By Baba Galleh Jallow
In a recent piece published on Kairo News, Karamba Touray tells the sad story of Imam Cherno Gassama. He writes: “I have not been able to take this good man out of my mind from Friday July 1st when a friend of mine visited his family and reported a distressed and sad situation. He is Cherno Gassama, imam of the village of Dasilameh in Upper Fulladu District, The Gambia. He was picked from his home on November 2nd 2015 by officers of the National Intelligence Agency, taken to Brikamaba police station for a brief moment before being taken to Jangjangbureh prisons where he has been held for the last 8 months. Throughout this period he has not been told why he was arrested, he has not been charged with any offense, he has not been allowed any family visit, he has not been allowed any legal representation and he has not been given medical attention. . . . his large family are left to wonder the fate of their patriarch and having to contend with the emotional stress of not knowing why their own government would set upon a completely innocent religious leader and insist on imprisoning him for no earthly reason, and refuse to even allow them to set eyes on him.”
The catalogue of injustices inflicted upon Imam Gassama and his family are painfully palpable in Karamba’s piece. One cannot help a feeling of justified outrage that human beings can treat other human beings in such cruel fashion. No, this is not a case of political expediency. It is a case that challenges Gambians to confront the human condition as it is in their nation with a view to removing its evils and enhancing its virtues. A culture that tramples upon human dignity is a debased culture. And respect for human dignity must be the yardstick by which all political activity is measured. Assuming that all Gambians at least claim to love themselves and their country, attempts must be made to make all Gambians realize their responsibility for the health of our national culture. The responsibility to construct a healthy national culture is a shared universal within the nation; it must be borne and executed by all citizens, especially by the nation’s first citizen, the Head of State.
Of course, as far as Imam Gassama’s family is concerned, there could possibly be “no earthly reason” for his arbitrary arrest and extra judicial imprisonment for eight months. But there has to be a reason, and that reason has be a “reason of state”, especially since his arrest and detention were effected by state security agents and he is detained at a state detention facility. Since the action of the state in Imam Gassama’s case is clearly detrimental to the health of our nation, it must be criticized and it should be rescinded. And since, as usual, no reason has been given for the state’s action, Gambians are left with the option of guessing what might have prompted Imam Gassama’s arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial detention. Perhaps Imam Gassama delivered a sermon in which he called some state words or actions UnIslamic? We know that both Imam Baba Leigh and Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana were arbitrarily arrested and incarcerated for long periods for precisely this reason. There is no law in the Gambian books that makes it a crime to criticize the head of state, or express an opinion on a matter of public interest. Why then does the Jammeh government so harshly punish Gambians for doing these things? If Imam Gassama was arrested for criticizing Jammeh or his government or agents in a sermon, natural justice and common sense demand that he be released immediately and amends be made to him and his family.
Or perhaps it was because one of Jammeh’s marabouts or oracles told him that Imam Gassama represents some sort of undefined threat to his state? Or perhaps a marabout or oracle had warned that Imam Gassama must be arrested to prevent him from praying for Jammeh’s successor. Whatever the case, we know that there has to be a “reason of state” for Imam Gassama’s extrajudicial arrest and incarceration. Needless to say, that “reason” cannot stand the truth of reason or judicial scrutiny, which is why the State uses its shadow instruments of coercion to by-pass the legal process. It is precisely because this reason cannot stand the test of rational scrutiny that Imam Gassama’s family is not allowed to see him. If they did, the Imam would tell them what he was told is why he was arrested.
We can argue with certainty that after his arbitrary arrest on November 5, 2015, Imam Gassama must have been interrogated by the NIA at Brikamaba police station where, Karamba tells us, “he was taken for a brief moment before being taken to Jangjangbureh prisons where he has been held for the last 8 months.” During this interrogation, they must have given him “a reason” for his arrest. He was probably asked what party he supported or whether he supported President Jammeh. He was most likely accused of being an enemy of the country, out to sabotage the good work HE is doing for the people of this country? An attempt must have been made to make the Imam feel guilty of not being a good person because he was opposed to God’s choice as ruler of Gambia. But of course, Imam Gassama could not possibly feel guilty about a crime Allah knows he did not commit. We are almost certain that Imam Gassama totally believes that his ordeal is only possible because Allah permits it and that if it is Allah’s will, he will be released and go back to his family, his community and his congregation. Men of God consider their ordeals as pilgrimages upon which they are destined to embark by the only power they bow and submit to, the power of God, beside whom state power is literally nothing. No wonder that, as Karamba tells us, “The imam as a strong man of faith has endured with patience and elevated emaan . . .”
Or perhaps Imam Gassama’s arbitrary incarceration is a case of preventive detention without a Preventive Detention Act under which people are detained “for crimes yet to be committed” as Dr. J. B. Danquah puts it in one of his petitions to Nkrumah from Nsawam prisons. Their written grounds for detention, in Ghana’s case, invariably concluded with the clause, “Your detention is necessary in order to prevent you from acting in future in a manner prejudicial to the security of the State.” When Karamba writes of Imam Gassama that eight months after his detention “he has not been charged with any offense . . . he has not been allowed any legal representation and he has not been given medical attention” he may well have been writing of Dr. Danquah who twice languished under preventive detention, from October 3, 1961 to June 20, 1962 (nine months) when he was released, and from January 8, 1964 to the morning of February 4, 1965 (one year) when, from a standing position, he literally dropped dead from heart failure in his cell at Nsawam prisons. He was 69.
Perhaps Jammeh was told by a marabout or oracle that Imam Gassama must be placed under preventive detention, that is, arrested and detained to prevent him from praying for Jammeh’s successor? It is not outside the realm of possibility. The landscapes of History and Scripture are littered with examples of rulers trying to prevent a prophecy of succession by killing people, detaining them, or having them banished from the land. All these examples share the same final outcome – they fail, a lesson that one cannot escape their fate, whatever they do. Those who believe in the religious dimensions of human destiny will argue that considering God’s omnipresence, God’s will is the only thing any marabout or oracle can possibly see. Since the marabout or oracle cannot possibly exist outside of God’s presence, anything they see happening must happen within God’s presence because there is simply no outside to it. Perhaps it is God’s will that Imam Cherno Gassama will only pray for Jammeh’s successor on a jail floor? Perhaps the feared successor in the prophecy is currently at Janjangbureh prisons with Imam Gassama? Perhaps in trying to avert the inevitable Jammeh has inadvertently taken the Imam to the intended recipient of his “dangerous” prayers, currently held at Janjangbureh? Certainly, prison walls cannot prevent blessings from reaching any space or object in the divine presence, and so detaining Imam Gassama for such a reason is an exercise in harmful futility.
Gambians must be forgiven the tendency to search for reasons of state action in the occult or supernatural realm. This is a direct consequence of our knowledge that Jammeh is a great public admirer of the “occult” and the “supernatural”. He makes no secret of his “prowess” in the realm of the occult and unfailingly holds a holy book and prayer beads in his hands (also a sword, just in case someone tries something funny around him). One is amazed at the facility with which he embodies the personas of both fetish sorcerer and sheikh of Islam at the same time. This is not necessarily bad, since we must maintain our African identities even as we embrace and practice our Islam, Christianity or Judaism. But while fetish sorcery may approve of unjust treatment of the kind inflicted upon Imam Gassama and his family, Islam does not. One is not a Muslim if one’s treatment of fellow human beings, whoever they are, is contrary to the Right Spirit of Islam. Islam, the religion Jammeh publicly claims as his own, does not permit that people are arbitrarily arrested and locked up for eight months, without charges and without trial, without medical attention, and prevented from seeing their families. This practice is foreign to natural law and repugnant to human civilization. Needless to say, it is inimical to the good health of our national culture and must be discarded.
One of the most baffling aspects of many dictatorships is that they do not need to be dictatorships at all; at least not dictatorships of the “developmental” kind we have in Jammeh’s Gambia. Considering his history of holding a comfortable and compliant majority in parliament, Jammeh does not need to revert to extra juridical practices in dealing with opponents, real or imagined, in order to assert his authority or to stay in power. He can easily draw a leaf from Jawara’s book. For thirty years, Jawara held on to power, not through the use of arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial detentions, but through a shrewd use of his comfortable majority in parliament and his immense strategic advantage as head of state.
One very well remembers the vibrancy of Gambian politics before July 1994. At the local markets, people freely and pleasantly argued over which was the best party. PPP and NCP supporters in particular could be heard loudly joking about how much better their parties and leaders were. Of course, we know that violent clashes occasionally broke out between PPP and NCP supporters especially in Baddibu; but these were handled professionally by the police and the courts. Jawara was often harshly criticized at mass rallies by leaders of the opposition and their supporters. Needless to say, he hit back with equal verbal vehemence but never with any kind of noticeable rage or extrajudicial pronouncement. He openly referred to certain Gambians as communists and made it sound as if the opposition did not have either the brains or the means to govern Gambia. Amid all the activity, he popularized in Gambian politics the notion that “Nii mang kukeh kutela” (roughly, Mandinka for “you have nothing to fear if you don’t commit a crime”). Gambians did not risk arrest, arbitrary detention or torture for criticizing Jawara and his government, or for expressing their political opinions at the market, Penchu, Bantaba or anywhere at all. An election cycle or two before he was removed from power, Assan Musa Camara coined a memorable and widely popular phrase asking Jawara to step down. Jawara Jippo almost became a folk song in Gambia and opposition supporters in both villages and towns could often be heard loudly but good-naturedly repeating the mantra to much laughter. Now it is time to sing Jammeh Jippo!
Jammeh Jippo because after 22 years in power, Jippo is the right and just thing for you to do. Jammeh Jippo because back in July 1994 when you seized power you repeatedly assured Gambians that “we are not here to stay.” You assured Gambians that your military council, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction was merely out to rectify a bad culture of corruption and “flamboyant lifestyles” and would soon return to barracks. Jammeh Jippo because you are on record declaring that one of your primary reasons for toppling Jawara was that he had overstayed in power. Jammeh Jippo because you are on record saying that “We will never allow anyone to stay in power beyond ten years. In fact, ten years is too much.” Jammeh Jippo because staying in power beyond ten years is just as bad today as it was before July 22, 1994. Jammeh Jippo because Gambians have a natural right to experiment with new leadership, a new leader, whether from your own party or from outside of your party. So Jammeh Jippo.
Of course, one can understand why Jammeh Jippo is not an attractive idea at Kanilai Farms. Among other things, it is difficult to imagine oneself going from being the most powerful and most wealthy person in the land, to an ordinary citizen arraigned before a court of law on charges of corruption or human rights violations. But there are instances in African and world history where heads of state are “persuaded” to Jippo and live peaceful lives in their countries or abroad for the sake of national wellbeing. A good example is Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings. Both his AFRC and PNDC regimes committed gross human rights violations against Ghanaians, including most notably the abduction and murder of three prominent Ghanaian judges. But Rawlings embraced the inevitable Jippo and today, he lives peacefully in Ghana as a respected and very influential elder statesman. So Jammeh Jippo.