The prisoner pardons, Diaspora-dissident amnesty, and clueless talk of reconciliation
By Lamin J Darboe
It was sudden and shocking!
Like a thunderbolt, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya A J J Jammeh Babili Mansa (the Professor) stunned universal Gambia when he announced prisoner pardons on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of his ascent to power. Reactions were clearly mixed! Direct family and friends remain unquestioningly pleased. And quite understandably so!
For ordinary card carrying supporters, this awesome demonstration of magnanimity accentuates the refrain about of the Professor’s exemplary leadership credentials. For Government officialdom generally, the picture is more complicated. Whatever questions may be gnawing at the entrails, the official line must be accorded primacy as far as public expressions on the prisoner pardons are concerned.
As for the opposition, at home, and in the Diaspora, the reaction is more nuanced due to the politically complicated nature of the transaction. Consequent upon the deliberate cruelty woven into its management architecture, Mile 2 Central Prisons is a major propaganda tool on the persistent and legitimate allegation of public lawlessness in The Gambia. To suddenly release some two hundred of its inhabitants appear to have pulled the rug from under the feet of the collective opposition notwithstanding general perception that some of those pardoned never belonged at Mile 2 in the first place. This frustration with the manner of the pardons may be responsible for the covert and overt attacks on some pardoned prisoners singing the praises of the Professor. And marching for him in “solidarity” with his magnanimity!
Are they trapped, or is that a silly excuse?
Whatever perception of a setback regarding the pardons, it is clearly of a temporary nature in light of the unquestionable fact that the fundamental character of Gambian public space has not altered in any meaningful manner. It has arguably not altered at all! Before haranguing those professing permanent loyalty to the Professor after a stint, undeserved in some cases, at Mile 2, think about Diaspora-based Gambians, some of them prominent members of the dissident community, and apparently living independent and dignified lives in their adopted homelands, expressing interest in partaking of the Professor’s “forgiveness” for engaging in legally protected conduct!
As they prepare to consult travel agents for air tickets, they must be in no doubt they are headed for disappointment and political oblivion. As they say their goodbyes, they must remember Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay, Managing Director of Teranga FM, refused bail, and in detention as he fights sedition charges at the Banjul Magistrates’ Court. As they head for international airports for flights to Banjul, they must recognise the heavily constricted public place they are flying into considering the recently enacted amendments to the Elections Act. As they fantasise over their special skills in selling the merits of pluralism within the rule of law to the Professor, they should spare a thought for the recently dismissed Justices of the Supreme Court of The Gambia. As they land at Banjul International, they must accept they are on soil where a lot of prisoners of conscience are languishing in prison and secret detention centres across the country.
What was their fight for over the years?
I know what my fight was over the past three decades plus!
Welcoming the profound events that culminated in the forceful change of government in 1994, I here reproduce some abiding philosophical perspectives addressed to the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council on my ideal Gambia:
“As an international media blitz focused world attention on the tragedy of a million Rwandan refugees in camps in Zaire over the weekend of July 22, Gambians at home and abroad were captivated by the unfolding of the most profound event in our national affairs: the declaration of a military takeover July 23. Even for those Gambians who foresaw military government in our public life, the crisis that started Friday and culminated in a takeover Saturday may have come as a surprise. As the sketchy details of conditions in The Gambia were taking shape in
the media, some of us took informal polls of Gambians in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, eliciting their views on the overthrow of the fraudulent “democratic” tyranny of Dawda Jawara. I even made a few calls to The Gambia for the domestic perspective. To a person, the verdict was unanimous: we are happy and grateful, but???
Without doubt, you are the men of the hour, symbols of heroism to at least 90 percent of all Gambians. The question mark is over the future. And the future is what we must address because therein lies our collective destiny. In light of the track record of military regimes in other African countries, the near unanimous but qualified support is understandable. We would hate to see our parents, families, friends, and any Gambians for that matter flee the country in fear for their lives. Death would be preferable to countenancing such a spectacle. To solidify your position and keep the country together, you must avoid the adoption of the modus operandi of military governments in Africa. More fundamentally, you cannot afford to create martyrs. And vindictiveness must not be a part of the new order of national affairs. Memories last forever, and if bitter, they become a factor in the calculus of daily events, escalating the potential for tragedy on a constant basis. Ordinary Gambians, especially the unlettered bulk whose support for Jawara’s government had no rational basis, must be left alone. Only those public servants whose conduct clearly triggers the response of our laws may be fair targets for investigation.
Dawda Jawara was a captain who lost his bearings, and the ship of state he disastrously piloted was destined to run aground. He finally arrived at the ultimate destiny of his nepotic, corrupt, and incompetent administration: the trash-hip of history. Dawda Jawara’s absolute control over the reins of power made him more feared than respected. You have the right to expect loyalty from your closest advisers, but they must not be fearful to the extent of endorsing all your policies regardless of their merits. You must be open-minded and receptive to ideas different from yours. We are not nostalgic for an era and a government that visited executive vandalism on the Gambian people. But we also refuse to be sentimental and complacent about the present. Your place in history will entirely depend on how you utilise the awe-inspiring instruments of government at your disposal. After a fraud lasting three decades, the populace may be prone to the syndrome of unrealistic expectations that are almost always integral to forceful government transitions in Africa. Your task is to communicate in effective but realistic terms, and to refuse to feed the frenzy of utopian sentimentalism during your honeymoon with the Gambian people. This, however, is not to suggest that you shy away from engaging the practical challenge of nation building. And nation building necessarily involves national reconciliation.
In light of the manner you ascended power, certain constituencies may feel alienated. Your task is to reassure everyone, and not make anyone desperate through fear for personal safety. And even if private property is seized pending further investigation, I strongly recommend that a final determination of forfeiture be adjudicated before the tribunals of justice in The Gambia. In similar vein, and notwithstanding the suspension of the Constitution, the Cabinet members of the overthrown government must be accorded due process commensurate with the basic tenets of justice. The families of those former cabinet members, whether among the Jawara asylum party in Senegal, or other parts of the world, must not be used as bargaining chips. They are not even vicariously responsible for the untoward conduct of their spouses and/or parents. Although our first successful national encounter with a forceful displacement of government, the experience of other countries should provide cogent instruction in our attempt to fashion a strategy of national unity in the aftermath of such an earthshaking event. The overthrow of the Jawara government was bloodless and we challenge you to keep your administration bloodless. This means no hostages, no summary trials, and absolutely no executions.
Excuse my concern but my civic duties dictate that I express my thoughts on a condition of first impression in my country. The stakes are too high, and sink or swim, we are in it together as Gambians. For 17 years, I have followed every major political event in Africa and the world. I have seen governments, civilian and military, engineer and nurture atrocities of
mind-boggling dimensions on the people whose welfare they are supposed to protect. I have also seen the silent killers, the governmental equivalents of high blood pressure, arrest the hopes, and drown the dreams, of generations of their youthful citizens. Jawara belongs in the
latter. Governmental crime has different formulations, but after the enervating trials of the Jawara fraud, Gambians may have no patience left to tolerate an assault on their material and spiritual heritage”.
Twenty one years later, I stand firm by the general principles herein enunciated, and live or perish, they remain inviolable. When juxtaposed against that of larger Gambia, my fleeting life is of secondary importance.
Of critical import is whether the Professor exercises absolute control over the public space. Are Gambian’s fleeing the land of their birth for lack of personal security? Is the Professor’s government embarked on verifiable national reconciliation with the likes of UDP’s Amadou Sanneh behind bars? Is there procedural due process in prosecuting alleged political offenders? Are there extra-judicial takings of private property? Is the Professor’s government bloodless, free of hostages, and extra-judicial executions? For an independent minded citizen, these must remain the benchmark issues for support of, or dissent against any government!
But it appears as though some Gambians prefer personal rule to a transparent public space moored in independent institutions underpinned by the rule of law. For any people, that mindset must constitute a tragedy of the first order!
In Julius Caesar, one of Britain’s abiding contributions to human thought and civilisation spoke thus of the tragic hero: “But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world: now lies he there, and none so poor to do him reverence”.
Different context, same eternal and fundamental lesson about the absolute transiency of life, and of course the bard’s exquisite counsel for restraint in all matters human! My thoughts are the same today as they were 21 years ago and I remain permanently wedded to the idea of a public space anchored in law and independent institutions. However dissected, and from whatever trajectory, the Professor is unwaveringly committed to personal rule and this creates an irreconcilable conflict with all who are independent minded. In that climate, talk of reconciliation is utterly clueless. There is no nicer way to articulate this!
How must one negotiate the cul de sac that characterises transient humanity?
For those lucky, or unlucky, as the case may be, to occupy the preeminent position in the governance of any community, a nation state no less, the word is legacy, legacy that offers a fighting chance of inhabiting the same abode with that of the timeless sages, humanity’s conduits of wisdom and knowledge across the ages. It means recognising ones ultimate subjection to the same vulnerabilities as everyone else, no matter the positioning of fate and circumstance in our transient home that is earthly life.
And so it never ceases to amaze how a person, or persons, possessed of public power, either by force, or via communal consensus, can act as though they inhabit a firmament of their own, complete with eternal life and privileges. Why are the teachings of human transiency, ancient and modern, of no consequence in the misguided calculations of lawless rulers, and some of their herd-like citizens!
The same teachings are recommended to Diaspora Gambians who are preparing to embrace futility and nothingness. Unless you can point to verifiable fundamental changes in the architecture of our public space, the pardons mean nothing for the fight you claim to be engaged with over the years. It was for drug dealers and other criminals, and former operators at the councils of state who were sent to our gulags to be thought lessons for whatever reason.
If you remain a dissident, it is not for you. In the looming showdown over the 2016-17 political season, the prisons will quickly repopulate and even you may end up as one of the new inmates for engaging in harmless, if unflattering political gossip. With a bottomless supply pool, the Professor quickly tires of sycophants.
If of course you lived a lie all these years, please pardon me. Or should that be “forgive” me!
Lamin J Darbo