There’s always something about autocrats and architecture. From Saparmurat Niyazov’s Arch of Neutrality in Turkmenistan to Joseph Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers in Moscow, dictators are notorious for constructing extravagant monuments, colossal statues and other architectural structures for propaganda and to pump up their egos.
In The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a July 1994 military coup and ruled the tiny country for more than two decades with an iron fist, built an outlandish arch at the entrance of Banjul, the capital to the tune of US$1.15 million. The gateway Arch 22 (the number represents the day of the 1994 coup) stands 34 meters (112 feet) high, the tallest structure in the country at the time of its construction, and now the second tallest after the Petroleum House in Bijilo.
At the time Jammeh assigned Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa to design the structure, the country was at crossroads. The military junta was still at an embryonic stage. Fear and uncertainty were looming large, and the future of the nation was hanging in the balance. The regime needed something to wow the nervous citizens and win their hearts and minds. And bang! There came the Arch 22, a propaganda that actually wowed the people and attracted support for the regime and its leader.
Officially inaugurated on July 22, 1997 to coincide with the third anniversary of the coup, the three-floor landmark stands on eight huge columns. From the bottom floor, a lift linked visitors to a small textile museum on the second floor hosting ethnographic exhibitions about The Gambia and a small exposition about the July 1994 military coup and the arch itself, and a gallery and restaurant/cafeteria on the second floor. On display were and still are portraits of Jammeh and his military junta members and other images of other historical events and personalities.
According to Jammeh in 1997, the Arch 22 was a monumental project for The Gambia and would attract tourists and revenue for the country. During his regime, cars were banned from driving between the columns and only his motorcade was allowed in.
If you are a tourist, the Arch 22 offers an impressive panoramic view of Banjul and the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re not, then there’s hardly anything monumental about this structure. His critics described his decision to build the arch as sheer megalomania.
Jammeh lost the election in December 2016 and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. The Arch 22 remains a stark reminder of his ruthlessness and dictatorship. No one seems to have an idea of how much revenue the arch generated during his tenure and where the funds went.
Today, the Arch 22 is falling into ruin. Its dodgy white concrete has aged so badly you’d think it has been there for 200 years. The elevator has long been damaged and abandoned and visitors are now compelled to climb up the stairs in the dark. The restaurant is no more and what is left in its space is an empty, boring floor that looks like it’s desperately waiting to be rescued. The entire structure has become decrepit. And the worst part of it is that the number of visiting tourists has dwindled to almost nothing.
Kaddy Trawally, the supervisor at the Arch 22 appealed to Gambians to see the edifice as a national monument.
“There is a need for Gambians to understand that this Arch 22 doesn’t belong to Yahya Jammeh. It is for Gambians because it is their money that was used to build it. Jammeh left but the arch is still here providing employment and services.”
When the arch was opened, there were thirty employees, including Kaddy who ran its day to day operations under a Board of Directors. That changed in 2007 after it was handed over to the National Council for Arts and Culture. Today, only twelve people are working there.
“I have been working here for more than 20 years as a cleaner and honestly things are not normal. The lift that was used to take visitors and workers to the top floors is no more working and as a result, many visitors, especially old people are no longer coming. I hope the government intervenes because this is about our welfare,” said Mariama Jatta, one of the remaining employees.
Hassoum Ceesay, the Acting Director of the National Center for Arts and Culture said plans are underway to green up the arch’s perimeter by using plants, to give it a facelift in order to attract visitors.
In post-Jammeh Gambia, any lightweight vehicle is allowed to use the road under the bridge.
“The reason why motorists and vehicle owners were denied access to use the arch pavement is as a result of a directive from the Office of the President at the time asking us to stop motorists and vehicle owners from accessing the road. This was a very unfortunate situation as we were not able to counter speculations that the free flow of traffic may cause damage to the structure,” Hassoum told The Chronicle.
Immediately Jammeh left for Equatorial Guinea, people cut the chains that blocked the way to the pavement under the arch and started driving through freely. They have not stopped since.