Who’s Mai? This was a familiar question when Mai Fatty joined the race for the first time to State House in 2011. Some even thought he was a woman. Fast-forward to 2017 – the astute lawyer is the country’s most talked about minister.
What’s On-Gambia: Tell us about your childhood, family and school life.
Mai: I hail from the extreme north-east of The Gambia, in a small conservative Jahanka farming village called Kerewan in Wuli, URR. I was raised in Banjul, attended schools in The Gambia and abroad. I am happily married with children. I had a very active school life with extra-curricular activities such as debate, quiz, social science club and student unionism. I was lucky to have represented my schools at inter-schools debate and quiz competitions, and also lucky to represent The Gambia at international student conferences in my capacity as leader of the students’ union. I returned home over a decade ago to practice law.
Any childhood hero?
Yes. I had a few. I read about Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in primary school and was very impressed with his political struggles and intrepid determination to liberate Africa from colonialism and imperialism. One of my teacher’s, Mr. Kebba Badgie, also loaned me a book on Steve Biko, and that was my introduction to into apartheid South Africa. I must say that material had the single most impact on me, exposing me to a certain velocity of brutality I had never imagined could be inflicted by human on to human. There are few other freedom fighters I aspired to be. Nearer home, at high school, I was impressed and inspired by the debating abilities of Mr. James Bahoum, whom I consider a mentor, the intellectual curiosity of lawyer Fafa Mbai and the superb legal prowess of lawyer Ousman Sillah, who I also consider my mentor in the profession.
When did your interest in politics first come alive?
I have always been interested in politics since primary school, and that was why I was active in student unionism at high school. I advocated for quality education, wrote about the plight of students in the press, organized few student protests against the neglect of student welfare, and was also lucky to be jailed few times, as a student unionist for those activities.
You quit your profession as a lawyer to enter active politics. How was the transition like?
I am still a practicing lawyer, only that now I am more focused on the solicitor’s aspect of the profession, with strictly a specialized international dimension.
You were one of the brightest and most respected lawyers in the country. Do you think the judiciary has progressed since you left?
I am still a member of the Bar. Yes, there has been some progress in terms of capacity building through donor funding, which undoubtedly enhances the quality of service delivery by the registry staff. However, on adjudication, it is very unfortunate that the Gambian citizen today cannot rely on the courts to protect his/her fundamental rights, against predatory encroachment, by the State and its agents. It is imperative that we restore integrity in justice dispensation and uphold the independence of the judiciary.
If there is one thing you’d keep the same and one thing you’d change about the Gambian judiciary what would they be and why?
There is something to appreciate about the judiciary, and not much to retain. The registry and ancillary staff are some of the most hard working in the country, under difficult circumstances, less pay for a very stressful and demanding job. They should be appreciated, recognized and commended for their service and sacrifice. Having said that, the Gambian judiciary requires a total overhaul.
How would you describe your political party, Gambia Moral Congress?
Descriptions are usually inaccurate because they tend to fit specific categories. It excludes anything outside the description. GMC stands for Gambia Moral Congress. There is the emphasis on the word « Moral ». We are not projecting the impression that we are the most moralistic people in the political terrain or lay claim to moral propriety. No. Rather, we seek to put the question of morality at the heart of the political debate. It means, we aspire to build a society with morality as the foundation of its core values. It is an aspiration.
Politics has a very bad name because it is associated with all manner of ills. Tell anyone you are a politician, and automatically you will be defined as dishonest, corrupt, power hungry, etc. For these reasons, so many good people shy away from politics. This is because the moral content in politics has been emptied, and in its place the deplorable conduct associated with politicians took over. We would like to establish that it should be possible to practice politics with morality; that politics can be noble practice because public service is noble. That is not to say that at GMC, we are pure and infallible. No. Our values are under threat. It is time to restore them so as to create a compassionate, caring and industrious society.
Do you also hold the view that Jammeh is a dictator despite winning elections approved by credible international observers?
Our position on elections has been consistent. If the processes leading towards an election are not free or fair, then the results of such an election cannot be credible. This is what has been the APRC’s record for two decades. That was why, in 2011, ECOWAS, the regional organization that knows us better than any international observer, withdrew its observer mission at the last minute, stating that they do not want to witness a fraudulent process. They concluded that the results of that election was already decided even before the polls opened, and they were proven right.
If you were to meet Jammeh, what would you tell him?
You did your best, but you cannot do it all. Thank you for your service. Organize credible elections without you as candidate and hand over to the democratic choice of Gambians. That may purify your legacy. In that situation, I would be among those who will lead in advocating for you, both at home and around the world. We will not be bogged down by history. We will move on as a country. Mr. President, you are now approaching the twilight of your politics, there is life after the presidency. As an elder statesman, we would need you to guide the nation during difficult and complex times. I hope you will toe the path of dignity.
Why is it so difficult for the opposition to unite and work together as a team?
I wish I could answer your question. I find it absurd too. Yet experience instructs me that when people project conflicting interest and are reluctant to give an inch, an impasse ensues. This problem existed even before I joined politics. Remember NADD? It appears The Gambia needs new breed of public advocates to get us pass through this merry-go-round syndrome. I can perfectly understand public frustration with opposition politicians on unity talks, because sometimes I feel that way too.
Would you agree that Gambian politics has been infested with tribalism?
No I don’t agree. We are a very small country, all related, and our social homogeneity would not permit tribalism to flare-up to dangerous proportions. Gambians will not allow that to happen.
You recently wrote on your Facebook page: “We should not allow our repugnance of the system to bear fruits of bitterness or cloud our judgment.” What were you trying to tell Gambians?
That we must be objective, fair and reasonable in our dealings with each other as a people and avoid subjective conclusions about each other or motives. That our rabid preoccupations with changing the status quo must not be a one-way street – if you are not with us, then you are with them. We can still seek to change the existing political architecture and yet appreciate and promote the goodness in us.
You are right! Many Gambians are becoming increasingly concerned that we are splitting up (us and them) and that we are losing our unity as a people.
I am equally concerned, and that was why I made the statement you alluded to in your previous question.
How would you diagnose the “struggle” in the Diaspora?
There are many good folks in the diaspora who continue to sacrifice day and night for our country. They are our pride, and on behalf of GMC, I say thank you to them. The diaspora as a whole is doing phenomenal with remittances that keep families afloat. For now, there is no substitute to this, and again I say thank you. What you call the struggle has brought the best and otherwise in our people. I hope we can concentrate on the good in the interest of our collective good.
What is your opinion on The Gambia restoring ties with China?
GMC used to advocate for one China, indivisible policy. Over a period, I had the opportunity to critically look at China’s attitude towards other territories it claims and its conduct there. I have become disappointed with China’s hegemonistic and expansionist international ambitions. I am also appalled at the conduct of Chinese businesses in Africa towards African employees, not only contemptuous but also highly degrading and exploitative. I do not take this to be anecdotal. I believe there is evidence galore that this is systematic and representative of Chinese way of doing business in Africa. China is not a fair trade partner in Africa, in spite of all her propaganda on South-South cooperation and win-win deals. China is the new economic imperialist in Africa, only using totally new strategy. The goal remains the same. An unrestrained China will break all the rules of the game in its own favor; a win-loss phenomenon. Yet China is a force to reckon with. Their development experience and pattern is worth learning, and as the second largest economy in the world, with unlimited financial resources, China cannot be ignored any longer. It has veto powers too, with very powerful military. Notwithstanding, I’d be very cautious in my dealings with them, if I were elected President.
If Halifa Sallah, Bala Garba Jahumpa, Sheriff Bojang, Pa Samba Jow (Coach) and Hamat Bah walk into your house, who among them would you talk to and ignore?
They are all Gambians. I will talk to all of them.
If you don’t mind, can you tell us briefly about wife and children?
I’ll let that one pass.
What makes you laugh?
I watch comedy. Makes me laugh loud. My children make me laugh too.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of politics?
I love lawn tennis. I just don’t get the chance to play as often as I would like to. I read a lot, write a lot and I like spending time with my childhood friends.
Favorite Gambian musicians and why?
Jaliba Kuyateh and Killa Ace top the list. I love kora music, and Jaliba plays it best to my taste. Killa Ace is a young Gambian musical genius with a mission and a sense of purpose. I subscribe to that mission.
Where do you think you would be at the age of 60?
I pray that Allah grant us all long life with dignity and prosperity. I pray to be at home guiding the younger generation, helping in building future leaders, serving The Gambia and Africa; Insha’Allah that is my prayer, life after the presidency!
Any final words?
I’d encourage young Gambians to exercise keen interest in what goes around you. Take part in public affairs, and make sure your leaders stay as your servants and not your masters. On a personal note, I am very proud of you. Keep it up!
Thank you, honourable!
This interview was first published last year shortly before the presidential election.