By Samsudeen Sarr
I finally received the long-awaited letter from the office of the president, Statehouse Banjul, approving my application to meet the Gambian President, His Excellency Adama Barrow. I applied for an urgent audience about how among other issues, he can appoint me minister of defense and fire Shiekh Omar Faye. I didn’t necessarily mention it like that in the application but clearly told him how I want to serve his government as a permanent member of his team.
I arrived at the Statehouse in my best diplomatic suit, bought in Manhattan, New York City, just after the 2017 political impasse.
A well-dressed Senegalese protocol officer conducted my security screening to ensure that I had concealed no weapons and surrendered all personal electronic devices such as cell phones and the like before he ushered me into a very spacious room, beautifully furnished with brown-leathered settee, shiny vanished tables, gold-coated chairs and stools neatly arranged on a soft-red-carpeted floor. I just couldn’t determine whether the area was a presidential waiting room or a secondary office. It had the features of both but not like the elaborate office President Jammeh used to have.
I almost asked the Senegalese gentleman who introduced himself as Hadim Jobe-only Senegalese have such names-where veteran Chief protocol Alagie Ceesay was, whose duties I was told were now usurped by different protocol officers from Dakar. But I decided to reserve all questions for the president.
The meeting was supposed to start at 10:00 am, and the president walked in alone, three minutes before time which of course said a lot about his punctuality.
With due respect, President Yaya Jammeh was really Mr. late, a habit nobody could change in him.
Both the president and I strictly observed the preventive measures of the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing facial masks and seated at a reasonable distance apart. No hand sakes, fist or elbow bumping.
After exchanging one or two pleasantries the president got straight to business.
President Barrow: I read your application and understand from it that you need a job in my government and want me personally to offer you one.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yes Sir, your excellency.
President Barrow: You see, I am supposed to be under self isolation, but when I received your letter I just couldn’t wait because I saw you as an opportunity to hire another excellent team-mate like my defense minister Honorable Shiekh Omar Faye. He is the best in my new team since I was betrayed by the first one that I had trusted so much.
That wasn’t what I expected at all; the unconcealed message of tossing my hopes of stealing Gorr’s job out in the window was disappointing. As if the president was reading my mind and the disappointment I felt, he fired the next question.
President Barrow: So where would you like to serve in my government Mr. Sarr? I know that you are a revolutionist but I think I can accommodate you somewhere.
Oh no, not again. My daughter, Yasaye Sarr had once told me about the president referring to me as a revolutionist when they first met in 2017.
Sam Lobster Sarr: My daughter was one of your diehard supporters Sir, and she told me how you think of me as a revolutionist.
He laughed heartily and confirmed it.
President Barrow: That’s right, Yasaye Sarr. I sure remember her. She was great and a very close friend to the first lady, Fatoumata.
Sam Lobster Sarr: I think they are still friends, but not sure how close they now are.
President Barrow: Does Yasaye still support me?
Sam Lobster Sarr: I have no idea Your Excellency.
President Barrow: Hopefully, when I give you a job I will get her full support again, what do you think?
Sam Lobster Sarr: I am not sure about that either; but all I can tell you about her is that, she is exceptionally intelligent and lives a very free and independent life.
We both remained silent for a brief moment as if we had ran out of ideas and words. In my imagination, he was expecting me to tell him the position I could best serve in his government.
It was however the defense ministry job I wanted, nothing more and nothing less,. I cannot get him to give me Shiekh Omar Faye’s job unless he fires him first; but while trying I thought the situation ideal enough to draw his attention to his government’s national security oversight requiring urgent rectification.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Mr. President, before getting into my desired job as a former soldier and commander of the Gambia National Army (GNA) I really think the Gambia Armed Forces has a lingering problem that needs immediate attention.
President Barrow: Don’t worry about that Mr. Sarr, all armed forces affairs are in the safe hands of my able defense minister. That is an area I will not discuss with anybody else.
Honorable Omar Faye knows all the ins and outs of military policies far better than any soldier, or commander who ever wore a uniform in this country or served in any unit in the armed forces including the all the Chiefs of Defense Staff ever appointed. I think he should have been invited to this meeting.
Sam Lobster Sarr: I get the point Your Excellency, but I want you to hear me out on this one. Because I don’t think your defense minister or any of his surrogates will ever tell you what I am going to tell you.
President Barrow: That is hard to believe Mr. Sarr, but go ahead, I am listening.
Sam Lobster Sarr: First of Mr. President, at this critical juncture of this brutal pandemic starting to wreck havoc in the country, several Gambians including previous skeptics in opposition of maintaining a national army are now clamoring for the immediate deployment of members of your armed forces to help in enforcing the state of emergency, without which the prospect of containing the spread of the disease seems hopeless.
I think it is a great idea but not necessarily a fair one to the troops Your Excellency. Our soldiers for over three years now have been virtually living a demoralized, dehumanized and marginalized life; so to suddenly turn to them for help in fighting this deadly but invisible enemy wouldn’t tell well of a considerate government or of their seemingly indifferent commanders. And trust me Your Excellency, even if you succeed in getting them out there on a command decision, be rest assured that while some risk-takers among them may see it as a way of finally regaining the trust and respect of your government, the well-informed constituting the majority will most likely obey your orders out of pure duress
Your Excellency, doesn’t it bother your conscience that their exposure to asymptomatic carriers alone because of their lack of the appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) with no expert supervision will mean deploying them to be infected. Yes as relatively being young with perhaps most of them immune to developing the disease, their infection could certainly translate into infecting their aging and/or sickly parents at home, the people mostly killed by COVID-19.
It reminds me of the 1990 ECOMOG Liberian debacle when the GNA having very young and inexperienced soldiers, had to execute their government’s mission in which they were, underpaid, under equipped, underfed and worst of all, refused their birth right to be buried in their country when killed in executing that mission. They continued to carry out that illegal mission until a Nigerian commander later realize such absurdity and cut down the number of troops to a ceremonial few. But left to the Gambian commanders, the irrational mission would have continued unchallenged.
So think about it Your Excellency and the preposterous empowering of foreign military forces in the country, enjoying the best pay, the luxury of maximum respect, not accountable to your government and doing nothing other than sitting on dubious orders designed to crush the Gambian soldiers if they ever misbehaved.
Mr. President, I think this is the first time most Gambians have recognized the indisputable importance of depending on our own troops rather than on these useless foreign troops in the country….
President Barrow: You cannot call them useless Mr. Sarr. Without them, I would have never been president.
Sam Lobster Sarr: I totally understand that, Your Excellency. But the dynamics that warranted their presence in the country has been changed by the emergence of COVID-19, a global crisis that might possibly force them out of the country.
For instance, what do you expect to happen if the French government can no longer sustain the funding, on the rationale that you essentially have a strong standing army? Do you really expect another government in this financially distressful world to take up the tab from France? Obviously, neither your government, nor of Senegal’s can foot the bill.
After all, COVID-19 is the main war worth fighting today and tomorrow and we therefore need to trust our own soldiers rather than trivializing their essence. In the end it will only be the Gambian soldiers.
President Barrow: That’s a point Mr. Sarr. None of my ministers or commanders ever put it to me like that. I wonder why Honorable Faye didn’t ever mention such an important matter to me. But you are somehow right. We must start depending and trusting our own soldiers. I will discuss it with my defense minister and my colleague, President Mackey Sall.
However, I think you will be useful somewhere in my administration. Where do you think you can serve best?
At that moment we both went into another silent mode of thinking.
I broke the silence and gave him my recommendation on what needs to be done to regain the respect and trust of the Gambian troops. That, the French and Senegalese must realize the necessity to reduce the ECOMIG and Senegalese forces in the country by half and instead of paying them D700,000,000.00 per annum, half of it D350,000,000.00 being paid to the GAF. That will decently augment their salaries and change their negative perception of the government.
The president assured me of looking into my proposal before I jumped to the next subject. I still want him to give me Shiekh Omar Faye’s job. All my marabouts told me that I can talk the president into firing Faye and hiring me.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But Mr. president, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you in self isolation or quarantine? You appear pretty okay and also learned that you tested negative from the virus.
President Barrow: You mean to tell me that you didn’t hear about Cindy Hellman’s conora virus infection?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Is coronavirus Sir not conora virus and I didn’t know that you also tease the Vice President with that name, Cindy Hellman.
President Barrow: Now let’s get this straight Mr. Sarr; if you want to work in my government you better start learning how to live with my mis-pronouncement of certain English words. The English language has always been very stupid to me.
And as for Cindy Hellman, I am glad she is away for awhile. She talks too much and too loud. Two day before being tested positive of the conora virus she spat all over my face while explaining what I had to do to avoid being infected. But the woman got infected. Can you believe it?
With a broad smile in his face, the president leaned back on his chair as if organizing his thoughts together. I was almost tempted to again tell him that it is coronavirus and not conora virus. But I still need the defense minister’s job.
He continued on his traumatic experience with the vice president spitting in his face.
President Barrow: Mr. Sarr, I had to soak myself in a container of bleach and water to disinfect myself soon after closing from work that day. I hope she will stay away for the rest of the year.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But Sir, now that you and the vice president are under quarantine, who is in charge of the government? Should it be the speaker or the Chief Justice?
President Barrow: That sounds like a constitution question Mr. Sarr. Are you not from Serekuda where Halifa Sallah lives?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yes, Mr. President, Halifa Sallah and I lived and grew up in the same neighborhood in Serekunda; but I was hoping to hear it from the horse’s mouth with the assumption that you also understand what the constitution says about who should be in charge in the event the president and the vice president are both incapacitated.
President Barrow: Astahfurlah! Inpacaci what? I don’t understand the word, but it doest’t sound good at all Mr. Sarr.
We talked about the word “incapacitate” until he understood it and started pronouncing it right.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But Your Excellency, I also heard that the Speaker Mrs. Mariam Jack Denton whom I understand should be next in line has not been feeling well lately and is on doctor’s excuse duty. Is her illness COVID related as well?
President Barrow: I have no idea whatsoever. Infected people don’t want others to know about their infection.
Sam Lobster Sarr: There is nothing to that Sir. Letting others know will indeed help in controlling the spread of the virus. After all, the majority of people infected recover quickly, just like in malaria cases which is equally deadly. I still hope and pray that the Speaker is not infected by the virus.
President Barrow: The other day, I read the paper you wrote in the Standard Newspaper also published by the online Freedom Newspaper where you questioned the seriousness of the National Assembly Members about the dangers of the conora virus.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Oh, so you read my articles Sir? Thanks……..
President Barrow: I occasionally find time to read your writings but don’t agree with most of your ideas.
However, in that article, you advised them well. The speaker should have been more vigilant and disallowed NAMs not wearing face masks from entering the house.
Sam Lobster Sarr: That’s right Your Excellency, even the dynamic Hon. Sedia Jatta failed to wear mask in the beginning while debating whether to pass the 90 days or 45 days state of emergency declaration. No wonder, by their example most Gambians in the beginning never took the disease seriously.
President Barrow: I noticed that about Uncle Sedia Jatta………
Sam Lobster Sarr: Mr. President sorry for the interruption, but you are the father, uncle and older brother of everybody in this nation, Gambian and non-Gambian alike. You should therefore never call anyone uncle, father or ‘kotor’. It is very unpresidential and of course very unprofessional. Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton could be respectively an uncle and an aunt to President Barack Obama, but he calls them by their first names and never uncle, aunt or dad. Senegal’s President Wade could have been President Jammeh’s grandfather but the Gambian leader treated him like equals. That Gambian mentality has to be discarded.
President Barrow: You now know why I call you a revolutionist. This is our culture. Uncle Sedia, Uncle O.J., Uncle Dembo By Force will always be my uncles. No matter what.
Anyway where was I again?
Sam Lobster Sarr: On how Hon. Sedia Jatta didn’t have his mask at the…….
The President: That’s right, at the National Assembly. But tell me, who dares to discipline Uncle Sedia Jatta? The man read too many books and speaks English like a Rolls Royce and he always has Uncle Halifa as backup to make you feel that your parents wasted the school fees they paid for your education for not properly understanding the constitution.
They were all part of my original team but you know what I did to them when I got President Mackey Sall as my adviser?
Sam Lobster Sarr: I don’t, your excellency.
President Barrow: I understand you are very good at playing the fool Mr. Sarr; I read about your story at Mile Two in 1994, but you will have to figure this one out for yourself.
But to be honest, I like the speaker and will always be happy for her to watch my back whenever I am inpacasi what again?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Incapacitated, your excellency.
President Barrow: I hate the English language.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Ok Your Excellency, back to my question, now that you the president, Dr. Touray, the vice president…..
President Barrow: No, it is Cindy Hellman.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Alright sorry about that; I mean you the president, your vice president Cindy Hellman, your speaker Mrs. Jack Denton Speaker are all indisposed, should’t it be the Chief Justice Assan Jallow who should in the mean time take charge?
President Barrow: Mr. Sarr, can you explain where you get all these funny English words that I never hear people speaking? Indisposal! Have I said it right?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Close, it is Indispose sir, simply meaning being unwell or sick.
President Barrow: Why can’t you say unwell or sick but indisposal just to confuse me?
Before I could respond the president suddenly got up from his seat walked to the door, slightly opened it and put his head out as if looking for something or somebody outside before coming back to take his seat.
President Barrow: I have to make sure that nobody is around to hear what I want to say about my Chief Justice, Assan Jallow.
I had to concentrate well not to miss anything on this one.
President Barrow: You know Mr. Sarr, I don’t like to read books at at all and can even say that I hate reading English books; but as president, I took my time to read Kairaba, the book authored by our late president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara.
I am sure you read the book too, didn’t you?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yes I did Your Excellency.
President Barrow: Fine, did you read what Sir Dawda wrote about how Mr. Jallow as his Justice Minister abandoned him on 21st July 1994 when he arrived from London, the day before the coup?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yes Your Excellency, I did. Sir Dawda in the book expressed his disappointment with Mr. Jallow’s behavior that day as one of his most trusted ministers who had deputized for his vice president whom nobody could tell him why he had failed to appear at his welcoming ceremony at Yundum International Airport.
President Barrow: That is it. But the absence of Vice President Sahou Sabally was not only the issue that bothered Sir Dawda but more so the failure of Minister Jallow to respect the protocol of accompanying him to the Statehouse and briefing him about the state of the nation since his departure a month ago.
Sam Lobster Sarr: That’s right Your Excellency. By then the rumors of an imminent coup by the army was known to all senior government officials but which nobody wanted to reveal to the president.
The President: So you see, that shows how well I understood every page in that book, although you always accuse me of being dyslexic. Jallow like most of the PPP opportunists simply abandoned president Jawara at a very critical moment. My defense minister Shiekh Omar Faye would never have done that. I screamed in my heart in opposition to that misconception. I had the urge to tell him to ask his predecessor Yaya Jammeh about Omar Faye when he was faced with a similar circumstance in 2016. Instead, I moved on.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But sir, if you think of the Chief Justice so low why hire him.
President Barrow: Most of those appointments were forced on me by my fathers, uncles and brothers. I didn’t know much about them or anything about government. But I am now learning fast.
Sam Lobster Sarr: I understand Mr. President but on a different subject, I always argue that President Mackey Sall of Senegal hijacked the transition from the coalition to take control of the political narrative of the post-Jammeh era.So why not focus on Ministers like Dr. Tangara and Mr. Omar Faye at these uncertain times since they initiated the Senegalese intervention and support their continued presence in the country? I think Mackey Sall still treats you like a brother and is always ready to help.
President Barrow: Sarr, you don’t mind me calling you Sarr, do you?
Sam Lobster Sarr: No problem Your Excellency.
President Barrow: It is no longer like that. Before the outbreak of the pandemic Mackey was my most trusted adviser, but since the disease started taking over nations and destroying world economies he has been nothing to me but a jackass.
Don’t look at me like that Sarr, I got that word from you and I like to call certain people that name. Mackey is now one of them.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But Your Excellency, it is possible that he is in more trouble than he is willing to admit to you. Consider the magnitude of problems facing his government since the outbreak of the pandemic that stopped Senegalese from enjoying their “Lamba”, singing and dancing addiction?
That’s like ripping out the heart and soul of Senegal from its whole body. Beside, I think the case of Mali is currently a major problem to all of the heads of state in the subregion. Why are you not active in that negotiation?
President Barrow: That’s why I say to you that Mackey is a jackass. He should have included me in that negotiation like he used to do.
I also read your story about the London Investment meeting where I was unusually but obviously absent. I tried to hitch a ride from his plane to attend and he assured me a place with all my entourage. I was going to take both Fatoumata and Sarjo this time. And to avoid the tasteless European food they usually serve, I packaged enough “Kong” (catfish), palm-oil, ‘nettetu’, jumbo for our own ‘Super Kanjas, and domodas’; you know what I mean, don’t you?
But before I know what was going on, he was right there in London, sitting with that condescending Boris Johnson with his hair looking like poop from vultures of Mangkamang Kunda.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Well, Mr. President, condescending is one of those words I consider too big or funny in the English language.
He laughed loud again with a sense of delight before replying.
President Barrow: Yes, I have some of those words written in my notebook.
He reached deep into his left side pocket and took out a small brown notebook, slowly put on his reading glasses and started calling the words he compiled to memorize.
President Barrow: Infrastructure, multilateralism, convention, palatable, banquet, sumptuous, appetizing, yummy……….
Many words were food related, but he made me listened to all forty or fifty words.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But Mr. President, were you invited to the London Investment meeting at all?
President Barrow: You know that I was not Mr. Sarr, but Mackey used to get me everywhere he wanted, even when I was not invited. He is the most intelligent president in the world.
I wanted to caution him about overrating his defense minister and President Mackey Sall who are both listed among my average IQ personalities. But to get him to fire Gorr and hire me, saying that will certainly sabotage my objective. I moved on.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Why couldn’t you talk to your friend Tony Blair to get you an invitation?.
President Barrow: Another jackass, Mr. Sarr. I love the word.
Sam Lobster Sarr: How is he also a jackass sir?
President Barrow: I hardly hear from him anymore after he was all over me in the beginning for his own interest.
Sam Lobster Sarr: But how Mr. President?
President Barrow: I don’t want to elaborate. Elaborate is in my notebook, did I read that one to you?
I couldn’t remember but to dodge the boredom of listening to the notebook list again, I said yes and he continued.
President Barrow: By the way, you remember my first press conference, moderated by Mr. Blaire in London?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yes Sir.
President Barrow: I later realized that I didn’t understand the first question about the succession to the Commonwealth which should have been his duty to repeat the question or make it simpler for me. At the hourly rate he was paid for moderating, the least he could have done was rephrase the question for my better understanding. But with his face like that of a horse the jackass made me look like a real fool.
The president leaned back and for the first time asked me whether I wanted anything to drink.
President Barrow:: We have coke, sprite, banana juice, orange juice, grape juice, every kind of juice and ice cream.
Sam Lobster Sarr: I will take water Sir, but don’t know whether it is wise to take out our face masks.
President Barrow: Ah, don’t worry, we are properly ventilated here.
He reached out to a double-door refrigerator-freezer on the side and gave me a bottle of water while he took a red-colored juice in a plastic bottle.
President Barrow: You don’t want to try Fatoumata’s homemade ‘wonjo’”?
Sam Lobster Sarr: Thank you Sir I have been reducing my sugar intake.
President Barrow: Are you diabetic?
Sam Lobster Sarr: No Sir.
President Barrow: You don’t know what you are missing in this “wonjo”, but I guess you will stay for lunch, won’t you?
Sam Lobster Sarr: What is for lunch Sir?
President Barrow: Red lobster.
I slightly jolted out of surprise before asking.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Seriously your Excellency? Is that a joke, or you also heard about my lobster dinner with Jammeh?
He laughed heartily again while nodding repeatedly.
President Barrow: Who missed that interview of yours with Pa Nderry Mbai from the Freedom Radio? Just pulling your legs.
Sam Lobster Sarr: That would have been my part two lobster story with Pa Nderry Mbai.
President Barrow: Anyhow I ordered “Chewy Kong today with biserp and a Thailand-basmati rice.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Yummy, your excellency.
President Barrow:You stole my new word from my notebook Sarr.
Sam Lobster Sarr: Sir, I have few more questions to ask before telling you where to fix me in your government.
President Barrow: We still have time before lunch.
We talked about the political parties in the country and their leaders starting from the UDP to PDOIS, GDC, GMC, PPP and all the others. He then brought me right back to the question of where I should be hired.
President Barrow: Lunch is ready, but before eating, which department in my government do you believe best for you?
Just when I was about to tell him that I wanted nothing but the position of minister of defense, I heard the voice of my wife waking me up for my usual early morning workout. Holy molly, on the whole, I was just dreaming.
Thanks for reading.