The Gambia in Transition: Promise, challenge, the role of Africans in the Diaspora and partnership with the West

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Lecture sponsored by the Madison-Kanifing Sister City, September 16, 2017

By Baba Galleh Jallow

On December 1st, 2016 the unthinkable happened in Gambia: Yahya Jammeh, the country’s brutal dictator of 22 years lost presidential elections to Adama Barrow a barely known coalition candidate. The next day, December 2nd, another unthinkable event happened: Yahya Jammeh who had threatened to rule the country for a billion years, conceded defeat, congratulated the president-elect, and swore to God that he would hand over power and never question the results of the election. A week later on December 9, 2016, Mr. Jammeh announced that he no longer accepted the election results and that Gambians must go back to the polls to elect a president under what he called a God-fearing electoral commission. This unfortunate turn of events was not much of a surprise to many Gambians. But it sparked outrage and ignited a domestic and international protest movement and defiance campaign that, with the help of troops from the Economic Community of West African States eventually forced the dictator into exile. He now lives in Equatorial Guinea.

Yahya Jammeh seized power in a military coup on July 22, 1994 that dislodged a pseudo-democratic government that had been in power since the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1965. Promising to stay in power for only two years, Jammeh ruled the tiny West African country of 1.8 million people for 22 years. Under him, the Gambian people were subjected  to a brutal regime of arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial, disappearances, arson attacks on media houses, and the murder of critics, opponents and innocent citizens and non-citizens alike. Revelations from an ongoing commission of enquiry into his financial activities now reveal that Jammeh presided over one of Africa’s and the world’s most kleptocratic regime.  The commission’s findings show that Yahya Jammeh routinely withdrew millions of dollars from the Central Bank of The Gambia and other private banks without following any protocols. Gambians are likely to be even more horrified at the potential revelations of a truth and reconciliation commission which the new government is planning to put in place by the end of this year or early next year.

The fall of the Jammeh dictatorship ushered in a period of transition in The Gambia that is as full of promises as it is of challenges. Transitions from dictatorship to democracy are always tricky situations. They are characterized by all kinds of thorny issues that must be put in their proper context, clearly understood, and resolved in the best possible manner. The current transition period therefore provides an opportunity for Gambians to grapple both with a legacy of authoritarianism, corruption and the abuse of political power and authority, as well as with the realities of nurturing and living in a democracy. As the current Gambian government and ordinary citizens are fast learning, it is hard to deal with a legacy of dictatorship, and perhaps harder still to play by the rules of democracy. It is much easier to struggle for democratic rights than to observe and live by them. It is much easier to criticize than to accept criticism. And it is much easier to insist upon tolerance, fair play and transparency when one is outside of government than it is when one is the government. In any case, it is a pleasant fact that we now have a democratic government in The Gambia that, for any number of reasons, is unlikely to turn into a dictatorship of the sort we had for the past 22 years.

The fact that we now have a democratic government represents one of the biggest promises for The Gambia. Unlike the ousted dictatorship, the current coalition government under President Adama Barrow openly espouses democratic ideals. Time and time again, both the president and members of his government have reiterated their commitment to the rule of law and their determination to uphold all the freedoms enshrined in our national constitution. This is a significant departure from what obtained in the country for the past twenty-two years. Under Jammeh, democracy, human rights and the rule of law were treated with contempt and branded western impositions that had no place in The Gambia. In dismissing and characterizing democracy, human rights, the rule of law as western impositions, the former Gambian dictator was parroting a well-known African neo-exceptionalism  that allowed African dictators to indefinitely entrench themselves in power and trample upon the rights and dignities of their people. The fact that virtually all members of the new coalition government were more or less victims of dictatorship suggests that they know better than try to become dictators themselves. Furthermore, the new government is very much aware that the rich fund of goodwill and support they enjoy from the international community is directly tied to their professed respect for democratic rights and the rule of law. The moment they attempt to turn the country into a dictatorship, they will lose the international goodwill and support they currently enjoy.

Moreover, Gambians both at home and in the Diaspora will not easily allow themselves to be subjected to dictatorship again.  Already, every small sign of intolerance or departure from democratic norms – real or imagined – is met with a vigorous outpouring of condemnations and protests in all forms of media, including social media. Gambian opposition to government misdeeds is nothing new. Over the past two decades significant sections of the Gambian public both at home and in the Diaspora have been actively engaged in the fight against the Jammeh dictatorship. Gambians had tasted democracy and free expression during the first republic under Sir Dawda Jawara. The military coup of 1994 and the subsequent twenty-two years of brutal dictatorship failed to erode the democratic culture of free expression from the Gambian national character. And so the dictatorship had to perpetually contend with a consistently vigorous wave of opposition and criticism from Gambians both at home and in the Diaspora. Many Gambians were jailed. Many were killed. Many were forced into exile. But neither imprisonment, nor death or exile ever dampened the spirit of protest and opposition to tyranny and political injustice that characterize the landscape of Gambian history since 1994. It is a cause for optimism that that spirit of resistance and defiance to political injustice is very much alive and growing among Gambian communities at home and in the Diaspora. Any attempts by the current or future governments to revert to the politics of authoritarianism will be met with stiff resistance by the Gambian people. That is a promising reality that Gambians and all friends of The Gambia can afford to celebrate.

Another challenge Gambians have to contend with during this transition period is the politics of personality or the cult of personality. Because dictatorships emanate from and revolve around single individuals, the cult of personality becomes their most defining characteristic. The dictator usurps the personality of the state and insists on acting as the sole custodian of the national interest. He becomes a law unto himself. He disregards public laws and institutions whenever it suits him. He becomes a single-person government from whom all major statements and decisions of national importance emanate. The rest of the government and the general public lose their right to make any comments or independent observations on issues of national concern. The danger is that like a virus the personality cult of the dictator spreads throughout the body politic. It infects and weakens the socio-economic and political institutions and structures of the state. And it replicates itself in all public offices. Because the head of state has no regard for rules and regulations governing proper behavior in the conduct of public affairs, public officials find it easy to also personalize their authority. Like the dictator, they also disregard rules and regulations governing their roles and behaviors in the conduct of public affairs. Every person becomes a king or queen unto themselves. Every person reaps for their personal benefit the fruits of public office to the detriment of the national interest. For ordinary citizens, meeting official requirements or qualifications for public services or benefits does not always guarantee the enjoyment of such services or benefits from public institutions. Citizens are forced to beg and bribe public officials in order to enjoy what is rightfully theirs because public officials act as if they own the services they are hired to render. This situation encourages bribery and corruption at all levels of society and represents a particularly tricky challenge in The Gambia’s current transition from dictatorship to democracy.

In addition to intolerance and the personality cult, other legacies of the Jammeh dictatorship Gambians must address and resolve include the absence of term limits in our constitution and the legacy of victimization, pain, and loss suffered by many individuals and families over the past twenty-two years. When he seized power in 1994, Jammeh promised to institute terms limits in the Gambian constitution. When two years later he decided to retire from the military and contest the presidency as a civilian candidate, he conveniently removed the term limit provision in the new constitution. He liked to boast that he would in fact rule the Gambia for a billion years and that if Gambians did not like it, they could go to hell. But while there is almost unanimous agreement of public opinion on the need for presidential term limits in our constitution, some concerns are being expressed over the usefulness of establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to explore Jammeh’s legacy of oppression. With all due respect to those who are skeptical of the utility of a TRC process, we are of the opinion that the Gambian people and the families of people like Ousman Koro Ceesay, Deyda Hydara, Daba Marena and Chief Ebrima Manneh among many others who lost their lives during the dictatorship deserve to have as complete a picture of their stories as possible unearthed, recorded and preserved for future generations. We need to know what happened on the night of November 11, 1994 when a number of soldiers were killed at Bakau Barracks and buried at yet unidentified locations. We need to know events leading up to the gruesome murders of Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay and veteran journalist Deyda Hydara. Revealing the hidden history of these and other unfortunate events is one of many uses of a TRC process in our transition to democracy. A TRC process will yield invaluable insights into the workings of a brutal dictatorship. And it will throw invaluable light on the subtle complexities of the human mind grappling with unusual situations of power and powerlessness, or life and death, and ultimately, of the fact of being human itself. We are confident that Gambians are able to engage in a TRC process that will be driven by a genuine desire to unearth the truth, accord justice, provide closure, and among other things, create a more harmonious, more enlightened, and more empowered society.

But while The Gambia enjoys the promise of a working democratic state, we are challenged to transform our political culture in ways that will remove some chronic misconceptions on the nature of government in a nation-state system. Across Africa and in The Gambia, societies still grapple with understanding the difference between traditional notions of governance anchored around the concept of divine right of rulers and the nature and workings of constitutional republics. In many cases, support for political parties inside and outside of government remains rooted in sub-national considerations like ethnicity and patronage and not in party policies or programs. The problem persists because no serious effort has been made to educate ordinary people on the nature and workings of the constitutional nation-state system that governs their lives.  This is a particularly tricky challenge because government, the entity best equipped to conduct this process of political enlightenment and empowerment, is also the entity that potentially stands to lose most from an enlightened and empowered citizenry. Empowering the people means showing them the limits of government power and placing in their hands the tools to remove their government if they are dissatisfied with its performance. But however difficult and potentially self-subversive this task is, it is one every well-meaning government should carry out in the bigger interest of the nation.

During this transition period, Gambians are very much challenged to keep our national conversation civil and capable of yielding the desired results. Dictatorships breed cultures of intolerance to dissenting opinion. The fact that intolerance often breeds intolerance makes it inevitable that the culture of intolerance among sections of Gambian society is likely to affect other Gambians who feel morally justified to rebuff intolerant opinions with intolerant opinions. Having a civil conversation over issues of national concern is therefore a key challenge in our current situation. Some of us insist on the absolute rightness of our views and positions on matters of common national interest. We dismiss out of hand other people’s views and opinions on the same matters of common national interest. For this reason, the national interest is often subjected to the personal or group interest as each party to the conversation displays hostile intolerance to the other’s position. In the final analysis, Gambians are challenged to nurture and maintain a spirit and culture of healthy civility during this transition process. Because the transition itself is born out of a democratic process, it will not be too difficult to nurture political civility which is a defining characteristic of democratic cultures.

It is to our collective national credit that significant sections of the Gambian Diaspora have consistently stayed involved in our domestic politics. While there was and continues to be a sizeable number of Diaspora Gambians who maintain a stony silence over political issues in our country, there is a critical mass of Gambians who have never stopped advocating for an end to dictatorship in our country. The number of critical voices rapidly increased over the years as more and more journalists and human rights activists were forced into exile by the Jammeh dictatorship. By 2016 when the dictatorship finally collapsed, the Gambian Diaspora could boast a number of vibrant online newspapers that closely followed events at home and provided useful platforms for challenging the Jammeh dictatorship. The Gambian Diaspora could also boast of industrious citizens like Madison City Council’s Alderman Baldeh, Jerrreh Kujabi and others who are constantly looking for ways and means of promoting the welfare of our country and society through partnerships like the Madison-Kanifing Sister City initiative. They have also supported both public and private institutions at home in their fight against poverty, disease and poor educational and other facilities. It appears that more and more Diaspora Gambians are getting involved in similar activities and maintaining a healthy interest in our country’s political evolution during this transition period and beyond. While partnership with the West is often discouraged by xenophobic sections of Western societies, Gambians and Africans must continue looking for partnership and collaboration with the best and brightest in Western societies such as the City of Madison. God bless Madison and the State of Wisconsin. God bless the United States of America.  And God bless The Gambia.

Thank you all for your kind attention.

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