Seedy Cham: Chairman, Coalition of Progressive Gambians (CoPG)

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With Alagie Manneh

Wherever you go, the planned November protest is on everybody’s lips. As chairman of the CoPG, how are preparations going ahead of the event next month?

Seedy Cham: Thanks to God. We are making a lot of progress. We have had a lot of radio programmes as well educating Gambians on the activities for the day. Gambians have called in and asked questions. Our peaceful demonstration is on track God willing. But it is important to state that we did not just get up out of nowhere and said we are going to protest. We have asked something of the government. And what we asked of the government, if the government responds to us on that, we will not protest. And that is the issue of corruption. Many people think that we just came out of nowhere and wanted to demonstrate. No, we are asking regarding the issue of corruption. A lot of money went into the draft constitution, yet it was tossed into the dustbin. The Janneh Commission Report has also been put aside. The TRRC Report and Recommendations are also gathering dust. The report into the burning of the Ministry of Fisheries offices is also nowhere to be seen. The cost of living is rising, the airport, the Banjul Roads and Drainage projects. All those issues. The audit reports, the D669 million. These and many other issues. If the government responds to us and works to address these issues, there will be no need for us to protest. But as it stands, it looks like we will end up in the streets.

We know that you have written several letters to the IGP requesting permission for the protest but they were denied citing “security reasons”. You are on record as saying that you will protest with or without the permit, wouldn’t that be going against the law?

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That is a very important question. The way we see it, it is the government that fails to uphold its obligation and responsibility. We wrote a letter for permission for the protest, and they responded that based on security reasons our request was denied. But the highest threat in The Gambia is corruption. We wrote again, but there was no response. We then made a follow-up. And we have disseminated all these letters to the various institutions in this country including the National Assembly. And when you look at it, it is the constitution that empowers us to take civic actions, in this case a peaceful demonstration. Therefore, we are not going to act against the law. The government should give us our rights. We honoured and respected the government by fulfilling our obligation which is to write a request letter. Now we expect the government to do the same. Thankfully, they called us on the 13th of this month after our press briefing. We heard a discussion with them, and now we are waiting. They haven’t definitively said no to us yet, but if we reach that point, we will know what’s next.

We know that the demonstration is likely to attract a huge crowd considering the situation in the country. How many people are you expecting? Where would it start and end?

What we called for is a peaceful demonstration. Now it is left to the people. I don’t want to hype everything but we have informed a lot of people. And at this moment, I cannot divulge where the protest would start, or where it would end. We must continue engaging the police first. The police are not our enemy; they are our protectors. They are human rights defenders. We must have a roundtable discussion with them, after which we can clearly tell Gambians from what point the protest will start. Our initial intention was for a nationwide protest. We are hopeful that the police will call us one more time and from there, we will see how it goes. But regarding the peaceful demonstration, there is no going back.

Protests of this magnitude tend to last longer, and there’s a potential for anything to happen. What are you telling those who have the intention to attend the march? What are you expecting from them?

Our advice to them is that we are out for a peaceful demonstration. When one calls for a peaceful demonstration, those who intend to attend it should come along with only a bottle of water, their keys, and phones. No one should pick up any stick or any potential weapon. We expect them to come out with their banners and placards and chant ‘Stop the corruption!’ And when we reach our destination, we will hand over our letter to whoever we should hand it over to. We would then speak to journalists. We intend to do this with the utmost peace and respect. There would be no problem God willing. It’s up to the government to ensure peace and protect us. That is why we wrote to them.

Since the announcement of your planned demo, you continue to attract admiration and dislike in equal measure. And recently, we have heard tourism officials say that your planned demo may not be that peaceful and that it could derail the tourist season. What are your views on this?

The CoPG strongly refutes such assertions by the Gambia Tourism Board. This claim is baseless and unimaginable because the peaceful demonstration is scheduled for a day to express our constitutional rights in fighting against corruption in all sectors of the government including parastatals. To ensure a peaceful demonstration, we are expecting the security personnel to be engaged to fulfill their duties in maintaining peace and stability in our beloved country. This is another tactic that the Barrow supporters are trying to use to create fear in the minds of Gambians. The truth is, the tourism industry has collapsed since the inception of the Barrow regime. It would be prudent for the tourism minister to highlight their achievements to Gambians over these past years. What the GTB should be telling Gambians is, what portion of Monkey Park they have sold to the Chinese? Let them tell us about the worn-out and neglected Banjul National Museum, the Abuko Nature Reserve, the dilapidated James Island and the US$20 airport tax scandal. That is what they should be worried about. We believe that these are some of the contributing factors towards the collapse of the tourism industry. We challenged GTB to fight the corruption, and the injustice in its own backyard. On our part, we urge the security personnel to take their responsibilities and work with us to maintain stability in our beloved country. The Gambia Tourism Board must stop the hypocrisy and deceitful actions and focus on how to make the tourism industry lucrative and promising in the years that lie ahead. But I disagree with you that we are liked and disliked in equal measure. I think on a scale of 1 to 10, nine percent support our endeavour. The naysayers are few. Here they politicise everything, especially demonstrations. And it’s very sad. The government knows that we are planning a peaceful demo. They know that there are [people who intend to counter our protests, yet they refused to take a step to stop them. They don’t own this country; it belongs to all of us. So if some come out to say that they would counter us and hurl insults at us, the government should stop them. We heard one Babucarr Bahoum and one Pa Modou Jobe saying all sorts of things and releasing all sorts of audios which have the potential to cause violence in this country. The police should caution and stop him.

The issues you intend to protest against – corruption, unemployment, et cetera – are concerns of all well-meaning Gambians. In your estimation, who are you going to protest on behalf of?

This is a very important question. What makes this representative is that all Gambians are suffering. There is just too much corruption and nothing seems to be done about it. So this protest doesn’t surprise anybody. The state of this country is indeed quite sad. Even the deaths of the children were due to corruption because a medicine was brought into the country that wasn’t of any good quality. Any calamity that happens here is because of corruption. That is why people accepted us because the issues affect all of us. It is also our fundamental right as stipulated in our constitution. The country is going down, it is retarding and if we all kept quiet, it would be terrible. Those who are fighting us are fighting for their interests because they are thieves. Corruption is running in their DNA. All their lives, they thrive on corruption.

All sorts of speculations were made when your pressure group was formed. Even the president accused you of fighting a proxy UDP crusade. Can you tell us who are the members behind the CoPG?

The Gambians who came out in 2016 to fight a dictatorship, are the same Gambians who came together to form the CoPG. The UDP is a organisation of its own. If they want to do any demo, they will do it on their own. We are not backed by any political party. The president is being misled. He should listen to the CoPG. They always give the president bad advice. He is surrounded by troublemakers, by politicians. Even the adviser of the president is not fit to be an adviser. Those advisers don’t want The Gambia. They are only interested in stoking instability. What stops them from advising the president to initiate dialogue between him and the dissenting groups? We come from different walks of life. Myself, I am a well-known PDOIS supporter. So, no political party is behind us. Not at all.

What does the deregistering of your registration mean to your movement?

Revoking our registration has nothing to do with our movement. The reason we registered it was for us to be able to work with local and international partners, but its revocation has got nothing to do with our demonstration. It doesn’t affect us. The way they revoked it did not follow due process. Today, if you look at it, Barrow for Five Years has registered their association. They accepted them, but since we are a pressure group trying to hold government accountable… The funny thing is, it was already registered and a certificate given to us. Then they said that they have some error with the   spelling and asked us to wait until Wednesday. On Wednesday, they told us well, we didn’t know this was a pressure group. The money we paid was not even refunded. But our lawyer will work these things out. The CoPG is not just about us here in The Gambia. We are many, both in and outside of the country.