Q: Europe is going through economic crisis, right now. The US is also struggling on the financial side. The Arab world is not stable, politically. All signs show that Africa could be the next destination for investment; I would like to get your view on that and why The Gambia is a good destination for investment?
Well, the world is going through very difficult times but I am an optimist knowing that in any bad situation there could be something good after that; good things come from bad ones.
The world is in recession; big economic giants are in trouble ranging from one problem to another. However the present recession is not as bad as the 2009 one; so I think the world would recover. Unfortunately, the tension between East and West - the resurfacing of the cold war - will have a negative impact on the global economy, particularly now that special sanctions are involved.
In a nutshell, today Africa in general is the best place to invest. There are risks in any investment but a good businessman is the one who takes risk sometimes because in life you don’t expect everything to be smooth.
However, The Gambia is the best place to invest not only in Africa but also globally because it is the most peaceful and hospitable country; it is the country where there is no religious, social or political tension.
We have Europeans who call The Gambia their permanent home and none of them has ever been harassed, for being a Christian, Jew or whatever; we live harmoniously.
For instance, Christmas in Gambia is like every Gambian is Christian. During the feast of Tobaski (Eidul Adha) everybody is involved in it. That shows how Gambians work with each other, because religion is all about love.
In addition, The Gambia is the best place to invest because we don’t have restriction on the movement of your capital. The opportunities are abundant and we have an environment that is the most conducive for doing business. In the whole world, The Gambia is the only country where you can walk around till 4 a.m. and nobody will harass you. I can say it is the most peaceful and secure country in the whole world.
So The Gambia is the best place for investors because if you have an environment that is conducive and has the right economic policies, you also need peace and stability for your business to flourish, and I cannot see any country better than The Gambia today, for investment.
Q: At which stage was The Gambia, 20 years ago, when you took power, in terms of development?
Sometimes, when I talk, people who don’t know may think that I am trying to blow my own trumpet. I can tell you that The Gambia was almost near Stone Age when we took over the reins of government in the country. When I took over in 1994, there were only two qualified medical personnel or doctors; there were only two high schools that belonged to the government, and those ones were donated to the government at the time of independence. So we had only seven high schools altogether in the country. The primary schools and the junior secondary schools were in a very bad condition. Before I took over in 1994, students were carrying their chairs and desks to school; so one can identify who was rich or poor.
Students were doing it on daily basis because if the chairs and desks were left in the classroom, they would be stolen. But after we took over, we made sure we built brand new schools to make education accessible to every Gambian. Today in The Gambia, going to university doesn’t depend on who your parent is or who you know in the system. It depends on what your performance is, and you can be sponsored to do further studies up to PhD level anywhere in the world.
That is my system; my system is all-inclusive because I have a policy of not letting anybody drop out of school for financial constraints. I cannot even remember the number of students I have personally sponsored from 1995 to date.
Since we set up the President’s Empowerment of Girls Education Project (PEGEP), seven years now, we have sponsored more than 120,000 students and it is ongoing. If the government cannot do it free, I make sure that I do it for those concerned, for which I have so many farms to generate income. Whatever we sell from my farms doesn’t go to my bank account; we give it to the people. In fact, I don’t even have a foreign bank account.
So the 20th anniversary of my government is worth celebrating because we have lifted this country from a Stone Age to a modern country. Our economy has been very resilient thanks to God. We have achieved most of the education-related MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]; we have achieved the MDG in nutrition, and the Vice President just went for that award.
When we took over in 1994, life expectancy for the average Gambian was between 45 and 50 years; now we have raised it to 78 years or 80%, which is unprecedented.
During colonialism, life expectancy in this country was 25 years. It was so bad that President Roosevelt, who was the first and so far the last US President to visit The Gambia, described it as a hell hole. We have publication of that.
Someone would say ‘but you have been independent for 50 years now’. Yes, but 30 of the 50 years just followed the same colonial legacy; nothing was done to develop the country. What was interesting to the government then was, getting whatever they asked for from the West. If we were not bounded by the loans that were taken by the former government this country would have developed faster than it is.
Even under this situation, 80% of rural Gambia is electrified. I don’t think there is any country in Africa that has got that; even oil-producing countries have not.
In The Gambia, we have a policy, wherein any town that has 1,000 inhabitants should be electrified. We are doing it phase by phase, and phase 2B has started, because my objective is that by 2020 all the villages and towns in The Gambia will be electrified.
With regard to potable water, we have got 90% of it available to the people, which means we have surpassed the MDG target.
Q: Vision 2020 was crafted against the backdrop of not-so-impressive economic situation of the country at the time you took over. Now five years to 2020, what have been the major strides towards achieving the vision?
Achieving a vision is based on various steps that have to be taken. Some of our targets in Vision 2020 are achieving a middle-income country and a highly educated nation.
When we took over, the entire government machinery was dependent on foreign expatriates and because of my uncompromising stance to such a situation, most of those expatriates were withdrawn and so we are on our own.
So I came up with the idea of Vision 2020 to make sure that by 2020 we will have come out of poverty.
Since we started our revolution we have developed the country up to this stage with very little support from the West. Today if we are to come up with another vision, I will not need 20 years to achieve that; I will need only 7 years to achieve that because this country has a lot of natural resources than most countries that are extracting now.
When we get proper partners that are ready to exploit those resources, we will start exploiting in earnest.
My objective is to make Dubai, Qatar and other countries look like small villages in terms of development. I am not bragging, but 10 years from now, when you come to The Gambia you will be shocked by the development you will see in the country.
Q: At the eve of your 20th anniversary, you unveiled another vision which is Vision 2016, which seeks to make The Gambia self-sufficient in food by 2016. Can you elaborate on this goal and how crucial public private partnership would help in achieving this vision?
In the history of humankind, no country has ever developed entirely through government’s effort without the participation of the private sector.
The private sector is an integral part of The Gambia. The government may be on the driving sector but the private sector plays a very important part in the development of the country, for the benefit of everyone.
Vision 2016 is very important and the private sector can play an important role in achieving the vision, because in it we are talking about the most indispensable item in human existence; we are talking about basic food commodity.
The quality of the food consumed determines the quality of the health of a nation and the quality of the health of a nation also determines the quality of development that will take place in that nation or country.
Health is very important, it has always been very important on my agenda. Health, education, agriculture and infrastructural development have been key on my agenda. With the unpredictable weather phenomenon - God forbids, there could be a day the major producers and exporters of rice would not have enough for themselves because of catastrophe. So if you are entirely dependent on imported food items, you would starve.
We have also seen instances where food is used as a political weapon. A typical case in point was not long ago when we had a very bad rainfall pattern. Some countries tried to use that to say ‘We will give you food aid but you have to abolish the death penalty and the laws against homosexuality’. I told them to go to hell because I will not compromise on that.
Vision 2016 was supposed to have been achieved a long time ago without the need for a vision. I say this because from 1995 to date, I don’t know how many tractors have been given to farmers for mechanised agriculture.
Farmers were given tractors free of charge but I later realised that was the biggest and the most lethal mistake I made. The tractors were supposed to be used to enhance their productivity and income and take themselves out of poverty.
At that time, I thought poverty could be eradicated. But all attempts to eradicate poverty, by giving farmers tools and offering good prices for their produce, did not translate into achieving the dream I had. Every year I would tell Gambians that Gambia would be self-sufficient in food and would become a major exporter. I realised that for 20 years that has not happened. So I decided that I should take the bull by the horn and have a cut-off mark of 2016. There is not going to be any compromise; by 2016 nobody is going to import rice into this country.
In the course of 2015 we will be looking at some of the foods imported into the country; foods that cannot be grown in the country will be given exception; other than that nobody will import rice into The Gambia.
We have also seen a lot of strange diseases, such as children born with defects, malformation, and heart diseases.
Most of these diseases are unique to highly industrialised and polluted countries. The Gambia is not a polluted country; so where could these be coming from? It could only be linked to the type of food we eat.
We used to refer to obesity, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, for instance, as old-man diseases but now they are very common and rampant even among the youth.
Where could these diseases be coming from now? If it is not pollution then it must be what we eat. By making sure that we grow what we eat we are in position to know what we are eating.
Another point is, for us to be able to avoid consuming GMOs [genetically modified foods] that are hazardous to our life we have to embark on pure agriculture.
Some of these GMOs are substandard and hazardous to human existence and most of them are dumped in Africa and poor countries in Asia. So we have to rely on our own produced food to avoid consuming GMOs.
The last point is, with the River Gambia, we can explore it for agricultural purposes because it is fresh water throughout the year.
So the potential is there for us to cultivate enough food on our own.
Q: Talking about the advantages of River Gambia, which is one of the most navigable in the region, how do you intend to utilize it to accelerate development?
River Gambia is a gold mine for us; it has always been underutilised. The freshwater part of the river alone could have turned the country into a major exporter of food, not only rice but anything that can be grown along the River Gambia. Unfortunately when you have too many things on your plate, you sometimes don’t pay attention to certain things, and this is exactly what has happened.
When we took over, all the roads were in dire state; in fact they were just bush roads, and there were no hospitals. I can remember, February 1995, this was shortly after we took over in July 1994, the then minister of education came to me and said, ‘Mr President we have an emergency’. I said, ‘What is going on; are the students about to strike?’ He said, ‘No, the emergency is that if we don’t build high schools we will have about 12,000 students without places in senior school because the schools cannot take them.’
Then we had to concentrate on building schools before September of 1995. So that was the first emergency that we had.
Also, maternal mortality was very high because pregnant women had no access to major hospitals. Some of the children that were born in the villages, especially premature babies, were just coming to die.
So we had to build schools and hospitals in the interior, and the cost was high.
These are the reasons river transport was not on the agenda, to be quite honest with you, despite the fact that it is a very vital link. We wanted to build the infrastructure first.
Now that we have taken care of infrastructure including the road network, we are focusing on the River Gambia for tourism reasons, transportation purposes and more importantly for irrigation purposes.
Q: You started the country’s first-ever university, what was it like to start a university at a time when a lot of people did not think of it?
I foresaw a future where every person would be for himself, whilst God is for all. I foresaw a situation where depending on expatriates is suicidal because it would not be sustainable and, of course, also for political reasons they may not come.
I also want to build an ultra-modern city state that would surpass Singapore. So if you want to build a country to make it a city-state, depending on foreign engineers, architects and other professionals, and imported equipment, no matter how much money you have, you will be bleeding to achieve that.
So my objective is to make sure that whatever we build in this country, 98% of the people who construct it, be it engineers or whatever, is made of Gambians.
At the time we were taking over this country, The Gambia was known as a donor-dependent country. At that time also the ratio of foreign teachers to Gambian teachers is 3:1. Imagine if there was any political problem with the countries these people were from, they would withdraw their teachers.
So I wanted to make sure that we are as independent as humanly possible, be it in education, health, science or technology.
At least I wanted us to be 95 per cent independent but I realised it would be practically impossible where the highest level of educational institution is senior school.
What we had as a college was a teacher-trainer college. It never offered a degree; higher national diploma was the highest.
I also realised that sending people overseas is not tenable because university becomes so expensive that you are better off as a Third World country.
Q: You are among the few Presidents in the world that spend their holidays in their country instead of going to luxurious places elsewhere. Can you tell us why you usually do this?
For twenty years I have never spent my holidays outside of my village. When I take holidays, I don’t go outside of my hometown but work on my farms.
I have always believed in leadership by example. Even when I was in primary school as a student, whenever I told the students ‘clear here’, I would clear it with them, because you must always be part of your people as a leader. Even if you are not a leader whatever vision you have, you have to show it to the people in practical ways.
I am a born farmer, as my entire family lineage is made up of farmers and traditional doctors.
I have realised that most African heads of state take their holidays and go outside of their countries to spend time. Even our former leader never spent his holidays in The Gambia.
But I have decided that I don’t want to fail in any of my policy, and the only reason that will make me to succeed in agriculture is for me to go back to the land.
Nothing also is more refreshing than recess from official duty to work on the farm. I love that and it is in my blood.
I decided that I would take my holidays in August, which is my planting season, so I could supervise work on my farm myself while working with the people, because I believe in leadership by example.
This has become a source of encouragement for Gambians, and they would say ‘If the president is working at the farms what are we waiting for?’ So it inspires them and makes them brave to farm.
After all there is nothing wrong with being a farmer. In those days, before we came to power, farmers were treated as people who didn’t know anything; they were treated as third-class citizens to the extent that students in Grade 12 wouldn’t want to be associated with farming.
Today everybody wants to be a farmer because they are seeing the president going to the farms.
I always say to people that they have to depend on themselves. There is only one entity which will not die and that is the Almighty Allah; other than Him if you depend on a human being, he would not be there for you always. That is why farming is very important. Hence it has ever been my conviction that when I take holidays, I don’t go outside of my hometown but work on my farms.
Q: Any message to our global readers since this is going to be a special edition on your 20th anniversary and the 50th anniversary independence of The Gambia?
Well, I would not praise myself; I wouldn’t praise my country either. I want the people to come and see the paradise that they are missing. When we say the Smiling Coast of Africa we mean it. Gambians are sometimes too transparent for me to be comfortable because if a Gambian doesn’t like you, you will know it. This is one thing they would not mask, they are too transparent.
But every smile you see on a face of a Gambian, it is genuine. Everybody is talking about Gambians and I thank God for having such a people. They are very hospitable, tolerant and receptive.
In The Gambia, if you meet people eating say lunch time and you don’t join them they feel offended. Gambians want to share with everyone, no matter where you come from or your religion or race. Gambians are God-fearing people; they are good Muslims and Christians.
This is why we are able to live in peace and harmony.
Of course every leader, even God, has enemies; so who am I not to have enemies, who create websites about me. I am saying what they are saying is not true and would like people, and investors, to come and see for themselves. Those who are writing those things about me are not even in The Gambia. The best way for you to know whether what you are reading in the internet is true or not is to come and find out yourself; then you will realize that you are missing a paradise.
This is the only country in which every six months you find a new and positive development project.
We are developing so fast that in the next five years our development will be at a breakneck speed. The sky is no longer the limit in terms of development; the planet Mars is the limit and I mean it.
We are going to be developed. Despite all the economic turbulence, our GDP growth rate is higher than most Western countries. This year, our GDP growth rate is twice higher than the strongest economies in Europe – they are growing at almost 1%, we are at 5%.