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Not politics as usual

By Baba Galleh Jallow

One of the reasons Yahya Jammeh lost the December 1st 2016 elections is that he misread the Gambian political situation. Like all dictators, he fell from power when he least expected it because he had been shielded from the reality of Gambian political culture for too long. He did not see that his repressive practices had gradually generated a mass of popular anger, anguish, discontent and defiance just waiting for an opportunity to explode in his face. Surrounded by sycophants and minions singing his praises and willing to do everything he wanted, even if it was taking innocent lives, Yahya Jammeh remained stone blind to the fact that a significant number of Gambians had grown sick and tired of him and his repressive regime. Hence he liked to refer to those opposed to him as “the one percent” of Gambians who would never be allowed to destroy the ninety-nine percent good Gambians. While this number was totally arbitrary in its conception, it came to represent a semblance of reality for the power-drunk despot.


And so Yahya Jammeh remained supremely confident that, as he said just days before the elections, he was going to win “the biggest landslide ever.” And he literally hung himself before the fact by proudly declaring that our electoral system was rig-proof and the best on the world, that no one could ever cheat, and that even if his opponent won by one percent of the vote, he would willingly step down. His total conviction in the inevitability of his victory explains why he shut down both the international phone service and the internet on election night. It was also why he declared that no demonstrations would be allowed after the elections. He had thought that after his anticipated “biggest landslide ever”, the opposition would cry foul and decide to protest the results by holding demonstrations. Used to having electoral commissions steal the vote for him, Yahya Jammeh had no idea that things were going to be different this time around. Hence he was literally stupefied when he lost and was in a daze and state of great confusion when he conceded defeat. He could not believe what was unfolding before his own eyes and needed time to compose himself and consider his options. Because he so misunderstood and misread the landscape and tempo of Gambian politics at the end of 2016, he believed that he could concede defeat, turn around, reject the results, and inform the Gambian people as he did on December 9, that “you must go back to the polls” and they would fear and tremble and go back to the polls to elect him under his newly appointed “God-fearing electoral commission”. He thought that as usual, Gambians would say “hey let’s just vote for him so that peace prevails.”  Incidentally, a rude awakening awaited the clueless despot.


From day to day, Yahya Jammeh grew increasingly frustrated as the reality sank that this time around, he was not going to have his way because Gambians had dramatically changed and would not simply keep quiet or be afraid to express their opinions or insist on their rights to change their government. From the association of UTG teachers and staff to the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, all kinds of Gambian civil society organizations issued statements asking him to step down. His own ambassadors and ministers, seeing that the former ship of state had hit the rocks and was sinking, deserted the increasingly confused dictator. Thankfully Alieu Momar Njie, the principled electoral commission chair stood by the results at great personal danger to himself. And as happy fate would have it, extenuating external circumstances aided the Gambian people. The whole world having heard Jammeh declare that our electoral system was rig-proof, and having seen him concede defeat, no one was willing to buy his bogus story that the electoral commission stole the election for the coalition. Moreover, by this time Jammeh had alienated every single international organization that mattered in the equation of world, Gambian and African politics. He had been rude to the African Union, had called ECOWAS leaders stooges of the West when they agreed to institute term limits in 2015, had withdrawn The Gambia from the Commonwealth which he called a neocolonial institution, had expelled both EU and UN personnel from The Gambia, and had repeatedly insulted the West in general, asking everyone but himself to go to hell. It must have been extremely shocking for Jammeh to see that even autocratic Russia and the Organization of Islamic Conference states were not on his side. Eventually, he was forced to allow himself to be persuaded to step down and to accept the reality that times have changed and it was not politics as usual in Gambia anymore.


And it’s not ever going to be politics as usual again in Gambia. Hopefully, Mr. Barrow and his Coalition government understand that today’s Gambians are very different from yesterday’s Gambians. That while we still have a lot of work to do in terms of political empowerment at the grassroots level, sufficient numbers of Gambians have already been empowered to the extent that they will not sit quietly by and watch politics as usual happen in their country. The old ways of doing politics are no longer going to work. Political power in The Gambia has forever been demystified with the fall of the dictator who threatened to rule us for a billion years and who swore that elections will never remove him from power. And so the new government better take note that all of the negative baggage that characterized the Jammeh regime need to be thrown out the door of Gambian politics as a matter of urgency. Seemingly harmless practices like hanging billboards and posters bearing the president’s image everywhere are passé in Gambian politics and must be discouraged by the Barrow administration. The thousands of dollars spent on this and other wasteful practices can be used to help feed the hungry beggars who frequent Gambian mosques and churches on Fridays and Sundays, or to help pay the school, college and university fees of bright Gambian children from poor families. Also to be discouraged is the practice of placing full page or spreadsheet advertisements congratulating the president at every possible opportunity by all kinds of individuals, businesses and even parastatals and government agencies. While these ads serve as a much needed source of revenue for our struggling local papers, the damage they cause to our national political psyche is serious enough to justify discouraging the practice. The government must also discourage the extremely damaging culture of sycophancy and religious hypocrisy that was such a huge feature of the Jammeh dictatorship.  

Gambians expect that the Coalition government will be proactive in discouraging these corruption-enhancing practices among many others and in kick starting the significant transformative processes that would radically and positively change the face of Gambian politics from what it has been in the past. Gambians have very high expectations of the Barrow administration and all governments that will come after it. One can only hope that Mr. Barrow and his team are aware of these expectations and have what it takes to do what is expected of them by the new Gambian people. We need an enlightened, energized and innovative politics spearheaded or otherwise actively promoted by a principled transformative-servant leadership. Politics as usual is just no longer an option for the Smiling Coast of West Africa.