With Alagie Manneh
During the “struggle” against the Jammeh regime, the name Yankuba Darboe came into prominence. An unapologetic UDP militant, Mr Darboe is now leading the troops as they take the fight to President Adama Barrow since his messy fallout with the yellow army. When anchor Alagie Manneh met Yankuba Darboe midweek, he began by asking him about his origins.
Yankuba Darboe: I was born and raised in Kafuta. I did primary schooling in Kafuta and Brikama. I went to Arabic school, funny enough, that was where I spent most of my early education. I only did primary five. I then went to Kafuta Junior Secondary School and from there I went to SoS Hermann Gmeiner Technical High School and I did grade 10 and 11 but before going to grade 11 I had the opportunity to go to UK. I completed GCSC A level in UK and went to university there. I attended City College, Birmingham. I did three years there and then went to Wolverhampton University and did an LLB honours law degree. Thereafter, I went to London Metropolitan University where I went to law school and did legal practices. After that I went on to do my training contracts at various law firms but I ended up completing it at Duncan Lewis which is one of the biggest legal aid law firms in the UK at present. I completed my training there in 2012 and got enrolled as a solicitor of England and Wales and I’ve ever since been practicing law in the United Kingdom.
Despite your burning desire to remove Jammeh by all means necessary, were you not in fact once his sympathiser given that your elder sister was married to one of his most controversial governors and later Interior minister?
Momodou Bojang was an in-law indeed but, you know, they were married well before the coup in 1994. Obviously my family has always been UDP so I could not have been a sympathiser. I think initially, probably in 1994, I supported the military coup because I was too young, I just basically was fascinated by the military and the fact that… I don’t even know why I was supporting them but I did. But when Lawyer Darboe stood as candidate for UDP in 2016, only my sister and her husband were APRC, the rest of my family was UDP. I was never a sympathiser of Jammeh; I followed my father’s line and my father was UDP. We were always UDP.
After briefly working at the Daily Observerunder Sheriff Bojang, you travelled to England to study and to work, what prompted your political activism there?
I think being in the media exposed me to a lot of things which I was not aware of. It exposed me to a lot of dealings and killings that the Jammeh government was doing. I think the death of Ousman Koro Ceesay – I heard that from the news – but then there was a conversation that I was to be privy to and that was between Ebrima Sillah and Sheriff Bojang, the current and former ministers of Information. And they were talking about the cover-ups the government was doing and I got exposed to so many dodgy dealings. Sheriff was like a big brother to me; he inspired me into media. I started writing and would bring my writings to him and he would be like ‘no no, this is not a story, this is not good, so he would tear it apart, because I didn’t know what I was writing then. Once I even reported about a naming ceremony and Sheriff was like this is so not a story [for the newspaper]! I believe my first article was published by The Point newspaper, by Deyda Hydara.After I got another story published by the Observer, I became a lot more motivated and started writing. We used to have a different set of people at Observer then; we had Lamin Kujabi, Papa Colley, Sheriff Bojang Jnr, NB Daffeh, Ebrima ‘Chief’ Manneh, Ebrima Ceesay. It was an interesting place. Saikou Marenah, Lamin Gassama, Lamin Jarju, Lamin Jatta, Alieu Badara Sowe, Pa Nderry M’Bai, Alagie Mbye all of them were there. I was still in grade school and was a freelance reporter for the Observer. It was cool. After completing grade eleven, that was when the opportunity came and I went to the UK. I wanted to pursue media studies, but decided on law and upon studying it, I became aware of rights. There is a subject you study in the course and its called ‘Taking Rights Seriously’. It’s more or less legal jurisprudence or philosophy and it teaches you how much value you have to attach to rights; that rights are not things that one plays with or that which one pays indifference to if others rights are being violated. Since then I have taken the issue of rights seriously, not just mine but those of other people as well. That’s why I got a lot more passionate about fighting for the rights of so many people which included my family members who I believe were under oppression under Jammeh. I left The Gambia where people were very scared as a result of the brutality of Jammeh. I participated in the April 10/11 student demonstration. All of those were things lingering on my mind and I had to live with them. So, it just gave me this motivation to fight for The Gambia and what my people were going through. I remember when NB Daffeh moved from Observer to The Independent newspaper which was initiated by Baba Galleh Jallow and Yoro Jallow and the first week he and others were detained for a couple of days and when he came out he was suffering from malaria and he was so ill he could not even tell us how it was like there. All he kept saying was “my brother, it was horrible”. So all of those terrible ordeals that my friends were going through in The Gambia just weren’t right; that needed to end. I believe from then onward, I wanted to fight to make sure that I end that in The Gambia.
What made you to gravitate towards the UDP instead of other political parties?
As a young man, your father is your true inspiration. So when I was young, my father and his people had some legal issues with some people and I would say my father was on the right side but the courts found otherwise. They were unjustly treated by the then regime. At the time the people they were in dispute with, were supported by the minister at the time, who happened to be the MP for Kombo East, Lamin Kiti Jabang. It was Lawyer Darboe who stood for them until they had justice. He was standing for ordinary folks. This is a man that I could bet on to say was going to guarantee justice for everybody. That more or less was what made me to gravitate to the UDP. This is a man who not only fights for justice but believes in it, and someone who believes in justice is someone who will deliver justice. And justice was what we lacked and it is up to this day what we lack. Like Martin Luther King said, “ true peace is not the absence of tension;it is the presence of justice”.
Apart from your online media activities, what other roles did you play in the anti-Jammeh struggle?
A lot. We were doing this anti-Jammeh stuff for so long, we ended up thinking that that wasn’t working, we needed something more… some people would describe it as mad or crazy. And that was taking on the dictator, entering into what people would describe as subversive activities. Taking into the extreme. We ended up meeting Sidia Bayo [from France], and he came up with NTCG. He came up with the idea to take Jammeh on or his most coveted position and that is the presidency and he Sidia Bayo was going to be the president and all he needed was a cabinet and he needed Gambians who were willing to put their names forward. We knew the consequences. He wanted to create a shadow government and tell the international community that we are indeed the legitimate government of The Gambia because Jammeh had lost his legitimacy because Gambians do not want him. It was the craziest of ideas that anybody could sell to anyone but at that time, we were doing a lot of things that weren’t working. So we gave Jammeh a 30-day ultimatum or face forcible removal. That was plain treason, you know.
Apparently that didn’t work. And there were reports that you were part of a group of people who put together a military plan including the hiring of mercenaries to overthrow Jammeh.
So at some point I went to the extreme because The Gambia mattered that much to us. What was happening [in The Gambia] was something that we could not condone. We even engaged governments, super power nations. I don’t think I would want to name them. And there was some sort of support coming in but before that I, together with other people, began working on a project.
Was that in fact working with Mahawa Cham, Saul Ndow and others to procure arms in the sub-region, smuggle into The Gambia to overthrow Jammeh? How did that plan fail leading to the deaths of Mr Ndow and Cham?
Yes, it was in that project that unfortunately, Mahawa and Saul lost their lives. We had unscrupulous elements [allegedly] like Suwandi Camara and Laww Jarju who were former Liberian mercenaries, who we hired to do the job for us but we did not know that they were double agents and they were working for the NIA. Whatever we were discussing or planning, they were telling Jammeh and others and this was how they lured Mahawa and Saul Ndow to the Casamance and they ended up killing them. I was privy to all of that. I believe there were some elements of Senegalese intelligence agents involved as well, and they just killed Mahawa and Saul. We wanted to get rid of Jammeh. We had that intention. These were desperate timesrequiring desperate measures. But we had intelligence failures. We were very much concentrating on the logistics but underestimated the intelligence. We didn’t put much effort in intelligence gathering on what these people know about what we were doing. Some days before that, Pa Nderry M’Bai [Freedom online radio] went on air telling people that Suwandi Camara and Laww Jarju were double agents for Yahya Jammeh. I called Mahawa and he said he heard it too. He contacted Laww Jarju and Laww swore by the Qur’an that that was not true. Mahawa believed Laww because he kept saying Laww was his ‘born uncle’, related to his mother. Even when this plan failed, I went for another one. I was going to deal with the British. I wasn’t going to deal with anybody that is not British or French. It was going to be British-French and that’s what we were doing. [But] 30th December happened and it derailed everything. We were trying to rebuild it but [fortuitously] 2016 happened.
How did you escape the fate of Mahawa and Saul?
It was just sheer luck. I was not destined to die. I was together with them in Senegal from I believe early March in that year but on 10thMarch my holiday finished and I had to go and on the 20thor 30th they were meant to go to the Casamance. If my holiday werea bit longer I would have been on the trip with them.
Do you have any regrets about your involvement in this matter?
No. I have no regrets. I think even Mahawa and Saul would have no regrets. For me, they were martyrs. They died for their country. And I know why they did it. They were doing it because they believed that The Gambia deserved better than Jammeh and that fact is proven today by the [revelations at the]TRRC. I lost a lot of money. Suwandi Camara and Laww Jarju defrauded me of over D400,000.00 just to try to secure the release of Mahawa and Saul because they told me that they knew where they were being detained and they could go and rescue them if I pay them a certain amount of money. They disappeared with my money. They did not do what they promised they were going to do.
There is also talk about you being one of the principal financiers of Solo Sandeng and others on their ill-fated demo in 2016.
No, that one, I wasn’t aware of and was never part of. Because I went to a point where I believed, I subscribed to the belief that you can only take Jammeh out through military force. I did not even believe that you could succeed in an election to unseat him. That was the surprise of 2016 for me.
You are a lawyer, why did you think the violent overthrow of a legally-elected president, albeit a dictator,as in the case of Jammeh,was an option?
You see, when you study law like I said taking rights seriously, there is a principle in law which says ‘lex iniusta non est lex’ (an unjust law is no law at all}. For me, the laws were so unjust in The Gambia that I found it to be lawlessness. You know in law, to even put someone in fear of their safety, we call it assault. So, I believe that Gambians were being assaulted by the whole system then, on a daily basis. As far as I was concerned, we needed some sort of a rescue. So I don’t call it violent overthrow; I saw it as a rescue of The Gambia from that violent society and lawlessness that Jammeh was running in the country at the time. As a lawyer, if you believe in people’s right, you would try everything. Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, but at some point he decided that peace was not the solution, we had to go violent. If you believe in rights, you fight for them, and you die for them because you believe that rights matter. A lot of people thought I would die by now, but I’m still here.
On a lighter note, is it true that you even composed music and songs well before Killa Ace and others denouncing the Jammeh regime?
Of course. In fact, what happened is, I realised that our message was being distorted; people were not hearing us. So I decided that the best one way to send the message to anybody is through music. Bob Marley and others used music to send message to bring peace in Jamaica. So I thought you know what, I could also use music to send a message. I bought music softwares and I started teaching myself on how to compose music. I was able to start composing my own beats, arranging and mixing them and then singing over them. I came up with a song called President Murderer, Yahya Jammeh Murderer, Gambian Murderer. This was well before the likes of Killer Ace came into the scene.
You have been one of the most active militants of the UDP in and outside of the country. Accumulatively, how much money have you personally spent in your party and in the broader efforts to remove Jammeh?
I don’t know. The reason why I am broke today is because I have spent so much of my money in the struggle. In the UDP, it is a lot of money because we were contributing every time in the UK so if I have to put a figure, at the moment I would say it’s probably more than a million dalasis in the UDP, but in the struggle itself, that is well over D10 million. Even for the Saul Ndow project, I rented a compound in Dakar where the people were staying. I rented that place for over six to seven months. We traveled a lot, too, to different places.
You are also one of the kingpins in the 3 Years Jotna movement. Now the government has announced it will not issue a permit for your 20th January planned demonstration, is it the end of the road for you?
No, I think this is the beginning. It’s always been a struggle, and the struggle is never a struggle if it is without challenges. These are challenges, but we have to overcome these challenges. I told people when I came that if I am lucky, I might live to return back to the UK. If am very, very lucky, I might not even go to prison. When I was coming, I told my wife I said, ‘you have to forgive me for all my sins because I don’t know whether I am coming back or not’. If I should start running before something even happens, I will forever leave in exile because everything the government has been saying is to scare people. And, denials of permits and all these things, these are all part of their broader agenda to stifle dissent.
What will you do now?
At the moment, we are maintaining that we will have to go out onto the streets on the 19th, quite simply because we do not think that the IGP is the law. We think that the country has laws, and those laws provided us the right to protest peacefully and we want to protest peacefully. The whole world can attest to the fact that we’ve done that before. If they want to say you cannot protest, then that is dictatorship. What can they do if we come out into the streets? They have the option to kill us, lock us up or let us go free. It’s their choice; they decide what they want to do. We have only one choice, and that is to go out.
Won’t your actions then in fact be treasonous?
It is not treasonous. I think it will be very difficult for them to convince unless if the courts pander to the caprices and the whims of the executive. If we have an impartial court system, I cannot see anyone being able to successfully prosecute us on treason charges. History is repeating itself as in the case of Darboe &Co [trial]. They will lock the 3 Years Jotna people in prison, take us to court, the Gambian system is to procrastinate the whole system so that you are held in detention indefinitely. Even if they succeed at that, they would have maybe only two years. After that, I am of the belief that the UDP will win and history will remember us for what we stood up for.
Some commentators say the whole 3 Years Jotna thing is a UDP charade in fighting a proxy war with Barrow. How true is this?
I don’t believe the UDPis behind the 3 Years Jotna. They don’t sponsor us; they don’t give us any money. The only thing is, we just all happen to share the same common belief or objective on this. It’s two groups supporting the same agenda. We both want him to honour the agreement.
Following you performance at the 3 Years Jotna, many have said you are a potential pick as a UDP leader. Do you see yourself as such?
Not when Lawyer Darboe is there. Lawyer Darboe is by far the best candidate I can ever follow. I don’t think he is a candidate that I can lead, but I can always follow. I yearn to see him as president. Even if we are to become a president in the future, we will learn so much from him as a leader, just like others learnt from Jawara. I believe that Jawara is probably the best we had. The only criticism I have of Jawara is that there was no exit plan, and that was what tainted his image as a great statesman. If he had graciously handed over to someoneelse, he would have had all the boxes ticked. Even today when we talk of self-perpetuation of our leaders, we had to think of Jawara being there for 30 years, Jammeh 22 years and that’s what we are fighting to end now because we were hoping that Barrow would be the first to serve just three and for the first time we would be able to see a leader who is content, and that would serve as a lesson to other leaders. But it looks like Barrow is another one of them, and we have to force him out, unfortunately. Being a leader is not something I want to rush into. You have to be willing to learn in order to be a good leader, but if the leader doesn’t learn, then we have a problem.
You want Darboe to be the next president of The Gambia, butif the draft constitution were voted for in the referendum, he would be ineligible to contest for the presidency.
He wouldn’t be because he was not a public official, he was a political appointee. Even though he went to prison, he was not convicted as a result of holding a public office. So he wouldn’t be banned. I think a lot of people want the UDP to get rid of Darboe, but Darboe is like our Abdoulaye Wade. I believe one thing, any other candidate against Barrow on a UDP ticket in 2021, is highly likely to lose, except Darboe. The reason being, the Gambian people might be stupid but they don’t forget too quickly. In the last election Barrow told them Darboe was his father. What is he going to tell people now? Will he go back to the people and tell them ‘he’s greedy, he is this and that’? People would say hold on here, that’s the man you said is your father. So it will be very hard. I believe that the UDP’s best chances of winning the next election is sticking to Darboe. Darboe is a unifying figure to the party. Any other person would be very divisive. Some people have their doubts about that person; and we would go into different camps which will only benefit Adama Barrow. So as long as Darboe is healthy and he is alive, I would say the UDP has no better candidate than him.
So you fear a split in your party?
I think the only time we would have a split in the UDP is say, for example, May Allah forbid that now, Lawyer Darboe passes away, dies before 2021. Lawyer Darboe said he is going to fight for UDP and he will die fighting for UDP. Anything that happens as long as he is alive, no matter what threat it is, he would make sure that that threat is neutralised.