Dateline: February 18th, 1982. Both myself and my homeland, The Gambia were teenagers, my country being a little older than me. Young Gambia had rudely lost its innocence only seven months earlier when the late Kukoi Samba Sanyang led a group of mostly semi-literate, impatient, and idealistic young men to seize power while President Jawara was away on his annual vacation in England during which he had attended the wedding of the British Royal heir apparent Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana Spencer. For all practical purposes, Kukoi and his rag-tag team – who did have some support both within the then para-military Field Force and among the civilian population in the urban areas, got the better of the Gambia’s small loyal security forces by confining them to the Gambia Police Head Quarters in Banjul. Kukoi effectively took control of the Field Force camp in Bakau for several days. Which was why the Jawara government invoked the Mutual Defense Agreement it had signed with Senegal in the 1960s for the latter to intervene to flush out the rebels.
Anyhow, there I was in McCarthy Square on February 18th, 1982, -one of thousands of school children, dressed in what I believe were my cleanest uniforms to welcome and fete the august neighbor who had saved us from Kukoi and his cohorts: the new President of Senegal, Abdou Joof.
President Joof, the lanky, skinny fellow from Louga has many things in common with his host President Jawara. To begin with, both men are quiet, introverted, and taciturn personalities who are remarkably disciplined in terms of their behavior and utterances. Beyond the necessary, they say very little whether in public or private according to those who’ve had personal dealings with them. Both men are also accidental presidents. They happen to be very bright individuals who were highly competent professionally at their jobs which became the decisive factor for others to call on them to lead their respective countries though they lack certain other crucial qualities. The one crucial quality the two men lacked is the steeliness to keep their team members in check. In a nutshell, both men are at the core more like Followers who were forced into the top leadership position by circumstances. Both men excelled in their respective civil service roles because they have no problems following the rules to the letter and doing everything by the book just as they learnt from the Europeans. However, that’s part of the issue. Because of the exigency, few noticed that the colonial environment that made the two men effective bureaucrats not only does not exist in the new “Independent” native climes, but more importantly, the individual personalities of the two men aren’t transferable traits to their underlings. Someone is either competent and or disciplined or is not. And it takes a leader with strong backbone to enforce discipline or compliance in our clime given all the socio-political factors that encourage indiscipline including corruption and mal-administration. It is mainly this steeliness deficiency that would ultimately be the bane of the respective political careers of both presidents Joof and Jawara.
As Regional Administrator, Abdou Joof was still in his 20s when President Senghore started honing unto him as his potential successor. The reason was simple. Like most of his peers, Senghore had to contend with a largely incompetent and corrupt cabinet. Senghore was particularly miffed that key Ministers in his first couple of governments ALL missed by wide margins the targets they had mutually agreed on in every area except for Employment which they all surpassed significantly. And it was obvious to him why they surpassed in the Employment category- nepotism: every Minister had a relative, or some IOU to satisfy with a government job. Now, Senghore was a French stooge, but he wasn’t stupid. He figured it was in Senegal’s best interest for him to do everything to prevent some of the men around him from ascending power. Though young enough to be a son to some of the men jockeying to replace Senghore, Abdou Joof’s management style quickly became a big asset to him once Senghore started looking outside his original senior circles. Naturally, we being Africans, allegations of tribalism started flying around because both Senghore and Joof are from the same patrilineal ethnic stock. It also didn’t help matters that Senghore refused the famed anthropologist Sheik Anta Jobe’s persistent lobbying to officially declare Senegal a Wolof State. But any objective look at the record of the choices he had will vindicate Senghore especially given Senghore had already offended the Fulani block by politically eliminating Mamadou Jah, the Fulani politician he had partnered with against Lamine Gueye since 1948, but who he later accused of being behind Senegal’s only credible post-colonial coup attempt in 1962 which the French helped him to quickly nip in the bud.
As a Footnote, Mamadou Jah was the political idol/godfather of P.S. Njie. Of modern Senegal’s founders, he was the one who made no secret of his desire to annex Gambia. Probably, had he succeeded in pushing out Senghore in ’62, he’d have made a move for Gambia, a dream that is still alive in Senegal. Instead, he spent twelve years in prison for trying to overthrow Senghore whose mom is Fulani – something those who accuse him of tribalism never mention.
President Jawara’s story is simpler and more familiar. Most Gambians may never have heard of him had a much younger man named Lamin Marenah from Kudang accepted entreaties from a group of Mandinka elders from around the country to lead a Country/Protectorate People’s Party they were mulling in the late 50s.
Anyway, the traditional Presidential Address for February 18th, 1982 passed predictably when it comes to the two introverted bureaucratic presidents. They both gave speeches that are boring even if full of a mixture of hope and potential booty-traps that would ultimately explode in a rather dramatic way seven years later. The show that day was stolen by a Yai Compin from Banjul: Aji Fatou Sallah. I’ll never forget the passion of that woman and the reaction of the crowd to her speech that day. The highlight of which was:
(In Wolof) “On my way here today, I passed kids on the streets singing and clapping ‘papa has come, papa has come’. The kids are singing this song because even the kids know the depth from which papa pulled them is steep!” The ovation was spontaneous and deafening. People talked about that speech for weeks. Doubters could contact Radio Gambia veterans for the tape or the Senegalese may still have it.
Fast-forward to late June 2012, I was on vacation with my family traveling by road from Virginia south-wards. We stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, enroute to Atlanta, Georgia. We received a text message from the Gambian American Association of the DC Area on behalf of a couple in Maryland inviting us to a Dua (prayers/charity) for one Aji Fatou Sallah. When my wife red out the message, I wondered aloud if it was Jawara’s Aji Fatou Sallah. She didn’t know. When I later asked someone, I was told it is, but the woman had become Yaya Jammeh’s with the same gusto. Maybe I’m still too young to understand how that works. Real lesson.
In any case, after recalling her 1982 speech at McCarthy Square to my family, I found it instructive that President Jawara has seen so much and lived long enough to survive almost all the people he went toe to toe with and many who’ve used, maligned or betrayed him egregiously over the years. I’m not particularly religious, but I think the almighty is telling us something. That the Alkalo of Barajally is still strong, lucid, and looking dignified at 93 says something. Real lesson.
2012 was the first time I had a rather compelling superstitious feeling that the Old Man is probably not going anywhere until Yaya Jammeh leaves. I told my wife and several friends this but they all thought I was joking. Don’t ask me why because I can’t explain it. It’s just one of those creepy gut feelings one gets about certain things, people, or events.
So, a month ago, when I saw former President Jawara and President Barrow on Gambian state TV sitting side by side during a courtesy visit by the latter, it looked surreal but not unexpected. There was the ninety-three years old Jawara, still lucid, praying for the newest member of Gambia’s most prized exclusive club. A Kaironews editorial days later captured my sentiments: “Jawara finally gets what he wants!” However, there is more to the picture. I hate to state this, but the Old Man is Signing Off. He was merely sticking around to see the comeuppance of the poseur who upended his graceful retirement plan. The Jawara I saw on TV last month is signaling to an ungrateful country that he has done his bit and is about to move on to our mutual ultimate home. My instinct tells me he has met and seen his last Gambian president. In short, the meeting between him and Barrow was more of a symbolic dignified Hand-Over ceremony that he never got to do than a Courtesy Call. Since we never appreciated what he did for us, and instead tagged him all manner of labels- undemocratic, corrupt, tribalist, nepotic, incompetent, the Great Arbiter has now delivered its judgment on all those issues for us because his main nemesis has PROVEN himself to be a text book definition of all those labels we allowed Jawara to be tagged with in our name. Though he has his faults, in many ways, Barajally Kairaba is akin to the virtuous Saibo Lamin Dumbuya that the irreplaceable Kora maestro Lalo Keba Drammeh extolled decades ago in a track he called Kodi Na Julo, Sani Na Julo (literally money has its merchant, gold has its merchant.) Like Saibo Dumbuya, Jawara’s enemies falsely slandered him in unconscionable ways only for the almighty to absolve him with time by giving Gambia a successor who was exactly what Jawara’s accusers were falsely claiming he was: corrupt, autocratic, nepotic, and tribalist. Real lesson.
On the surreality of the TV image of Barrow and Jawara itself? Here is a lesson all those with eyes to see or sense to figure things out can take stock of. A year ago, the UDP had just wrapped up its Congress in Basse where it re-elected most of its old leadership. It’s Youth Leader, the indefatigable Ebrima Bojang who is popularly known by his nick names Solo Sandeng retained his position. At the time, The Gambia’s self-declared owner was loose on the public stage, galivanting and spewing hateful and divisive ethnic-tinged rhetoric. He wielded the power of life and death over the hapless Gambian nation and exercised it often with alacrity. Long accustomed to getting his way by coercion, he had decreed what topics are up for discussion in the impending election season and which ones are not. Among the topics proscribed is needed electoral reforms to level the playing field. With the skewed system he had in place, he was certain he would rule for the rest of his natural life, or at the worst, he’ll get to decide who succeeds him. (The billion years’ rule that gets quoted often is merely hyperbole that he said once to spite the West.) But there’s no doubt Yaya Jammeh was determined to rule till death. So, when Solo Sandeng led a small group of UDP party supporters with a banner in a peaceful protest at Westfield calling for Electoral Reforms only weeks after his Basse re-election, the brutality they were met with was no accident. Shortly after Solo Sandeng’s murder, almost the entire UDP Executive Committee was arrested, charged, prosecuted, and quickly sentenced to three years’ jail terms for demanding the release of Solo Sandeng‘s remains.
What is notable is, over three years earlier, the man Yaya Jammeh and his minions believed would likely succeed the septuagenarian UDP Party leader Amadou Sanneh was arrested, tortured, humiliated, and then jailed for writing a testimonial for a would-be migrant that as I wrote previously is very kind to the Jammeh government compared to what many independent international Human Rights organizations were saying. To Jammeh, having crippled the UDP, he had solved his political opposition problem. That was Jammeh’s first Big mistake. (Jammeh has never taken the other Gambian opposition parties seriously.) That’s perhaps because he knows something the generality of Gambians don’t. Some food for thought though. Real lesson.
Anyhow, a year ago, current President Barrow was on nobody’s radar as a potential candidate for the top job. Nor had he said or done anything to suggest that he wants the job. One of my brothers-in-law paid his monthly rent through Barrow for years. He describes him as a typical genial, bubbly, country man: generous, open-hearted, honest. Each time he goes to pay his rent, Barrow will find an excuse to keep him in his house so they can eat the next meal together. They’ll discuss life, sports, politics. It never occurred to my brother-in-law that he was dealing with the next Gambian president. But here we are. Real lesson.
However, the cardinal lesson to learn from the Yaya Jammeh nightmare is his manner of capitulation. Even for someone like myself who has long lampooned Jammeh for his lack of basic knowledge about history generally and Manding history in particular, I was stunned by how Jammeh has been humbled in the end by the almighty with an ironic twist. Here is a man who spent most of his two decades in power persecuting, demonizing, denigrating, marginalizing, openly discriminating against, and killing Mandinka people with glee because “they’re foreigners from Mali.” Yet, when he got cornered by ECOWAS forces and was about to be arrested and chained, the only leader in West Africa he could turn to save him from that humiliation is none other than Alpha Conde who is more Mandinka than Ousainou Darbo. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw a humbled Yaya Jammeh testifying about what a truth-defender and friend Alpha Conde is. Conde is from Kouroussa, a Guinean town that is at the heart of historic Mali. The town is less than 200 miles from Kankan, the birth place of the most famous Mandinka in history: Mansa Musa. You see, if Mansa Musa, the greatest emperor of Mali was to come back to life, Yaya Jammeh and his ilk will insist he is Guinean. And god knows some of us tried to tell the man the difference between historic Mali and colonial Mali. But some people never learn or listen. But what do I know?
So many Teachable Lessons if only we are open to learn. Sadly, that’s never the case. As the clever Georg Hegel put it “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Yaya Jammeh has been gone less than two months, and to date, the Coalition government has not fully taken charge. Yet some are already busy scheming, and manufacturing stories that are not rooted in fact. Such things do nothing but misguide feeble minds to engage in phony outrage – the exact tactic Yaya Jammeh employed for over two decades to tear the social fabric of our country. How does this kind of behavior help Gambia? Some of us don’t need to be prompted to go after the government when they actually do something wrong. In the same vein, we recognize the work of Fifth Columnists when we see it. Bottom line, truth ultimately triumphs.