United by Dictatorship, Divided by Democracy
How a solid Gambian friendship is cracked by a movement
September 2016 was quite a busy period in The Gambia. The election that would later change the face of the country was just three months away and opposition parties were working on final modalities to form a coalition against Yahya Jammeh and his dictatorship.
The young were at the forefront of the quest to vote Jammeh out, finally. On a daily basis, they turned out en masse to attend campaign rallies and political meetings, show solidarity with the opposition, give them courage and assurance and raise their voice.
In the midst of that excitement, two young men crossed paths. Kemo Bojang, a university student and Bubacarr Bob Keita, an up-and-coming entrepreneur, were from different parts of the country and the chances of them becoming friends before that moment were very slim.
“We met at a UDP (United Democratic Party) rally because we were both active supporters of the party. We clicked immediately because in terms of political views and aspirations for The Gambia, we had everything in common. He wanted change and I wanted change,” says Kemo.
For Bubacarr, it was Kemo’s energy and passion which stood out. “Precisely I met Kemo during the height of the election campaign when we were both trying to convince the young people to vote for the coalition candidate, Adama Barrow. Kemo came across as a nice guy and I realized he had the same energy and passion to bring change in our country. We had the same thinking and we were fighting the same fight.”
For the next two weeks, Kemo and Bubacarr would call each other on the phone everyday to meet and attend political rallies together.
Kemo recalls, “I remember a particular rally in Bakau when Adama Barrow was coming to town. We were together for about nine hours, starting from the beginning of the fanfare till the end of the event late at night. We were both very optimistic that change would come and the Gambia we were yearning for was coming.”
“I’d always call him to lay out out next plans of action. We were very close. In Kemo, I found a very intelligent guy who was always willing to share his experiences and views. Even though I was older, I always turned to him for advice on what to do to keep the momentum of the young people in our campaign,” says Babacarr.
The relationship between the two grew stronger as the election drew nearer. When they were not at campaign rallies, they’d always meet at restaurants and cafeterias for meals or drinks. But at the heart of every discussion around lunch or dinner table was the political campaign – how to fire up the young people more to come out and vote against Jammeh. Basically wherever you saw Kemo, you’d see Bubacarr, most of the time.
On the night of the election when results were being counted, the two young men, anxious and at times nervous, stayed on the phone almost the whole night comforting each other and analyzing the figures that were trickling in.
“That was another night of bonding. I remember when the results from the Fonis were announced and we didn’t win, he rang me and was sounding very nervous. He told me we might have lost the polls. But I was hopeful and I tried to allay his fears. When Janjangbureh was announced and we won, I rang him back and we celebrated, and I told him we must keep praying,” Kemo recalls.
For Bubacarr, what made the Bakau rally special and memorable is that it was the last day of campaign and it was the moment they sat and discussed their fate if the results hadn’t gone their way.
“It was a very emotional moment. We were contemplating about a lot things we didn’t think about the whole time. We discussed about what could happen to us if the coalition had lost. We were both so worried and nervous,” says Bubacarr.
By the next morning, news came out that Jammeh had lost and Barrow would be the next president. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate. For Kemo and Bubacarr, it was the usual routine. They spoke on the phone, celebrated and congratulated each other and then headed to the Westfield square together to party and dance to the tunes of freedom they worked so hard for.
Kemo recalls, “It was unbelievable… just unimaginable and very emotional. All of us out there celebrating and embracing each other. It was a great moment.”
“It was a day of liberation for our country and all our intentions and prayers were answered,” Says Bubacarr.
A week later following Jammeh’s decision to make a u-turn and reject the results, Kemo received information that security agents were looking for him. Afraid and confused, he reached out to Bubacarr to inform him and a few family members about the danger. Together, with family members, they planned and executed a strategy to get Kemo across the border to Senegal. By the next day, he was in Dakar. But not even the distance could affect the brotherhood between the two.
“We were constantly on the phone. We both found ourselves in difficult situations. I was in Dakar worried about the events back home and he was in The Gambia worried about the political impasse on the ground and about me and others who fled to Dakar. So we were always on the phone exchanging information and discussing the situation,” says Kemo.
It would take many weeks and the intervention of sub-regional forces to force Jammeh to step down and flee. Kemo returned home and rekindled his friendship with Bubacarr. With dictatorship now history, they’d often return to their favourite spots to reflect on the days of the campaign and make jokes about Jammeh. Their regular phone calls too continued.
When President Barrow’s allies planned to form the Barrow Youth Movement (now renamed Barrow Youths for National Development) shortly after he took over the presidency, Bubacarr was at the forefront of the initial meetings as one of the young people to drive the agenda. With a strong conviction that the movement was part of the freedom and prosperity the young people fought for to unseat Jammeh, he reached out to Kemo and invited him to at least one of the first meetings. Kemo trusted him and he accepted the invitation.
But the more the discussions about the idea of forming the movement deepened, the more Kemo felt it was a bad idea. “I think he realized that we may not have had the same agenda anymore. Where we started differing in opinion was when I realized that the government of the day was not very different from the government of the past, especially on issues of governance. In my opinion, sometimes he was too biased to see the reality. It was disappointing that the young people I fought dictatorship with and campaign with, all of a sudden lost the spirit we had”, Kemo remarks.
With Bubacarr determined to stay on with the Barrow Youth Movement and Kemo seeing the formation of the movement as a reversal of the democracy he had fought for, the strong pillars of their friendship started cracking. First, the phone calls were limited and when they spoke, it was about everything but politics. Then the calls stopped. And now whenever they bump into each other, there’s nothing more than the dry ‘hellos’ and a little bit of pleasantries.
Kemo is today the Secretary General of UDP’s Youth Wing, and Bubacarr remains a founding member of the renamed Barrow Youths for National Development. The controversy created by the formation of the Barrow Youths for National Development has gone beyond the two young men. President Barrow, the chief patron of the movement is its biggest fan, while Ousainou Darboe, the Vice President and UDP leader continues to publicly reject and criticise the movement. It has resulted to public spats between the two leaders.
While Kemo and Bubacarr might never be the best of friends they once were, they are both nostalgic about the moments they spent together. But any chance of them getting back to the old ways might be blocked by the difference in the way they see the movement.
“He’s still somebody I hold a lot of respect for. We did everything for each other that brothers would do for each other. I miss him dearly. Hopefully someday he’ll realize that this is not what it was all about. It was about seeing Gambia first and this is not that. But if he wants to come back, why not? I’ll embrace him again.”
Bubacarr adds, “I really miss those moments we spent together. We used to spend so much time together. We were a family. We did things together and shared ideas and thoughts and honestly sometimes I feel his absence. It’s like what brought us together was to remove Jammeh and that was achieved. Now everybody has to go on with their own business.”
Kebba Ansu Manneh contributed to this story.