If there was ever a classical example of bad leadership in Africa, it would be Yahya Jammeh’s brutal neotraditional rulership. The litany of cases of unlawful and unnecessary arrests, tortures, detentions without trial, disappearances, sackings without explanation, killings and foreign policy blunders that litter the landscape of recent Gambian history is enough to fill a large tome on the study of unethical, bungling and brutal rulership in Africa. Yet, the question that keeps coming up over and over again and that seems to have no obvious answer is why Gambians are putting up with Jammeh’s unbridled tyranny and bullying. Some blame opposition cowardice in the face of the unchecked brutality inflicted upon their people and opposition passivity in the face of rampant human rights abuses committed by Yahya Jammeh. Others blame a world that calmly looks on as a mad despot kills and maims his own people without good reason. What are we to make of such obvious inaction in the face of a pathological display of raw power by an African despot over his own people? One cannot purport to know all the answers, or even the right answers to this question. However, we can start by looking at some factors that might help us understand just what is going on and why Jammeh’s madness remains unchecked both by the opposition on the ground and the international community.
It is perhaps easy to explain the international community’s inaction. Examples abound of the world looking on as despots, tyrants and mad men in power inflict horrible misery on their own people. The bottom line is that international politics is driven by self-interest. Powerful nations act against less powerful nations only to the extent that their perceived self-interests are at stake. Nietzsche’s contention that there is no such thing as altruism might be challenged on several counts. However, there is no doubt that in the majority of cases, people do things because they anticipate some form of reward or avoidance of punishment as the outcome of their action. A person who helps a homeless person is motivated by kindness as well as a desire to satisfy a certain need in his heart, be it mere inner satisfaction or the anticipation of blessings or good karma. When France intervenes in northern Mali to stop the oppressive gang of mad fanatics masquerading as soldiers of God, we cannot exclude altruism from their list of motivations, but we may, if we look in the right places, also find that France gains something from her intervention. In short, powerful nations intervene in the internal affairs of less powerful nations only if there are tangible rewards to be reaped, or threats to be averted even if these rewards and threat-perceptions are less than the altruistic motivations that drive their actions.
The reasons behind international interventions in Africa were less complicated during the Cold War era, 1945 – 1989. During that period, the world was almost clearly divided into two opposing ideological camps – the capitalist West led by the United States and including Britain, France, West Germany and other Western European countries were pitted against the former Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cuba and other communist countries. Within this bi-polar configuration of the international political system, the entire world was an ideological battleground characterized by the politics of global ideological containment. What ideology spread where was perceived to be of paramount strategic interest to either bloc, and intervention was determined by the threat of ideological intrusion into opposing ideology spaces. At this time, the West intervened in countries like the Belgian Congo and helped remove leaders like Patrice Lumumba. In Ghana, the CIA was clearly implicated in the toppling of Kwame Nkrumah. Much later in Burkina Faso, Africa lost one of her best leaders when Western machinations caused the murder of Thomas Sankara. The Reagan administration initially gave blanket support to Samuel Doe because of Liberia’s strategic importance to CIA surveillance in Africa. The communist bloc was equally guilty of subversion in Africa. A good case in point is the removal of Emperor Haile Selassie and Russia’s subsequent propping up of Mengistu Haile Mariam, one of Africa’s most brutal dictators. Once the Cold War was over however, African countries quickly became orphaned states. Both western and eastern strategic interests in Africa dramatically dwindled and countries became worthy of intervention only if they had resources like oil, gold or diamonds from which powerful nations could benefit. In the years since 9/11, the presence of perceived terrorist threats in countries like Somalia and Mali has been enough to generate military intervention. In most of the rest of the continent, people were left to their own devices and at the mercy of paranoid and brutal tyrants like Yahya Jammeh and Robert Mugabe.
In the case of present day Gambia, there seems to be no “good” reason why a powerful nation should send in troops to rid us of Jammeh’s tyranny. In spite of his loud protestations to the contrary, there is hardly any evidence that Gambia has vast oil and mineral resources in which other nations are sufficiently interested to want to get rid of him. The Gambia is also, at least as yet, not so much a haven of terrorist activity that countries like America would be interested in kicking Jammeh out. If a nation has no resources in which other countries are invested and if it poses no direct threat to the security of other nations, intervention, if it ever comes, would only come very late in the day when much destruction has been wrought on the lives and futures of entire populations. We may, however, notice a subtle difference between actual tangible self-interests and perceived self-interests. While actual interests are often quite visible to interested parties, they may in reality be merely perceived interests behind which lie profound interests that become evident only after the fact. Our position is that it is in every body’s interest to rid the world of political bullies who inflict untold suffering upon their own people just so they can cling on to power for as long as humanly possible. Despots and tyrants should be universal personae non grata for the mere fact that they violate the dignity of humanity and represent a festering wound on the face of civilized humanity. It would greatly help humanity if the world were to embark upon a campaign of what we might call despocide – the removal from power of despotic regimes everywhere, and especially in Africa. One feels that this is like wishing for the moon to come down; but well, no harm in wishing for our perceived interests, right? And unlike genocide, fratricide, matricide, and the other ‘cides, despocide would actually be a good thing for humanity in general.
The issue gets trickier once we begin to wonder why organized political opposition on the ground in Banjul is not doing “much” to get rid of the Jammeh tyranny. Again, however we look at it, we cannot avoid the suggestion that self-interest is a key factor in the equation. Of course, especially in connection with the Gambian opposition parties, we need to keep in mind the subtle nuances between actual and perceived self-interest and the bigger question of what exactly constitutes self-interest. To reiterate our position, it is in everybody’s actual interest to get rid of all tyrants and political bullies including of course, the bully of Kanilai. We believe that should the opposition organize a protest demonstration against Jammeh, it will attract more support from the public than it imagines, and it could lead to the collapse of the Jammeh despotism. Inevitably, there would be some casualties, and these might include at least some leaders of the opposition. As self-preservation is a natural tendency of we human creatures, might the opposition’s inaction in the face of Jammeh’s brutality be explained as driven by the inherent need for self-preservation? And to what extent might this need for self-preservation be described as form of cowardice and a lack of commitment to their rationale for existence – which is to free the Gambian people from the clutches of tyranny and to replace the current government with a better one headed by themselves? There are certainly no easy answers to these questions, and one would be hard pressed to pass judgment either way. Perhaps, we might conclude with some degree of accuracy that a people will rise and overthrow despotism when their suffering becomes physically unbearable. Perhaps – just perhaps – Gambians will soon reach a point when committing despocide against the Jammeh regime will become a matter of life and death, and hence of genuine interest to them. While not all dictatorships are weak in the knees, most dictatorships are actually elephants on mosquito legs, one small push and the entire structure crumbles in upon itself like a house of cards.