Fighting with himself: Jammeh vs his colonial mentality
By Baba Galleh Jallow
African independence is questioned not only because of its tragi-comic performance as a mediocre imperial spectacle at which imperial power purports to grant “the status and dignity” of a nation to a former colony. African independence is mainly questioned because of the colonial mentality of African leaders. Ironically, these same leaders are engaged in a battle to the death with this colonial mentality that is internal to their own minds.
African leaders like Jammeh express their colonial mentality by engaging in an imaginary battle for independence sixty years after independence was celebrated. The battle is fought in the name of a hollow African nationalism or phantom pan-Africanism quite alien to current African realities. Since the colonial state that was the target of nationalist attack during the anti-colonial struggle no longer exists, the target of “nationalist” attack in this post-independence battle for independence is the African people. Anyone who disagrees with or does not share the leaders’ political views or dares to express their own political views is accused of having a colonial mentality. And in their pretext at defeating and destroying this “evil” colonial mentality, African leaders like Jammeh distort and damage beyond repair the socio-cultural identity of their people in the most grotesque ways. They declare one party states; hold bogus referenda to change constitutions so they could perpetually hang on to power, even if millions of living and unborn people are destroyed in the process. They create fictional histories of colonial rule, willfully curb and diminish their people’s rights and human dignities, and impose a slew of unjust draconian laws and restrictions on their people – all in the name of fighting the colonial mentality. Ironically, African leaders like Jammeh are so obsessed with the colonial mentality precisely because it exists only in their own power-hungry minds.
His Excellency Sheikh Professor Dr. Alhaji Yahya AJJ Jammeh is one of the sorriest examples of African leaders fighting their own colonial mentality. Their condition is worse than trying to run away from their own shadows because unlike their shadows which are external to them, their colonial mentality is what defines them and inspires their every mindless action. Ironically, they could only understand their strange condition if they knew themselves. But if they knew themselves, they would not be afflicted with the colonial mentality and so would not be capable of the kind of callous politics they practice. Self-knowledge presupposes moral high ground that precludes the kind of flagrant political injustice inflicted upon their people by these leaders. Self-knowledge presupposes a level of empathy that does not permit naked aggression and mindless infliction of pain on one’s fellow beings. Because they do not know themselves, these leaders tragically and pointlessly continue to fight a battle that ended sixty years ago and in the process, they mindlessly destroy the lives of millions of innocent people, living and unborn. Mr. Jammeh’s practice of carrying a sword everywhere he goes is perhaps subconsciously indicative of his ongoing battle with his own colonial mentality. He is boxing with his own mind.
A curious aspect of Mr. Jammeh’s battle against the colonial mentality is that he never tells us what exactly this strange creature is. He expresses manufactured outrage against “400 years of colonialism”, even though he very well knows that those years are past and gone, never to return. He loudly laments in even more offended tones that during “400 years of colonialism” the West callously exploited Africa’s precious resources; but that too is only relevant as a lesson in history, even if this history is fictional history. In other words, Jammeh’s pretended outrage against the evils of colonialism has no practical value to present day Gambians just like it serves no useful purpose to ceaselessly whine over milk spilt many decades ago. Mr. Jammeh also likes to swear that unlike some African leaders, he will never become a puppet of the West; but that surely is really beside the point. He can quietly refuse to be a puppet of the West (if in fact the West is interested in having him as a puppet) rather than abuse our sensibilities with all his fictional raving and ranting about refusing to be a puppet of the West. But beyond vehemently mouthing these specious justificatory irrelevancies, Yahya Jammeh never explains what exactly he means by the colonial mentality he is intent on banishing from the shores of Gambia.
And here is another expression of Jammeh’s colonial mentality: his battle against the colonial legacy. At every possible opportunity, he loudly calls upon Gambians and Africans to get rid of the colonial legacy. However, he never tells us what exactly this colonial legacy looks like. One suspects that Jammeh knows very well that English, the very language he uses to fight the colonial legacy is perhaps the most useful colonial legacy in his personal arsenal of political weapons and tricks. One wonders what happened to his sworn threat to ban English in The Gambia. That would be a good starting point towards banishing the colonial legacy, even though he would then have to impose a new colonializing language on Gambians, be this Arabic or Russian. Is his attempt at imposing an Islamic state on Gambians a first step towards imposing Arabic as the country’s official language? That would perhaps generate approving dollar nods from wealthy Arab sultans. But Arabic would still be an external, culturally colonizing language for Gambians. As for banishing the colonial legacy, Jammeh can effectively start by banishing the office of head of state, which is also a colonial legacy. One remembers rumors of a desire to be crowned king of Gambia which is still perhaps wriggling in the underbrush of his colonial mentality.
And there are other prominent colonial legacies he would have to kick out of Gambia if indeed he wanted to get rid of the colonial legacy. State House the building is a colonial legacy. So are the Gambian parliament, the judiciary, the civil service and the guns and cannon he depends upon. The various regional governors in The Gambia are inflated replicas of colonial district officers. Their responsibility and duty is not to the people they “rule” but to the ruler in Banjul, just as in the good old days of colonial rule. What Jammeh wants invariably trumps what the villagers of Fangfadi Kunda want from their governor. The office of Paramount Chief of the Gambia Jammeh created is a classical colonial legacy worthy of preservation at the Gambia National Archives. The present borders of The Gambia are a colonial legacy too. As Jammeh very well knows, no country called Gambia existed in pre-colonial Africa. When Jammeh proudly inspects a Guard of Honor or majestically strides down a red carpet, he is re-enacting a very prominent colonial ceremony – a tradition invented to “show the flag” of imperialism. And when Jammeh carries around the title “His Excellency”, he is carrying the defining symbol of the colonial legacy – the name of colonial power. His Excellency was how colonial governors and other imperial officials were addressed. Colonialism brought the term to Africa. The extreme extent of Jammeh’s colonial mentality is betrayed by the fact that not even “His Excellency” is considered powerful enough to reflect the his perceived power over the Gambian people. He insists on being addressed “The President of the Republic of The Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh, Babili Mansa.” Even Cecil Rhodes - that ultimate epitome of colonial despotism - would balk at the idea of carrying such a hollow string of bogus colonial-style titles around his neck. Lord Lugard, prominent pioneer of the notorious colonial system of indirect rule would grunt an emphatic “no” to these titles and perhaps abandon indirect rule rather than suffer the foolery of carrying such a long and embarrassing string of meaningless grandiose titles. In other words, the real colonial mentality of the colonial period is a drop in the ocean compared to Jammeh’s colonial mentality.
The phrase “colonial mentality” is composed of two distinct phenomena. The term “colonial” is a temporal category, a period of time that exists in the past – the colonial period, let’s say from 1884 – 1960 when most of the African continent was under colonial rule. The term “mentality” is a state of mind, a way of thinking that informs the way human beings act as they go about their day to day business. “Colonial mentality” therefore refers to the way people thought and acted during the colonial period. In this formulation, the only sense in which ordinary Gambian citizens can express a colonial mentality is by acting like rightless subjects of an oppressive state, which is how their ancestors acted under colonial rule. The sting in “colonial mentality” belonged to the colonial state whose defining characteristics were political authoritarianism and economic exploitation. If any entity in today’s Gambia mirrors the authoritarian tendencies and characteristics of the colonial mentality, it is the Gambian state. And since the Gambian head of state equates himself with both the state and the nation, only he could express the colonial mentality in its damaging, authoritarian and exploitative sense. In effect, Jammeh’s authoritarian actions derive precisely from his colonial mentality. The true leader of a free, independent people cannot afford to disrespect or unjustly diminish the freedom and independence of his people.
It is not at all difficult to cite uncanny similarities between the way the colonial state acted and the way Jammeh acts. The colonial state was allergic to criticism by its subjects; Jammeh is allergic to criticism by Gambians and anyone else; he is more intolerant of dissent than the colonial state because the colonial state allowed African nationalists to criticize it in the course of demanding independence. The colonial state did not consult its subjects about its actions; Jammeh does not consult Gambians about his actions, the most recent being his unilateral attempt at making The Gambia an Islamic state with a mere rattling of his tongue at Brufut on December 10, 2015. He did not consult Gambians when he decided to pull the country out of the Commonwealth. The colonial state imposed itself upon Gambians and refused to budge until it was forced to do so by a combination of self-interested considerations and other factors external to itself. Jammeh imposed himself upon Gambians in 1994 and has declared that he will be in power “for a million years” (his actual words), whether Gambians like it or not. Here again, he surpasses the colonial state in his personification of the colonial mentality. Over twenty years after he imposed himself upon Gambians with a great show of guns (much like the colonial state did “400 years” ago), Jammeh is still furiously fighting with his colonial mentality. He enjoys this fight with himself because it offers him the most accessible and least complicated justification for tightening the noose around the neck of Gambians.