had to find my way out. There was no vehicle; all the taxis were locked down, the ferry was locked down. I didn’t hide. Hiding is killing yourself. Soldiers were going from house to house in Banjul, searching.
How did you escape?
I was behind them, when they go here, they move, I move with them. In the evening, two full buses of immigration officers were added to the team of soldiers who were going around searching for me. I would run into soldiers, look into their eyes, greet them and pass them. You know why, well, it is prayers. I also know that if I panic, they will kill me. I got intel that they were looking for somebody they said has been shot. I was never shot… I had to change my shirt again for the second time. I think I was going around from one place to the other. At one time I slept in the mosque. I went to the embassy. When I arrived in the U.S, I heard one of the guys who helped me was killed.
Do you have any regrets about your involvement in the coup?
No. No. Listen, I regretted that we lost people. And if we have to do it over again, we probably might have to plan it better. We will not do it again, let me make that clear. But I have no regrets. I did it for my country. Just to clarify what Mr Njie wrote in his book, it is not possible that I will run away at the same time be visible in the streets. Now, he said I leaked all the secrets. If I lost people and I go out there and tell them [the Americans] that I am not involved, I betrayed the people who died. I was there with that guilt that they passed away, they got killed. And I’m alive, and I go down and tell them I was not involved, then I don’t deserve to live. So, him saying that I leaked, I had to go down there and tell them that we lost people. Those people’s families are in the U.S., they needed to be contacted. It is my duty to let the world know what had happened. At that time, Yahya Jammeh was calling them terrorists. What kind of a person would I be, if I have to go to the U.S and sit down and drink coffee and tell people that I wasn’t involved? That’s not who I am. Maybe that’s who he was because he denied that he was involved. I’m sorry but that’s what I have to say.
After Jammeh’s exit from power, you returned to The Gambia and got engaged with a political party of your granduncle PPP. From your public statements, you seem to indicate that the party has been hijacked by OJ and others? Please explain
PPP has been hijacked since the party ban was lifted in 2009, I think. The party never had a congress until 2018 when we had to fight to get to congress. They didn’t want to go to congress. Alhaji Yaya Ceesay and others were here but would have people believe they weren’t here. Alhaji Yaya would call a meeting… this was hijacked because it was something that they were comfortable doing. I think that the PPP’s case is very sad. The people who formed the PPP, formed it with their sweat. It shouldn’t die like that. That was the reason why I was fighting. When Sir Dawda died, the infighting came back again.
Yet you later identified yourself with the PPP faction led by Alhaji Yaya Ceesay and BB Dabo, who went on to form the GFA. What has gone wrong now that you have announced that you are going to seek the presidency?
I would have wished that the elders of the PPP continue to fight for the soul of PPP, not to abandon it. If the owners abandon it, what do I have to do with it? The PPP was the reason why they got to where they are. Even though the matter was in the courts, I thought that perhaps it would have been better not to form a party and fight until the courts are finished and we know the verdict. I fought to have BB there because I thought he was the man to get PPP going with his experience and legacy. But that didn’t happen because of infighting. Papa Njie came out of nowhere and he was party leader two months. I remember when Papa Njie was running for mayor, we called him to come and stand for PPP but he didn’t want to. All of a sudden, he becomes the party leader. He has no idea about the party’s agenda, he has no idea about the constitution or anything but what can we do? PPP was never his goal. His goal was leadership. They manipulated the process of voting and planted delegates. And I have proven records of these things. I was at the secretariat. I saw everything. So many times, they wanted to beat me up because I insisted on doing things the right way.
Do you now expect the wider Jawara family to rally behind you instead of the PPP?
This is not an easy endeavor. Transforming a country is not an easy endeavor; it is a sacrifice. Family times are gone. If you look at my manifesto, some of the things there are controversial and achieving them is not going to be easy. I hope that people will be able to understand where we are coming from. With regard to the Jawara family, it is a family thing. Truly, I will not get hurt if some of them did not support me. But I am not doing this for individuals; I am doing it because I want my kids to grow up in a country that they will be proud of.
In all honesty, do you think you can win the presidential election?
A 100 percent. You know why? Because Gambians have lost hope. Their country is being sold. We lost our ocean. Something that you could have for 50 cent or one dalasi, is now costing D240. We don’t produce rice. How are the poor people going to survive? If we don’t look at those things, and whoever doesn’t see that, then you are not in The Gambia.
What is your political base?
I am for Gambia. The general public is there. We have a vision. We will put it there. We will sell it to people.
Where are you going to get funding?
I’m not rich, but I love my country. I have a document that I think can change our country for better. Having a big millionaire coming down to help you… millionaires don’t give for free, they always want something back.
What is your assessment of the current government?
I am very worried. We are seeing a lot of road construction. I know that these roads are not done for the interest of The Gambia. People who are providing funding have an agenda. The Belt and Road initiative, strategically building roads to ease their logistics of global transportation of goods, and they make you pay for it. This means our economy, our river, our fish and everything is being sacrificed. You cannot just jump and sign contracts… I think that a corrupt system… corruption starts from the top. If the top is serious, the bottom will be serious. Dirty water falls from top, isn’t it? So there’s no advice that I am going to give to this government that will be meaningful in terms of corruption.