By Ajong Mbapndah L
A little over a year ago, Omar Faye was caught in the eye of the storm. Elections had taken place in his native Gambia with the stunning defeat of President Yahya Jammeh who had been in power for 22 years. As the serving Ambassador to the USA, which was Gambia’s most important diplomatic post, he thought his job was made easier when the incumbent stunned the world by accepting the verdict from the polls and congratulating his opponent in a rather warm phone call.
Reverting to his typical unpredictable nature, President Yahya Jammeh questioned the veracity of the election results, indicated unwillingness to hand over power and throw Gambia into a political crisis. Appointed by President Jammeh, but serving the people of Gambia in his mind, Omar Faye had a choice to make. His choice was to put country first and to side with decision of his compatriots to see political change in the country. It was a huge risk, but one he took, with a call for President Jammeh to step aside in respect of the wishes of the people of Gambia.
While Faye’s decision was a super solid boaster to the wind of change blowing in the Gambia, it infuriated Jammeh and no one can tell what would have become of him if the former President had succeeded in his attempt to remain in power.
Back in the Gambia today enjoying the simple things in life, and living the changes taking place, Ambassador Omar Faye expresses no regrets for taking sides with the people at a very crucial moment in the history of his country. Under the leadership of President Adama Barrow, the country is firmly back on the rails. Gambians must put all hands on deck in supporting the efforts of the new administration to write the next glorious chapter of the Gambia.
Speaking of President Adama Barrow, Ambassador Faye said he was catching up on the job at a remarkable pace and has attributes of attention and understanding which remind him of President Obama.
There is hope for the future says Ambassador Omar Faye as he urges Gambians to get to work in building a country that truly meets their potentials and expectations.
Ambassador Omar Faye good afternoon sir
Ambassador Omar Faye: Hey, good afternoon my friend how are you?
I’m doing good sir, and thanks so much for accepting to talk to PAN African Visions again
Ambassador Omar Faye: You bet, it’s my pleasure
Let’s start with a walk down memory lane. About a year ago you became the first sitting diplomat appointed by then President Yahya Jammeh to make a public call for him to step down, can you walk us through your thought process and how you arrived at that decision?
Ambassador Omar Faye: Thank you for having me. Living in the United States for several years and serving as Gambia’s Ambassador to the United States of course had given me a lot of opportunities and access to a lot of information that a regular person may not have. And when Gambia went to the polls and then looking at the world from a different perspective compared to when I used to live in The Gambia, I realized that times had changed, things had changed, the Gambia people had changed, and they had spoken, and we had to respect the will of the people. What I had said a year ago, that’s exactly what I’m going to say today again, nothing’s changed, it’s to respect the will of the people. I had to sit with a team, a few very loyal folks that I had worked with, and I talked to my family, I talked to some people both in The United States and in Gambia, and we realised that the right thing to do is to respect the will of The Gambian people because they had spoken, that’s all what happened. And I had to inform my former Boss- my former President that the best thing for him was to accept the will of the people so that he can bow out honourably.
And when you made this decision known to him, what was his reaction?
Ambassador Omar Faye: I was recalled ,and that means just a nice way of trying get you back home , whatever it was in his thought process I didn’t know, but as soon as he was aware of it, I received instructions to immediately handover and return home to Banjul.
In addition to the public calls for Jammeh to accept the verdict from the polls, what other moves were taken by you towards resolving the crises in a way that the wishes of the Gambian people were respected?
Ambassador Omar Faye: A lot of diplomacy happened behind the scenes. Myself, some very senior State Department officials, a lot of correspondents going in from Washington to Banjul, I facilitated phone calls. As you know, I mean, there are some of those things that are state restricted information that is not always to be talked about on radios or interviews, but a lot happened behind the scenes, the government of The Gambia had communicated with Washington, and Washington had told them their stand, and I was in the middle just trying to make sure that everything worked out peacefully for small Gambia.
You were the Ambassador of Gambia to Washington Dc for close to three (3) years, what will you cite as some of your achievements and what were some of the challenges that you also faced?
Ambassador Omar Faye: Challenges were many but we did our best. We did achieve a lot too and what I will call the pinnacle achievement or number one was buying a chancery, owning our own chancery for the first time. Since The Gambia opened an office in 1979 in Washington, We had always rented, and moved from one street to another, and thank God during my tenure with some good friends and the support of course of the government we were able to acquire a chancery that is now is called the Embassy of The Gambia at 5630, 16th street, where you have The Gambia flag flying. I will be eternally thankful to God and be always grateful to those forces that helped and made it happen. Of course we took diplomacy to the doorsteps of Gambians. The Embassy used to be really isolated most of the time, of course our predecessors did their bit, but they also had to face activists and those not supportive of the government. I was able to do a lot of talking and to convince a lot of them to look at the bigger picture, that former president Jammeh is not Gambia, and the Gambians are bigger than him and let us come together and look for common ground, Let us come together and see what we can do to help our beloved country. So, at least those are two main issues that I consider big achievements, taking diplomacy to the doorstep of Gambians, serving our Gambian people, visiting Gambians in jails, the incarcerated Gambians around and also buying a chancery that now instead of paying lots of money per month with the little resources we have, now we own our property.
Were you surprised when your appointment as Ambassador was terminated by the new government of Adama Barrow when many thought that you will be rewarded for the important contributions you made to usher a in a new Dawn for Gambia?
Ambassador Omar Faye: No, I was not surprised, and that is all I will say
and I will leave it at that.
You are now back in The Gambia, how does a typical day for Ambassador Faye look like, what has he been up to since he left Washington?
Ambassador Omar Faye: All praises are due to Allah, or you will say “to God be the glory”, Trust me, coming back home has no price tag, I have come back to reunite with my family after decades of staying away, I have reunited with my friends, I have visited people that I should have been visiting for years and could not, I am taking walks and saying ‘God thank you’, I’m grateful for Gambia, there is no fighting going on, there are no troops intimidating people.
The Gambia is free and you can feel it in the atmosphere. Everybody is living in peace and we are praying that we maintain that peace. So, the typical day is just to say ‘God thank you’, jump in to the foreign ministry here and there to see what’s going on with regards to some paper work. I have also been invited to contribute in some of the security reforms going on. There was this think tank that was formed, I’ve been invited a few times to go and give my opinion and my contribution. So, I am really deeply calm just taking it easy, slow but sure in the peaceful Gambia.
Let’s talk about President Adama Barrow, first the man, you served Gambia under Jammeh, and not so long ago you had a meeting with President Barrow, what kind of man is he? What impression did you have after the meeting? And how different is he as a leader so far from former President Jammeh?
Ambassador Omar Faye: President Adama Barrow and myself had met before he became President, he is a man of calm, he is very open, he has a lots of leadership qualities and some of those strong qualities are that he will sit down and listen to you, he will ask for opinions, and he’s very accommodating. I have realised that he shares those attributes with the former President of the United States President Obama; who always wanted to make you comfortable when you were with him. I have seen those qualities in President Barrow and I think he’s moving, he is learning fast, and he is understanding the Job. Remember, he has never been in the government setup, and it’s not going to take overnight for him to just come and start making miracles, I think people around him are giving him the advice, he is moving forward, but he is very calm, he’s very open, and I think he listens, those qualities can help him big time.
It is roughly a year now since he got to office, how is Gambia doing under his leadership?
Ambassador Omar Faye: Remember, you are talking about the new government inherited from 22 years of very serious problems that The Gambia had gone through. Of cause, there were some developments that nobody can deny, but then, we had human right issues, we had disappearances, we had serious economic problems, I was just listening to the finance minister saying that we have inherited some 56 billion dalasi worth of debt and at the same time trying to do some debt repayment of some 47 percent of our revenue. 47 percent of revenue debt repayment per month then what is left with us?
So, Gambia is on some very tough footing, but I think with the new policies they are having good political dialogues with the EU, and with lots of organisations all over the world, there is help coming and I think we are trying to get the country back too, but time is not on our side, and I think if every Gambian realises that, it will be very very extremely important that everybody should even work extra, there is no time to waste. We should cut down on the bureaucracy and we should get to work because we are down. We are down economically, the poverty level is high, we have problems in our electricity, we have problems in health, and in agriculture.
All Ministers are trying to move out with policies so that we can revamp those institutions and put them back on track and they need the help of every Gambian to be open minded, focused, and to support the leadership, because now is not the time to point fingers, I think it’s time to go to work.
Ambassador Faye, people will be interested, people who are out of the country, people who are in other parts of Africa and the world would love to know some of the perceptible changes that you’ve seen in the country, and in your daily interactions with Gambians, what is the impression that they have of Adama Barrow and his government.
Ambassador Omar Faye:At the beginning, a lot of people were saying ‘let’s give the government some time’, it’s mixed feelings. I will just tell you what I hear around, I’ve been walking around, I’ve been in public transport, I’ve talked to people, I’ve been in taxis moving around listening to what people are saying, I’m talking to some of my colleagues, they’ve figured they really need things to work faster, they want things to move stronger, they want things to work better.
And the other half are also saying ‘hey, let’s give this government an opportunity; it’s just about a year’. Yes, we’ve figured they should do good, yes, they have started on good, they are now putting their house in order. And this is not only my opinion; this is what the general public say. There is a split, some people are saying that ‘no, we need them to do better’, and some are saying ‘hey hey hey, give them some time, it’s been 22 years of serious issues, and now it’s just about one year, allow the President to get strong people around him so that we can move the country forward’. So, it’s like a balance of mixed feeling.
And to the many Gambians who think that things are not changing fast enough, what message does Ambassador Omar Faye have for them?
Ambassador Omar Faye: All I can tell them my friend, their opinions are respected, they are Gambians, they have right to their opinions, but if I may offer my opinion, let’s try to be part of the solution instead of just sitting down trying to point fingers, Yes, you can call it out, something is not right, you can say it out loud, but then don’t stop at there, what are you doing about it, what are the solutions? So my message to that part of the population is; yes, it’s one Gambia, one destiny, one people, we are together. So, if we highlight a problem let’s also look for solutions, what are we going to do to solve them? And, can we come together to support the government of the day, we voted the government in and we are the ones supposed to support the government because we are the government, so it’s not only enough to go out and say whatever we want to say and move away, no, but then come back and be part of the solution. Trust me, if we come together and work hard, this country will be one of the best in Africa I can tell you. This is what I’m moving at, people should work hard, professionalism should be the order of the day, there are no groups here and there, it’s one Gambia, one people, one destiny, no undermining. Sincerity, professionalism, then support the government of the day, and when we are supporting them and they do something that you figure is not right, put it in the right perspective, tell them the way you feel and also bring suggestions, bring solutions, and bring your contribution in.
With regards to investment opportunities, what opportunities are there and is the investment climate changing under the new administration?
Ambassador Omar Faye: It is changing big time, all I’m telling you is what is on the ground. There are investors coming into the country like never before. The energy sector now is really getting a lot of people interested to come and see what they can do to be part of the investment process, because it’s on the high demand; agriculture is booming, people are investing in the tourism industry; housing industry is doing great, I can tell you every aspect of life here has big potentials, and a lot of people are coming to take charge of it.
Let me give you an example, a lot of hotels are fully booked until March of next year that has never been the case. Remember, last year we had a political crisis ,that was a big failure, the year before we had this ebola crises, big trouble, so for two years in a row our country has suffered big time, the institutions have suffered greatly, and now is an opportunity for Gambia to come back on its feet, and we are on our feet, investors are coming, they are investing in agriculture, in the tourism industry, they are coming in the fishing industry, and lots of things are happening now in Gambia. You can feel the climate of change, you can feel that people are moving all over the place, and you can just get that feeling of freedom in the air. That’s my personal assessment of the situation. That doesn’t mean that we should take things for granted, we should not take chances and we should not be complacent, we should always make sure that we are on the ball and make sure that we are really very very attentive of what’s going around in our backyard, in our environment.
And as we speak Ambassador Faye, the MCC, Millennium Challenge Cooperation recently selected Gambia for its threshold programme, which is a smaller grant programme for policy and institutional reforms. What is your reaction to this, because it appears part of this process started when you were still Ambassador to Washington Dc and what do you think this might mean for Gambia?
Ambassador Omar Faye: Yes, you are right, the millennium challenge cooperation some people call it, well it’s the MCC, it was something that was put in place during the former president Bush I think sometimes in 2004. To cut the long story short, I am as honoured today as a Gambian that I was able to introduce the new government to MCC in Washington, I was recalled in March, they came in April, and I didn’t just stay away, as a Gambian it’s still part of my responsibility so I left my house and went to join the Minister of Finance with his delegation and set up appointments with them– with the MCC folks, and I’m glad I was able to introduce them and link them with the MCC so that we look at the score card again and today you are saying that The Gambia has been shortlisted, normally they start with the threshold of between 20 to 30 million dollars and which we have gone to the compact which should be several other millions, but I will leave the Minister of Finance and the new government to talk about that and blow the information out.I wish we achieved the compact,however being shortlisted for the threshold is a great start.
We end with a word on the way forward for Gambia under the Barrow administration, what are your fears and what are your hopes?
Ambassador Omar Faye: The hopes are high; there are a lot of constitutional and judicial reforms going on. As we speak, The Honourable Justice Minister presented constitution review commission bills to the house, there is the TRRC- Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission already in place, there are lots of things going on behind the scene, we are very optimistic, but as I said, with caution. We have to go to work, be professional, sincere, patriotic to our country, and we should not be complacent.
We should be really very active, we should know what is going on in security, we should not take things for granted that now it’s a free Gambia, anybody can jump in and do whatever they like, the security men are alert, and I’ve seen them on the ground and there are security reforms going on as well as reforms in other sectors. So there is cause for hope my friend, but as I said, with caution, and we need to work. We cannot just hang around and expect miracles to happen, we have a lot of work to do, we have to get people out of poverty, we have to take care of our health sector, we have to care of Agriculture, the farmers, education and all these institutions are looking at some face lift. I’m optimistic that we can make it if we come together and take the Gambia as priority and realise that The Gambia is bigger than all of us and if we do that, I think we will be okay Insha Allah, by God’s will, that’s my assessment.
I would not do justice to the interview without making a special mention to the Gambian diaspora from different parts of the world who came home and added big time value to this years holiday season.Some are already involve in investments in different areas as well as reuniting with love after years of being away.
Ambassador Omar Faye thanks so much for talking to us sir.
Ambassador Omar Faye: I appreciate it my friend, thank you, and again I wish all of our people season greetings, complement of the season and a very safe holiday season, and a prosperous and a good luck to 2018.
Thank you, and happy New Year and good luck to you and to all Gambians for 2018 too sir.
Ambassador Omar Faye: Happy New Year to you and yours and your entire team, and all my friends at the nation’s capital and all over the United States, in fact all over the world God bless you, The Gambia, good luck and happy New Year in advance.
Thank you Ambassador
Ambassador Omar Faye: You bet, Thank you. Bye.