By Alagie Manneh
Salieu Taal, Esquire, is one of the most successful young lawyers in the country and has won praise and respect in many quarters for his social activism. He is the Chairman of ‘Gambia Has Decided’ movement which arose in opposition to President Jammeh’s decision to annul the results of the December 1 election. Here he talks to The Standard’s Alagie Manneh.
The Standard: Mr Taal, you came up with the most instrumental movement during one of the darkest days in The Gambia’s recent political history. Why the need for a movement like ‘Gambia Has Decided’.
Salieu Taal: We came together basically, as a group of friends to initiate Gambia Has Decided. It was a time when The Gambia was at a crossroads. Ex-President Jammeh had decided to reject the election results and even purportedly annulling the results which he had already accepted. We felt that this was not something The Gambia could accept because as Gambians we have already decided our fate by voting for another candidate in the person of now President Adama Barrow.
So we felt having worked so hard to vote out Yahya Jammeh and having tasted that freedom, that euphoria, that excitement only to wake up one evening for Yahya Jammeh to come and say no it’s not happening. We thought for 22 years we were silent. We were restricted for many reasons, but this moment, we cannot lose this moment, the Gambian people as a population cannot lose this moment. So we felt we have to create a movement that would speak for the Gambians and mobilise the energy of Gambians towards ensuring that their destiny, their fate which they have decided through the ballot box is upheld.
And indeed it was upheld. But even that came with a price as members of your movement were forced to flee into exile in neighboring Senegal.
Two members of our movement had to flee including myself. Others on the ground had to be in hiding in various properties in The Gambia. As the movement was getting a lot of attraction, Gambians were coalescing around this movement as their hope and inspiration to ensure that their voices are heard and recognised and upheld.
The security forces under the direction of the head of state decided that they must ensure we are muzzled. Then they started surveilling us. We knew they were surveilling our properties and offices, that is, the key members of the group. And then subsequently we also heard information that we are meant to be arrested on the 31 December.
There was an instruction for our arrest. In fact when I went home that day, that afternoon, I remember seeing two white pick-ups. Obviously they were surveilling my house. Luckily they didn’t recognise me because I was in a different car.
I left and a very good patron gave me sanctuary and with my friend and partner we arranged to leave for Senegal that night. The day we left they actually came to my house in the early morning around 1am to see whether I was in the house. In fact they actually picked up my driver, asking him my whereabouts.
They also have been to Raffie’s [my friend] office several times, threatening to burn his printing press down and also visited his house several times. Even during the time we were in Senegal they actually went to Raffie’s house and my house to see whether we were back or not. So obviously we were threatened.
And we didn’t see it fit to stay here and be arrested, because we had work to do and we were able to do our work in a different manner in Senegal. And our members on the ground also did a lot of work with the help of other well wishers who were able to distribute our T-shirts in a clandestine manner using very, very dedicated youths from different youth groups.
We also use Senegal as a platform to highlight the critical position The Gambia was facing at the time. We spent a lot of time educating the Senegalese media and population as to what is really happening in Gambia.
How was your brief life in exile in Dakar?
I never really imagined living life out of The Gambia in those circumstances. I didn’t have any particular difficulties in terms of maintaining myself because when we started ‘Gambia Has Decided’ a lot of us had means to put our own resources into it because we are all independent and professionals. We decided to risk our resources, our profession, and our businesses to help our country. In the same vein we used our resources to sustain ourselves.
We didn’t have any help from anybody. Senegal is a very expensive country but we were able to survive and network with the local civil society. We ensured we gave the Gambian plight international prominence. We also printed T-Shirts and posters, which we smuggled into The Gambia while in Senegal.
Even while we were in Senegal we were still supporting the operation in The Gambia with the help of our other members who are anonymous but played a very crucial part.
And now that you have been vindicated, how does it feel?
As a Gambian we did this because we love our country. We could have sat in the comfort of our homes and jobs and our businesses and not do anything and just stay put, but when we did this we weren’t expecting anything.
When you are doing public service you don’t expect reward. For us it is our civic duty to help our country and we don’t expect anything from it. We are not looking for political office; we are not looking for recognition or compensation.
We are running our diverse businesses and hope to continue doing that. Of course it just taught us that if Gambians had got together much earlier, perhaps we wouldn’t have waited for 22-years. That is the lesson we learned. And I think the satisfaction of knowing that it may have been possible to stand up against Yahya Jammeh, I think that is a nice feeling.
We don’t want to take the big credit. We came at the eleventh hour. We came at the tipping point, but what happened was a collective struggle that emanated from way back. We came at the tail end and did our part that culminated in the final demise of Yahya Jammeh.
But really, we owe it to those guys who gave their lives. People like Lawyer Darboe who went to jail. People like Solo Sandeng who lost their lives and many others who really fought for change. Also those in the Disapora who have been fighting and putting their resources in the struggle.
We are thankful because it shows that it’s a collective effort that led to the demise of Yahya Jammeh. For us we played a little part and it was important at the end.
And now that the ‘Gambia Has Decided’ movement has become a household name in the country. You must feel proud?
I think we are very proud of the fact that a movement that started in my living-room today is recognised internationally. I was surprised when I came back from Senegal, every corner I would see ‘Gambia Has Decided’. It even created some sort of an economy. We always have a feeling it was going to be successful but not this much. It shows that if you have the right minds together and you have the right timing and launch your campaign… it was a well thought-out campaign.
A lot of strategy was involved in it. We started by coming up with the right #tag ‘Gambia Has Decided’ and then also ensuring that we had massive presence in the Internet. When we attacked the Internet, nobody knew who was behind the movement.
People started changing their ‘DPs’, twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook with this simple logo ‘#Gambia has Decided’. We gave it out to everybody to own. Our model is not to own Gambia Has Decided, we just said, ‘take it as yours because we all decided.’ So that has been our model and that is why for example everybody is printing T-shirts and we are very happy about it and proud that everybody owns it. That is our model.
And that is why it has been a success because Gambia belongs to all of us. We cannot even take credit for this because without the people we would never have succeeded. It was all over; on billboards, T-shirts, Internet, stickers and posters. In combination, anywhere you go you see ‘Gambia Has Decided’ in multi-channels. We have people in our team who are actually experts in branding, so that has been very helpful. We have computer experts, economists, financial analysts. We have a good team of young Gambians who have diverse expertise and launched a very successful campaign.
Mr Taal the reason you and your followers initiate this movement was to restore democracy in The Gambia. Now that the will of the people has been adhered to, what’s next for Gambia Has Decided?
I would like to make it clear; ‘Gambia Has decided’ came out to help restore democracy. Now that we have restored democracy we have to maintain and build an inclusive democracy and we are going to be very active in that process, for sure. We are going to be very active in ensuring that a democratic culture is fostered in The Gambia.
A democracy that respects the rule of law and that the populace is educate enough to know the meaning of participating as citizens in nation-building. So we are going to play a very critical part in this role. I would emphasise, we are non-partisan group.
We are not affiliated to any political party, but would like to play a role in ensuring that the level-playing field is fair and so that the best people will get into politics. So that also, politicians would communicate their policies to the electorate who can choose their leadership based on issues, not on tribe or on other affiliates or on interest. We want to change the narrative. We want to create a new political culture, a political class that is connected to the people, so that people can choose their leaders.
We also think the youth should play a more important role in politics. It is not only a question of creating the menu and giving them to eat, they have to be part of the process of actually making the menu. The youths are 60 percent of the population and basically are very instrumental in ensuring anybody is elected. So it’s very important they also participate in politics and know their rights, which comes with responsibility.
As a lawyer, how would you describe the justice system of The Gambia under Jammeh and how is it going to be any different from this current administration?
I think there was no rule of law. The judiciary was not independent. There were a lot of executive interferences. Lawyers could not really do their jobs without fear or favour. Judges were not independent in many respects.
And whenever the state has an interest in a case it’s very difficult to get justice. Really, there was a total breakdown of the rule of law. This was a time when the President will make pronouncements to the effect he doesn’t respect what the courts have decided.
So really, as far as I am concerned there was no rule of law in the Gambia. We didn’t have an independent Chief Justice. We had a Chief Justice who was very partisan. That has not helped in building a credible independent justice system.
Now I believe we have a very competent Gambian with great abilities and this guy will be the pride of all Gambians. And I believe he has all it takes to ensure we build a world class judicial system that is independent and manned by professional judges.
We also have a very dynamic Attorney General Aboubacar Tambadou who has been a dedicated activist and, has been fighting for justice. I believe he will ensure that the rule of law is obtained in the Gambia. As Attorney General I believe he will advise the government to act in accordance with the constitution at all times. I have no doubt about that.
So I think with the combination of having an independent-minded Attorney General and an independent-minded professional, experienced Chief Justice, I believe our justice system will be fixed. And I think the Bar will also play its part to ensure justice is fair an accessible.
There are widespread demands for the former Gambian eccentric ruler Yahya Jammeh to be brought to book to face alleged human rights and other monstrous crimes he may or may not have committed during his stay in power. Do you share that perspective?
There is no doubt about that. I don’t want to waste my energy talking about the former leader, but I think he has not done justice to the name of Gambia. I think he should be brought to book to account for his heinous crimes.
And I think we have a good job trying to show the world that his behavior is not what represents Gambia. I think that is a very dark era of our history Gambia should put behind and I think he should be held accountable for all his done to Gambia, criminal and also financially.
Thank you for having The Standard Mr Taal.
You are most welcome.
You are most welcome.