With Alagie Manneh
As preparations for the 2022 OIC summit in The Gambia heat up, Bantaba anchor Alagie Manneh sits with the CEO of the OIC Gambia Secretariat about one of the most important gatherings in the world, touching on his childhood, education and whether the country will be ready to tick all the boxes ahead of the summit.
You have a master’s degree with distinction from the University of Cardiff in Wales, why did you choose to study population and development?
Like most people, I too went into teaching after I finished school. I taught for one and half years in 1975/76. I felt population problems are not predicated on numbers in terms of size of populations. For instance, some may say The Gambia is a small country, it doesn’t have a population problem but the fact is we have one of the biggest population problems. Also, the trajectory of development in this country is basically founded on charity. One of the motivating factors was that I wanted to communicate with the people, but I wanted a communication that will impact the lives of people. I was offered a job both at Gambia Family Planning and at ActionAid, then. I chose the former. During the course of my work, we felt we had challenges. The fertility rate was so high and this was at the core of poverty, affecting mainly women who are producers of staple food, cash crops and hardly eat enough to restore their health with frequent childbirth. I felt I needed to do something about this population problem. Development is all about quality of life. I got a UN scholarship to go to Cardiff in 1999 to study this course. I came out on top of my class.
You hailed from Salikenni but not many Gambians know you. Tell us about your heritage and the circumstances of your childhood?
I am from Salikenni, Central Baddibu in the North Bank Region. I come from the Dibba family, the traditional rulers of Baddibu, and Salikenni. I come from a household of chiefs. My father was in the line of rulers, and was a chief who reigned from 1943 – 1965 when Gambia had its independence. I attended Armitage high school and took up a job in teaching. One of my students is the current minister of Defense, Mr Sheik Omar Faye and the former mayor of KMC, Lai Conteh. I later joined the Information Department where I took up a career in communication and had several trainings locally and abroad. I rose to the ranks of producer, director. We were the pioneers of the current GRTS TV. I worked for 42 years in development before I eventually retired, and later appointed here as CEO.
You are a former teacher who have deep affinity and demonstrable interest in education, therefore given the very poor past national examination results, why is education in The Gambia in such disastrous predicament?
This is a very interesting question. In the past we didn’t have all the universities but the quality of education was high. Again, this brings us back to my philosophy about development. I have been the board chair of a high school for ten years and had to retire in the end, amid frustrations. We were faced with major challenges and especially, the backway syndrome, which affected Baddidu most and so retention in schools was a challenge, getting quality teachers, education materials etc. All these have been compounded by the population dimension – the rural urban drift. Most people felt they had to come to this area for quality education. Two-third of Gambia’s population lives in the WCR and that alone has lots of ramifications. Then came with the advent of the last government, the mushrooming of schools all over the place. That had a very serious impact on the focus on quality education. We’ve had high schools that had magnificent buildings with few pupils there. Getting the numbers was a problem. The challenge was every year we had to go for bilaterals. The major challenge is; how do we retain quality teachers? It’s a myriad of problems; retention, getting quality teachers and educational materials. More worrying is the deepening gulf I see every year between urban and rural educational system and this is actually showing in the results.
Why do you think you are best suited to run the OIC Gambia secretariat?
I have a trajectory of work in public, private and other sectors. I have had appropriate trainings, and I’ve had substantial experience in running institutions. I know the challenges of development, and have managed people both here and outside the multicultural settings. I have dealt with donors and survived on my thinking, creating ideas and selling them. In short, project development and implementation. This job is no different, although the magnitude may be bigger here but the ability to conceive, plan, implement and report are like second nature to me. I feel I am quite adequate for this job. I cannot assess myself but I believe significant progress has been registered.
Last August, former CEO Lamin Sanneh and Nyang Njie resigned reportedly owing to executive interference. Do you have all the independence and freedom you need to serve as CEO of OIC Gambia Secretariat?
That notion, whatever is being attributed to them, I think it’s preposterous, to say the least. I have been here from scratch and I have never witnessed that. Since I took over, I have all the independence to operate. I have responsibility to conceive and to share with my board. My colleagues are here. They have never seen any of those people step in here. I am not under any duress to do anything. I have a board to account to. I do not see the need. I cannot even fathom the need for executive interference here, no. They [the Barrow admin] are facilitating, and that should be their role.
Why do you think that was reportedly cited by CEO Sanneh and Nyang Njie?
People have a right to say whatever. As far as I know, since I took over, it’s been support, support, support. The executive does not interfere here.
After UN, the OIC is the biggest intergovernmental organisation in the world, therefore, why is it important for a small country like The Gambia to host what is perhaps the second biggest gathering in the globe?
The issue is not the size of the country, and I think globalisation has actually proven that. The Gambia has been thought of as an improbable nation by Berkeley Rice and others. But our former president did prove to the world that that was not the case. He felt The Gambia had something, probably even more than some bigger nations have; human resources. The Gambia was also like the paragon of hope, of peace, and started playing significant roles internationally, specifically in the OIC during the Iran/Iraq war. It was Jawara who mediated that conflict. The Rohingya issue was also one of the thorniest but a tiny little country like The Gambia was able to champion their issue. So, size for me is not important. And for The Gambia to have been chosen out of 57 countries is a badge of honour, and a mark of confidence the Ummah has in us. This is why for us at the OIC Gambia Secretariat, we do not see this project within the narrow confines of individuals or selfish interest, we see this as a legacy project. A project that will forever put The Gambia in the annals of history. We also see this as a launchpad to putting The Gambia into the 21st century. We will weather the storm. We are now at a point where The Gambia should be able to see the impact of all the efforts put on the background.
Even after your appointment, you admitted the task ahead is challenging, deepening an already genuine concern among Gambians that a project of this magnitude is not attainable in the months before the Summit. Can you honestly tell us if The Gambia will be ready to host the OIC summit?
I can tell you with all certainty now that I’m more than confident that [The] Gambia will be ready to host the summit. I can assure you that. For the five key projects, only one project has not had full funding and that is the Bertil Harding Highway. Hopefully in the next month or two, we might be able to secure the balance of funds for that too. For all the other priority projects, we have secured funding. Currently it’s just the implementation face.
Where does OIC Gambia Secretariat get its funding from?
OIC is being funded from various angles and partners. These are our traditional bilateral donors and the private sector. The Saudi Fund for Development is the one financing the VVIP at the airport; it is the one financing the 50km urban road and the expansion and strengthening project for Nawec water and electricity. The Chinese gave a grant of 50 million for the building of the conference centre. Hundred million dollars from the private sector, or PPP, public-private partnership. Basically, we have funding for most, firm commitment for others and almost finalising the rest.
When The Gambia surrendered its 2019 hosting rights to Saudi Arabia due to infrastructural deficiency, it reportedly angered Turkey and Qatar. Is the Secretariat getting the necessary support from these countries?
As a country and as a member of the Ummah, I am sorry but it’s not our business to interfere in the fraternal struggles between member states. All member states have committed themselves to helping The Gambia. We are in touch with Qatar, and with Turkey. Turkey already trained over a thousand of our security officers. We are still exploring ways and means with them. We do not have any problems with any of these member countries.
What is going to be the agenda of the 2022 Summit?
It’s a bit far-fetched. Basically is more about development but the OIC addresses all issues related to human development, just like the UN. The agenda will be set later. There’s a special committee that handles that.
Your office announced the identification of 20 new roads to be built ahead of the Summit. What will be the fate of businesses and properties suited along these roads now?
All those are aspects of our planning. All that we can do is make sure we have some mitigating factors. We have committees specifically set up to look into those things. When the time comes, we do not just tell them leave this place, no. We have already started identifying places for these people and businesses.
They said you were a closet UDP supporter who have since called a halt to politics, what are your political leanings?
I am not a card holder of any party. This is a funny question. My party has always been development.
Answer the question, what party do you have sympathy for?
I am not a political animal. I retired after 42 years of service. I have never belonged to a political party. My party has always been the Gambian people. My party is all the parties. I do not support any specific political party.
You were also a member of the Constitutional Review Commission which was at the centre of coruscating review by lawyer Lamin J Dabo and few others for giving Gambians a ‘plagiarised’ constitution. Is that true?
That’s a very progressive constitution. Whatever we put in that document was the result of a lot of research and had to look at various constitutions and collected a lot information and experiences. A huge chunk of the 1997 constitution remains intact in this draft. What we did was to fill the inadequacies and looked at some of those provisions within the 97 constitution and made them better. A constitution is defined as a consensus document. It cannot meet 100 percent the interest of everybody. That is why we are going to a referendum. You cannot have every Gambian signing off to say yes to this draft. There are those also, who criticise us for removing ‘secularism’ from the constitution, but the truth is you cannot remove something that was never there. The insertion of the word in the first place was illegal. People have right to their own opinion, but they don’t have right to all the facts.
Member states of the OIC made a resolution at the Dakar summit to reduce poverty and to reverse their charter to address the huge imbalance in wealth between rich and poor countries in the Islamic world, particularly Africa. How has that initiative fared?
It is being demonstrated now. Of course, if we make roads like that, improve electricity and water supply, if we can improve the local economy, of course we would have contributed a lot in terms of reducing poverty and bridging that gap. So, they are not only talking, they are walking the talk. I think the OIC like all other intergovernmental groupings, is really trying.
Thanks for speaking to The Standard
It’s my pleasure.