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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Yahya Jammeh (President, The Gambia)

It is the 20th anniversary of your revolution. You took over the reins of power from then President Sir Dawda Jawara in a bloodless coup on 22 July 1994. Take us back to the eve of the coup. What was going on in your mind on that day? How did it all evolve?

It was supposed to be on Thursday 21st when the former President was due to arrive from a visit abroad. It was all to happen on his landing at the airport, and when we came to the airport, many people were aware that something was going on. When I arrived at the airport that day, I realised that if we had made the move then, many people would have been killed and there would have been a lot of bloodshed and the situation would have gone out of control. And I didn’t want the old man [President Jawara] dead, I wanted him alive, I didn’t want him or anyone else killed. We wanted to put him on trial. 

We therefore realised that there was no way we could move on that day without a lot of bloodshed, massive bloodshed for that matter, which was not called for, and from the outset, shedding blood was not my intention because I had seen a lot of coups in the world, bloody ones for that matter, where people were just executed and at the end of the day the new leaders never delivered anything. 

In fact we all know of coups where people were killed, or where good Africans died, such as [Patrice] Lumumba [in the then Zaire], they brought in a dictator that sold the country to the West for a song and the pillage and plunder of the country continues to this day. We conducted the coup on 22 July because we wanted to get rid of the system and to make sure that The Gambia developed – even if it be by force. 



So there was no plan at all to kill anybody and you decided that it was going to be bloodless from the very beginning; and in the event of bloodshed being threatened you would have aborted the coup? 

The plan was to avoid as much bloodshed as possible. But [initially] we had a list of people that we said should face the music, and that list was very long. But on the Wednesday night before, we were all at my house reviewing the list. I thought about it and decided to burn it… 


You burned the list? Why?

Yes, I burned the list and everybody in the room was like: “Sir, why are you burning the list?” I told them we did not need a list. They asked: “What do you mean?” and my answer was, we are not supposed to kill anyone. It’s not for us to decide who lives or who dies. This was a revolution.  At that time other leaders in Africa were executing people after coups and everyone was telling me, so-and-so are doing it, and I said, I have never lynched or killed any civilian, I will not start now. 

My revolution was not bent on vengeance; it was aimed at correcting the system. I told them that we couldn’t correct a system by violating laws. So you kill people, then what? I believe in natural justice. On the eve of the coup therefore, the situation was so tense. But I stood my ground and I made it very clear I was not going to kill anybody. I told the people in the room that if they were for killing people, if they wanted bloodshed, they could stage their own coup but I told them my coup would succeed bloodlessly because people were on our side. 


That gives an insight into the history of the 22 July takeover. How was the matter resolved and how did you move from there to where you are today? 

We had to strike a compromise, and we agreed that the best way was to put them [the Jawara government] on trial and send them to prison if they were convicted.  But let me say one more thing. Before that day I was all for the list, to make these people pay, because what was happening in the country was very painful to Gambians and it was unacceptable. 

But having decided against killing anybody, I insisted to my colleagues that because it was not going to be easy to make the coup as bloodless as it turned out to be, it was therefore for a good reason that while most coups everywhere take place at night, ours, I decided, would take place at 9 o’clock in the morning, so that I would be able to see what was going on and supervise everything. 

The coup therefore took place in broad daylight, so that anybody who wanted to shoot anybody, would be stopped. We struck a compromise with everybody agreeing that a system would be set up to bring the former leadership to justice even if it meant setting up some form of a military tribunal. 

I said okay if that is the case, we will have to look for expertise. But in the end we all agreed with the principle that there would be no arbitrary shooting of people or executions. 


What you did 20 years ago may be defined as fearless. Were you indeed that fearless or did you just not really care what happened to you if you got caught trying to overthrow The Gambia what was described as a legitimate government in that had been in power since 1965. Or was it just your conviction that something had to be done for the good of the country that made you risk your life? Were you ready to die at this point?

Let me say something. Since I was a little boy going to primary school I have always been determined to die for this country. I am always ready to die. Not only was I ready to die on that day, I am always ready to die for this country and for Africa. 


Bearing in mind that the world knows it was a bloodless coup, was it actually quite frightening?

I told all my colleagues I didn’t want any Vimto [the red squash drink], meaning blood. I stressed I didn’t want any excess Vimto. So we aborted the coup at the airport based on the reasons I’ve given and then we went back to the camp. I made it very clear to everyone, that nobody was obliged to join the coup because I didn’t want to bear the responsibility for anybody tomorrow saying they were coerced into it. So after the airport operation was aborted for the reasons I have given, we came back to base and some of my colleagues suggested we had to go back to the drawing board and wait for another six months. I said, I’m not going to do that and wait that long. Back at my house around 1am of the eve, I said to everyone, “Okay, look, it’s time to go”; for some reason I was now convinced that there would be no bloodshed. So I called the camp and I told them, “Okay, no Vimto but the party goes on.” The party was the coup, Vimto was blood. I gave them all instructions as to what to do.  At 3am I left camp, and having realised that my usual driver was nowhere to be seen, I got into a scruffy taxi, to go and pick up Edward Singhateh from his mother’s house. The journey should have taken me an hour. But this was the slowest taxi I have ever taken in my life. We eventually arrived at Edward’s house.  What I didn’t know was that Edward’s compound had dogs, huge dogs and many of them, and as soon as I approached to knock on the door, they started barking and coming after me. I retreated, called out his name, but nobody answered. So I picked up stones and started throwing them at the roof. Eventually someone came out, it was his mother. She recognised me and she said: “Lieutenant Jammeh, where are you taking my son?” I told her, “He is in good hands, he is my brother, don’t worry. He is in safe hands, I will bring him back to you alive.” She said, “I trust you”. Then she went back inside, calling out: “Edward, Edward, that boss is here.” 

Edward came out in a tracksuit. I gave him five seconds to dress up in military uniform. He came back with his uniform in his hands and started dressing in the taxi.  When he saw the state of the car – he could see the road from a hole on the floor on the back seat – he looked at me and said, “This vehicle is a death-trap.” I told him it was the only one available and it would do. Looking at his watch he screamed to the driver: “Can’t you speed up?” The taxi driver told him, “Oh sir, this is the maximum speed”…Edward was so impatient and the taxi driver was suspicious and said: “They are saying there was a coup attempt at the airport and you were involved. What are you up to Jammeh?” Edwards scoffed at him that it was none of his business. 

I told the driver it was just a rumour and that what happened at the airport was a military exercise with the Americans, who were actually in the country at that time on a training mission. So that, in short, is partly what happened on the eve of the coup and like they say, the rest is history…  We were in a rickety taxi on our way to the barracks on that eve and to this day I have not seen that taxi driver. That car is an important piece of history.


And history was made after that. You announced the takeover of Sir Jawara’s government. And, in the speech explaining your actions, you emphasised key points. Among them you said the new government would: institute and ensure that there was public accountability; welfare reform; equal distribution of the national cake; state transparency; a justice system and justice for all. After 20 years, where is your government on all these key points that you announced on 22 July 1994? 

Those key points are still fundamental. I know I am accountable to the Gambian people in this world, and to the Almighty Allah in the next world. Being President doesn’t mean that you are above the laws of justice. In fact God will judge you based on what you do for the people, and so I don’t take my responsibility lightly. Justice for all is something I strongly believe in. If I have to sign a death warrant, I have to make sure I will be able to have my lunch after signing it, knowing that the person who is convicted is paying a price because he committed a serious crime and what he did was wrong. I have a responsibility, both as a human being and as a president and I also have a conscience. I do not believe that just because you are president, you can do whatever you want. You can do whatever you want, if what you are doing is good. There is no limit to doing good. I believe in transparency, equity, justice for all. And that is what I live for, that’s what I came [to power] for.


And how is the national cake actually being cut and being distributed to all? 

That is very evident, you can see the streets, you can see the highways, you can see the schools and you can see the fact that even a fisherman, actually a fisherman is not poor. Any Gambian’s daughter or son can go to a university in this country, that is equal distribution of the national cake. Before we came to power, all that was not possible.  The fact that anybody who is intelligent enough and has the academic credentials can go to a university in this country, irrespective of their social background, demonstrates that there is equal distribution of the national cake. Ordinary Gambians can today have medical care and people can go to school, have an education, something I didn’t have. That is equal distribution of the national cake.  When we came to power, we looked at urgent priorities such as health, education, infrastructure, road construction. Now Gambians can go from Banjul to Basse in less than three hours, whereas before it would take them days. We still have challenges in road construction but they will very soon be a thing of the past. But by and large, our achievements speak for themselves and I can easily challenge any economic group, institution or economist to come and compare my country from the way it was before 1994 to how it is today, and make comparisons with other countries in Africa for the same period, and tell me which country has developed at the rate we have.


What are the areas where you feel you still have persistent challenges which you need to look at and what would you say are weaknesses of your 20-year rule? 

One regret I have is the fact that we pumped a lot of money into agriculture only to realise that there’s nothing to show for it. I went round the country during the last [Dialogue With The People] tour and I am more convinced that we have no business importing rice into this country. We can grow more than what we need, with just minimal expenditure. I do feel guilty that I didn’t take as much time to really go and scrutinise agricultural projects in the country as I have done over the years with roads, schools and other infrastructure development projects. Agriculture is therefore an area where my vision still needs to produce tangible results, and that I can consider a failure. And of course, it also took almost 12/15 years to really stabilise the electricity supply in this country. And yes, we have electricity but it is not to the extent of where we want it to be. What I want to happen is to also make sure the electricity supply is affordable and reliable. But all in all, we have achieved a lot more in The Gambia in this short 20-year period, than some countries that have more resources than us. We have come a long way and it calls for celebration.


One of the undoings of the government you overthrew 20 years ago was the problem of corruption in high places. How are you working against this? How is The Gambia tackling that and is it really endemic here as purported elsewhere? 

No, corruption is not endemic in The Gambia because corruption only becomes endemic when there is impunity, or sacred cows. In The Gambia there are no sacred cows and so impunity is out of the question. But I can’t deny, corruption does occur in some places. It can at times be very difficult to detect, but God is always on my side and that is why we have annual audits in all government departments. We have also instituted the Anti-Corruption Commission.  


Would you therefore say there is actually zero tolerance of corruption under your government? 

Yes, there is zero tolerance for corruption, zero tolerance for violent crime and zero tolerance on drugs. We cannot afford to be corrupt or encourage corruption in this country, because corruption encourages underdevelopment. You cannot encourage corruption and expect to develop. Corruption is the worst disease against any country’s development. Once you do nothing about corruption, before you know it other things such as drug dealing come in. Corruption is like adding TNT to a flaming fire. No way will corruption fester in my government. Not only do I have zero tolerance, I use what we call the electric broom, razor wire, and a very strong detergent to sniff it out even where it is very difficult to detect. However, that said, corruption in The Gambia is minimal compared to other countries and the good thing about The Gambia is the fact that there is no impunity.  


This is a milestone month for you, and as you have stated, your critics did not expect you to last long as a leader. Looking back, how do you sum up your 20 years in power? What would you say are the highlights, which you feel are your pride and joy? 

The highlights? All the areas are very important, but education – because we had to build many schools from primary to secondary across the whole country, as well as the first ever university in almost 50 years of independence, so I would say these are my pride and joy. I had been told I would need 25 years before The Gambia could have a university, I did it in five years. That is a major achievement for this country. Today, even a beggar’s daughter or son can access higher education or even go to university in this country with the support of the education programmes that the government has put in place. 

We also have the President’s Empowerment of Girls Fund, a project that gives sponsorship to families to support and encourage their daughters to stay in education. But now this is not only restricted to girls, we have included boys as well. Another great achievement is that now all basic primary education in this country is free, and the next stage, hopefully in September this year, secondary school education will also be free. That brings me joy and pride because all these are important achievements that will contribute to the furtherance for our social and economic development. Ignorance is the worst disease in Africa and the only cure for it, is education. 

Education and health are therefore some key achievements, taking into consideration the fact that the British were here for 400 years but they built only two hospitals and only one high school and the other one was donated to them by the Methodist missionaries. What we have done in just 20 years are mega-achievements. 

During the rule of former President [Sir Dawda Jawara], because school places were so limited, corruption in the education system was rife. Children from poorer families would pass to go to high school, but somebody who had not passed would be given their place because they could afford to buy some officials. Today, nobody needs to corrupt anyone or buy school places because of abundant availability. Of course officials and teachers know the consequences of accepting bribes. 

However, we are not complacent, we are still building and upgrading the old archaic structures that were left over from the first republic. So we are continually improving on the structures. Some of the schools we inherited are still dilapidated and we continue to demolish them and build modern structures that reflect the 21st century. 

Also hospitals and medical centres still have their challenges in some areas and we are doing our best to get all to standard and we are injecting a lot of money into the health sector. For example the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital was a poor hospital where nothing worked, maybe its former name – Royal Victoria – was also a curse. But today the Edward Francis Small hospital is one I am proud of. 

But also bear in mind that in achieving all this, we have had very few allies for our development. The West was not on our side and is still not on our side, and we don’t care. Allah is on our side and that’s why we prosper and we will continue to prosper. 

One big myth Africans are made to believe is that if the West is against your government, your country is doomed and will suffer. The West is not with us in The Gambia, God is and we are doing fine. And another point is that most people believe that if you are an African leader you should worship the West in order to stay in power. What a stupid myth. You will stay in power if you have a good heart and you believe that God put you in your position to serve the people that voted for you, and you have to deliver services to them.


It is 20 years since the coup or revolution, as it is commonly now known in the country. How long do you think leaders should stay in power? 

How long can one stay in power? It is only God who determines how long you stay in power. It is not a human being who is responsible for making sure you stay in power. My attention is drawn to something else, in terms of governance, well despite the fact that the West called the former government that we overthrew democratic…


Yes, you overthrew a democratic government, that’s how it is always viewed… 

Democratic by whose standards? It was effectively overthrown only to be brought back by the British SAS and the Senegalese troops and the Senegalese troops were here from 1981 to 1989, for seven years, so how democratic was it? We were under foreign occupation to prop up a government that didn’t care about its people. There cannot be good governance or democracy if the national cake is not equally distributed. You cannot also call it good governance where one side of the country is developing and the other one is not. 


Apparently you didn’t actually want to stand for political office after the coup. You wanted to go back into the army?

That was why we called ourselves the Provisional Ruling Council when we took over on 22 July 1994. It was never my intention or our intention to run the country. It actually took us one week before we agreed on who was going to be the leader of the Provisional Ruling Council. So, yes, I didn’t want to be the head of state. We all wanted a civilian to run the country during the transition, fix corruption once and for all, set up a solid base and put up a foundation that meant whoever comes after us would be obliged by the constitution to fight corruption and to make sure that when he rules the country, he becomes a servant of the people. That was our intention. No, I did not impose myself on people. 


Then what changed? Why did you change your mind to eventually run for the presidency, staying until today? 

If we had wanted to stay in power, we could have kept quiet and the transition would have continued for a long time. But we asked the Gambian people through a referendum, how long they wanted the transition to continue. Most of the people said 8 years, 10 years. Some even said, but Jawara stayed for 30 years doing nothing, so you shall stay for 50 years! 

We asked for a four-year transition, that was the only other thing we wanted. We felt that within those four years, we would be able to at least set up systems and structures that nobody could destroy. However we settled for a two-year transition period. We have all this on record. Every decision made was recorded for posterity. It is all there. 

As 1996 approached, I had already made up my mind that I was going back to the farm. I am a farmer and all I wanted was to be a big farmer. Also, I was young, I wanted to enjoy my own life freely. And I also thought if a university was to be built in this country, I would go back to school. Then as the end of the transition period was drawing closer, people began approaching me, saying, you are already doing so much, and asking me to continue. I said no on so many occasions. A delegation was even sent to speak to my mum to ask her to convince me. I still told them and my mum I would think about it. 


That is very interesting. Mother power. So did you listen to your mother – what did she say?

I would pray for my mum to say no, he cannot be president. When we had a discussion about it, she sat me down and said, “I’m your mum but at the end of the day you are a Gambian and you belong to the Gambian people. I am your mother, and if you are listening to me, my wish is that the people are more important than you, serving them is like serving God, you cannot say no to all these people that are coming to you.” 

I tried to explain to her why I was hesitant. I told her that I was young and needed a life and my intention was to go back to studies. She said, “If you wanted to go to school, why didn’t you go to school before you joined the army?”


So that’s how it happened and you took on the mantle. So it was a matter of mother will always be right, mum is mum? 

Yes, well, I cannot say no to my mum. She’s the only person who can come to my house and pull my ear and there’s nothing I can do about it. Oh, my mum is always mum and I love her so; I don’t want anything to offend her. Sometimes she makes me do things; things I am not ready to forgive, you know. She comes and sits down, and says yes, even God forgives, but you are not God. 


The story out of Africa is of African presidents being over-stayers in power. Now you are celebrating 20 years as President of The Gambia, and you didn’t want to be there in the first place. How do you explain 20 years and more in power?

I will stay as long as the sky is there to defend Africa and defend my resources and the African resources, until Africa gets out of poverty and underdevelopment. How long has the Queen of England been at the helm? And how old is she? I am 49 years old and you expect me to hand over my country to people that would allow foreigners to exploit our resources? 

That is not going to happen. I have seen for myself in these 20 years that if we don’t stand up for ourselves, we are not going to develop. I am not going to hand over to anybody, they can say whatever they want to say. If anything now is the time for me to stand up and say, I’m not handing over. 


What about if the elections are held and you lose the vote?

I’m a servant of the Gambian people, if they want me out tomorrow through the ballot box, I will leave. But if it is the West that wants me out, I will not leave. We all know reasons why Africa is backward. Africa’s blood, sweat and tears developed the West and they still don’t thank us for that but still want to treat us like slaves. As long as I live, I am going to defend my country against any exploitation. I’m going to defend my race. I live for Africa and I’d die for Africa. 


So what do you see as the next strides, after 22 July 2014. What are your plans? 

The achievement of Vision 2016 – as I said when I went round the country in April and May and saw what needs to be done to be food-sufficient in this country. Every Gambian should realise that food is becoming a weapon. A very dangerous weapon for that matter. 

A normal human being can resist poverty for months, years, even abject poverty, but nobody can resist hunger for the week. Agriculture is directly linked to the health of the nation and if you want to develop your country, your people must be healthy and eat wholesome food. Now you cannot assure the people have a healthy diet if they all depend on imported food consumption. 

We do not even know what they have put in these foods. There are certain food products produced in Europe that you find in Africa. In Europe they are banned, they will not be eaten there. 

How can we be independent when our food comes from outside? The Gambian solution is that we have to grow what we eat and eat what we grow – and that is what Vision 2016 is all about. 

By 2016 we are not going to allow the importation of basic food items into this country, we will have to grow what we eat, and eat what we grow here! And it is achievable by the grace of the almighty Allah and I make sure to lead by example in this agricultural revolution.


How essential has the empowering and incentivising of women been in the past 20 years? 

The natural laws of our culture, the natural laws of our society, give power and respect to our women. But while you will always hear all these stories by the West that women are disenfranchised and oppressed, they don’t say that in just these 20 years we have been in power, for the first time women are holding key positions in my government. I have the longest serving vice president in probably the entire African continent and no Gambian woman was ever an MP or held a position of power for 400 years of British occupation.  So who really cares about gender equality in this country? The British or me? In fact nowhere in Africa, as far as I am concerned, did the British put any African woman in the colonial administration at a key position of any kind. While they preach to us about equality today, can anyone point out one Nigerian, Gambian, Ghanaian or Zambian woman who was prominent in the British colonial governments? Human rights were not an issue until Africans became independent. During the colonial era there were no human rights institutions. After our independence, they have become champions of human rights. Africans are not fools as they thought we were then, nobody can hoodwink us anymore. Now from day one, we were the first military government to put women in cabinet; from the transition as a military government we had women in the government, we had three women – the education minister, the tourism minister, the youth minister – and from 1994 to date, women have occupied the Vice Presidential position, been the minister of finance, minister of justice, the minister of health. 


Finally, what is going to be your legacy? 

I think equitable distribution of the national cake will be one. I want to make sure everyone gets to have a share. To achieve that, education and employment must play a major part. I want to make sure Gambians have access to both, not just on merit but because they have a right as citizens, and not because they know someone in the echelons of power. Nothing apart from outer space should be the limit for us in terms of education and equal opportunities for all. We have achieved a lot in just 20 years and I know we will excel and achieve even more in years to come. I will also make sure that five years from now, it is westerners who will be cleaning our streets. I want whoever lives in this country in 1,000 years’ time, to remember my name for the good we have done. For now we already have a million reasons to celebrate our revolution.


Culled from New African magazine


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