July 22: Promise, Parody and Paranoia
It appeared to be a normal Friday evening in July 1994 when a bunch of us (primary school kids) were out playing in a heap of sound. The sand and gravel were being used by a company I can’t remember in the construction of a new borehole in our roadside school. Then all of a sudden, the unusual came. Two military trucks carrying soldiers apparently in battle mode passed. They were headed for Barra (so we thought). We never cared at the time what on earth their mission was. Presumably, the men in uniform were those from 2nd Infantry Battalion in Farafenni who had crossed over to beef up numbers in Banjul. The rest is now history.
The promising early days
Yahya Jammeh was that young lieutenant who came to power at a time when The Gambia in the eyes of some observers needed a departure from the old order. As such, when he and his cohort of young Gambian military officers toppled Sir Dawda Jawara on July 22nd 1994, they were embraced by a populace that bought into their youthful exuberance, couple with a desire for change despite enjoying thirty years of stable democratic rule under Jawara. The slogan from day one became “we are soldiers with a difference” in an apparent show of assurance to the pockets of naysayers who seemed perturbed by the historic lessons learnt from other countries that had their own fair share of military regimes.
As most new leaders would do, a 29-year-old Jammeh and members of his Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) presented themselves as the panacea to rampant corruption and nepotism, basing their coup on the three-worded mantra of transparency, accountability and probity. Even from those embryonic days of change, Jammeh was seen as the great hope and redeemer – a no-nonsense soldier who would never allow small Gambia to be bullied by anyone, not even the West. He decried Banjul’s heavy reliance on foreign aid, saying many times on record that “We are not a beggar-nation.” He blamed multilateral funding agencies for being the main reason why poor countries like The Gambia remained perennially indebted. He preached self-reliance while promising closer ties between Gambia and her neighbours, especially Senegal and strategically big brother Nigeria.
Revolutionary fervor and entrenchment
The revolutionary fervor in Jammeh at the time was akin to John Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and Libya’s Muhammar Ghadaffi, two men who in different stages of the Jammeh-era were seen in some quarters as political mentors for the then Chairman of the then AFPRC. In fact, Rawlings was one of the few foreign leaders who visited Banjul during Jammeh’s days as a political novice in what was seen to be a lesson sharing moment from John to Yahya, the former being the most experienced of the two. Perhaps too, the former Libyan leader’s famed Green Book must have proven to be a handy reference material for his Gambian protégé in charting out his own revolutionary master plan, especially in the context of his much vaunted agricultural offensive.
Yahya Jammeh wasted little time to institutionalize the 22nd July Youth Movement which bore parallels with Rawlings’ Workers Defence Council. Here was man who was also on record that they would never preside over a dictatorship in this country. Slowly, Jammeh also began to change the tune while maintaining that it was not their interest to remain in power unless and until it were to be asked for by the Gambian people. And whether it was a well-orchestrated plan or not, a portion of the Gambian populace including some influential figures from within the Western Division visited the corridors of power to plead with Yayha Jammeh to reconsider his position and contest for the 1996 presidential ballot. That it played into his hands, saying since it was Gambians themselves who had wanted him to steer their affairs to “safer shores”, he was ready to answer to their call.
Political party formation, consolidation of power and infrastructural development initiatives
Enter 1996. Jammeh retired from the army – swapped the Khaki for the Kaftan- formed his own political party, Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction (APRC), an abbreviation that bears shades of the AFPRC, the military council he has presided over for two years. Having already had military personnel as divisional commissioners all those two years, it appeared the man who was never a politician in his own words, had his eyes fixated on Number 1 Marina Parade (the seat of power). When elections did come, Jammeh won, making him a democratically-elected president.
Having won the mandate of the people through the ballot box, Jammeh set out to work, on the backdrop of “non-discrimination and fair distribution of the national cake”. Roads, starting with the Essau-Kerewan highway, were constructed. Schools sprang up in every nook and cranny of The Gambia, as did health facilities. Yayha Jammeh undertook an ambitious infrastructural drive across the country, also famously building the Minimiyang Bridge in Kerewan, North Bank Region, thus earning him the moniker “Babilimansa”, a Mandinka term which means chief bridge builder or a king that builds bridges. The University of The Gambia, which was birthed the University Extension Programme came to fruition, a new airport terminal building constructed, Kombo coastal road, new corporations and agencies offering so much promise to the people.
Jammeh’s party, APRC had been rooted on highly organized structures and a well lubricated machinery. Such structures including “yaay compins” within the ranks of the party allowed for easy mobilization and consolidation of the status quo.
Rhetoric and parody
As Jammeh set his sights on the infrastructural landscape of The Gambia, mainly thanks to Taiwanese money, he was at the same time doing himself no favours when a man whose World Bank was Allah distanced himself from most of the Gambia’s traditional development partners. Gross human rights abuses mainly against political opponents and journalists and verbal tirades were to become the hallmark of his leadership as the years went by. A man who also condemned the regime he ousted for “rampant corruption” would live the sort of outlandish lifestyle akin to a mega-rich celebrity. While most Gambians, especially the youth were bedeviled with poverty and unemployment, he threw parties on festive occasions both in his native Kanilai and the metropolis. His birthdays were celebrated in pomp and pageantry – where internationally acclaimed artistes were not only jetted into Banjul to sing his praises, but also moments to wine and dine. With July 22, national day celebrations also got submerged in to the backburner. February 18 (the Independence Day) subsequently became an appendage on our annul calendar.
Crisis in Governance
In the intervening years, Jammeh would find himself lurch into one crisis to another in the course of his 22-year reign. Domestically, The Gambia became his personal fiefdom. His word was law. Jammeh would fire and hire at will. Time and again and without remorse, he had brought promising careers to an end, brought men and women of honor to their knees. The 2012 prisoner execution sent shockwaves within and without the country, forceful disappearances, torture, detention without trial as citizens lived in perpetual fear and unpredictability. Jammeh the person became Jammeh the institution at the work place. Loyalty to the state became secondary for public servants and the institutions they were serving.
Being the grand pariah he was, he put himself and The Gambia under self-imposed exile. The Gambia found herself cornered and stifled economically. Diplomatic ties became severed with even Taiwan, a country that offered so much to Banjul in the form of scholarships, financial and material aid. There also came The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations as well as preparation for withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.
Political suicide and fall from power
For a man who wielded so much power over the years and having built such a personality cult around him, not many could have predicted Jammeh’s fall. He declared The Gambia an Islamic state, in sharp contrast with the spirit of secularism as encapsulated in the 1997 constitution. The self-destruction spree in what would be the final year of his rule showed no sign of abating. The tipping point came after he became muddled in acrimonious ethno-linguistic tirades. Deeply alarmed by the mannerisms of their eccentric leader, Gambians of different backgrounds got agitated as they found themselves on the abyss of destination unknown. Backed by their contemporaries in the diaspora, fuelled by the level of discontent in Banjul and tapping into the power of social media, eight political leaders formed a unified coalition against Jammeh in the 2016.
In truth, not many people saw it coming, but as the independent coalition headed by Adama Barrow toured the country during an intense campaign period, holding rally after rally, it dawned on some that regime change might be nigh. Next stop – elections. The December 1st Presidential ballot pitted Jammeh against Adama Barrow and Mama Kandeh of GDC. It was the first time the country used spot counting of the ballots in a presidential race. The outcome: Jammeh got defeated. In the evening of December 2, the day on which the IEC declared the results, Jammeh telephoned Adama Barrow to congratulate him and wished him well. That move, as unexpected by many, instantly earned him commendation from different sections who saw it as noble and reconciliatory.
However, after a few days when the IEC admitted to some errors in the transposing of results in the Basse area but maintained that did not in any altered the outcome of the polls, Jammeh made a bizarre U-turn to reject the votes in totality, calling for fresh elections under “a god-fearing IEC”. His decision sparked national outrage and international condemnation, with ECOWAS, AU and the UN, all calling on him to cede power smoothly to then president-elect Adama Barrow. Their calls fell on deaf ears as the APRC filed a petition to the Supreme Court for hearing. That case too hit a snag because the court at the time was short of judges to look into the matter. From one set back to another, mediation efforts brokered by West African leaders couldn’t progress as Jammeh played hardball. The situation compelled the regional economic bloc to send in troops as uncertainty loomed large on a once Smiling Coast.
In the end, he left Banjul on January 21, 2017 for Equatorial Guinea, after weeks of political logjam that internally displaced many people and hit the business and tourism sectors to the core. Jammeh’s departure leveled the ground for the return of Adama Barrow, who had sought sanctuary in neighbouring Senegal.
While the university and scholarship packages can be cited as noteworthy positives, July 22nd will forever go down in history as the day that also opened the floodgates of sycophancy, divide and rule tactics, arbitrary arrests and detentions, use of brute force mainly through torture, extra judicial excesses, state sanctioned and self-installed spy agents, and of course unchecked thievery in a self-perpetuating system that permeated every facet of our polity. The ripples are still in full effect. Over to you President Barrow.
Famara Fofana is a freelance writer with The Chronicle.