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.
Q | So where do you lay the blame? Africans have so much yet so little.
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.