Tuesday, March 21

Party politicking is a process that continues – Lawyer Darbo

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With Musa S. Sheriff

 Lawyer Ousainou NM Darboe is a veteran Human Rights lawyer in The Gambia and a longtime leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP). He ran against former president Yahya AJJ Jammeh on four occasions but lost to the incumbent. 

In 2016 just before the presidential election was held, he and a few of his colleagues were arrested and detained by the Jammeh regime. However, a coalition of political parties set up to contest against former President Yahya AJJ Jammeh, and the coalition won the election, and Adama Barrow, who until being endorsed as a flag bearer of the coalition was an active member of the UDP, was elected as president. 

Lawyer Darboe then served as Foreign Minister and later as Vice President before he fell out with Barrow and was subsequently fired. The Voice’s Editor-in-Chief Musa Sheriff, in this edition of Guest of The Week exclusively has one-on-one chat with him about his time in government as well as his legal career. Below is the excerpt:

The Voice: Your Excellency, you’re one of the finest Gambian lawyers; I can say you’re one of the celebrated Gambian lawyers. How was it in 1973 to be the first Mandinka to be called to the Bar?

Hon Lawyer Darboe: I think it was a history-making event, to be the first provincial-born and first Mandinka. It was breaking the tradition, what I will call the tradition; because before then, lawyers hailed from Banjul, initially, it was what we now call the Akus and then the Wolofs came in. It continued to be so until 1973; when I think by the Grace of God there was a breakaway from the tradition and ‘Alhamdulillah’ today, there are several other Mandinka men and women who are in this honorable profession and I am glad that I was the pioneer.

The Voice: What were the challenges in those days?

Hon Lawyer Darboe: The challenge, let me say for me, was when I went to study law again not in the traditional institutions. But I studied law first, the first Gambian really to study law in Africa. The tradition was to go to the Inns of Court. You go to university in the UK and take a degree in Law and then proceed to one of the Inns of Court. But that was not with me, I went to the University of Lagos, one of the premier universities of Africa and of course, the law then was that you have to be a member of one of the honorable Inns of Court to be enrolled as a Barrister in this country and Solicitor. But then that law, again thanks to God, was changed. It was not only changed in Gambia here but also in Nigeria. The law was also changed there because you couldn’t be admitted to the practice as a Barrister and Solicitor of Nigeria unless you were a Nigerian but then God was on my side and both countries changed their laws to admit me, to make provision for me and many people are now benefiting from that.

The Voice:  In 1981 you were one of the only Gambia Human Rights Lawyers after the coup and you stepped in there to defend innocent people, how was it like for you at the time?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: I think it was challenging and it was an honour too. I was not the only Gambia Human Rights Lawyer; I had my group from my big brother Mr. Antouman Gaye and I think one particular Judge of the Court of Appeal called it ‘The Firm’, referring to me and Antouman Gaye as ‘The Firm’. But then you know we were offering our services to the indigent people, to the underprivileged with others, other lawyers took part in the defense of those people who were charged for various offenses. But then I had the greatest chunk of it because I was with them from the review tribunals up to the trial stages in the absence of what we now called the Human Rights Commission. We were not a commission as such, but then we went into the court to assert the rights of those who we felt were wronged.

The Voice:  You were not only focusing on human rights issues. Here you were advising a lot of companies and even government agencies in those days when you were very active. What was it like?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe:  Well again, it was a great privilege and I was honoured to have earned the confidence of especially many of the institutions that made use of my services. It was a great honour and it was the hey days of my practice and I enjoyed it. And I want to say that the various heads of institutions then, I had a good relationship with them and whenever we met, sometimes, we reminisced about those days. I set up Gamtel to be incorporated because it was not a statutory corporation. 

I managed and arranged for the transfer of the assets of the then Cable and Wireless to Gamtel and I am happy that an institution that I had something to do with turned out to be one of the best in the country and continues to give the needed services to the Gambian people. Now and again when I meet with former Managing Director Bakary Njie, we talk about the old days of Gamtel compared with what it is now. But hopefully, it will regain its glory, but I don’t think its glory is lost; I think probably it’s just temporarily been hidden but it is certainly not lost.

The Voice:  How was the Case of Casio when you defended Dumo Saho, Yabo, Lieutenant Jaiteh, and others, how was that case because that was a coup plot case and it was dragging on and you stepped in and were able to free everybody, Dumo, and others?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe:  I enjoy the practice of criminal law. Dumo Saho was the one who sought my services. Dumo’s relations are very close to me; his niece is my secretary and so when really, Dumo was accused of trying to overthrow the government, my family and friends were concerned because we knew that he was a very vibrant social worker. He had an NGO here, which was really offering a lot of good services to Gambian people and you couldn’t just think that he really would get himself involved in an attempt to overthrow the government. So I was asked by the family to defend him and I happily did so. But after two appearances as a gentleman from Baddibu Salikeni, he didn’t have any representation, and I just announced to the court that I will defend him gratis and Alhamdulillah, none of the persons accused in that case were found guilty. 

We had a very upright Judge, Belgore; a very fair Judge who decided cases on merits and never listened to the Executive. He did what was right. And he had no choice because he’d come from a family of lawyers in Nigeria with a high reputation and he could not afford to tarnish the reputation of that family. His brother became the Chief Justice of Nigeria. These are people who’ve got a pedigree that they have nothing other than what the evidence discloses. That is what they have to abide by. And maybe you recall that their key witness, Francisco… I have never seen a man so dubious in life, a man who could lie, a man who could be unwilling to speak the truth as him. Can you imagine, he cannot even remember his birthday (laughs), and you claim to be a highly placed security person? Can you imagine (he) cannot even remember the day you were (he was) enrolled in services? I mean it was ridiculous, they just made up stories. 

The Voice:  Looking at our Judiciary system and the Human Rights system, how do you see the past six years? Are we operating on track or are we falling back?

Hon Lawyer Darboe: Well I think we have gone a long way from what was obtained in the Jammeh era at least. Let me just say this. Every government does something to suppress rights whether consciously or unconsciously. That happens everywhere. We are lucky that we have a National Human Rights Commission, a Watchdog that speaks out when there are violations of the rights of individuals; looking forward to having maybe not completely a human rights court but then a Judge that will be assigned to deal with human rights cases and that particular Judge ‘am sure will make it his/her duty to read every literature on human rights issues. Important cases on human rights, decisions of the European court of human rights, the African court of human rights, and so forth. It cannot be imagined what we have gone through, applications will be made for permits to hold demonstrations and this government will deny that. That is unthinkable because after all, grounds were that liberties of the individual, personal liberties, which are freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, must be allowed to be enjoyed; of course subject to other laws. But I think the government’s stance on trying to restrict the exercise of rights is tainting its image. And when you have two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten denials, that incremental tainting of this character of the government is what expends to be a dictator. This is what the government should avoid because there is no reason why anyone should be deprived of his rights. President Barrow, as a member of our Executive, the national UDP Executive, has always said that it is wrong for the Government of The Gambia to insist on any political party having a permit before holding a meeting. Our position on that became harder when Femi Peters was convicted of holding or organizing a political rally without a permit. We all spoke against it including President Adama Barrow and it is now an irony that he heads a government that does not want to give permits.

The Voice:  You served as a Foreign Minister and as Vice President, what were the challenges?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Well first as a Foreign Minister, the challenges were really how to launder the Gambia because we are very dirty (laughs). Let’s convince the world that we are coming back fully into the community of decent nations. We embrace democratic values we’ll just abide by those things and I started by inviting all Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Honorary Consuls to a meeting to assure them of the government’s preparedness, willingness to come back into the fold of nations and I promised them that what President Jammeh had voiced out, the withdrawal of The Gambia from the ICC, that decision we are going to rescind it and also we are going to re-apply to the Commonwealth to be readmitted to the Commonwealth nations. And as far as relations with other countries, particularly Senegal, we are going to put it on a friendly basis because Senegal and The Gambia cannot afford to be at loggerheads. We believe we are one family and we must as two separate nations all work together for our mutual benefit. Senegal should be very pivotal in Gambia’s foreign policy and we thought that we should make sure that our relationship with Senegal is smoothened. 

And of course, we can do so and one of the ways we can do so really is to make sure that the rebel activities that are taking place in the Casamance Province are not supported or encouraged by the Government of The Gambia. My stint as Vice President was short; it was I think about six months or so. But also the satellite institutions that are under the Vice Presidency got what they wanted in terms of funding ability. The then newly created Ministry for Women’s Affairs…I had to go for bilateral instead of my partner, to make sure that they get the funds they want, they get it to set up that institution. Sometimes really, because of budget constraints, it is difficult to get some of the things like the Women’s Enterprise Fund. The Gambia Government had to have counterpart funding through contribution and I had to put a lot of pressure on Mamburay who cooperated really to make sure that the funds were available because if we missed it that year, we’ll not benefit until the next budgetary session. 

So we had to push; it was difficult but then having got Cabinet approval, we had to push for the funds to be allocated.

The Voice:  There is this one misconception by Gambians that during your tenure in office as Foreign Minister that was when The Gambia signed documents to deport Gambian asylum seekers in Europe. Was that during your time in the office?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: During my time as Foreign Minister, there was no discussion of any agreement between the Gambia and any other foreign country or between The Gambia and any other congregation or union of countries, the EU or otherwise for the deportation of Gambian nationals, there was never such an agreement. I have never signed any such agreement and I do not think during the time that I was in government, such agreement was signed. None was signed to my knowledge, but then this was politics so however you stain and however you can make your opponent unpopular, you can do so. 

But I have always asked them that let those who claimed that I signed anything if they’ll make available the document I signed. And I tell you, Mr. Sheriff, if any such document had been signed by me, the current government would produce it to tell the Gambian people that he is the bad one; they even accused Mai Fatty.

The Voice:  Gambia is going through a lot of challenges; the economy is a big problem in this country now. We don’t know where we are heading with our economy. The unemployment rate is growing daily. More students are graduating from the university, MDI, GTTI you can name it; even The Gambia College, the teachers are graduating. What do you think can be done to change this country for the better?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Really, my feeling has been that you have to plan for your manpower needs. Currently this academic year, it is my view that for those who are in grade one, you start planning; give allowance for those who will make it up to the university level. You don’t just attend to issues ad hoc; you have to have well-laid-out plans. This is what we have in our five-point agenda that we have to have in place that will absorb our young people into various spheres of employment. That is why we say we want to have at least ten skill centres throughout the country that will train Gambians in various trades; either in Engineering, Mechanical engineering, electricians, plumbers, masons so forth. It should not be lip service. To achieve this, your budget allocations should reflect the genuineness of your pronouncements. You cannot be saying you want to give priority to education when funding for education is far less than what is required. What can you give to agriculture? There has not been any attempt by the government to attain the Maputo Declaration or Maputo’s commitment of having ten percent of the national budget and allocating it to agriculture. What is happening is the non-productive or areas that do not need big funding are the ones that are taking a big chunk of our budget. What does the President’s office do? The Speaker of the National Assembly, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, the National Assembly itself; what is there that they do that warrants such unjustified allocations to them? One of the things is that maybe the ministers of finance think that if they give big allocations to the President’s Office that will make them look better, make them be ‘good boys’. I agree that the President’s Office should have a budget that will help keep the dignity of that office.

The Voice:  There is this issue with the Audit Report and other findings on the Government and other institutions. What is your party doing in Parliament to push that some of these findings; in the document be implemented to the letter and for those corrupt officials prosecuted?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: The Minority Leader is the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee and of course, the stand of our National Assembly members, which aligns with the stand of the National Executive of the UDP and by extension the general membership of the UDP is that the findings of the Auditor-General must be implemented fully. But you do hear when he makes statements when our people make statements at the National Assembly, people say that look, this is not politics. What is not politics? Because you’re belonging to the minority, if you raise your voice on any issue, it’s been considered as being politically motivated. We don’t care for anybody to think that what we say is politically motivated; we don’t care about that. What we care about is the interest of the Gambian people. We cannot allow the meager resources of this country to be plundered by a few selfish individuals and then for them to go scot-free. That we just keep quiet about it because if we speak against it, people will be against us; let them be against us! History will be supporting us and that is what our approach is and we’ll press for the prosecution of people who are recommended for prosecution. If the Government doesn’t do it, probably we’ll ask for legal advice on how to go about it but I hope that the Minister of Justice will not sit back and watch the recommendations of the Auditor-General to be collecting dust in the offices. Gambia’s ranking by Transparency International is shameful! I mean we should be having our heads down and I think really, we should be doing every effort even if the government thinks that that is wrong; there must be some element of truth in it if not one hundred percent. So President Barrow should just call up his people and say look, we cannot allow the good reputation of this country to be tarnished by people who hold office and make these offices their ground for making money, we cannot allow that.

The Voice:  You came from congress last year and you brought in some new faces into the Executive. What is holding you up now from addressing some of these issues, are they denying you a permit?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Well we just came out of congress and of course, we do not have to hold rallies to say this because I think we have been talking about these things whenever the opportunity arises. And we’ll continue talking about them… rallies are good but sometimes engagements like this could be more fruitful and we certainly are prepared ourselves for the Local Government elections. During the campaign for the Local Government elections, these are issues we’ll be telling the people; you cannot entrust the local government administration to a government that had been shown internationally to be encouraging corruption in the country; we certainly cannot. We’ll question the willingness of the government because they say they want to appoint Governors because they want to control Councils so that the corruption you have at the Central Government level can sip down to the local government authorities and the Gambian people will never allow that. That is opening another avenue for corruption. You want them to do things that do not align with accepted practices and procedures just to satisfy your political desires. 

You cannot… that will be the last straw that will kill this country. Everything in the country is horrible. I told you that I incorporated Gamtel. In the heyday of Gamtel, Gamtel was very liquid, very very liquid. Mr. Jammeh plundered the resources of Gambia, and the finances of Gamtel, and when Mr. Barrow came in, instead of trying to make sure that Gamtel/Gamcel comes up, it is going down. You hear things that are very… (laughs) very surprising. So, there is no effort being made to put this country on track, every effort is being made to derail the progress of this country.

The Voice:  Your party just recently launched a meeting of Diplomatic Missions discussing issues, what‘s this all about?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Any government that is waiting must act like a government. We have to engage the Diplomatic Community to tell them our vision of how Gambia’s relations with the outside world should be, but also what we would want to do because foreign policy is also a reflection of our domestic policy, what we want to do internally. What we want to do concerning agriculture, the fight against poverty, the fight against Aids. These might be domestic issues, but they also have a global dimension. So we have to have conversations with the Diplomatic Missions to put them into the   know as to what our policies are. I think very soon we’ll also be engaging international partners like UNDP; we’ll be talking to them about what our views are on the use of development funds. We’ll be talking to the IMF Resident Rep as well as the World Bank. Our economists will be talking to them and we’ll give them our ideas as to how the economy of this country should be made to turn around; how to curb wastage, and what proper budgets to present. Our Secretary responsible for agriculture should be having engagements with the Minister for Agriculture, but the Minister for Agriculture wouldn’t want to talk to our Admin Secretary for Agriculture because they think that opposition we’re not going to have anything to do with them, which is wrong. If it was a Parliamentary type of government, you’ll have a shadow cabinet and that shadow cabinet in the National Assembly will be taking on the agriculture Minister. The shadow Minister of Finance will be taking on the Minister of Finance. 

The Voice:  We have seen that ECOMIG has extended their term to stay for one year; do you think that is justifiable for ECOMIG to still be in The Gambia?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Well I don’t know what informed the decision for them to stay in The Gambia. The justifications and non-justifications for that for me will depend on the reason for it and I want to say that I am not au fait with that. I cannot offer any response as to whether it is justified or not.

The Voice: The local government election is here; how prepared is the UDP?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Well, we are preparing, for us, it’s an ongoing thing. That is why I marvel when they say elections are over and we should just not… when is party politicking over? Party politicking is a process that continues. We have selected all our Chairmen and my candidates I have selected them. They have also selected at least about ninety-five percent of our Ward Councilors. We’re still considering applications for other areas for which we have not selected candidates for the ward. So that just shows you that we are getting ready and all our councilors are on the ground canvassing for votes. Our prospective Chairmen and Mayors are also on the ground canvassing for votes. I think they just had a week’s tour of LRR and currently, we are having an introduction of the candidate for Brikama Area Council. So we are getting ourselves prepared. We have not been holding meetings but now and again I meet groups of people. The National Organizing Secretary meets groups of people, the Campaign Manager, so we are all over the country preparing; we are not having this big convoy of vehicles to show that we are prepared, no.

The Voice:  Your critics are saying that you’re not willing to step aside to give way for young people to lead the party; what do you have to say about that?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: I want to say that if I am not prepared to leave, time will force me to leave. I have always asked young people to come on board and certainly when the party feels that I should leave, I would leave. But if the party feels that I should stay on, and get the party better unified and strengthened, I think it will be a disservice if I abandon that but the long and short of it is that I am not wedded to the leadership of the party till death do us part, no. I was honoured, I didn’t ask and I didn’t seek the leadership of the party, I was honoured to be given the leadership of the party and I will not allow a situation that will make me exit or leave the leadership of the party in disgrace. I will not allow that; I will go out with the same honour with which I came in.

The Voice:  You were active in sporting activities; you were even a member of some sporting boards. Where are you now in sports?

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Now I am in sports on television, watching them on television. You see its unfortunate Gambians cannot disassociate this from politics. I was a very big fan of wrestling. If I go into wrestling and become a member of the Wrestling Federation; they’ll start labeling it as a UDP organization and to that extent, it will be difficult. In fact for me to even give donations to any sporting organization is difficult; and I don’t want it to be publicized because they think that is a UDP organization, which is very unfortunate. I enjoy watching football but I hardly go to attend football matches at the stadium because some people think that you go there to politicking. Maybe I just think you have to ignore it and then do what I think is right. I miss wrestling, I miss it. Now and again I watch it on Senegalese TV but that’s not one that I enjoy; I really want it in our way of doing wrestling and again sports is another area that I think there should be some investment.

The voice: Thank you so much, Your Excellency, we end the interview here but I would like you to give your last words.

Hon. Lawyer Darboe: Last word… (laughs), anyway last word is to vote for the UDP candidates at the forthcoming local government elections; otherwise, you would betray The Gambia.