Politics in Post-independence Gambia

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By Professor Sulayman S. Nyang – From The Gambia-L Mailing List (November 1996).

This is a brief piece which is designed to shed light on the discussion on tribalism in the Gambia and the need for rationale and sober debates about these matters. But before I go on with the task of reviewing the history of this issue, let me say that the peoples of Senegambia are favored by history and culture to evolve in a manner different from other areas of the world. I will come to that later. First of all, let it be stated categorically that in the Senegambia region, people defined their ethnic identity primarily on the basis of the language they learned from their homes. If the Mother is from one ethnic group and the father from another, chances are the child would end up speaking the language dominant in that area. This would explain the language choices of many Gambians born in the urban centers of the country. It also explains the greater linguistic choices of certain Gambians, particularly those from Basse and Farafeni. These two regions of the country have produced more polylingual Gambians than any other area in the country. Because of the size of the Senegambia region and long history of inter-ethnic contacts it is very difficult for most Senegambians to insist on what some sociologists and anthropologists would call “ethnic purity.” Tribalism, like all ideological formulae, is a wall paper designed to cover the cracks in our wall of logic. Whenever logic breaks down, and we have difficulty dealing with serious and real problems of social and political life, it becomes an easy way out to resort to irrationalities. In the special case of the Gambia, parochialism in political life has a long and unfortunate history.

Sectionalism based either on ethnicity or religion in Gambian politics goes back to the 1950s when the late I.M. Garba Jahumpa, an enthusiastic Pan Africanist used religion to outpoll his Gambian Christian rivals. They were P.S. Njie, Rev. J.C. Faye, St. Clair Joof, another promising Gambian lawyer who died in the fifties, and of course Jahumpa’s own mentor, Pa E.F. Small, the doyen of Gambian nationalism. Because of this early manifestation of parochialism based on religion, Banjul society which was then less than 15,000 people was quickly polarized along religious and ethnic lines. Since the Christians were either Akus of Sierra Leonean background or Christianized Wolof/Serer, politics quickly took on an ethnic character. Whereas in 1951 Jahumpa employed religion to defeat P.S. Njie and other lesser known Christian rivals, in 1954 P.S. paid back in kind by employing the ethnic coin called Saloum Kheet. Using the statistical fact that the majority of Banjulians then were of Saloum stock, it became a foregone conclusion that P.S. would win. This ethnification of Politics would not only polarize the Wolofs of Saloum from their cousins from Cayor and baol (i.e. Jahumpa and his supporters), but it would also begin to be contagious in the Provinces (then called the Protectorate). It is against this background that one understands the rise of the PPP and the emergence of Sir Dawda as the leader of the Gambia. The PPP came to power riding on the concept of Mandinka Mansaya (for details, see Peter Weil’s dissertation by the same name (1967/8). This was the beginning of ethnic polarization in the country.

To his credit, Sir Dawda tried his best to turn things around. I still remember the day in 1959, when young Jawara and his young and beautiful wife Augusta spoke to an audience at Albion Place in Banjul, changing the name of the PPP from the Protectorate Peoples Party to the Progressive Peoples Party. From small beginnings, the former president gradually made peace with a predominantly Wolof-speaking Banjul. Remember, not all Wolof-speaking Banjulians are historically ethnic Wolofs. Banjul is another mini-New York where ethnics share a lingua franca. As in New York, where children of Jews of various national origins, Italians, Czechs and Poles share a common mental space called the domain of English, Banjulians similarly find themselves in the same zone. This is why Wolofs in the Senegambia region say: “Santa Amut Kerr.” This means that one’s ethnicity is not determined by one’s last name. Here again, we see the effects of history and cultural interpenetration on the Senegambian peoples.

But to continue the long journey towards national integration among the peoples of Senegambia, let me add that by 1972, the Jawara regime has successfully integrated the Banjulians and the Upper River non-Mandinkas into the PPP. The whole idea of a mafia goes back to the post 1972 period, when the social history of the Gambia began to impact on the distribution system of privilege and opportunities for social mobility. By 1972, the Wolof-speaking Banjulians from diverse ethnic origins whose Islamic background prevented from responding favorably to Western education, began to compete for positions in the civil service. Remember, Jahumpa and his young Muslim followers were actually playing an opportunistic game against their Christian ethnic cousins because these were then the heads of departments and the more responsive to things western.

By 1972, the number of Mandinkas and other rural ethnics seeking employment opportunities have increased also, and the common mantra then was the Christian (especially Catholics) were ruling. Hence the use of the term “Catholic Mafia”. As far as I can tell, the horrendous epithet mafia was first used in this context.

Why? Because many of the young aspiring Muslims, Mandinkas, Wolofs and others, saw the late Eric Christensen as the grand patron of the Christians. This led to the formation of two groups, the President’s Youth Action Group and what is now known as the Tereh Kafo Group. These two rival factions within the PPP would eventually lead to its downfall because of their self-destructing activities. They had a common “enemy” in the so-called Catholic mafia and when this so-called “enemy” was terribly weakened, they went after each other. Those members of the first group of PPP supporters who were successful as civil servants or businessmen began to use their leverage and connections within the system to enrich themselves in a big way.

A more detailed sociological analysis of the origins of corruption in the Gambia would have to explore thoroughly this aspect of the social and political history of the country. Elements from this first group and their cohorts would later be duped the “Banjul Mafia”. The rivalry between the first and the second group led to in-fighting within the PPP.

The collapse of the Jawara regime could well be explained as the culmination of many social and political crises which were not effectively contained or settled by the Jawara regime. If there was any serious debate among Gambian intellectuals through the press and in various fora around the country, the Kukoi Samba Sanyang coup and the Yaya Jammeh coup would not have taken place. I am making this assumption because I believe the leadership, both the government and the Opposition, would see the negative consequence of a collapse of an embryonic but imperfect democratic order. Apparently, the government and its Loyal Opposition were not listening, and even if they were listening, they were acting on what they knew about the situation.

When we talk about tribalism in the Yaya Jammeh era, we have to bear four things in mind.  The first question is whether the Gambians have resolved once and for all, the ethnic identity crisis. The second point centers on the electability of a candidate from a minority ethnic group. Are Gambians still judged by the language they speak or the group with which they are identified?

The third question is related to the role and contributions of Islam and Christianity in the cementing of larger identities for Gambians of various ethnic or language background. Even though residues of the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian cultures remain to bracket one set of Gambians from the others, the two universal religions in the country have together created new commonwealth of identities for the peoples of Senegambia.

In addition to the impact of the two world religions, there is the impact of global secularism. This phenomenon is most evident in the field of popular music in the region. Today young Senegambians are much affected by the music of Youssou Ndure, Baba Maal, Touré kunda and others. These musicians try to embrace peoples from all groups and they sing in as many languages as possible. This is a major cultural breakthrough. Some of them are not confined to one region. They sometime extend their music notes to sing songs for African celebrities such as Nelson Mandela.

As Africa moves towards the 21st century, it would make a great deal of sense, if Africans, in this case Senegambians, accept the verdict of history that they are too intermarried to be ethnically pure and too thickly crowded within a small area of the African continent to spread the venom of ethnicity. Senegambians, and especially the Gambians among them, must learn to compete without appealing to ethnic or religious prejudices. If some of the politicians in the area manipulated people’s emotions and loyalties by playing the ethnic or religious card, the younger generations of Gambians do not have to follow suit. It is dangerous and unwise to do so.

In concluding this brief piece on the ethnic or tribal question in the Gambia, I would like to say that the various battles fought over positions and privileges should be taken as lessons learned from the common past. In order to build a better and brighter future the Gambians must learn a new language of inter-ethnic cooperation and competition. This is to say, they must learn to compete freely and fairly. The common knowledge and experiences gathered over the years in the cricket and soccer matches must be assimilated and incorporated in their political battles. If President Jammeh and his entourage were seriously committed to the cultivation of a new attitude and a new dispensation in Gambian political life, they would make sure that no excuse is given to the tribalists by conducting all elections freely and fairly. Political intimidation is the fertilizer that helps the growth of political paranoia. As Henry Kissinger said some time ago, “even the paranoid has real enemies.” Let us remember this while working energetically to create a political culture of tolerance and goodwill.

(Article courtesy of Momodou Camara)

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