Penultimate week an unpredictable political earthquake took place in Banjul, The Gambia, a tiny West African country of less than two million people surrounded by Senegal and ruled with iron fist for decades by a bloody despot of Idi Aminian dimension. At a time the world was digesting the Trump triumph in the American presidential poll and/or mourning or celebrating (yes many people feted!) the demise of the retired Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, there was a presidential election held in the Gambia to coronate President Yahya Jammeh with another term (the fifth in the series) in office. But the coronation never happened as popularly expected and predicted! Something of an electoral revolution happened instead that signalled an impending end of a despotic era — one fraught with blood, assassinations, imprisonments, torture and economic ruin.”His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa” came to power in 1994 as a 29-year-old army lieutenant by overthrowing the democratic government of Dauda Jawara. Known for his lavish dress sense a la Muammar Ghaddafi and walking around with his trademark prayer beads and a stick Jammeh was seen generally as another Idi Amin Dada on the West African coast, one who was paranoid, eccentric, erratic, ferocious, savage and demented.
In one breath he claimed he possessed miraculous powers, such as the power to cure people of Aids and infertility with some herbal concoctions! And in another he would express his belief that homosexuality threatens human existence.
Jammeh divorced his first wife, Tuti Faal, and subsequently married two other women basking ostensibly in the euphoria of power and glory. In an interview he granted the BBC’s Focus on Africa in 2011 he had said: “My fate is in the hands of almighty Allah…I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so….I will not bow down before anybody, except the almighty Allah and if they don’t like that they can go to hell.” But he marked a point in a 2014 address to the UN General Assembly in New York where he lamented that Western governments were pushing for homosexuality to be legalised in Africa arguing forcefully that “homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations which, though very evil, anti-human as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers.”Yahya Jammeh’s government has been under intense pressure to solve the murder of the editor of The Point newspaper, Deyda Hydara, who was gunned down in 2004. Like Dele Giwa of Newswatch fame in Nigeria who was gruesomely eliminated by a letter-bomb package delivered by the Babangida security goons he has become a symbol of the campaign for press freedom in The Gambia. In that same BBC interview Jammeh had denied that his security agents had killed Mr Hydara reasoning mockingly that “other people have also died in this country. so why is Deyda Hydara so special?”
In August 2013 Jammeh used a speech to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid to announce that all prisoners on death row would be executed in his country effectively ending a moratorium that had lasted for 27 years. He had said categorically that:”there is no way my government will allow 99% of the population to be held to ransom by criminals”. Nine people were subsequently executed including one Alieu Bah, a former lieutenant in the army who was arrested and jailed in 1997 for plotting to oust Jammeh. The dictator in Banjul only halted the executions after enormous pressure was mounted on him by both ECOWAS and the African Union, the Americans and the European Union.
In Jammeh-land the opposition had been cowed and bloodied by repression and intimidation. Just only recently following Jammeh’s surprising defeat the imprisoned opposition leader, Ousainou Darboe, and 18 other peaceful protesters were released on bail by an Appeal Court in Banjul! Jammeh, rattled by his electoral misfortune, was reported to have gone underground hibernating somewhere in his village where he maintains a huge farm. Like Nigeria’s Obasanjo he is a farmer of fortune.
Power can only change hands sometime in January next year and fears are being expressed about his intentions. Though he had reluctantly conceded defeat no one trusts this beast of a President; rumours are flying around about his plans and cold calculations. Life after power could be a devastating thing especially when such a powerful figure has overstayed his welcome for decades.
We must express our satisfaction and encouragement with the responsible way and manner the Chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Gambia, Alieu Momar Njie, conducted himself and the election itself. Before the polls amidst mounting apprehension over rigging and violence he had assured of his impartiality and determination to do justice to the abused democratic system. An old man of Muslim faith he was reported to have said that he had nothing to lose in life given his advanced age and was ready to be fair but firm in the organisation of the election! He promised to deliver swearing by Allah and he did just that. Looking a dictator straight in the eye and telling him he had lost an election takes a lot of courage and manliness.
As Gambians went to the polls votes were cast by slipping marbles into a ballot drum rather than the conventional use of ballot papers and thumb-printing. The three presidential candidates had their photos and campaign symbols pasted on the drums. Each of them got a metal drum painted in a specific colour with their photograph and symbol pasted on it. President Jammeh was represented by the green drum, Adama Barrow the grey drum and Mamma Kandeh the purple drum. Voters were each handed a glass marble and retreated into an enclosed space where they were faced with the three drums, once they chose their candidate they slipped the token into a small hole. It was a locally-deviced system of voting that was cost-effective and rigging-proof.
Jammeh is one of the African Presidents that have pulled their countries out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) citing injustice and colonial manipulations. Others are Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and Joseph Kabila of the RDC. But it is instructive to note here that the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC is an African woman from The Gambia named Fatou Bensouda. Bensouda had worked under Jammeh as Justice Minister in the past. That was why his decision to quit the ICC was a blow to her prestige and honour! But now that President-elect Barrow is coming to reform the ruined system it is hoped that Jammeh’s ICC-quitting decree would be abrogated.
The President-elect, Adama Barrow, is an unassuming man in his early fifties who had worked as a security guard in an Argos store in Holloway Road, north London. Now a real-estate agent at home he believed his business experience and lack of political baggage to be assets in a country that has had only two leaders since independence! “Life is a process and the UK helped me to become the person I am today. Working 15 hours a day builds a man.” Barrow told the leading French newspaper Le Monde during the election campaign.
While we salute the democratic revolution in the Gambia, the dawn of a new era, we must exhort Gambians in particular and Africans in general to be vigilant. Vigilance is required as Yahya Jammeh and his gang of bloody criminals retreat from the political scene in Banjul to the hinterland. They still constitute enough present and future danger and their nuisance value to the democratic evolution on the horizon should not be under-estimated. Dismantling the castle of terror he had erected in the Gambia would never be an easy task. And we hope the President-elect have what it takes to do the needful.
We commend the political maturity of Gambians and their determination to end decades of political pestilence by an insane animal called man. As they say in French language: “Plus jamais Jammeh!”. (Never again Jammeh!) Long live democracy in the Gambia and elsewhere around the world!
(*NB: This article was written before breaking news emerged of a volte-face of Jammeh. He went on state television and declared he no longer recognised his defeat, laughably questioning the probity of the electoral commission. He said there would be another round of polling! Legitimacy remains with Barrow. We wait and see how it all plays out in the near future.)