By Omar Wally
Lang Tombong enlisted in the Gambia Gendarmerie on 1 August 1986. He became second-in-command of the Mobile Gendarmerie at a time when Yahya Jammeh who later became president was the head of that unit. After returning from training in Turkey, Tamba became head of operations at the force. Following the military coup in 1994, he became the commanding officer of the 3rd Infantry Battalion at the Fajara Barrack.
He served as director of administration at the Army Headquarters, Yundum, before being promoted Officer Commanding, Supplies and Transport.
He also served as Commander of State Guards Battalion, Commandant of Gambia Armed Forces Training School and Director of Logistics at the Defence Headquarters. He was appointed Deputy Chief of Defence Staff and later Chief of Defence Staff of the Gambia Armed Forces from 2009 to 2012. He was the first military officer of Gambia Armed Forces to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general, major general and lieutenant general, respectively. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor, Omar Wally, asked him some very pertinent and personal questions.
First things first, how did you get Tombong in your name? Is it a ‘kanyeleng’ moniker?
Yes, that’s correct, it’s kanyeleng name. ‘Lang Tombong’ in Jola means you don’t care or bother. My real name is Mustapha. What happened was I took myself to school. At that time I was the only child of my dad, helping him on the farms. He was not ready to send me to school. One day, I took a walk to school with a friend and a teacher called us and asked for our names and I told him my name was Lang Tombong. If my dad had sent me to school, he was going to give the name Mustapha.
You are from Sintet in Foni. A great number of your villagers are ‘Firdu’ Fulas. Their women are exceptionally pretty, why didn’t you marry one? Is it because you believe in the myth that they bring bad luck if they marry a spouse from another tribe?
I don’t belief in that. God prescribes all issues. Good or bad luck are destined by God. I’m not somebody who believes in that and people who know me in Sintet will tell you the wife that I first proposed was a Fula, yes – on two occasions. But man proposes and God disposes.
Now to more serious matters, in the first few months of the Barrow government, certain elements in Foni tried to resist the new dispensation but you along with a few prominent Foninkas interceded. Why were they reluctant to accept change?
I will disagree with you a little to say some of the people in Foni were reluctant to accept changes. They were not reluctant, they accepted changes. [It’s the way] things happened … even me, if you welcome me, of course I will be part of the changes.
But if you push me out of the new system, I will see myself as not being part of it. The people in Foni accepted change and that everything was destined by God – that the former president was brought in by God and God ended his leadership. They also welcomed the leadership of Adama Barrow. But we all know what happened. If you push the people whom you are supposed to welcome, they will also push back. In our findings, they said they did not disregard this government, they recognised it as the government of the day. But they have some issues like when the government started sacking some of their people and those people were the breadwinners for them. They were sacked without justification, so how do you expect them to be with them?
So the Barrow administration sacked people from Foni?
Let me tell you, when the government came in, the managing directors of Gamtel came from where? He came from Foni. The managing director of Port Authority, Nawec and others came from Foni. So if people notice that all those MDs who came from Foni were sacked from their positions and those who did not come from Foni were left in their positions… let us call a spade, a spade. How do you want them to react and these are the breadwinners for them? That caused them to reserve themselves. And the problems at Kanfenda and Sibanor, particularly Kanfenda when the two parties clashed…What the police [should have done] was to arrest the two [parties], take them to the police, investigate and know who was at fault. But they [the Foñinka supporters of the old order] felt they were not fairly treated. If two parties fought and you arrest one party and leave the other, they will feel they are not treated fairly.
But it’s normal that when governments change, there are casualties and people lose positions. It was not only the Foni people who lost jobs and prominent Foni people like Abdoulie Bojang, the former Speaker and Lt Gen Ousman Bargie were appointed ambassadors.
If those who were removed were investigated and found to be at fault, nobody would have a problem with that. Many felt that it was too early to just come and remove those people without investigating. I don’t know how many people were sacked from other parts of the country, but who feels it, knows it. They [the Foñinkas] felt that a greater number of their people were sacked, so they were the ones who felt it.
So what did you tell them to pacify them? Did you tell them that whenever there are changes, things like that happen?
I’m telling you that I didn’t have to tell them that. They accepted the change already. When we went on tour at that time to talk to them, fertilizers were being distributed countrywide and the people of Foni did not get any. Do you think they will be happy with some of these issues? You give fertilizer to the whole country and you leave Foni. But when we met the president, he addressed those issues and eventually they got their supply of the fertilizer.
Now to more martial matters, that day that will live in infamy in Gambian history, 11 November 1994, was it a coup or was it not?
Eh! Omar, it is not for me to confirm whether it was a coup or not a coup. One thing I know before that alleged coup, some of the Council members came to Yundum and summoned a meeting with all the officers. And message came to me and Lieutenant Sanyang that we should go for a meeting at Yandum Barracks. At that meeting, we heard them say there were some officers who were planning a coup and that they should desist from it because the Council members were aware and that they should stop plans for any coup. In fact, Lieutenant Sanyang and I were surprised that there was coup plot. After the meeting, we went back to our offices. On 11th November, we woke up and went to work and we heard that there was a coup attempt. That’s what I know.
There is a widely held belief that you were part of the Ndure Cham abortive coup of 21 March 2006 but that you betrayed the coup and that was why you were eventually rewarded with the position of CDS?
Let me tell you about that 2006 coup. I have one belief: that you can hide the fact from people but you cannot hide it from the Almighty Allah. The Almighty knows that I was never part of that coup. There was clear evidence to show that I was never part of it.
The very day of the coup was when it was leaked; the person who was part of them was the one who leaked the coup. So, those who did not know felt that I was part of it and that I betrayed, but those who were part of it knew clearly that I was never part of it. They knew themselves and even when the leaders were arrested, they started mentioning themselves but nobody mentioned me. When Ndure Cham, may God forgive him, was arrested, he was interrogated when I was in prison. He had all the chance to mention that I was part of the coup because he had nothing to lose because I was in prison, but he never mentioned my name. If I were part of it, he would have mentioned me. Even the person who revealed it to me is still alive, and so there is nothing that I can hide.
It is over ten years when that incident took place and fingers have been pointing at you. You are now telling me that you were never part of it and you didn’t leak it but in fact someone leaked it to you. Who is that person?
If you were following the court martial, the very person who leaked it to me went to testify at the court martial and he mentioned it clearly.
I didn’t follow the court martial. Tell me who the person is?
I don’t think it is necessary for me to say it here. But if you go by the records of the court martial, you will come across it.
It would be difficult to access those records wherever they are, just tell us who the person is. This was over ten years ago.
I cannot mention that person. All I can tell you is that those who want to know can [find out] through the records of the court martial. The person’s name is there. He went to testify, so he leaked that information to me.
There was information that you alerted President Jammeh to inform him that a coup was brewing?
That is not true. The State Guard commander Brigadier General Sering Modou Njie called the president because he has to call and brief the president. In fact in his interview with Pa Nderry [M’Bai of Freedomnewspaper], he said he called the president in Mauritania. And with all that people are accusing me that I called him, I did not call Jammeh.
When you mentioned Ndure Cham’s name you said ‘May God forgive him’, where is he?
I don’t know where he is. I read that he was killed.
You insisted that you did not participate in the 2006 coup. However, later in 2009, you were accused of plotting a coup and eventually convicted and sentenced to death. Did you do it. Why would you want to topple your president?
Listen, anyone who knows me, knows me for loyalty. When I joined the military, I swore to defend the territorial integrity of The Gambia and it’s my duty to defend the commander-in-chief of the day. So to say I planned a coup in 2009? That never happened. When I was in the military I didn’t plan a coup, how could I when I was sitting in my home as an ordinary person and a civilian for that matter? You should be able to judge this by yourself. When I had all the soldiers and armory under my command, all that time I could not plan a coup, until when I was sacked and I had no soldier and armory under me? I was an ordinary person, and for me to plan a coup at that time is something that nobody can believe.
Then what happened? How did you fall victim to the system you so expressly were loyal to?
You can remain loyal to a system and the system itself would not spare you. From the day I was born, God had prescribed what I will go through and what I will face in life. So going to prison is something God had prescribed even before I was born. Nothing could have stopped that.
There was talk that former IGP Ensa Badjie and others framed you. Do you believe so?
Yes, you said it fingers were pointed at them. But I believe that it was prescribed by God that I had to go to prison through false accusation and I accepted that. The Constitution of The Gambia is clear about treason and under which condition one could be sentenced to death. There are three conditions: If you are accused of treason and one of the following conditions happen, you should be sentenced to death.
One, if during the course of coup you kill somebody; two, you use chemicals that can lead to loss of lives and; three, during the coup you create violence which led to loss of life, you should be sentenced to death. In our own case, nobody died. We did not even move. No chemical was used and there was no violence that could have led to loss of life. Despite all these conditions being absent, we were sentenced to death. You can see how funny the matter was.
Most people said you were too popular when you were CDS and posed a threat to Jammeh?
You don’t buy popularity, you earned it through God. I did not buy it from the street, yes people can think that way, and it could be true.
You spent six years in prison, were you tortured?
You talking about torture? You see, when I was in prison, I heard lots of remarks. Some said I lost a limb but I thank God that I came out safe and sound.
You were never tortured?
It wasn’t an issue on my side.
I don’t understand what you mean by torture wasn’t an issue for you. Were you tortured or not?
It is not something I was thinking about. My great challenge was, I was sentenced to death for something which I had not committed and for which I could have lost my life.
Some people said you were tortured to the point you were castrated?
Haha… You cannot stop people making rumours but I can understand. If you raise concerns that we have been castrated, people will be more concerned and more action will be taken to see us come out. I’m sure it is against this background that some of those people were raising those alarms. But I can tell you all that is false. I’m with my family and if I wanted a third wife today, I will go for it. Nothing is wrong with me.
When you were pardoned, you announced that you underwent an epiphany while in detention and that you learnt the Qur’an from top to bottom. Tell us about this spiritual journey?
I believe in the statement that “it’s not good to go to prison, but it is good to do something in prison”. I never opted for that, but it is good to have to do something in prison once you are there. Before I went to prison, I did not know how to read the Qur’an, candidly I was not praying regularly. While in prison, I found the need to bring myself closer to God and by so doing I started to learn the Qur’an, through my colleague prisoners. For four years, every Ramadan, I read the Qur’an four times in the month.
Are your hands clean?
My answer to your question is, Yes! My hands are clean and I have never involved myself in any human rights violation including torture, killing or whatsoever. There is nothing that I can hide from Allah. Whatever I might have done, I will find it ahead of me in the next world. So, if I want to fool people and say I did not do this when I did it, a day will come that I will find it ahead of me. The only thing I did is, I saved people in various ways, even in their positions. I stood and helped people who could not return to The Gambia by virtue of fear. They are living witnesses. I helped people get out of prison. Those that feel that I have participated in torture and killing, they can come forward and give that evidence. I’m challenging them. If they want to tell the truth Allah will reward them, but if they want to falsify like they falsified and sent me to prison in 2009, still Allah will reward them.
Do you have political ambition?
My political ambition is to be a farmer.
If people come and say because of the services you rendered to The Gambia, they want you to come and lead, will you?
I can still render those services without leading them in any political form. I am still rendering services and I’m still not into politics. What I’m thinking is maintaining my family. That is why I’m engaged in horticulture.
Football is one of your passions, which teams do you support in Gambia and Europe?
In The Gambia, initially I was a Wallidan supporter. When Armed Forces managed to go to the First Division, I became an Armed Forces supporter automatically, especially when I was Chief of Defence Staff. I helped Armed Forces win two league trophies at Division One. I am back to my former team Wallidan because they have opened up to me and welcomed me back. In Africa, I support Senegal and Nigeria. In Europe I support England and at club level, Manchester United.
Thank you for your time
You are welcome.