You are born Yahya Sanyang. Where did you get the nom de guere ‘Menteng’?
Those from my village know why I am called Menteng. My stepfather, who I was named after, was a great tomato farmer, and I was told it was he who used to supply the whole Kiang Central with tomato. He was called Yahya Menteng. That’s how I got the name.
Can you talk briefly about your early childhood?
My childhood was no different from any other childhood in those days. I was very stubborn, but also, very clever.
You are seen as a hard-hitting and unapologetic politician. What makes you tick?
When I sacrificed my good job to become a National Assembly member, I knew that I was not going there to play, to be a hypocrite or to serve any master, but to serve the country. That is my motivation. I am there to serve the interest of the country and my people. I will remain committed to those ideals.
You have a track record in public service. What do you hope to change in the sixth legislature?
I have a law background, but I am more comfortable in project management. I am a civil engineer by profession, and since I came back from Taiwan in 2012, I have been working on donor-funded projects with the government of the Gambia. At the level of the National Assembly, I am the chair for project monitoring and implementation. You will agree with me that 90 percent of our loans and grants are injected or directed to projects. I would want to see a very clear procurement process as far as awarding of contracts are concerned. That is why before the National Assembly closed, my first face-to-face and mode-to-mode interaction with the minister for finance and PS was that the government was losing a lot of money under the restricted tender. Like for example there would be a particular project and the management will invite only a few contractors. The restricted tender is costing us a lot of money. This is also where people are corrupted. But if you make it more open and more competitive, more people will participate and the tendencies of corruption are minimised. I will want to see the restricted tender become a thing of the past as far as awarding of contracts is concerned. I know how this process can be manipulated, how it can be singlehandedly handled by certain individuals and they become millionaires at the expense of tax-payers. I know that very, very well… so, I will be very vigilant…
The failure of the draft has been catastrophic, even for the UDP. As a lawmaker, what steps do you intend to take to bring it back?
As an ordinary citizen, the fact that that constitution was committed to cold store, is something that deeply disturbed me. I told you in my preamble that am a civil engineer by profession. Hundred and sixty million dalasis can give us fifteen kilometers of road. If taxpayers put money together and committed 160 million to a national process thinking that it will pay dividend only for it to be thrown out at the end of the day. Instead of having that 15 kilometers of road, we committed it to a constitutional process. And during this process, there were quite a lot of wider consultations both internal and outside this country. It means that that constitution was an all-inclusive document where everybody sees themselves in. Everybody gave their opinion thinking that our National Assembly was responsible; that our National Assembly was not partisan. Unfortunately, many Gambians were disappointed; 15 kilometers of road was put aside for a constitutional process that eventually did not happen. Now I have started consultations. I serve in the human rights and constitutional matters committee [of the National Assembly], and at our level, we talk about these things. We need to get the blessings of every National Assembly member. I have started talking to everybody; either in the UDP, APRC, everybody. I tell them you are here to serve the people of this country; you are not here to serve Adama Barrow; you are not here to serve Ousainu Darboe or any party leader. We want to make sure this constitution comes back and when it does, let all vote for it. I have a law background and I know that the document is a very progressive document. No constitution can be perfect, but for the fact that they threw it away because Adama Barrow was not entitled to a third term, that was so naïve. How can National Assembly members think like that? If 15 or 20 people think that it is Adama’s divine right to rule that long. It was very unfortunate.
They said that the whole saga was a grand scheme orchestrated by the presidency.
Absolutely. I concur with you, and I re-enforce myself into your statement. This is the truth. Ministers sat in Cabinet with Adama and did not bless that constitution. That was so unfortunate. These ministers were highly educated than Adama and could have told Adama no, this document is necessary. Everything was cooked there, and then they called National Assembly members, one by one. When the bill was presented, the whole process was just a performance as the NAMs on the side of the State House were already told not to vote for the document.
You are a young man, what led to your departure from the OIC secretariat?
I left the OIC because the condition was not conducive. I was labelled as an opposition and my contract was to expire, I think April. Also, the CEO one day called me to his office and played me a recording in which I said that Adama was going to lose the election. I was so happy. I told him it’s my voice on the recording, and that I meant what I said that he was going to lose the election. Now if he wins the election, well, that is his business. But my belief was he was going to lose this election. I did not regret anything. Quite lot of people came from State House, they appealed to me to go and apologise to Adama. I said apologise to him for what? One day Adama came for a spot visit at the OIC and I was praying. After my prayers, I told him today my day is very good because the president of the republic just stood beside me. I wanted to shake hands with him, but he removed his hand from mine. That was just some level of maturity that was lacking there, but I controlled myself. He was very lucky because if he had done to me in that office what he did to Danjo in Basse, Gambians will be very surprised. I will not accept that. But thank God your hand is your hand and my hand is my hand. From that event on, if I attended any state event and Adama wants to shake hands with me, I will tell him no.
But as our head of state, he deserves your total respect. Surely you must agree.
I deserve respect. I am also a potential head of state. We are all potential heads of state. Every citizen is a potential head of state because it is only the citizens of The Gambia who are going to be presidents of this country. You are a potential head of state, I am a potential head of state. My son, Muhammed, is a potential head of state. So, being head of state does not mean that you should disrespect me. Basically, it was like that. I am an opposition, and I am committed to the principles and ideals of the UDP. This is a party I feel can salvage this country with all the terrible things that are happening. That is why I am committed to its ideals and principles being recalled. I knew that by April they will not renew my contract. They cancelled a lot of my trips, and the CEO said the directive came from State House. But nobody can suppress my freedom. No amount of intimidation or money can suppress me.
I received information that you were still being paid salary by the OIC way after you left. Is that true?
That is a joke! The circumstances under which I left the OIC, I don’t think they… in fact, they haven’t paid me some of my allowances, so for them to be paying me salary after leaving there, it’s a joke. It’s not true.
What do you think the Public Enterprise Committee should do regarding the issue of the controversial so-called security levy fee at the airport?
This is a very important question. In fact, I am sure the committee has gone very far. Myself, my committee, project monitoring and implementation I know is [involved]. GCAA is also an affiliated body of the ministry of works, and during our next face-to-face with them… I have already told the clerk to write them a letter that the project monitoring committee would want to see them. We are going to make it a very friendly conversation. We would want to know why this is happening, and where is the money going to? Is it going to a consolidated fund, or is it going to businessmen? We would want to know the procurement process; was this advertised? Was this a competitive bid where Alagie, Yaya and Sulayman can take part and we give it to the lowest and responsive bidder? We would want to know all of these things. I don’t want to pre-empt the work, but I can tell Gambians, through this interview, give us a month or so, and we will get to the bottom of the matter and will make a recommendation as far as this airport levy is concerned. The best thing they could have done is to fuse it in the ticket money. Not many travel with hard cash. This is the 21st century. People are more into e-banking. If you want people to come and pay hard money in front of a desk, in fact the tendencies of corruption are very high. The whole [issue] is senseless. That is why I want to know the motive first before it is scrapped, and where is the money going to? We will scrutinise everything and we will expose everybody and inform Gambians. Don’t worry about that.
During your heated exchange with the IGP at a National Assembly human rights committee meeting with security institutions, you described the Gambia Police Force as the most brutal in West Africa region. How can the police improve their human rights image?
Yes, it was heated. I think the IG wanted it that way. As I told you, I did not swear to the the Holy Quran for somebody to come and sit in front of me with his military or police attire and think that you can teargas me in the National Assembly. It’s unfortunate that the IG wanted it that way, and he received it that way. Now, I don’t know why all the newspapers captured that part of Ousainu where I condemned the throwing of teargas into his home. No. We talked [about] quite a lot of issues. The brutal nature of the police. I asked the IGP are you brutal? He said he is not brutal. Is your force brutal? He said his force is not brutal. Okay. That was the time I started giving examples of police brutality in this country which you don’t need to be a journalist to know that. Even today, if they go out they will be brutal. It’s lack of education, and lack of exposure. This is something I discussed with the IG, one-on-one. Bring any budget to us, and we will approve it so that your force will not misbehave again. Because if you bring your budget 2023 and we approve police training, we approve construction of good detention facilities, you don’t have excuse 2024. Do you understand? Because he talks about a lack of budget… give us a very good annual budget, a good part of which should go to training. Train your men, let them understand very well so that if we approve the budget for you in 2023, in 2024 we are not going to take it easy with you. Because now we have assumed that you have trained your men; they will be like any other police in the world, but any time they go they beat people. And let me tell you, sometimes they beat people who can beat them. Because of the uniform people respect them, but if their uniform is not on them people can beat them very seriously. And we don’t want to go into that kind of police-citizen fight. That’s why the IG was urged to make sure a good budget is brought before the National Assembly so that we approve it 2024 and he doesn’t have the chance to say no, it’s lack of education, or training.
You also exchanged barbed comments with the works minister and renegade UDP supporter Ebrima Sillah over his refusal to take an oath during a committee meeting on government projects.
It was unfortunate. Ebrima also wanted it that way, and he received it that way. And this will happen on and on. As far as procedures are there, black and white. I am a lawmaker, so anything that the law says… this is not what I said. When you come to the National Assembly as a witness, you are sworn-in. the tradition has not been activated. I don’t know why the fift legislature was quiet about something that empowers them to… that was very unfortunate. When I came to the National Assembly, my first assignment was to familiarize myself with the Standing Orders, and learned that section one or two stipulates that anybody who appears before deputies should swear. Ebrima lacks knowledge, and I think a little bit arrogant and pompous. He came with his people and he feels that he is so big he cannot be asked… what I felt so bad about the whole issue was he telling the committee he already swore to the Quran in the State House. That is like going to court and telling the judge that I cannot take oath again as I have taken one when I became minister. That was so bad of Ebrima. But he learned his mistakes. We mend fences. The man, any day he comes to the National Assembly, he will swear to the holy Quran, no doubt about that. And the good news is that all committees have started implementing this now. People can say that this is Honourable Yahya Menteng’s legacy.
During the exchange, he said that you are not a mature politician. Do you accept that?
Yeah he said that. Exactly. [Laughs]. He said I’m not mature to lead the committee. He lost it! He was angry. I told him I will call the police to come drag you out of this building. And I meant it. If Ebrima goes further to misbehave in the National Assembly I will call the police to come and drag him out. We are empowered to call our sergeant of arms to come and drag him out of that room. And if I ordered as chair of the committee, they will get him out of that room, no doubt about that. He will get the biggest disgrace of his life. He is lucky that we did not charge him with contempt. Ebrima is not a bad person actually, I think that something went wrong somewhere. But we are working hand-in-hand – my committee and his ministry.