The Janneh Commission and Lessons from American slavery

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Saul Saidykhan

I believe Yahya Jammeh’s greatest gift to us Gambians is he has forced those of us who were adults before he came along (now 40 years and over) to reveal our true characters unwittingly. Before Jammeh, Gambians enjoyed a relatively stable and evolving democracy. Generally, one could openly say anything one pleases without fear of arrest or harassment.  We had a leader who wasn’t bold and imaginative enough to make any real attempt to radically change the socio-economic paradigm of The Gambia, but he had the good sense and decency to let Gambians be, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed internationally as it became the deciding factor in winning Gambia the honor of hosting the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In short, the Jawara government didn’t do enough for the people for assorted reasons – the paucity of both human and material resources, incompetence, indiscipline, … so on, but it didn’t do anything to hamper any Gambian from pursuing their dream either.

However, you couldn’t tell this reality from the way Jawara was treated and labelled in urban Gambia. Various Vous comprising mainly of angry, discontented, impatient, ill-equipped, and ill-informed urban youth kept up a relentless cacophony of mutually-reinforcing anti-Jawara propaganda that painted the modest man from Barajally “Sir Fafa” personally as a corrupt, incompetent, and parochial ruler who was running Gambia into the ground. Some of these Vous later coalesced into MOJA (Movement of Justice in Africa), gradually expanding their network and reach. When I moved to Tallinding permanently in the late ‘70s, this was the scene I found. Urban Gambia Vous seemed to be competing in a race to produce a native Fidel Castro, or an alpha Revolutionary. Everyone was brave. Everyone talked tough against a supposedly suffocating oppressive Gambian state. To us impressionable youngsters, this was attractive and sexy. After a rash of crimes including the burning of a small yacht donated to the Gambia by Germany for president Jawara’s use allegedly by youths under the influence of the head of MOJA- Koro Sallah, the PPP government banned the group. (Per Jawara in his auto-bio, Kairaba, Koro Sallah visited him in London and confessed to the crime and apologized.

When Kukoi Samba Sanyang and his gang (all of who I was familiar with by sight,) struck in July 1981, only fifteen months after another MOJA aficionado Master Sgt. Samuel Doe violently removed the Americo-Liberian hegemony in Monrovia, many of the various Vous and MOJA members mindlessly joined the dangerous adventurists with alacrity resulting in very tragic consequences. Several years later, PDOIS would pick up where the proscribed MOJA left off. The propaganda, fiery tough-talking rhetoric and unrealistic visions of an idyllic Gambia– despite our glaring lack of the requisite human and material resources, didn’t change much as the same drum beat continued. Thirteen years after Kukoi, Yahya Jammeh entered the picture. And EVERYTHING changed!

The timeless adage that warns us to be mindful of what we wish for is relevant here, because Jawara’s successor, Yahya Jammeh quickly started exhibiting the very traits the urban revolutionary-wanna bes were falsely tagging Jawara with.  Curiously, the boldness and fiery tough-talking rhetoric of the MOJA-PDOIS allies in the Jawara era completely disappeared. Even when it became crystal clear that we were dealing with a murderous kleptocrat determined to rule as a medieval monarch, our erstwhile revolutionaries kept quiet or played nice with Jammeh. Many saw nothing wrong in joining the irredeemable tyrant until he kicked them to the curb! Who would have thought? I’m just thankful Jammeh has forced us to unmask ourselves.

The main lesson of that Revolutionary Era should be especially useful to – ironically the Yahya Jammeh Generation, who don’t know the history.  This is pertinent because we’re currently witnessing a resurgence of the same type of Revolutionary Era madness – replete with the creation of myths from half-truths, and declaration of wars on an imaginary oppressive autocrat. Instead of channeling our energies to finding solutions to our tiny country’s myriad problems, or ensuring that our meagre resources are used judiciously by ALL public officials, we’re being stampeded into another senseless cycle of crisis characterized by individual citizens insisting on weaving their unique narratives irrespective of verifiable facts and reality.  This is crazy and should be challenged. Facts must matter if we’re to succeed in building a nation out of the country we currently have!

The sad truth is, we have no shortage of colorful characters in The Gambia. Often, the biggest mistake we Gambians make is judging people by what they say, not how they behave. This continues to cost us dearly. For pointers, all one needs to do is watch the proceedings at the ongoing Janneh Commission which sometimes look like some cruel real-life theater being performed at the expense of Gambians. Thus far, we have seen  the Coward who had a Hobbesian fear of mighty Jammeh that prevented him from following his conscience; we  have seen the  two-faced Hypocrite who claims to despise and disagree with Jammeh and his management style, but sees no contradiction in continuing to serve him loyally for years; and we have seen the Opportunist who for most of Jammeh’s rule never passed the chance to take unfair advantage of  Jammeh’s abuse of office and Due Process at the expense of  other Gambians while claiming complete innocence. Some of the witnesses fall into multiple categories. They weave different tales, but they want us to believe one thing: the ONLY guilty person is Yahya Jammeh! Gallingly, some of these crooks brought their posse along to their hearing. My question is: Isn’t Yahya Jammeh someone else’s relative too? We Gambians truly are a funny people.

If you don’t recognize these characters, you’re not paying attention to what most of the witnesses who testified before the Commission so far swore to. A fellow who christened himself our country’s giant scribe, but never saw anything wrong with Yahya Jammeh’s madness to educate us about, assaulted our collective intelligence severally with his arrogant and pugnacious posturing about the millions he helped Jammeh loot with his autograph.  A young woman known to have mysteriously acquired some magnificent buildings from which she only accepts US Dollars in rent, told us with a straight face that Yahya Jammeh had “literally forced” her to sign a document. We know Jammeh forces other peoples’ women to do certain things “literally”. However, signing documents isn’t one of them.  But the most mendacious testimony from a witness so far is the one woven by Jammeh’s erstwhile business face who swore he only visited Jammeh a few times. This, despite a deluge of living witnesses who remember a completely different thing.  He proclaimed, “no one expected a day like this will come”, only to contradict himself later by saying he had been keeping his nose clean because he “knew a day like this will come.” I suppose he never heard Judge Judy’s dictum: “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory”! Jammeh’s betrayer concocted so many tales he couldn’t remember the bullcrap he had spun earlier!

Watching the hearings, two characters from American slavery now popularized by the American entertainment industry keep coming to my mind: “Uncle Tom” and “Mother Eff-er”. These two terms are commonly used globally, yet many are unaware of their origin.

Uncle Tom is the title character of a fact-fiction novel (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s. It was the most popular novel of 19th century America, and it is still viewed as one of the main catalysts for the American civil war. Abe Lincoln reportedly credited the author for starting the American civil war. That, because the story is so powerful that it quickly galvanized public sentiments in the northern part of the US against slavery after its publication. Uncle Tom was a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and one of many slaves belonging to a relatively kind-hearted man who ran up debts he couldn’t pay and intended to sell Uncle Tom and Harry, the young son of Eliza, the maid of his wife. On overhearing of the cruel plan of their master, brave Eliza quickly alerted Tom and his wife, and informed them of her resolve to escape, and save her child from becoming someone’s slave. But despite Eliza’s entreaty for Tom to join her and her husband George, a slave in a neighboring plantation- in their endeavor to make a dash for freedom, Tom foolishly refused and stayed put. Soon after, he was sold to a mean slave merchant who sold him to a man whose daughter he saved from drowning on the way to a slave market. While he was counting the days to his freedom as promised by his “kind” new master, fate slapped Tom in the face when that man was killed and his widow -who is a hard-core racist, disregarded his wish, and quickly sold Tom to her kind in the deep South. In that destination, Tom’s piety and dedication to The Good Book didn’t win him any favors. He was maltreated and eventually brutalized to death.

Brave Eliza on the other hand, escaped with her son from the plantation they were held at in Kentucky with Slave Hunters at her heels. She crossed the half-frozen Ohio river by foot to that State where she was sheltered by a Quaker community where they waited for the arrival of George. With the help of the Quakers, Eliza and her family escaped to Canada through Lake Erie from Sandusky, Ohio.

“Mother Eff-er” is so commonly used, it has now lost its sting. But its origin is rooted in one of the ugliest chapters of American slavery. You see, when the importation of Africans into America as slaves was banned in the early 1800s, the hard-core racists in the American South (Virginia and North Carolina especially,) came up with the cruel idea to BREED and SELL the Africans they already hold captive like wild animals. And in this barbaric design, they didn’t care about the biological relationship between the slaves. They simply paired healthy males with healthy females regardless of whether they are mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, or aunts and nephews. But here is where things started going awry: despite the heavy price they’re sure to pay for their defiance (including death,) many slaves flat-out refused to sleep with their mothers and sisters. In fact, many committed suicide by attacking those trying to make them “breed “their blood relatives. Worse, many slave women who were forced to be bred by their sons or nephews immediately killed the babies they gave birth to! Those cowards who out of fear of punishment agree to breed their own mothers were mocked and shamed by other slaves by being called “Mother Eff-er.” So, the origin of the term is ugly, and its meaning was literal. This became the death knell for this cruel experiment! The high mortality rate, and the insistence of slaves to maintain their dignity rendered that cruel project a disaster.

As such, when you watch the Janneh Commission, keep these two characters in mind vis-à-vis their relationship with Yahya Jammeh, and ponder the reasons they give for treating our Gambia the way they did.

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