A day after his release on bail on December 5, Lawyer Ousainou Darboe, the presidential candidate and leader of the United Democratic Party from 1996 to 2011, has had a revealing interview with The Torch explaining his 8-month stay behind bars. Darboe led a group of people on a peaceful but “unauthorised” demonstration in April which resulted to their arrest, trial and sentencing to three years at Mile 2. Below is an entire interview:
The Torch: When you took to the street on April 16, there were risks involved including imprisonment. What motivated you?
What motivated me is the desire for the Gambian people to liberate themselves and as a leader on such issues; you have to lead by example. I have never believed that I should go to the street because people wanted me to go to street, but we go to street because there was a reason for me to go to the street.
We have always believed that any government has the authority and the power to arrest anybody who has committed a crime, but we deny the fact that any government has the power and authority to arrest anybody and torture him or her to death. And if you do that, then you are the criminal and we should go out and protest that.
The Torch: But by taking to the street, you probably knew you could be rough handled yourself, don’t you?
If somebody like Fatoumatta Jawara, Ndogo Njie, Fatou Camara and others could be tortured. What should prevent me also from going out and protest their torture and if I’m arrested because of that, that is an honour. You cannot look while your family is been brutalized and you the parent take refuge in your air condition bed room.
I think that will be a betrayal of trust and let me just make one thing clear that when these people (Solo and others) went out on that demonstration, I had absolutely no idea. Nobody told me because probably if I were told, I would have guided them how to handle such a situation. But then having gone out, I also cannot abandon my family. I have to go out.
The Torch: Do you consider it normal that you people were arrested?
For me it was normal because I was fighting a cause and even after my arrest, I was fighting it in court. Even if they (APRC) went on to lose the election and then I go out of the prison and at anytime a similar thing happens, I would have go to the streets again.
The Torch: Is it because you consider it an honour?
No not an honour I am not there because I want an honour I was there to fight a cause and if fighting for that cause lands me in prison I welcome it.
The Torch: How has it been like serving eight months in prison?
Well the prison is a place where you know your liberty is denied. You don’t live as a free man in terms of everything. Imagine me getting locked-up at 5pm and then by 11: 30 in the morning you hear stand by and by five minutes to 12, I had time up and you run into your cell like rats running into their holes… (laughs). So those are things that you encounter in prison—may be they are not indignity, but that is part of prison lives.
The Torch: Do you think the treatment could have been better?
Well I don’t know. It could have been better or worse and certainly if I am the leader of any government I will never treat my political opponent like that. I would rather give them the highest respect, even if they have to be locked, they would be locked in a quality prison and given access to their families every week.
The Torch: You were denied family visit at some point, weren’t you?
Yes, we were denied that until the court granted us bail and after the court granted us bail we were denied seeing our families until when we were moved to the remand prison. When I was at the remand wing I was denied food from home. But they later relaxed the denial by allowing my family to bring food but then they would ask me to sit in an office and eat the food there… I said I will never do that, because that is dehumanizing me by treating me with disrespect. When people are charged for murder or have committed more serious offence, they can take their foods into the remand wing and have them eat their food. Why not I who has just been prosecuted for political reasons? When I refused, they later accepted my demands.
The Torch: But later at some point you people have to eat the prison food to survive?
Yes after conviction initially when I was not allowed food from my home I have to go back to what I use to eat, prison food.
The Torch: How was the prison food?
Well I will be very honest with you, the food is really bad and it is not enough… It is too small. I don’t have dinner because of the condition of the food that is brought to us for dinner. I keep on trying but later I have to abandon it totally and Thursdays and Friday’s I don’t have lunch because of the food they cook.
The Torch: What were the sleeping conditions like?
Well I was in a single cell with a sponge mattress. So I was not really in a congested area and in my area most of the prisons were not congested because they were single cells. But when I was at remand, there were 19 of us in a cell and I slept on a mattress with another person and we inter-change the directions of our heads so that we can fit on bed. And some were below us while others were on top but the good thing there is that you can have food from home.
The Torch: Do you have access to television, radios and others?
Before the Ramadan where I was in a confinement, there was a radio. I could listen to Radio Gambia and sometimes listen to the BBC. And sometimes we also listened to RFI to be kept informed on all issues home and abroad. In fact, I followed up our arrest on RFI. I also followed the demonstration that happened in Dakar, UK and other places. But in the last week of Ramadan, they remove all those facilities.
There was no television. It used to be in one of the prison blocks and I understand Baba Jobe bought that when he was there. And in the main yard too, there was television but they removed everything.
But then they also took away provisions that these people had there. In the month of Ramadan, people were expecting to break their fast with the provisions that they have but they confiscated everything and took them away. I think that was very inhuman.
The Torch: How about the food during the Ramadan… Was it the same?
Yes, and this last Saturday and Sunday I also fasted because of the change of regime to show my appreciation to God for what he has done for us. I did not know how to thank God for what he has done for us by changing the regime. That was why I fasted for two days
The Torch: Were people kind to you in prison?
Throughout my stay at the prison the prison officers were very polite to me and colleague prisoners were also polite to me. All of them call me dad…. I saw young people, my children’s age mates, and I felt really bad, but then that is it.
The Torch: When you had the news that Jammeh was defeated, what time was it and how did it get to you?
Well I got the news through a prison officer and even when Jammeh conceded I got the news through a prison officer.
The Torch: How did he say it?
Well he told me the country has changed
The Torch: Did you believe it?
Yes I believed it, because even though we were in prison but when the vehicles passed, there were noise we heard and the drumming and shouts of Darboe……….. Those sounds of celebration really convinced me that the news was true. They told us during the nomination about Jammeh’s crowd, Mamma Kandeh’s crowd and opposition’s crowd. They (prison officers) told me that this is opposition’s year.
The Torch: What was your reaction after you heard the news?
Well, I did not know how many times I should thank Allah. I was alone in my cell and I cried because I reflected and say where is Sidia Sanyang, Sarjo Kujang Sanneh, Solo Sadeng and Syngle Nyassi? I cried because I thought that these are people who had given up themselves for the realization of that day. They are honorable people patriots lying in their honourable graves. We don’t know where Solo’s grave is, but we know it is an honourable grave.
I instructed our people after we heard the news that they must not jubilate. We were prisoners and we must abide by prison rules.
The Torch: You were a senior member of the bar and a leading politician and suddenly you saw yourself in a small cell of just some 2 or 3 metres… Have you at any point regretted why you were there?
I have never regretted it because I know I have not committed any crimes and I also know that I was there for a worthy cause. And what motivated me more was that my youngest daughter Nafisatou Darboe did told me “father we are behind you”. That for me was very motivating. If my youngest daughter can tell me we are behind you father, what is there to regret? If I have committed any crime, that could have been embarrassing for me but this was not like that.
The Torch: But was there anything that encouraged or accompanied you during your stay in prison— say Music?
Yes, the Quran because I use to finish it in every ten days and even well before I go to prison I use to finish the Quran in every fifteen days. The prison only accelerated finishing Quran five days short of the normal time.
The Torch: But was there any other thing you do in prison because I am imagining a day in prison to be a long one?
Yes, what really motivated me more and kept me strong is my commitment to ensuring that this country is free, and I felt very confident that at the level of the Supreme Court or the ECOWAS community court, the stand we took on the Public Order Act will be vindicated.
And then there will be new chapters of freedom open for us so that nobody will go to the police and ask for permission to hold a demonstration. You can go and tell them that you want to hold a demonstration so that they can provide security for crowd control.
The Torch: Do you blame anyone for going to jail?
No… I did sustain injury during our arrest. But I blame the government for it. I will not personalize it. I have not held anything against anybody. The one who hit me on the head, I don’t know him and the same go for the one who dislocated my shoulder and the other who pulled me from the truck and kick me on the head. I cannot recognize these people but for me, all these did not matter. It is the cause that matters to me.