Ms. Fatoumatta Jallow Tambajang, a former Health Minister in the defunct military junta led by the then AFPRC Council Chairman Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, has unveiled in an exclusive Freedom Radio Gambia interview on Monday, that she was virtually forced to serve the Jammeh regime back in 1994, as the Kanilai born dictator threatened to close the United Nations office in Banjul, if the UN refuses to allow one of their staffers Ms. Tambajang to join the new government at the time, the Freedom Newspaper can report. In a three hour on the record interview, Ms. Tambajang explained how she was appointed Health Minister by the junta without being officially notified. She was never contacted or served with any letter prior to the announcement of her appointment as Health Minister, she said. She tells Freedom Radio Gambia that she learnt about her hiring while on board a flight. She was informed by a fellow passenger that Chairman Jammeh has appointed her Health Minister.
Ms. Tambajang, who served in various countries while working for the United Nations, initially declined her appointment as Gambia’s Health Minister. She is opposed to any form of forceful takeover of a democratically elected government. She then politely turned down the job offer that was accorded to her by Jammeh and his fellow coup leaders. She said she made an undertaking to help promote Gambia’s cause while at the UN, and that her doors were open to the junta at any time especially on issues relating to national development.
Ms. Tambajang’s refusal to accept Jammeh’s job offer never prevented the dictator from pressing her further to reconsider her decision. She said Jammeh told her that her appointment was engineered by public outcry—as Gambians across the nation wanted Fatoumatta Tambajang to serve his regime. The dictator also told her that her Cousin Sanna Bairo Sabally, the former short-lived junta Vice Chairman, was opposed to Fatoumatta Tambajang working for the regime because in Jammeh own words “Sanna said they were out to fight nepotism” which was endemic in the First Republic. But Jammeh maintained that he needed Ms. Tambajang on board in the new government. Jammeh even assured her of job security when Ms. Tambajang raised the issue of high turnover in military governments in Africa.
When Ms. Tambajang finally made up her mind that she was not interested in serving the junta, and that she would not quit her career at the United Nations systems, Jammeh became angry and threatened to expel the UN Staff in Banjul.
“Yahya Jammeh issued a directive to the UN, that they either allow me to serve his government, or else, he was going to close the UN office in Banjul. He gave them an ultimatum to ether comply with his directive or else, he would expel them from the country. There was a big confusion at the time. I had a conversation with the UN office about the matter, and I was finally allowed to leave just for the sake of maintaining the UN Banjul office. I took a one year leave from work to serve the military junta. I was fired eight months later into my appointment as Health Minister. I got fired few days after my Cousin Sanna Sanbally was arrested together with Saidbu Hydara on coup related charges,” said Ms. Tambajang.
Ms. Tambajang knew that she was going to be let go by the dictator because Jammeh was behaving weirdly towards her on the wake of Sanna’s arrest. She even offered to resign from the government on principle and ethical reasons, but Jammeh assured her that she doesn’t have to leave because Sanna’s case has nothing to do with her.
Notwithstanding, Ms. Tambajang remained apprehensive. She was later handed with a dismissal letter by Edward Singhatey, who informed her that she was among the causalities of the junta’s cabinet reshuffle. She was thanked by Jammeh for the services she rendered to her country during her short period in office.
Hours after she was fired, Ms. Tambajang was trailed by the personnel of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) led by the late Daba Marena. Given her UN work background, she discovered that someone intelligent was trailing her. Her own late husband used to work for the intelligence services. He phoned to inform her that she was being pursued by the NIA. She was followed to her home, where Mr. Marena informed her that they received orders from the “top” to arrest her. She then drove into her own car to the NIA main office in Banjul.
On arrival at the NIA, she was held for hours before she was told why the agency summoned her for questioning. She said the NIA confronted her about a list of potential people Sanna Sabally lined up to form a government he envisaged for the country. The purported list identified Ms. Tambajang as the would be President of the country in the event the coup was successful.
But Ms. Tambajang categorically denied the charges. She told the NIA that she was not aware of any coup and that she seriously doubts if Sabally would ever involve her into any subversive activities against the state.
“I dismissed the allegations on the spot. I told them that there was no iota of truth into the allegations. That I had less to do with Sanna, when I was in the government. Sanna even refused to supervise me for the simple fact that we are related. I was being supervised by the President Yahya Jammeh. He used to give me directives. Sanna was not happy that I was part of the Cabinet. He even tried to encourage me to serve at the UN as Gambia’s Ambassador,” she said.
After the interrogations, Ms. Tambajang requested to be allowed to return home, but she was told that they were waiting on Jammeh to give them clearance to make a decision on her case. She told the NIA that she was supposed to go home and cook diner for her husband.
Just in time, the late former NIA Director General Samba Bah pops in and Ms. Tambajang confronted him about her arrest. She also prevailed on Mr. Bah to help secure her release. She was subsequently released the same day. She was asked to report to the NIA, the following day, but she refused.
Her passport, certificates, and other valuable documents were impounded by the Agency. She couldn’t leave the country for a period of two years. She then resorted to writing to Yahya Jammeh, reminding him about the seizure of her documents.
Her documents were subsequently returned to her with the exception of her passport containing visas. She has to reapply for a new passport. She later travelled to Senegal, where she met with the former President Abdou Diof. She knew Diof while overseeing the Foreign Ministry as Health Minister. She explained her sacking to Diof. Diof then advised her to return to the UN. She was lucky to be rehired by the UN. She was assigned to Liberia.
According to Ms. Tambajang, while serving the military junta, Yahya Jammeh used to send her on official missions overseas without paying for her air ticket and accommodation. She used her own money to finance her trips.
“I will never forgive him (Yahya Jammeh) and his government for the monies they owed me. I wrote to Jammeh asking to be reimbursed for the monies I spent from own coffers to finance some of the trips he (Jammeh) used to delicate me, to represent the country, but he refused. I will make sure that the new government coming will pay me my money. I worked for it,” she said.
While serving as Health Minister Ms. Tambajang was able to spearhead so many health reforms and development projects. She said she came in at a time, when the heath sector was virtually dead. There were no sufficient beds, and hospital equipment in our health facilities, she said. She had to travel overseas to lobby for help. She was able to secure some beds among other equipment for our hospitals. She also encouraged government to promote “set setal” community cleansing exercise. The goal was to promote decent environmental sanitation for our communities.
Ms. Tambajang also talked about Bakary Bunja Darboe, AKA (BB) resigning from the junta as Finance Minister. Contrary to the regime’s claims that BB was fired, Ms. Tambajang, said BB was never sacked. Instead he resigned from his post as Finance Minister. BB personally hand delivered his resignation letter to the Chairman of the junta Yahya Jammeh, she said.
“I was in Cabinet when BB resigned. He showed me his resignation letter. He said he resigned based on principle. His work was being undermined by the junta. He was not allowed to do his job. Hence, he decided to part company with the regime. BB’s resignation was a major bombshell against the junta. Given his standing and credibility in society, the regime decided to preempt the potential damage BB’s resignation might have caused against the status quo. The junta decided to make up a story that BB was fired, when in actual he was never fired. I was in Cabinet then. BB confided to me that he has resigned. I saw his resignation letter. I took over BB’S reconstruction project after his resignation. Jammeh personally asked me to oversee the project,” said the former Health Minister.
Regarding Sanna Sabally’s weird and aggressive behavior while serving as Jammeh’s Deputy in the Council, Ms. Tambajang said she personally wrote to Mr. Sabally advising him to maintain a good behavior. She even visited Mr. Sabally at his home in the presence of his former wife, where she reechoed the sentiments she made in her letter to Sabally. But she said Sabally told her that he cannot guaranty her total reform on his part because they have a job to do—that’s to inculcate discipline in the country.
Ms. Tambajang also talked about the 1994 counter coup, in which the likes of Basiru Barrow, Dot Faal, Saye and others lost their lives. She said hours before the execution of the coup, she received a phone call from Yahya Jammeh, who advised her not to report to work the next day because there was an impending coup.
“I was briefed by Jammeh that there was a coup. He asked me not to report to work. I then relocated my family to a safe house, until the situation was normalized. I used to work for the UN and once Jammeh informed me about the coup, I took the necessary contingency plans to relocate my family,” she tells Freedom Radio Gambia.
According to Ms. Tambajang, a cabinet meeting was convened shortly after the coup was thwarted. Sanna Sabally spoke at the meeting. He told them that the coup was foiled and normalcy has been restored. That people were free to go about their normal business. Some soldiers lost their lives during the failed coup.
Commenting on The Gambia/Senegal border debacle, Ms. Tambajang branded Yahya Jammeh as a troublemaker. She said the border village Tranquil belongs to Senegal, and that it was built well before Yahya Jammeh was born. She observed that Yahya Jammeh has been isolated internationally and is bent on seeking the attention of President Macky Sall.
In Ms. Tambajang’s own opinion, Jammeh is not addressing the real issues that concerns Gambians: The dead economy, the high cost of living, the dead health sector, the dead infrastructure, the massive unemployment in the country, prostitution and destitution. She said Jammeh has enough unresolved domestic issues on his plate before worrying about a border village which belongs to Senegal.
On the upcoming 2016, Presidential elections, Ms. Tambajang is confident that with a united opposition, Jammeh would be defeated. She said Gambians are tired of the failed Jammeh dictator and are in desperate need of change. She noted that Jammeh cannot survive the wind of change blowing across the country.
Ms. Tambajang has no Presidential ambition for now, but she wouldn’t rule out any task given to her by Gambians especially the opposition to help shape the affairs of the nation. She said she is committed to uniting the opposition before the elections so that Jammeh would be sent packing come 2016. She is networking with Gambian women on the ground to help effect change come 2016. She is hopeful that Gambian women would be able to engineer change with the help of their male partners. She calls for concerted efforts to dislodge dictator Jammeh from power.
Written by Pa Nderry M’Bai