Sarjo Touray Minister in the First Republic

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With Alagie Manneh

Sorjo Touray was a First Republic MP.

A former teacher, he did his Masters in England, UK, and studied curriculum development at Ibadan University.

He joined politics in the 1980s, when Kebba Leigh, a sitting MP for Sami died.

He went on to serve as parliamentary secretary for education ministry before being appointed Environment and natural resources Minister.

He served in this position until the coup in 1994.

Tell us about your public service as a Member of Parliament
In 1984, Kebba Leigh, a lawmaker, fell sick and retired.

When that announcement was made, I was sitting with some friends, who were Georgetownians.

They said to me ‘you are the one we want stand as an MP because George Town and Sami District is one constituency’. That’s how I became an MP.

There was an election immediately when Kebba Leigh retired.

Nine people stood against me but they all decided to give up and said they wanted Sarjo to stand as MP.

That’s how I became an MP after running unopposed.

You then went to work for Sir Dawda’s government…
Yes, after two years as a parliamentarian, I became deputy minister at the Ministry of Education.

Then, in 1985, I was nominated to be the Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment – they called it at that time. During the 1992 elections, two other people stood against me; Colly Mbackeh and my own brother Omar Touray who was for PDOIS.

He didn’t want to stand against me; he wanted to be an MP for one of the constituencies in Kombo but his party said no if you want to stand you must stand in your own constituency.

But I won that election.

It was after that election I was appointed again as Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment. That means I spent five years there and another four years as minister.

How would you describe close to a decade working for Sir Dawda’s government?
It was very interesting.

People like me, every two months, we would go round the whole country to make sure that nobody interfered with our forests.

We avoided illegal cutting of trees and we were giving licences, through a controlled process, to natives and farmers to cut down palm trees if they wish to build their own houses, for instance.

For water resources, we made sure almost every village had a hand pump and a borehole. Karantaba, Sami, and the other areas, we had somebody responsible with a cart or a donkey.

He used that for transport to go fix faults when any hand pump had a problem.

I was praised all over with people saying Sarjo is the one who helped us with these hand pumps.

Almost all over the country – Kaur – everywhere, all had these hand pumps before I left.

Fishing centres like Bakau were developed with help from the Japanese.

Kartong, Tanji and Gunjur fishing centres were all constructed.

We did all that for the people.

Those were the positives of your career as a civil servant. What were your failures?
Well, failures could be… only people who were watching can tell my failures but I cannot remember there was a failure anywhere because in forestry we were doing very well, in fisheries we were doing very well.

In fact, after I left, somebody called to say a particular document you signed to take this borehole somewhere, is what we are doing now.

As a former minister, do you think this government is doing a good job in relation to the fisheries and environment ministry?
It was during Yahya Jammeh’s time that they allowed everybody to do what they liked, destroying our forests. So, this government found everything already destroyed.

From here to Brikama, the trees that we planted there, were all destroyed.

It’s not this government’s fault. Twenty two years of destruction, it will take time before this government can do something.

Where were you when the 1994 coup happened?
The coup was a surprise to me. Early in the morning, I went to office and then I sent my aide to get money from the bank.

Suddenly, he came to say there was a military coup; that soldiers were roaming around Banjul.

That’s how I found out.

That’s how people like me had to disappear and hide somewhere in Banjul. If I didn’t hide, anything could have happened.

You felt your life was under threat?
Everybody was under threat.

That is why even if somebody wanted to bring food for my family here – because I wasn’t allowed to go out of my compound – they would stop them and argue with them.

They wanted to make sure we had nothing to do with anybody. OJ, MC Cham and others were all taken to prison and tortured until Modou Musa Njie’s son – a doctor or a lawyer, became so sick.

He and [former minister AEWF] Kama Badjie all died.

They didn’t want the former ministers or MPs and other officials to remain here.

Is that why you left to stay in the US?
I was here after the military coup for five good years.

I didn’t go anywhere.

I still have my visa at the time and the Japanese wanted to pay for my airfare which they did.

I went to the Education department to get a job but the minister there at the time, said to me you cannot work here because the military would not want you people to work here.

I even said I was ready to teach anywhere, but they said no.

Then after a UNDP programme I was involved in concluded, I went to America.

I couldn’t stay in The Gambia with my family without a job. The military didn’t want us to be around.

Critics said because of the entrenched view of the Jawara government as congenitally corrupt and incompetent, Jammeh’s coup succeeded.

How do you respond to that?
There is no perfect government. That statement is wrong.

Sir Dawda had already removed many people for doing wrong things and replaced them with better ones.

It was after Sir Dawda’s government left that some people’s eyes were opened.

 

They saw the difference, and realised our government was far better.

If a president after our government can own 100 and something houses, then what was wrong with our government? It is the thinking of some other people to say these were the reasons for the coup.

Jammeh was not even a military man. He was somebody who when we were going for presidential meetings, him and others would organise the meeting areas for us.

That was all.

He jumped from behind and said let me take over as leader, and then went on to kill those people who actually did the coup.

Is it true that one of your landed properties has been taken by former IGP now Interior minister?
Yes, I understand so.

Tell us about that
I will tell you something about that, because that is very interesting.

I paid for that plot of land and put my wife’s name on the documents.

I was paying dues in Brikama and Sukuta.

I was using the land to grow crops, at a time when Sir Dawda’s government said even ministers must do farming.

One day after the coup, a relative told me somebody is digging a borehole there. When I reached there, they said it was Yankuba Sonko who actually asked them to do that.

I said the same Yankuba Sonko who confiscated my international passport? He knows me very well. I went to a police station and showed my files and all the evidence.

Once that happened, I went to the chief in Banjulinding at the time. I told the chief the information that one Pa Jobe claimed to have sold my land to Yankuba Sonko.

That’s how we started a court proceeding but unfortunately that Pa Jobe was also a member of that court. Sometimes he wouldn’t even appear. He knew what was wrong.

I then took the matter to Bundung court, where it was ruled that it is my wife’s plot, and not Yankuba Sonko’s. Few days later I travelled to America. But a paper was brought to my home and my family went with the police to remove some people working on the land.

When Yankuba heard about that from England, he instructed his police friends not to remove then from the land. The land should be mine, but Yankuba is claiming ownership.

Even though the alkalo knows me very well, and knows I am the rightful owner of the land, he failed to do anything about it. What I don’t understand is that despite a court order, he continued to occupy my land.

He wouldn’t do that to Yahya Jammeh. That is why there has to be truth, or there will be no peace. It’s as if I have no right to own anything here. Why did he do this? I understand he has even built a house there and is living there.

It annoyed me.

How can you take a former minister’s land because you have power? Yankuba Sonko did the wrong thing. Even this year, we paid the bill for the compound.

These people feel they have power and can do anything. It makes me feel like The Gambia has sunk down.

Are you still in for the PPP?
I have not come to decide yet which party I prefer, whether it’s PPP or not. I do not know yet which party I should belong to.

If you choose PPP, which of the camps will you support?
You cannot have two camps in the PPP.

If one does not want to be in PPP, you break away and form your own party.

You cannot say Camp 1 of PPP or Camp 2 of PPP. All of us, our focus was on removing Jammeh from power.

I am yet to decide where I will belong.

What happens later in the future, I cannot decide on that until I return to The Gambia again sometime.

Distrust and fading optimism in this government is on the increase.

What is your assessment of the Barrow administration?
Well, I don’t know what and what he has done. But, as I said, the destruction that has been done to this country, it will not be easy for anybody to do something.

It will take years. I feel Barrow needs time. Even if Sir Dawda returns today, it will be difficult.

Does President Barrow deserve the flak he is receiving?
It’s not easy after this big destruction.

I haven’t been around for long to say anything on that.