On the other side of the ring many ordinary Africans welcomed the news:
“I salute The Gambia for the decision they have made. The method may have been rushed, but the end result is effective all the same. If we consider that the Commonwealth itself may well be an undemocratic institution in which British political opinion is upheld as infallible, one wonders if The Gambia has done anything wrong. By and large, it looks like African leaders (or those who are thought to represent the interests of us ordinary Africans) have short memories. I really wonder how my own interests (and definitely those of many other Africans from the ‘former’ colonies who share the same concerns as me) are represented at the Commonwealth. Good luck Gambia,” says Kelly Inambao.
Ayanda Sigwela is pithier: “I salute The Gambia for this sober decision. I wish other African states could follow.”
As we approached the gates at State House, I asked the driver if we were there yet. “Yes madam, this is it, we are here”.
“This is it?” I asked, rather puzzled. For someone the world is meant to view as one of Africa’s most-feared and ruthless leaders, his official abode negates that persona. It may come as a surprise to many, but unlike many State Houses in Africa and beyond (and this writer has been to a few) President Yahya Jammeh’s official residence in the capital Banjul is rather nondescript.
Also interestingly, for someone many believe to be no respector of human rights, let alone those of women, what greets you on the characterless entrance into State House is a rather drab arch on which is inscribed in big green letters, the clichéd adage: “Behind every successful man, there is a successful woman.”
Fearless journalist? I didn’t feel so at this moment, as I was ushered into the waiting area, inside State House – a dowdy room with a few chairs, a coffee table and a flatscreen TV with CNN news on. Either the TV set was faulty, or State House also suffers intermittent power cuts, as in the short time I waited, the TV went off 5 times on its own, and someone kept emerging from a room next door to switch it back on.
Is he homophobic? A trigger-happy murderous dictator? Does he really care about The Gambia and what has he got to show for it? Does he really believe anybody really cares that that “little” Gambia had left the body every former colony is meant to worship?
Yes therefore, as I was ushered into his office (with minimal security may I add) and as he greeted me with a broad smile asking how New African is doing “after all these years?”, I could instinctively tell this was going to be a long hour. I felt my host was ready for me.
I reach for my bag and hand him some copies of the New African and wish him happy reading. He tells me to make myself comfortable on one of the “British royal” green chairs that deck the office, which is walled in mahogany and book-shelved with all manner of tomes. He hand-gestures for me to sit and he takes the chair next to me, clutching his trademark walking stick and prayer beads.
And truly, President Jammeh has a lot to say and prove. Sit back, delve in and join us in the world of one of Africa’s most enigmatic young leaders – he is only 48 years old. Married to Zeinab Suma and they are parents to Mariam and Muhammed.
Q | New African: To start with, your decision to withdraw Gambia’s membership of the Commonwealth is the story that everyone is talking about. Could you explain the reason behind the rather surprise decision? And why now, after 48 years of membership?
President Jammeh: First of all, I want to welcome you to The Gambia and we are very proud when we see international magazines published by Africans, and other media houses owned by Africans. I have known New African magazine for a long time, I have been reading it since I was at school. I used to read Africa Now, West Africa, and New African.
Q | Yes, we’ve been going for 46 years.
You have come a long way. I know the other magazines have since disappeared.
We believe that we are better off being on our own than joining institutions that do not want to listen to us, institutions that tell us what to do and not what we want to do. So after 48 years of independence, we have had enough of colonialism and Britain. They have not taken us anywhere but backwards, and we want to be free to be able to be ourselves.
Our theme for this year’s independence celebration is “Live according to your religion and your culture”, and therefore for us the Commonwealth is not our religion, and it’s not a culture. We want to make sure that we remain true Gambians, independent of all institutions that have anything to do with colonialism.
Q | But why now, after all these years and right after your speech at the UN General Assembly, which received very negative media coverage?
I am surprised that people believe you have to have a problem with someone first before you decide to leave that person. I don’t think so. If I have a problem with somebody, I resolve the problem. But what I’m saying is that the Commonwealth is still a colonial institution and we have decided that we are not going to subscribe to that any more.
It’s not only the Commonwealth. I am saying we are not going to be part of any institution or organisation that has that legacy [of colonialism] or that is a representation of the colonial era, because colonialism brought us nothing but poverty, backwardness, exploitation, and slavery.
In fact, we cannot in today’s age, continue to be associated with a country that was responsible for slavery in the first place. And while the Jews have been compensated and other people are being compensated, nobody is doing that for Africans. We have not even received an apology from Great Britain, which orchestrated slavery in the first place, and then brought us colonialism. Colonialism and slavery go together.
Here, under colonialism, Gambians were never trained to be scientists or doctors, and I believe that there has not been any country in Africa where during the colonial era they trained indigenous people to become either doctors or scientists. Are we not human beings like anybody else?
Q | Why do you reckon there is such a backlash against you, and by extension, the rule by African leaders by and large? Why do you feel the West is still trying to hold back the advancement of Africa.
You are a journalist who has travelled the world. Now can you tell me one African country that is well developed today, that can be compared to Dubai or any Middle Eastern country, thanks to the West or their former colonial master? My view here is: If you follow others, you can never lead. We Africans have been following others for a long time and still keep following, that’s why we are always backwards. It is high time we stopped following others to be on our own. That is my message for Africa.
Africa’s relationship with the West has seen Africa losing and the West gaining, and that will continue as long as we do not take a stand. But for me and The Gambia, we are no longer going to follow anybody else, but our religion, our culture, and our beliefs. We need to question and act on why Africa is the richest continent in terms of mineral resources, but the poorest in terms of the bank balance.
Q | Following your decision to leave the Commonwealth, should other African member-states be following suit?
I think it is in our best interest to follow only what benefits us. If you follow something that is keeping you backwards, I don’t think you are being intelligent or doing a good service for your people. Colonialism or neo-colonialism in any form should be kicked out of Africa, that is my belief because it is not bringing us anything but disgrace, humiliation, and insult.
Look. Let me not be misconstrued. What I said is very clear. We are against any institution of a neo-colonialist nature. The Gambia will not support any institution or be a member of any institution that is neo-colonialist. That doesn’t mean I’m anti any international organisations. Not at all. The reason why we have left the Commonwealth is because it is not only a neo-colonialist institution, it is also an institution that is not subject to elections. Indeed it is not subject to change any time soon and it is an institution where one person is the supreme life leader. What type of democracy is that? Do you understand?
Q | Don’t you think the British will say you are only just getting at them?
If the British think that they own the Commonwealth, then that is a good reason for us to leave. Why would they think that they own the Commonwealth?
Q | In terms of other institutions, there is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is now led by a Gambian woman who served under your government, Mrs. Fatou Bensouda. What are your views on an institution like that, which has been the butt of a lot of criticisms from many Africans, including African governments and even the African Union?
The ICC, as far as I am concerned, is not a colonialist institution; it came into being not long ago, maybe less than 10 years ago if my memory serves me right. However, as we do with many other international institutions, as we have done with the Commonwealth, we Africans are fond of jumping into these institutions very quickly. We become members at a stroke of a pen, ratify our allegiance first and then read the text later, and only then do we realise what we have got ourselves into. And usually, it’s too late.
I have warned my colleagues that we must be very careful about jumping onto one bandwagon after the other. We jump into every bus without knowing the destination. And then when the [driver] stops in hell and asks the Africans to drop off, we find ourselves asking; why are we here? We have accepted everything created by the West without even questioning anything.
But coming back to the ICC, and speaking as an African, not just a Gambian and a Muslim, don’t forget that the African continent constitutes the largest bloc in the ICC and it is on the back of this African bloc that the ICC rose to its feet very quickly. I made it very clear from the outset that before we accepted and made a resolution on the ICC, we have to understand what it was for, because we have burnt our fingers on several occasions before. But everybody said the work of the ICC was very clear.
Then came the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Some African leaders were for and others were against the indictment of a sitting African president without even informing the AU. Who can indict a European president or prime minister without informing the European Union? This was an insult.
And then they said the indictment came as a result of the UN Security Council to which Africa is not a permanent member.
Be aware that there are two ways of getting somebody to stand trial at the ICC: either by an individual country referring the accused or the case may be filed by the Security Council. Now when I hear my colleagues complain about the ICC, I feel ashamed because, apart from the case of President Bashir, all the other cases before the ICC were referred by African governments themselves. Do you understand?
For example, the cases in Kenya, the case in Côte d’Ivoire of former President Laurent Gbagbo who was not arrested by the ICC, but by his own people, their own government, and handed over to the ICC. As far as I know, there is not a single case, apart from that of President Bashir, which an African government didn’t refer voluntarily to the ICC. Then we turn around and say the ICC is racist and is targetting only Africans. If it is only Africans, no one else, referring cases to the ICC, we cannot blame that Court for trying only Africans. If Africa does not want the ICC to treat African cases, then don’t refer cases to the ICC.
Q | You don’t therefore at all agree with the notion that the ICC targets Africans because Africans actively chose to refer cases to the ICC out of their own free will?
I do not agree and I will never agree to it [that the ICC targets Africans]. I have made it very clear that if we Africans have a problem among ourselves, in fact it is very shameful that, instead of being brave and putting it before the AU and letting our continental body sort it out, we want to use international institutions to solve our problems.
Q | So you must be very proud of what Mrs. Bensouda is doing at the ICC?
She is an international civil servant. I am proud not because she is a Gambian, I am proud because she is an African woman. This was a post that initially was not meant for Africans, but today if Africans head an institution I think we should work with the institution. I am not defending the ICC but I am defending the truth.
Q | Turning to The Gambia, under your leadership, your country gets a lot of bad press. Rarely do we read about the developmental changes that have happened under you leadership. It’s my first visit here and I have learnt from ordinary people I have been speaking to on the streets how a few years ago there was no university in The Gambia, and there was no television. What have you done since you came to power in 1994?
Yes, a few years ago there was no university here. And that is part of the reasons why we have left the Commonwealth. The British were here in The Gambia for 400 years, and in that time they built only one high school.
Q | Really?
Yes, in 400 years the British built only one high school; then there were 30 years of the so-called independence (under president Dawda Jawara, whom Yahya Jammeh deposed in a bloodless coup in 1994), with no university, no high school; [and] yes, the post-independence government never built a single high school, a single hospital, in the 30 years it was in power. Do you understand? Even the British-built high school, called Armitage High School (established by colonial governor Cecil Hamilton Armitage in 1927), was for the children of traditional rulers in order to appease them and that was the only high school they built in 400 years of occupation!
So let us do the mathematics: if one high school was built in 400 years, how many years would it have taken us to add a college or a university? Nearly a billion years?
Therefore, when you listen to the tone of the BBC, saying we didn’t tell anybody about our decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, you wonder. What they are saying is that we should have taken permission from somebody, after informing them ahead of time, and they would have advised us whether or not to withdraw or not to leave the Commonwealth.
And it’s not only about The Gambia. They want every African government or leader to do the same. Consult the West before we do anything. Well, that time is long past. We don’t want to be anybody’s servant.
Now they are telling everyone how The Gambia was benefiting from the Commonwealth, though they won’t say by how much. But let me tell you the true story about how much The Gambia was putting into the Commonwealth annually, compared to what we got from the Commonwealth. It didn’t balance.
If I have to give, say, $8m annually to an institution that belongs to both of us, and I get less than $1m back annually, who is benefiting and who is losing?
Let them be. And from now on we shall do what is right according to our norms, culture and religion. And we shall leave them to practise what is right according to their norms, culture and religion.
Q | On the issue of good governance, your political opponents and the Western media say you are a dictator and you abuse human rights including homosexual rights. Why should they say otherwise?
Oh yes, I am a dictator of development, a dictator of progress, and a dictator that will not be dictated to by outsiders. But in The Gambia I am a servant of the people. We have come a long way, we still have a long way to go, but we have depended only on God and other countries that recognise that we are human beings and that we are an independent and sovereign country.
And we shall not accept any British person telling us what to do, or that homosexuality is a human right and therefore we should legalise it here in The Gambia. Well, if they want their countries to be led by homosexuals, that is their business, but not in The Gambia. So if they think it is right, let them practise it there, but not here in The Gambia, do you understand?
On governance, when did Africans participate in elections in the colonial era? It seems the idea of human rights, freedom and good governance never applied to their colonial subjects.
Q | Your stance is sure to affect the level of international funding you get, do you realise that?
What funding? Now show me one African country that has developed today thanks to the West, tell me.
About 99% of the infrastructural projects here have been built from our own national resources. Yes, we have built this infrastructure. We have built this country from the Stone Age. If you look at The Gambia divided into two by the River Gambia, the north bank of the river never had a highway until we came into office. Today the north bank has the best highway in the country. Let me tell you one thing, but I don’t know whether I should tell you this.
You know that 75% of rural Gambia is electrified, and 90% of rural Gambia has potable water. No, they will not want the world to hear about that.
Q | But why so? You are increasingly accused of human rights violations, being homophobic, and executing political opponents and journalists. We hear more about these things, not about potable water and the electrification of rural Gambia. We know bad news sells, but how do you react to such strong sentiments?
Nobody is saying anything about the Gambian people who were murdered by the murderers we executed. Now if they have abolished the death penalty [in the West], that doesn’t mean that they should impose it on The Gambia or the developing world. They hanged people right here in Africa during the colonial era.
Do you know that you will never read any history of Africa where the kings ordered somebody to be hanged. The idea of the death penalty by hanging was brought to Africa by the colonialists.
Before colonialism, offenders paid in kind, there wasn’t anything like policing. The only time somebody was killed was when different kingdoms fought against each other. The idea of policing and prison was non-existent here in Africa.
Now the colonialists who brought the harsh prison regimes want to lecture us about human rights.
What could be more cruel than capturing Africans, packing them like sardines in a boat, like cargo, and taking them for auctioning in America, and then letting them live like dogs while working under harsh conditions for the white man, for hundreds of years! And at the end of it all, Africa does not get as much as an apology for the inhumanity and suffering and the sheer trauma imposed on us by the USA and the European slaving nations. After looting the whole continent and killing so many people [they] still fail to give any apology whatsoever! How can they be teachers of democracy and human rights to Africa?
But they will argue that, that was a long time ago. It was their ancestors who did it, not the current generation.
Five years is a long time, in The Gambia we see changes, positive changes, every three months. So I will tell you that if you come back to The Gambia in one year’s time, you will see something different, you will see more advancement. In the next five years we want The Gambia to be one of the leading economies in the entire world, not only in Africa. Yes, in five years we want to see a Gambia where only the most extreme medical conditions are sent abroad for treatment, where the literacy rate has improved tremendously, where we have more university students, where education is free.
Q | That is monumental for a country that is not so rich in natural resources. In fact, some media reports say The Gambia’s success actually depends on foreign aid, how do you react to that?
Those who say The Gambia has been built on foreign aid, let them show you one infrastructure here that was built with foreign aid. They have never given me a respite, they have been attacking me all the time because of my stance on important issues, which will never change, and then they go ahead and report that The Gambia’s success story is due to foreign aid. Foreign aid from which Western country?
We are not dependent on foreign aid, and I don’t think if we were dependent on foreign aid for our livelihood I would be taking the decisions I take. I wouldn’t be able to follow this position of complete independence. I am fighting for the dignity of the African wherever he or she is, and defending my religious belief. If we are dependent on foreign aid, to be where we are, let them tell the whole world who gave us that aid. Because the West is shamelessly brave about taking credit for other people’s efforts, let them tell us what they built for us in The Gambia for all those years that they were here.
Q | It is interesting that the country, as you say, is not dependent on foreign aid at a time when much of Africa is so dependent on foreign aid though.
I always tell my colleagues and even Gambians that if anybody in Africa believes that the same colonialists of old, will come and develop their countries, they are big fools. In the case of The Gambia, they were here for 400 years and all they did was to take away our resources.
They took and took from us, and sold our land. The Gambia was much bigger than what it is today. It was a land of great elephants. I bought a map of The Gambia published in 1578 and discovered that one of the main reasons why the British came here was the trade in ivory. And then in 400 years of British occupation and exploitation, the last elephant was shot in 1958. The hill is still there on the River Gambia, they killed all the elephants and all the rhinos in this country. They depleted our wildlife, and at the time of independence The Gambia that used to be an elephant was handed over to the natives in the form of a snake.
If you look at The Gambia today, do you wonder why the map is in straight lines? For example, from the edge of the River Gambia to the border with Senegal is 25 miles, and you know why? It is because that was the range of their cannons.
So you look at The Gambia today at any point, and measure the distance, where the river meanders and twists and turns, you can see that they used a calliper or whatever instrument to follow the river, but the distance to the Senegalese border remains the same. Up to today the British will not tell us what agreement led to the reduction of our land, how we lost our land. So when we are talking about development and they say “Oh, The Gambia is dependent on foreign aid”, I say foreign aid from whom?
Q | The Gambia has unexploited oil resources, doesn’t it?
Of course, that is why I don’t think that any African country can be told it has no natural resources. In the Gambia we have minerals and oil resources that we have not started exploiting. One of the crimes I am supposed to have committed is to say we are not going to accept 5% from our petroleum resources, and the rest going to the foreign oil companies exploiting our resources.
But they tell me that other African countries have accepted the 5%, and in fact they told me that no African country, except three, get more than 3% from their minerals. So if other African countries have accepted that ridiculously low percentage, then you must be in the wrong not to accept the same ludicrous deal. To me, any talk of 3% or 5% royalties to exploit our resources is an insult.
So, they expect me to have diamonds in the Gambia and go to my people and tell them, “Oh, don’t worry we are getting only 5% of what God has given us, and a western company is getting 95%.” No, I can’t say that. And so, this is the crime I am supposed to have committed.
But if you look at Dubai in 1990 and the Dubai of today, and the Qatar of today, both countries are completely changed. But look at some of the oil-producing countries in Africa, I won’t name them, it’s a sad story. The irony is that African countries are the richest in mineral resources, but our citizens are the poorest in the world. This state of affairs must change.
I will tell you a story. Somebody told me, “Oh, little Gambia I will give you $400m a year, but that’s too much for a small country”. I said, “Are you going to give it to me for free?” He said, “No of course, the oil”. I said, “You want to exploit our oil, and you tell me that giving us $400m a year is too much for The Gambia?”
The surveys already carried out show that this country has maybe four or five billion barrels of oil and they want to give us only $400m, by a calculation of 5% royalty, and even that they say is too much for The Gambia. And who is he to tell us that?
The oil belongs to the Gambian people, but he thought he was doing me a favour. I told him to go to hell. He didn’t like it, but I told him that if he ever set his foot on Gambian soil again, he would regret it.
Q | So where do African solutions lie in terms of making sure that the monetary value of these natural resources remains with Africans, ordinary Africans in particular?
With regards to natural resources, the solution lies in African leadership. There are some leaders who really fight for their people, but there are also those who just say yes sir, yes sir to foreign powers. These are the type of leaders we never hear being criticised by the Western media. These are their people! And they come to preach to us about democracy. Democracy, is it a 21st-century invention? No, it’s not! You come from Zambia, don’t you?
Yes, I come from Zambia, the copper rich country.
When I was in Form 5, our geography lessons talked about copper in Zambia and our Sierra Leonean teacher, Mr. Camara, would tell us how the copper in Zambia was one of the most expensive metals in the world. And since then, up to today, Zambia has been the largest producer of copper in Africa, but is there much to show for it?
Q | You talked about the royalties being 3% to 5%.
Yes, and I know, that tells a lot. But as a leader, you have to be brave enough to say, “I’m not going to accept this.” For me in The Gambia, I have made that very clear.
They have cited to me all the countries that accept 3% or less for natural resource royalties, and I said that is not for The Gambia. So my only crime is standing up to them and saying I am going to defend Africa. They can call me any name they want, they can pay Gambians or other people to criticise me, I don’t give a damn! What I care about is the welfare of my people, the dignity of my people. Unfortunately, the British sold the greater part of our country, for the elephant they met in 1578 and they turned The Gambia into the small snake it is today.
But The Gambia will never be enslaved again or colonised again. That is never going to happen again, and I wish my colleagues in Africa would also stand up and ensure that their countries are not enslaved or colonised again.
It may not be physical colonisation, but it can be for example in the exploitation of our mineral resources of which I find the deals they offer us insulting. And if you stand up to them, they turn against you and call you a dictator.
But it is better to fight for the rights of your people and be called a dictator than being a puppet that they will discard when they don’t have any need of you anymore.
Remember the Zairean leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was at one time the most important ally of the USA and the West in Africa, and how he was used to prolonging apartheid in South Africa. Mobutu was the bastion of all the anti-African elements that supported apartheid, and sponsored by the West. South Africa was free to use Zaire to attack countries like Zambia and Tanzania, that supported and hosted the African freedom fighters.
Mobutu was the most important ally of the West and when he outlived his usefulness, they sent another of their so-called leaders to kick him out. In the end, they called Mobutu a dictator, and when he died, just four people buried him in Morocco. Why don’t we Africans learn lessons from that? If they could betray their staunch ally Mobutu, who served them so faithfully to the detriment of his own country and people, who is safe in their hands?
Q | So you have a real problem with deals being offered to exploit Gambia’s oil?
Of course I do. We African leaders deprive our people from benefiting from their God-given resources because we accept ridiculous deals that prevent us from earning enough to improve the lives of our people. This is the problem. Because if they come and give you 5% and tell you how much the president is going to get, we agree. But the oil resources do not belong to the president, but to the people. So I will not accept 10% on behalf of the Gambian people. If I did, how would I explain to them that we have 10% and the foreigners have taken 90%? [scoffs]. Why would they want me to accept 5% for 35 years, do you understand?
Unfortunately for most of us, when we want to become president, we promise a lot to our people once we become president, we turn around and believe that the West is god, [thinking] if I don’t please the West, we will not rule for a long time. And as long as Africans turn their backs on the real God and their own people, this status quo will continue, unfortunately.
Q | How would the question of living in a so-called globalised world come in then, a globalised world where you have to work with partners and foreign investors to help develop the natural resources of your country?
Well, globalisation doesn’t mean we have to give away our natural resources for a song. No. And I am not saying that all companies are bad, but we have to make choices. This is where being truly independent is very important, and working with countries who have moral values, who know that this wealth belongs to Africa. We have heard many times about how China just gives to African dictators without regard to their human rights record.
I was going to come to that.
But then the same Western countries turn around and accept the same Chinese capital investment. If the Chinese should pull out their capital investments in the USA today, the American capital markets would collapse. But they think Africans are stupid. No! We are not.
The advent of China in Africa has given the Africans the latitude to choose who they want to work with. And this is a threat to the West, to their hedge funds and so forth, so they will do anything to discredit China.
Today, we also have the Gulf states, we have Asia and the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], but what is more important is to work with whoever has a conscience. I am not saying that all the Western countries are vampires, there are people and countries there who have a conscience, who have always stood up for African interests, but they are very few. But importantly, let us take control of our countries, our resources, and then from there we will decide who we want to work with.
Q | Another problem is the low prices that Africa gets for its resources, isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s like you having a herd of cattle, and there is only one buyer in the village who is always fixing the price, take it or leave it and if the butcher is wealthier than the owner of the herd of cattle, where he is buying the cattle from, then there is a problem, which is what is happening with African resources.
Take for example crops such as cocoa or coffee, the companies that buy coffee from Africa are wealthier than all the African coffee producing countries put together and they are buying their coffee and cocoa beans from Africa. What does it take you to turn a bean into drinkable coffee? It’s just roasting. So I spend all day working on the farm, harvesting the coffee beans, washing them, drying them, and then they come and say I will buy your coffee at so-and-so dollars, that is the world market price. So the buyers of African raw materials are always wealthier than the African producers of raw materials, and the status quo doesn’t seem to change.
Q | As I was being driven in, I saw the arch and the inscription on it says “Behind every successful man, there is a woman”. So how is the issue of gender parity in The Gambia?
This vocabulary – gender – is new. During the colonial era nobody talked about gender parity in Africa. They really thought the matter was not a factor in Africa. In The Gambia, we do not see ourselves, man or woman, as adversaries or opponents or competitors.
We don’t see ourselves as half beings that need another half to make ourselves whole. In the Gambia no decision is taken, even in the villages, without the participation and consent of the wife. That has always been there, and unfortunately today they will tell you the African woman is disenfranchised, that she is not empowered, and has no access to land and so forth. But for The Gambia the issue of gender is not an issue, it has never been, and it will never be.
I have the longest serving vice president in the world, and she is a woman. She is not there because I wanted to please anybody. In this country one’s gender doesn’t matter, what matters is your willingness and patriotism to work for and help develop your country, it’s not a gender issue.
Q | How would you sell the Gambian story, to counter the negativity and bad press that the country and your government gets outside its borders?
I put my faith in the Almighty Allah and as long as I know that what I am doing is right, I fear nothing. I am used to this negativity from 1994 to date, but would that make me back down from my stance to defend Africa, to defend our interests and our independence? No. I will never back down. A Gambian proverb says an enemy is an enemy, and even if you dance in the water he is still going to complain that you are raising a lot of dust and making him cough.
Q | Finally, I know that agriculture is a passion of yours, do we see Africa’s future in an agricultural revolution, and why are you so passionate about agriculture?
I am a natural-born farmer. In my family, from my age upwards only two of us have been to school, the rest have always been farmers, so farming is in my blood. But I can’t believe that after all the arable land we have in Africa and the conducive environmental condition for agricultural production available in Africa, the continent is still a net importer of food such as rice. This is very, very alarming.
So the future of Africa and our independence will depend on our ability to feed yourselves. A prosperous and healthier Africa will depend on Africa’s ability to produce its own food.
Lack of food is becoming a deadlier weapon than anything else. For example, The Gambia is not an industrialised country, but we see children born with deformities that are horrifying, that are synonymous with highly industrialised polluted countries, yet Gambia is not a polluted country. So that can only be attributed to what we eat. And so the only guarantee of good health is our ability to produce what we eat.
Agriculture is very important and that is why I believe in leading by example. And I want to change the notion in this country that if you are a farmer, you are a social failure and that is why you are farming. Yet in most parts of the world the richest people are farmers. So I want to remove that stigmatisation.
Q | Can I comment on the Zimbabwean example, where the white farmers were commercial farmers while the rest of the farming population produced largely on a subsistence level, so, that’s not what you envision.
No, not at all. That is the problem we have in Gambian agriculture too, and it is something we want to change. Agriculture is not sustainable at the subsistence level because not all of us are farmers or can be farmers. So if we encourage subsistence agriculture, we are encouraging importation.
If I grow what I need to eat, then what about the one who is not a farmer who lives in the urban area where there is no farmland? So, let us move away from subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture.
In fact my policy is commercial agriculture, I want to mechanise it and make it attractive for young people to get into farming and agro-processing. You cannot be independent if you don’t grow your own food. So let’s stop being net importers of food and become net exporters.
Nothing is more pleasant for me, apart from praying than having a long day’s hard work on the farm.
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