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Momodou Posted - 03 Jan 2018 : 11:26:01
Gambia on a roll

By Baba Galleh Jallow

In a recent “Letter from Africa” column for the BBC’s Africa service, veteran Ghanaian journalist and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene writes about how 2017 was a year that saw the departure of several African sit-tight and not-so-sit-tight rulers. She narrates how in Ghana “out went John Dramani Mahama and in came Nana Akufo-Addo.” In Angola “Jose Eduardo dos Santos stood down.” Of Zimbabwe she writes, “The event that led to President Robert Mugabe finally stepping down after 37 years still seem somewhat surreal.” In Uganda, she notes, “President Yoweri Museveni was having a little more difficulty maneuvering to stay in power.” And in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down after two terms. . . . She is being replaced by 1995’s Fifa World Player of the Year, George Weah.” Ohene also mentions how Uhuru Kenyatta “was safely back in the Kenya State House” after Odinga boycotted elections, how “There are continuing demonstrations against President Fuare Gassingbe” in Togo, how in South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa just “defeated Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma to become the president of the ANC”, and how in Botswana, Ian Khama has “announced that he will be leaving office when his term as president comes to an end in April next year.” The Botswana story even includes a narrative about how just before he announced he was stepping down next year, Ian Khama had openly defied Donald Trump and voted in favor of a resolution asking him to withdraw his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She informs us that in fact, with the exception of Togo’s Faure Gassingbe, all African leaders defied Trump’s threat to withhold aid and voted in favor of the resolution. Ohene ends her interesting piece with the poetic note that “As the calypso would put it, 2017 is ending on a roll.”

A Gambian fan of Ohene’s “Letter from Africa” reads through this piece always expecting the next paragraph to say in tiny Gambia, the people voted out a dictator and resolutely refused to be intimidated or to back down from their insistence that Gambia Has Decided it will no longer be ruled and bullied by Yahya Jammeh. The reader cannot believe that Ohene does not mention The Gambia at all. The disbelief is magnified, almost surreal because the popular revolution that ousted Gambia’s dictator of 22 years without a single violent incident is arguably the most dramatic historical event and the most dramatic change of leadership to happen in Africa 2017. Zimbabwe perhaps comes second, because while there is a change of leadership there, there is no change of government since Mugabe’s ZANU PF still remains in power. In Gambia, there was both a change of leadership and a change of government. Indeed, so dramatic is this change that we now have a New Gambia that in many respects literally bears little semblance to the old Gambia, Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia.

The dramatic event of December 2016 to January 2017 when the Gambian people forced Jammeh out of power after 22 years of brutal dictatorship was an event of universal significance and universal presence, and ultimately an event that morphed into a universal project of rejection against African dictatorship. Media all over the world covered the event, countries and organizations all over the world expressed solidarity with the calm and peaceful Gambian people who stared a brutal regime straight in the face and told it no, you have to go, without putting themselves in harm’s way by inciting violence. ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations Security Council, and individual governments from the United States to Russia stood firmly behind Gambia’s decision and insistence that Jammeh must go. Yet, Elizabeth Ohene omitted this monumental event of world historical significance from her account on the ousting and even near-ousting of African leaders in 2017. Well, the calypso probably did not say this but the whole world knows that if 2017 ended on a roll as far as the ouster of sit-tight leaders is concerned, Gambians ended 2017 in an even bigger roll with the ouster of a dictator who publicly and repeatedly claimed personal ownership of their country and threatened to rule them for one billion years. Ohene’s omission, for whatever reason, is just simply inexcusable.

Of course, we do not need Elizabeth Ohene or anyone to tell our story for us. We do not need anyone to remind us, or indeed the world, that in 2017 Gambia decided that she would no longer be bullied by a brutal dictator. If countries were ladies, Gambia would be the ultimate heroine and role model for all African countries in the manner in which she calmly and decisively expelled her macho ruler from her shores and reclaimed her right to peace, freedom of expression and association, and freedom from political bullying on her own shores. Gambia demonstrated loud and clear that with effect from 2017 she reserves the right to vote her leaders out in free and fair elections and to assert and exercise her full right to self-determination. And of course, when it comes to telling Gambia’s story, Gambia does it best because she lived it, breathed it, and expressed it in loud, clear and no uncertain terms. And so our issue with Ohene’s narrative is less about why Gambia’s story is not mentioned and more about the fact that a BBC column purporting to show how 2017 saw a series of dramatic departures of veteran African leaders can possibly omit the Gambian case. Nor is it that Gambia is hungry for mention on the BBC because over the past 23 years, we have had our full and fair share of BBC coverage, from Jammeh’s dubious claims to have found a cure for AIDS, to his dramatic concession of defeat on December 2, 2016, to his fateful recanting of this concession on December 9, to his hollow threats to deal with ECOMIG forces should they dare to invade, to the last minute flourish of diplomatic activity and threatening planes flying low over state house that saw our self-styled Babili Mansa and Nasiru Deen quickly boarding a flight into exile to avoid ECOMIG capture. Surely, an African columnist of Elizabeth Ohene’s stature and experience could not possibly have forgotten about these dramatic events? Was it an editorial decision to excise the Gambia story from her original piece, or did Ohene really forget? Some Gambian Facebook commentators on the issue have suggested that it was an oversight on Ohene’s part. Well, we may perhaps give her the benefit of the doubt with a generous pinch of salt. This is simply because the events of Gambia 2017 are too big to be omitted from any history of leadership changes in Africa 2017.

History is full of examples of people trying to silence the future and what happened in Gambia 2017 is a people’s refusal to have their future silenced. Dictators like Yahya Jammeh are particularly addicted to this impossible attempt at silencing the future. When dictators silence the media, they are trying to silence the future sounds of protest that could be inspired by media exposures of their corrupt and brutal practices; when they silence critics, they are trying to silence the future sounds of discontent and dissent that could be inspired in the public mind; when they pass draconian laws banning public gatherings, they are trying to silence the future voices of dissent that will be heard at those gatherings and the sounds of the protests they could potentially generate. In all cases, they fail to silence the future because the very act of trying to silence the future creates the noises and the sounds and the protests of the future that will eventually push them out of power. For twenty-two years, Yahya Jammeh tried to silence The Gambia’s future through acts of brutality against the media, against critics, against political opponents, against protesters. But even as he tried to silence the future, he inspired the lyrical revolution most dramatically expressed by Killa Ace and generated the sounds of public displeasure and discontent that eventually led to his downfall. When he tried to silence the future of Gambian democracy by passing draconian and manifestly unjust electoral laws, he inspired the Sandeng protest and the arrests of the UDP leadership, the sounds of the Kalama Revolution, the resounding sounds of the Gambian marble against dictatorship, the silent stares of Gambians at heavily armed soldiers on our streets, the indignant calls for him to step down from all sectors of the Gambian community, the loud and uncompromising hashtag of Gambia Has Decided, the rolling of ECOMIG tanks into Gambian territory, and the take-off sounds of the plane that finally whisked him off into exile.

Equally ineffective has been people’s attempts to delete the past. While dictators often try to delete the past by omitting the good deeds of their critics and opponents from the national narrative and by denying their roles in atrocities they commit against their critics and other victims, it is also a common practice among historians in both narrative and writing cultures. Some prominent griots for example have been known to omit embarrassing or otherwise uncomplimentary details of their communal histories from their versions of oral traditions and history. But in this day and age of instant recording and communication, an attempt to delete the past - either deliberate or otherwise - is simply more impossible. Especially if that past, like Gambia 2017, embodied events so prominent that they mobilized universal attention, universal discourse and near-universal support for the Gambian people. And while we do not in any way accuse Elizabeth Ohene of trying to delete our recent political past, we are obliged to say for the African historical record that as far as peaceful revolution and a dramatic change leadership goes, Gambia was on a roll in 2017 and has entered 2018 on a roll, with confidence in her heart and a strong determination to succeed on her mind.
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Momodou Posted - 08 Jan 2018 : 09:50:48
Gambia on a roll – part two

By Baba Galleh Jallow

Gambia on a roll. That’s how I called my recent critique of Elizabeth Ohene’s omission of Gambia from her story on the fall of veteran leaders in Africa 2017. The title was deliberate. I knew it would raise some eyebrows in some quarters of Gambian public opinion, and for good reasons too. And it was absolutely not to romanticize our momentous achievement in kicking a dictator out of power by peaceful means and epic nationalism. One appreciates the daunting challenges our country faces as we enter 2018. We all know that it is not all smiles and roses in the Smiling Coast of West Africa. The picture is bright and hopeful, but not as bright and hopeful as we would wish it. But as I would try to demonstrate later in this piece, Gambians have much to celebrate and be hopeful for in 2018 and beyond. But first, why do some Gambians have good reason to doubt that Gambia is on a roll?

At several crucial levels of existence Gambia is certainly not on so much of a roll. Psyche-blasting blackouts are a common pain many Gambians endure on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day. The specter of sudden blackouts snapping Gambians almost out of their minds is common, as is the sharp sense of powerlessness that is a recurrent and immutable effect of blackouts. A unique and ubiquitous feature of African life across the continent, blackouts represent a form of psychological torture whose dire consequences are yet to be fully understood. One has a strong feeling that Africa’s sluggish pace is to a very large extent a consequence of her governments’ failure to find creative solutions to the electricity deficit problem. Apart from being generally bad for business, both public and private, blackouts numb creativity and initiative, they delay the completion of vital projects and transactions, they cause the destruction of machinery and food, and they inspire a state of mental impotence that renders people incapable of getting excited and therefore adequately motivated to do their work, whatever that is. Blackouts are an urgent emergency in the New Gambia that needs to be redressed with utmost urgency. One has a feeling that if the solar energy option is seriously considered, it might prove vital to the solution of our persistently chronic national energy crisis. Blackouts are simply unhealthy for national development. They hold us back and keep us down. They must be eliminated.

And then there our strange neighborhood streets. Driving on a street in Churchill’s Town, London Corner, Tabokoto and other communities in the Greater Banjul Area is like driving up and down mini mountains, driving in and out of mini valleys, and tilting sideways and back as if one were driving on the rugged sides of mini hills. In the rainy season of course, both people and cars have to wade in large stretches of muddy hills and through mud-filled valleys to get to their destinations. The time wasted, the health risks involved, especially the breeding of mosquitoes, and the stench of the pools require urgent action for redress. Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity and some modest funds to solve these seemingly unsolvable problems that stick with us and oppress us from day to day, year in, year out, for decades on end. How about a homegrown corps of road engineers and street builders? How about engaging local builders and masons and using cement and other locally available materials to build simple but sturdy paved streets? How about a ten year project of street-building in The Greater Banjul Area? We certainly have the youthful manpower to train locally on the art and science of street building. And with firm commitment to the project, we can garner funds to see it through.

Gambia is also not on a roll in the traffic and space management sectors. Sometimes, especially around the time of religious festivals, it takes an hour or more to drive from Westfield junction to Serekunda market, a distance we can cover in about two minutes under normal circumstances. The same traffic madness characterizes Westfield roundabout itself, the Westfield-Churchill’s Town stretch, the Turntable area in Brusubi and many other spaces around the Greater Banjul Area. The problem stems from the fact that over the decades, our governments have not been able to adapt to changing circumstances in the nation space, in this case a growing population of both people and vehicles. More and more people live in the Greater Banjul Area and more and more vehicles drive on our roads. Yet, the spaces of activity for both humans and vehicles remain unexpanded. The result is a personification of public disorder, not of the violent sort, but of the sort manifested in a rough jumble of human activity without planning or due attention. Everyone seems to be going everywhere at the same time, and everyone exudes a sense of urgency rivaled by everyone else. There is a certain diminishing of the human person caught in such disorder and a concurrent privileging of individual aims and conveniences over the collective goodwill. While Gambian culture ensures a certain restraint in human interactions within these chaotic traffic conditions, they have a negative cumulative effect that will increasingly diminish our humanity and empathy, and cumulatively increase our propensity to be stressed out and hostile to each other. Installing more traffic lights, expanding current roads and/or building alternative road networks will help arrest this increasingly damaging public disorder in our society.

And then there are several bad laws from the old Gambia still sitting in our law books. Two prominent examples are the Public Order Act and the newspaper registration law. It is unfortunate that people who want to register a newspaper in the New Gambia have to abide by a law the old regime used to stifle the voices and opinions of Gambians. To register a newspaper, people are still required to post a very large bond and to submit to the registrar’s office the lease to a landed property. While most of the bad laws are expected to be expunged from our books during the proposed constitutional review process, this newspaper registration law needs to be annulled immediately. This will open up and enrich our media landscape and allow Gambians interested in establishing newspapers and participating constructively in the national discourse to do so without unnecessary hassles. Repressing public opinion and controlling the national narrative – two main reasons for this draconian media law – are no longer relevant to our national trajectory. They must not be allowed to stifle our national genius and stunt our collective creativity. I hope our able Information and Justice Ministers will help cement public confidence in the New Gambia by taking swift action to have the newspaper registration law repealed sooner rather than later. Doing so will make Gambia a more hopeful and much happier place in 2018 and beyond. And it will earn the government more respect both locally and internationally.

In spite of all these daunting challenges among many others, I maintain that Gambia was on a roll in 2017 and has entered 2018 on a roll. For one thing, we peacefully kicked out a brutal dictator and we are in the process of finding out how he squandered our national resources. We are also on the verge of systematically finding out how and why he brutalized so many Gambians and non-Gambians in the past twenty-two years. One clearly witnesses a sense of purpose in the sittings of the Janneh Commission. One notices a drastic change in the deliberations of our national assembly where healthy debates occur on issues of national interest, a far cry from the rubber stamp banality of a previous era. And one sees deliberate planning and consultation in preparation for the launching of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. Equally encouraging, there is ample evidence that freedom of expression and of association are undeniable realities in the New Gambia. Any and all efforts – deliberate or otherwise - that have so far been made to stifle these two fundamental freedoms have been called out by the Gambian public. Even the party of the dictator freely campaigns across the country, advocates its programs, criticizes the sitting government, and makes claims and promises as to what it will do and not do if it ever comes back to power. So yes, on the score of tolerance for differing opinions and freedom of association, we do have some ground to cover, but we are on the right track and growing.

And then one cannot help but admire and feel proud of the caliber of Gambian minds on social media. Facebook, at least what I see of it, is full of posts by Gambians in areas that were not the stuff of open and public Gambian discourse a few years ago. Yes, there are the political squabbles and all the other unpleasant stuff posted by Gambians. At the same time, one comes across a good number of posts touching on issues of the human mind, on what it means to be human and on the virtues of pleasant human interactions based on our own indigenous traditional norms and customs. There are also very progressive engagements on issues of national development of the sort discussed above, as well as critiques of public policy and action that can only bode well for our country. All said, the proliferation of intelligent ideas, thoughts and suggestions on Gambian social media circles and our local press is genuine cause for optimism. We are identifying our problems, and we are talking openly, sincerely and intelligently about them. For this and this reason alone, we can afford to be genuinely optimistic.

Society is always a work in progress. Nations and states are works in progress. The difference between countries is not a difference of essence, it is a difference marked by particular societies’ capacity to identify their problems, talk intelligently about them, and devise solutions for them. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of national problems because they too evolve and emerge with time. But we can solve most of our current problems with a little bit of creativity and determination. And we can continue to identify, engage and resolve our emergent national problems as they arise. Gambia 2018 should be about modestly but strongly maintaining our collective “can do” attitude and taking the commensurate right actions to raise our country to the next level. We can do this.

Source: Gambia-L

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