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Solo Darboe: Former diamond dealer Transnational connections and home politics in The Gambia

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By Alice Bellagamba

Men like Solo Darboe found themselves involved in a variety of political transactions. Both abroad and at home, politicians courted the social and material wealth of these businessmen, which they needed to support the emergent political machinery.
In addition to supporting Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone, Solo cultivated his own social presence in The Gambia. ‘Build your place first!’ is a Gambian saying that has become popular since international migration became an avenue to social mobility in the second half of the twentieth century.
Solo’s first investment in social respectability was his father’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1958. The second was to marry Fatoumata Barrow, the maternal cousin whom his parents had chosen to be his wife.
In 1959, the same year in which the PPP was formed, Solo travelled to The Gambia in order to bring Fatoumata to Sierra Leone. Political discussions, which in the first part of the 1950s had been the preserve of the educated elite of Bathurst, expanded to the rural areas, and the PPP, like Stevens’s All People’s Congress in Sierra Leone and other African parties of that period, cultivated populist promises of equality and progress for all, regardless of social differences.

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Like other prominent families of the Protectorate, branches of the Darboe family supported the United Party (UP), which had been established in 1954 by a Bathurst lawyer, Pierre N’jie. The UP was strong in the Upper River Region, but the overall political situation in that area of the country was complicated by the many instances of change that criss-crossed society at various levels. The PPP’s candidate for the Wuli-Sandu constituency in 1960 was Musa Darboe, a distant relative of Solo. This explains the early interest of Solo and the Darboe of Wuli in the PPP. When Solo returned to The Gambia in 1961, the party had already gained its first victory and was preparing for the second national election of 1962. Expulsion from Sierra Leone had taught Solo and other migrants of those days that good political connections at home could serve them well in case of problems with their host countries abroad as well as in The Gambia, where they were investing the profits of their migrations and using the judiciary to defend their business interests. Successful migrants like Solo strove for a social and political presence in the capital city of Bathurst and its elite circles.

In 1963, Solo took The Gambia’s President Jawara’s niece as his second wife. This marriage sanctioned his allegiance with The Gambia’s emergent national power bloc. Personal relationships with national political elites became an important part of his transnational life, indirectly testifying to the strict interactions between business minorities and politics in the wake of African independences and to the commitment of African presidents with respect to the growth of ‘shadow’ states – that is, patrimonial networks interlaced with the formal institutions of the state.

In that same year of 1963, Solo established himself in Congo Brazzaville. Since the early colonial period the capital had hosted an important West African trading community. Solo and other West African men coming from the Sierra Leone diamond fields used already existing West African trading networks to develop smuggling activities within the former Belgian Congo, which at the time held a large share of the world’s diamond production..

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In Brazzaville, Solo had a licence to buy diamonds. Other Gambians he had known in Sierra Leone served as couriers across the border with Congo Leopoldville. Solo’s first wife played a part as well, as one of the Gambians recalled: “Because of the difficulties of access to Congo Brazzaville, we used to take planes from Leopoldville to Lagos, and then back from Lagos to Brazzaville. The president of Congo Brazzaville was named Massemba-De´bat. Massemba and Solo were close friends as ‘honey and honey producer’. Solo was so popular that many thought he was one of the president’s closest associates. He was given security guards for the compound, and the key to the large safety box, where he kept the currency that was in the hands of Fatoumata, his first wife. When Solo negotiated the price of a diamond, Fatoumata would take out the money.”

At that time, West African diamond dealers were taking advantage of the weakened control over the diamond trade that followed Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, and of the development of clandestine diamond mining in Eastern Kasai. This favourable situation ended with the rise to power of Mobutu Sese Seko, who began to install those loyal to him into the system in order to gain control over it. Solo left Brazzaville – having lost his political patronage after the overthrow of Massemba-De´bat in 1968 – and added Belgium and Israel to his transnational life experience: “I was the only African in Tel Aviv who had a diamond trading office. Usually I got to the airport, took the diamonds from my customers and declared them to customs,” Solo recalled. In 1972 he opened an office in Monrovia. In one way or another – he could not specifically recall how it had come about – while in Sierra Leone he had established a friendly relationship with Se´kou Toure´, the president of Guinea-Conakry.

Once again, diamonds were the reason for that friendship, as presumably Solo was participating in the illicit diamond transactions carried out by Toure´ and members of his extended family. Toure´ introduced him to William Tolbert, the Liberian president whose favouritism towards Mande-speaking minorities is well known, and Solo settled in Monrovia. With Solo’s relationship with The Gambia compromised after the 1981 attempted coup against Jawara’s government, and Solo himself, according to his own account, suspected of playing a role in the conspiracy, it proved a providential time to leave The Gambia and draw upon Se´kou Toure´’s friendship. A few years before, Solo had withdrawn from the PPP to become an active member and financial supporter of the National Convention Party (NCP), an opposition party established in 1975 by Sheriff Dibba, who had been a founding member of the PPP and the first vice president of The Gambia.


Never really at home
Solo’s passion for politics is revealed by the nicknames of three of his sons: Reagan, Se´kou Toure´ and Sheriff Dibba. Solo’s relations with Dibba developed in the context of popular dissatisfaction with the PPP in the early 1970s and rising concerns among the Mandinka regarding Jawara’s policy of assimilation of other ethnic groups into the government. No doubt Solo felt and acted like a Mandingo nationalist proudly defending his culture and language. It was in the 1970s that The Gambia’s economic problems started to come to the fore. Electoral politics had turned into an instrument to guarantee the continuity of the political circles established at the time of independence. No room was left for innovative thinking and action besides what the PPP and its politicians needed to remain in power.

Solo was a transnational migrant, but the rest of his family aimed at maintaining their long-term social and political influence in the Upper Gambia. One of his younger brothers had political aspirations, and apparently the PPP had withdrawn its support of his candidacy for Member of Parliament for the Wuli constituency in the 1977 elections. Solo reacted by shifting his allegiance to the NCP and provided this new party with access to a secure source of financing for political rallies and propaganda to support his brother there. At the time, Solo’s material and social capital was impressive. While abroad, he kept in touch with expatriate Gambians and helped those in difficulty. Locally, his family network spread at the regional and transregional levels. Moreover, he had been investing in his home village since the beginning of his diamond-dealing career by paying the taxes of a large number of people and by providing food when they were in need. In the eyes of his countrymen, Solo came across as a hero, deftly able to tap the riches of foreign nations. His first return from Sierra Leone, in 1961, was still remembered by his age-mates as recently as 2008. Solo and his friend Bassirou Jawara were each driving a brand new car, which stoked the imagination of their compatriots. Only a few years later, this time back from Congo Brazzaville, Solo patronized the band Super Eagles, whose music spread from Banjul nightclubs to the international stage.

This display of success and cosmopolitan connections was in sharp contrast to the distress of 1970s rural and urban Gambia. Recurrent droughts and badly organised government intervention had struck heavy blows to the agricultural sector, which still constituted the main source of income for large segments of the population. Inflation had turned life in towns into a never-ending struggle to make ends meet, and people were leaving the rural areas to settle in the rapidly growing urban centres.

In 1977 Solo organised the NCP campaign, and his younger brother contested the Wuli constituency under the flag of the new party. The NCP, however, never achieved the results that its founder, and Solo, expected. It proved hard indeed to undermine the popularity of the PPP as the party that had achieved independence. The PPP’s patronage resources, moreover, were far more dependable than those of the NCP. In his explanation of these events, Solo mentioned a letter that Jawara purportedly wrote to him, which contained one sentence that Solo would never forget: ‘You are a king without a land!’ The meaning becomes clearer in the light of Solo’s common expression ‘I am the king of the world’, used when he boasted about his adventures abroad. By adding ‘without a land’, Jawara put things in the different perspective.

Solo’s transnational life was both a resource and a hindrance. Surely, his connections to different places in the world increased his social and moral stature by comparison with those compatriots who had never had the opportunity to leave The Gambia, but his absences undermined his ability to establish roots in the thickly connected environment of home politics. It was Binta Cham, his youngest wife, who clearly spelled out this point by interjecting, during one of my conversations with Solo: “You can live with Gambians outside, they would not care about you. You will see them only when they are in need. Here, at home, they also do not care. When you return and you visit them, they will start the conversation by saying, ‘When did you arrive? When are you going to leave?’ They talk as if you do not belong to this country.”

Transnational theory has shown how migrants’ investments in their home country have fed long-distance nationalism. This applies to Solo and other migrants of his generation who, while making a point of cultivating patriotism, were also subject to the tenuous nature of relationships between the Gambian state and its diasporic citizenry. The social and material capital of migrants was welcomed as long as it aligned with the incumbent leader; however, the very fact that Solo was accused of participation in the 1981 coup against Jawara shows that migrants’ use of their resources to support political alternatives prompted a much different reaction from the government. Behind the mask of an extremely successful life, Solo’s trajectory therefore betrays a feeling that he never fully belonged to his home country. Of all the political connections he established during his career as a diamond dealer, the friendship with Se´kou Toure´ is the only one I heard him describe nostalgically; further, he evinced an enduring admiration for this man, whom he affectionately called ‘my African President number one’.

For the rest, by 2008 – like many men of his generation who truly believed in the transformative power of national politics during their youth – he had reached the conclusion that politics and politicians were not worth any further financial, social or moral engagement. Both Jawara and Dibba had disillusioned him. His relationship with Dibba had ended before the 1992 national elections, when Solo was expelled from the NCP. From Dibba’s point of view, Solo’s independent attitude was undermining the cohesiveness of the party; from Solo’s perspective – which the opposition newspaper Foroyaa duly documented – Dibba had mismanaged NCP financial resources.

For those elections Solo backed a newly established and small political party, the People’s Democratic Party, whose existence was abruptly terminated by the political ban proclaimed by the military junta after the 1994 coup. Solo left The Gambia again. At this time Angola was liberalising diamond mining and trading operations. Solo tried to become a key player once again in a new diamond frontier, but he was not as successful as he used to be. Angola marked the end of his adventures as a diamond dealer.
In one of our 2008 conversations he remarked: “I cannot leave diamonds; even now, if asked, I could buy one-million-dollar stones in half an hour; the knowledge is still here.” But despite this assertion, Solo also made it clear to me that his time for adventure had come to an end: “I do not travel much these days”.

Solo never went to school, but he soon understood the importance of literacy in the new world emerging out of decolonization. In his early days as a diamond dealer he had to write his name over and over to learn how to sign his first cheque. Most of his children have studied abroad, and even the one who has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up diamond dealing holds a master’s degree from a London university. In 2008, when I met Solo, this son was thinking of opening up a gold mining site in Guinea, where he could count on Solo’s relationship with Lansana Conte´. That relationship had been established when Lansana Conte´ was serving Se´kou Toure´, and Solo was welcomed at the Guinea-Conakry presidential palace.

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