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With Alagie Manneh

Talib Ahmed Bensouda is the mayor of Kanifing municipality. He is the son of top lawyer Amie Bensouda and Ahmed Bensouda, who served as a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Finance in the First Republic. Since coming as a virtual unknown and storming to win the 2018 mayoral election, the Bensouda juggernaut has been unstoppable. In this edition of Bantaba, anchor, Alagie Manneh talks with Mayor Bensouda about his life, his work and his vision for the country’s most populous local government area.

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Your grandfather was a Moroccan trader who emigrated to The Gambia for trade and became friends with Almami Jawara, father of president Jawara. What memories do you have of him?
Actually, I never met my grandfather. He died when my father was very young. Like you rightly said, he came to The Gambia in 1913, and World War One broke out when he was actually on a ship from Casablanca to Dakar. He settled very early in Wuli, where he used to trade in cows,and moved to Basse to start a butchering and, in 1920, he moved to Kuntaur where he met Almami Jawara, became friends and eventually married his daughter, who was a sister to President Jawara. That’s why the family settled down. In Kuntaur, my namesake, who is my dad’s oldest brother, Talib Bensouda, became the MP of Niani during the PPP regime and his other brother, Seedy Bensouda, is the alkalo of Kuntaur.

On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your achievements since becoming mayor going by your manifesto?
I would avoid rating myself. I would let other people rate my achievements. I believe I can do more. When I assess our achievements against the challenges we face, I am impressed by our achievements. I lead, I set the tone, I communicate the vision but we have very strong directors here who are very committed. We have cuncillors who have the political will and have given me their support to ensure this idea materialises. I would say we have done well given the constraints and challenges we had. Of course, you know the political situation in the country is very confrontational where there is a consistent fight for dominance ahead of the general elections. Given that we and the central government have different political leanings, there is sometimes that contention.

How does the rift between President Barrow and Ousainu Darboe affect your work as mayor of Kanifing municipality?
It’s been extremely difficult. If I was to say it’s not hard, I would not be telling the truth. I think it’s obvious; the entire population knows of certain issues we’ve had. Recently, we’ve tried to rise above it, both parties. We know the only people who will lose are the electorate. I have no reservations of launching projects with the minister or the president himself. We want to work with them. Let’s rise above the politics and serve the people.

A key area of your manifesto is parks and recreation and the development of available land areas into subsidised low-cost housing projects for the average Gambian. What have you been able to do in this regard?
We believe housing in Kanifing municipality is going out of control. There is limited land. KM is the most densely populated area in the country and rents are also increasing. The only solution is we need to build more houses. We need the Ministry of Lands to work with the local government authorities to develop a zoning masterplan and create areas where we can build housing estates. Of course, we need a strong financial sector that can provide long-term mortgages at very affordable interest rates. All of this is possible when there is dialogue and engagement. But largely, I think, what is missing is that vision from the central government.

Recently, a group of young people reportedly went around and online to prevail on UDP supporters to put you forward as the party’s flag-bearer in the 2021 presidential elections. How will you consider such proposal?
This is news to me, but I would refer you back to your paper when you reported that Honourable Ousainu Darboe is going to be UDP’s flagbearer. We are all fully behind him and will ensure in 2021 he is the next president of The Gambia.

You told me two years ago in an interview that you have no presidential ambitions after speculation in the political grapevine intensified that UDP was grooming you as a future presidential candidate. Are you absolutely certain that this is still your position?

This is still my position. Like I said, we already have our flagbearer. We will ensure he is elected and his reform agenda and plans since 1996 are realised.

When you inaugurated the ‘Mbalit’ Project last June in partnership with Espace Motors, you hailed it as “historic and innovative”. How has it fared since?
Collection has improved drastically. We cannot remember a time when there was a residential waste collection. Mostly it was our parents who tell us we used to have it. This is a huge achievement, that’s why I called it historic. The reason we cannot fully be satisfied yet is that collection is just the first step. More importantly, we want to process waste, treat and ensure it doesn’t become an environmental hazard. We want to ensure there is waste processing before our term ends. The good news is we have already started a fencing project at Bakoteh [dumpsite]. We have also been working on how to get partners who have expertise in waste processing.

What is the exact nature of your partnership with Espace and its CEO Muhammed Jah?
What we were looking for was not some sort of credit facility. What we were looking for was a public-private partnership between a government and a service provider and overtime as the ‘Mbalit’ makes income, the vehicles will eventually be owned by the municipality. Our target was three years. We believe by early 2022, these trucks should be the property of the council. We are in politics and of course, whatever actions we take will be scrutinised. But I think the average Gambian appreciates this and as a result we are seeing the slow disappearance of communal dumpsites. The project is going really well. Muhammed Jah, I wouldn’t use his name, personally. Muhammed Jah and I never had dealings prior to me becoming mayor. When I became mayor, a lot of businesses paid a courtesy call and it was the first time I had an interaction with him. When I became mayor, we sent out the public tender and he came and was passionate about bringing a solution. I think that was the difference between him and the others. He went over and beyond. He took members of our team to China to meet with the manufacturer. He brought the manufacturer here to study our terrain. You can never guess what another person is thinking. Of course, he is a businessman who wants to make money. But I saw that social element, that social entrepreneur in him. I think he did this for his legacy.

Your critics say it’s because of your mother who is one of the chief financiers of the UDP that you are mayor today.
It’s not fair and it’s invalid. I mean look, criticism is part of life. I am sure even you as a journalist you have your own critics who read your articles and say oh this guy is always exaggerating. It is life. You can’t expect everybody to clap for you. Critics are important. They keep you on your toes, but I am not worried about what they say although sometimes I listen. We are who we are and our background of course, always shapes us. My mother is one of the most principled and trusted lawyers in this country. In terms of our campaign I remember, I went to Darboe and said I want to be mayor of KMC. He told me, “Go back to the people, nobody can make you mayor of KMC, you have to get that validation from the people”. So, I won the primary. I was the most consistent. People looked at me as the least likely candidate. When I started, people used to introduce me as Amie Bensouda’s son. But by the time I was being known and my policies were being listened to, my mother was being referred to as the mayor’s mother.

You obviously succeeded in stopping the KMC grounds from being a political bantaba as was in the past. This upset some UDP supporters.
Many people have tried to turn this place into a political bureau. I am a different breed of politician. A lot of these values, I got from my party leader. This is one of the issues we discussed extensively. I told him I want KMC to be politics free. Of course, no politician is happy with that. No politician is happy with supporting a candidate and being told they cannot see that candidate on a daily basis, and being told they cannot do politics in that candidate’s office. True, some people got annoyed, some people got angry and left and switched allegiances. But I think all of that is good because ultimately, we want principled party members. We want party members who value what the party stands for. When we said we are coming for change, we meant it.

You were on up-and-coming entrepreneur who had already succeeded in initiating and marketing brands locally, a loving wife and a son before being inserted into the political orbit. Looking back few years down the line, do you have any regrets about entering politics?

I don’t have any regrets. I sometimes look back and said I wish I had entered earlier.

Because in these two years, the impact we’ve had on people’s lives – despite the challenges and frustrations – I mean there’s nothing that can compare to the smile of a mother who tells you because of you, I feel my life has improved. Look at the youths for example, some of them come up to me and said because of you we now have hope or we now have courage to enter politics. Even if I leave today, I will look back on these two years with a feeling of self-contentment.

In the run-up to what was described by many as a modern and well-run campaign leading to your election as mayor, you demanded that people understand that the municipality is not a game or talent show, and urged them to vote for you because you were the man who can make sure by 2022 lives in the municipality are significantly improved. Are you on course to attaining that?
When I was told we’ve marked two years in office, I was surprised because sometimes it feels we’ve been here for five years and it’s only because of the amount of action that has happened, the meetings, the programs. No matter who you support, one thing that cannot be denied is that there have been many initiatives, community engagements, more accountability, more transparency and outreach. We have gone down to community level and every councillor in this council now has an office, many of which are made of various political parties. The impact I think, is undeniable.

How significant was it for you that your first son was born on the very same day President Barrow was inaugurated?
It was something I was extremely proud of. Adama Barrow’s inauguration was not Adama Barrow’s inauguration; it was the New Gambia’s inauguration. It was so much euphoria. We used to go around and say ‘Oh Barrow Baby, Barrow Baby!’. We did not know who Adama Barrow was, but we thought we knew what he represented and that was ushering a new era of unlimited development, entrench democracy…we had this feeling that The Gambia was going to be a country of good health, good education, jobs for everybody.

What happened?
Those hopes were dashed. Look, I don’t want to be pointing fingers and I don’t want people to see my views as partisan, but ultimately the buck ends at the president’s table. I think what we needed was good leadership, but what we got was the opposite.

They used to call you ‘Super T’, why?
[Laughs] Who told you that? Yeah I used to be a fine defender. It was a long time ago when I used to play football. I missed those days.

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