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.