Challenges of The Gambia’s Transition To Democracy.
By Demba Ali Jawo.
135 pp. Published by The Deyda Hydara Trust.
Timbooktoo Bookshop. Garba Jahumpa Rd., Bakau. D150.
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D. A. Jawo Crystallizes a Nation in Transit
By Cherno Baba Jallow
In the fading days of the Jawara presidency, it seemed as if things weren’t moving – or moving fast enough. Within the confines of presidential power and far, far away, the national soul was living listlessly. The custodians of power and authority were napping at the wheel. Apathy, on the part of those vested with executive power, had compelled a hitherto pliant citizenry to take notice and wish, albeit quietly, for some movement of the political tectonic plates. Something had to give. Some fresh blood needed to be injected into the nation’s capillaries.
Enter the July 22nd 1994 military take-over. If Gambians wanted some action, some drama, in exchange for the dull stasis of power and the immobility of currents, there you have it! Then-Army lieutenant Yahya Jammeh and colleagues came crashing the gates, presenting us with an oceanic plenitude of happenings that, if nothing else, released us from the predictability of our times. Military leaders, as opposed to their civilian counterparts, despise the stability of routine. Whether by flourishes of grandiloquent oratory or a rash of knee-jerk actions, they sure know how to stir the pot. Impulsiveness and by derivation, turbulence, on the political scene, is in the DNA of military regimes.
Indeed from 1994 to 2000, too much was happening – and happening fast enough in The Gambia for the retentive powers of any one individual. The Gambia found itself in a ceaseless web of events – events that require documenting, in the interest of posterity and national endowment, by some of us who were present when it all happened. This is what the veteran journalist and commentator D. A. Jawo attempts to do in his new book, Focus: Challenges of The Gambia’s Transition To Democracy. This book, unlike his co-authored first, on the life and times of the late managing editor Deyda Hydara, is a collection of his commentaries published in his Focus column which ran in the Daily Observer from 1994 to 1999. The column ended because Jawo was fired immediately after the sale of the paper to businessman Amadou Samba.
“The series of articles in this book,” Jawo writes in the preface, “covers a significant period in the history of The Gambia. There is no doubt that the type of governance system operating today and the various aspects of political and social life in this country are largely shaped by what transpired during the military regime and the transition to civilian rule.”
The book proper is organized into three different parts covering the transitional phase, governance in the first years of civilian president Jammeh and a mix-bag of issues tangential, but still relevant, to the national question.
On whether the transition program was still on course, Jawo is sounding an alarm: “When Chairman Jammeh recently told a visiting UN envoy that the AFPRC would hold elections before July if the UNDP or any other development partner would be ready to fund the transition programme, most people were confused as to what he exactly meant by that. Is the holding of elections conditional to the funding, or would the funding only be a catalyst for bringing it about? The apparent ambiguity in his statements seems to have given skeptics added ammunition to question the sincerity of the AFPRC to honour the transition programme.”
Jawo lamented over a timetable running far from complete: the “delimitation of constituency boundaries,” voter registration, a debate and referendum on the new constitution, the lifting of the ban on political activity and the holding of presidential and general elections. “Whatever the reason for the delay, there is a justifiable apprehension about it.” Jawo also frowns at the idea of banning some politicians from contesting in future elections: “Although one would understand a ban on the use of old party names, a ban on any person from participating in the political process at whatever level would not be in the country’s interest. This is because the exercise of the franchise is an inalienable political right of every citizen.”
But in those days, the crabby talk didn’t only center on banning certain members of society from political office; it is also extended to actually not holding elections at all. Jammeh, at a remove from the chorus he actually fostered, allowed some of his underlings to roam the countryside, calling for no elections. Then-Captain Yankuba Touray and then-Minister of Health, Social Welfare and Women’s Affairs, Nyimasata Sanneh-Bojang went on provincial tours, campaigning against holding elections. Jawo sees Jammeh’s implicit approval: “The fact … that Chairman Jammeh was recently quoted as saying that Gambians have the right to decide whether or not they want elections, seems to be a tacit endorsement of Mrs. Sanneh Bojang’s position.”
Throughout the book, one sees in Jawo not only a columnist, but also a campaigner for public integrity, one who is working tirelessly, through the printed word, to retrieve The Gambia from the forces of absurdity. Jawo sees through the deceit of the so-called ‘opinion leaders’ and the July 22nd Movement in calling for no elections. One can imagine him shaking his head in disbelief as he penned his columns. The audacity with which some people, privately egged on by the authorities, were willing to allow the perpetuation of military rule, was beyond thinkable.
In the column, “Gambians deserve a more open system,” Jawo was more empathic about matters of governance. “It’s now quite obvious that the present political arena is far less liberal than what existed during the PPP era. Even though the deposed PPP regime had an iron-grip over the public media, at least all political parties were given equal coverage during the election campaigns. This is certainly not the case at present, especially when we reflect on what happened during the presidential elections in September when the public media was monopolized by President Jammeh and his party.” Jammeh’s monopolization of the public space during elections has taken on larger dimensions since.
Jawo’s Focus is a litany of observations, spurred on by the realities at the time, on many aspects of Gambian life – from xenophobia to chieftaincy, from the ‘Fina’ syndrome to religious intolerance, from Female Genital Mutilation to the new Gambia TV. The author writes about these issues through the prism of military rule, thereby providing new layers of understanding about how a tumult in a society’s political landscape can trigger some drastic changes in the ways society conducts itself or how certain aspects of public life are handled by the new occupiers of power. For example, during the PPP days, the controversial issue of Female Genital Mutilation was at best, a moot subject or something preferably sorted out through dialogue and consent. But under the APRC, Jammeh waded into the issue headlong, ordering commands as if he were, Jawo quoting the Foroyaa newspaper, an absolute monarch.
The military coup created a new breed of praise-singers, who took their craft to dizzying heights. The ‘Fina’ phenomenon – named after the former vice-president Saihou Sabally, (‘Fina Sabally’) for his alleged notorious bootlicking, reared its ugly head again, but this time making serious in-roads into the fabric of Gambian society. “… there are some people,” the author writes mockingly, “who would go to any extent in order to get the attention of Chairman Jammeh and the junta and they use all kinds of means to achieve that, including singing his praises and denouncing in the strongest possible terms former President Jawara and the PPP. Can you imagine a prominent PPP ‘Yai Compin’, Aji Fatou Sallah now publicly saying it was a mistake that she supported the former regime? One could not help but wonder why she never realized her mistake until after the PPP regime was overthrown.”
Jawo has a gift for simplicity. His writings are clear-cut, depicting a straightforward prose accommodating to a cross-section of his readers. And he is not the kind of a commentator who likes to go on the warpath, carrying out some hard-hitting bombardments, a trait in many a writer within the Gambian commentariat. He just wants to make his points across and as intelligibly as reasonably. In the article, “A date with the NIA,” Jawo is reasonable to a fault: “… I still cannot understand what purpose it would serve to subject us to such treatment just because may be someone high up did not like what we wrote. I thought the most sensible thing to do was to have called us to discuss the matter and find an acceptable solution rather than using their might to detain us incommunicado like dangerous criminals in such a dangerous place.”
There are two concerns about the book: One, sometimes Jawo has a habit of drifting into a reporter’s mindset when he should just stay being an opinion columnist, unshackled by the middle-of-the-road vernacular of news writers. In his column, “The Transition programme – still on course?,” Jawo writes on the delay of registration of voters, the delimitation of constituency boundaries, a referendum on the constitution and other precursors to democratic elections: “Some people are wondering why the AFPRC junta cannot speed up the process by simultaneously carrying out some of these activities… however it has been pointed out that such an approach may not be practical because of these activities cannot be simultaneously done for various obvious reasons …some feel that the transition programme is just as important as some of the AFPRC projects – if not even more urgent – and yet, the junta manages to find funding for these other projects but not the transition programme.”
A veteran reporter himself, and currently head of the English Desk at the African Press Agency in Dakar, Jawo can be forgiven for employing a reporter’s hand in what are supposed to be opinion pieces. It is just that some readers, with an insatiable thirst for viewpoints reflective of staked-out positions, can easily tire off such dreary reporting, wondering where the beef is after all.
And two, Focus is missing something as in a self-flagellation – a rethinking on an opinion piece about an issue or idea which turned out to be wrong or handicapped by emergent realities. Columnists are manufacturers of opinion, and like all other manufacturers, their products can be defective sometimes. And once in a while, sometimes at year’s end, opinion writers, in the face of new evidence, do engage in some self-accounting, saying they got it wrong after all. Jawo had an opportunity for some self-critique.
In the first paragraph of the piece, “The Opinion Leaders – whose opinion do they represent?” Jawo makes a startling commentary on why Jammeh won’t run for the presidency: “It is apparently becoming increasingly clear that Chairman Jammeh has no intentions of contesting the presidency or any other elective office during the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, contrary to what many people had anticipated. Otherwise, it is hard to reconcile his harsh criticisms of politics and politicians only to turn around and become one.” Jawo’s readers will wince at such sweeping observations.
At the time, Jammeh was beginning to learn the craft of pretentious distillations, something military leaders do and master over time, in their efforts to masquerade their real intentions. Former Nigerian military leader Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida once said that coup leaders like to intentionally give sweet promises and feel-good speeches to appear legitimate and trustworthy to the people. It is a smokescreen. In the early 1990s, Jammeh became the populist-man-of-the-people, always harping on the twin principles of accountability and transparency and lashing out at politics and politicians. But behind a veneer of high-minded populism, lived an inscrutable desire to hang onto power. By the way, how many coup leaders in Africa have willingly handed over power and returned to the barracks? The list is slender.
Even though Jawo left some wriggle room for uncertainty about Jammeh’s political ambitions by employing the adverb apparently in the aforementioned excerpt, it still beggars belief that he would cite Jammeh’s condemnations of politics and its players as ‘evidence’ of the former Army lieutenant’s indisposition to electoral politics and presidential power.
No big deal. These miscues pale into insignificance when balanced against Jawo’s thoughtful reflections and the multidimensionality of his Focus. He comes out light years ahead of the criticisms of a petulant book reviewer. Jawo has produced a serious, important book for a variety of audiences: students, historians, politicians and Diaspora Gambians. If you were not present in The Gambia or if you had not been clued-up on the Gambian political scene circa 1994, this book will bring you up to speed, or better yet, dial you back to those frenzied episodes ensuing Jammeh’s ascendancy.
The late Gambian poet and surgeon Dr. Lenrie Peters, who wrote the book’s foreword, was a better reviewer: “This is a book of infinite variety to be read by Gambians and non-Gambians alike who wish The Gambia well. Here, faced with the swing of the global economy, a new economic status is developing on the African scene, including the need for change. Who knows how far the vision will lead? The Guinea Bissau case makes it necessary that we should make our backyards clean.”
Jawo’s Focus is a high-water mark of his journalistic career and a monument to Gambian journalism. On a broader canvass, his book hands us a mother lode of information with which to decipher the past. Soon after Jammeh departed the scene, Focus would be an invaluable guide to our thorough understanding of what really happened – and why.