It’s exactly one month before 22nd July, and until a little over two years ago, this was always a busy period in Kanilai as ex-president Yahya Jammeh and his supporters prepared to celebrate the anniversary of the 1994 military coup that brought him to power.
Located in the southern part of The Gambia, near the border with Senegal, Kanilai is Jammeh’s home village. Before he came to power, it was a small settlement dominated by towering silk cotton trees, and only known for its small-scale farming activities.
Under Jammeh’s rule, the old Kanilai was transformed into a new one, a major socio-economic center. He built a gigantic gated complex housing a palace where he held both private and state functions, a resort hotel and zoo, among other structures. He provided free electricity and water for the villagers, and introduced cultural festivals, bringing fun and excitement to the village. Banks and other business owners opened branches in Kanilai to cater for the financial and economic needs of the villagers and the visitors from across the country. In return, the villagers gave him unflinching loyalty.
More than two years after Jammeh went into exile in Equatorial Guinea, the once bustling major village is now empty and lifeless after the crowd disappeared. Many of the structures he built in his ‘castle’ now lay in ruins and guarded by armed soldiers. There’s no free water and electricity anymore. The villagers are nostalgic for their most famous son.
“When will the government allow Yahya Jammeh to come back to The Gambia? I want you to go and ask the government this question,” Anthony Jammeh, a retired teacher and prominent native of Kanilai tells The Chronicle.
He has been serving as the village spokesman since the departure of Jammeh. In 2017, he was arrested by security forces for allegedly taking part in a demonstration aimed at putting pressure on the ECOWAS troops to leave Kanilai.
“Since Yahya left this country we have not had peace in Kanilai. We’ve been persistently crucified by our own government. When Yahya was in power everybody in this country had peace. So why are they witch hunting the people of Kanilai now? We’re also Gambians,” Anthony queries.
He also takes a swipe at journalists for alleged fabrication of lies against the ex-leader.
“I feel bitter and angry when journalists approach me for interview. I don’t like to talk to Gambian journalists because they are only good at fabricating lies against Yahya,” he alleges. “Most of you the journalists got your education thanks to Yahya, but today you people are showing ungratefulness to him in all your reports.”
According to him, Jammeh’s positive developments in The Gambia have now been brushed aside, accusing journalists of deliberately refusing to talk about them.
Last week the Minister of Justice, Abubacarr Tambadou announced the forfeiture of Jammeh’s assets over his alleged embezzlement. The announcement was celebrated in many quarters, but in Kanilai it’s creating further anger and frustration.
“It’s a witch hunt and looting,” argues Anthony. “It’s easy to accuse Jammeh of all these things and seizing his assets when he has not been given the opportunity to respond and to clear his name.”
For Ebou Jammeh who grew up with Yahya Jammeh in Kanilai, the ex-president is a generous man who shared everything in his possession with the people of Kanilai.
“Since he left, life has not been the same for us here. We’ve been tormented and isolated by the very government that is supposed to be there for us.”
“Since Yahya left, we’ve become the new regime’s enemy. They are treating us like aliens in our own country. With all the good things Jammeh did for this country, I can’t imagine why the people of his village are being treated this way.”
Ebou is particularly upset that the major projects that Jammeh started before his exit have not been completed by his successor.
“The construction of the village central mosque that was started by Jammeh remains the same. The market and many other projects are still not completed. No one cares about them since Jammeh left. We’ve been abandoned.”
As July 22 approaches, the people of Kanilai can only take a look back at the good old days when people from across the country would throng to the village to sing songs and dance to the tunes till dawn to celebrate the coup that brought Jammeh to power.