By Mathew K Jallow
Fever pitch euphoria, hope re-born, pride restored, and a country no longer in the grip of terror. Welcome to the Gambia, a nation on the cusp of profound political changes. Galvanized by the promise of a new dawn, Gambians are again experiencing one of the most electrifying electoral seasons of the past fifty years. After decades of state expropriation of citizens’ freedoms and liberties, this political season is not unlike the archetypal political sentiments, which pervaded the infectious independence era rupture, marking the end of colonial rule. In political terms, the last half of 2015, and the first eight months of 2016, offer an earth-shaking glimpse into the Gambia’s slowly changing political paradigm. The 2015 demonstrations for electoral reform, which claimed the lives of UDP stalwarts, and the illegal incarceration of party leader, Hon Ousainou Darboe, and fifty senior party officials, launched the new revival of the long vanished political traditions of a nation in crisis. The promise of citizens’ constitutional and inalienable rights to freely express themselves, voice grievances, and make their own choices, absent the coercion and intimidation by the state machinery; alkalos, chiefs, commissioners, NIA, police, military and renegade civilian and the murderous paramilitary outfits, the jugglers, is lifting the political torment off the backs of the Gambia’s once vibrant population. It’s a truly remarkable tour de force, and stinging statement of public scorn, amidst the blundering banality of the state’s fatal failure of leadership. But first, it’s the infusion of courage that transcends every narrow cultural and political boundary, and challenges the norms imposed by the dying regime, which has refined, rather than obliterate the morally degenerating cultural schism that permeates every sector of Gambian society. This is a period of opportunity that offers a sharp contrast to the past systemic deference to a regime uninhibited by moral and ethical propriety, from imposition of brutal authority in the perpetual pursuance of an unfree and unjust society. But, an emerging new political paradigm unequivocally demonstrates the fading away into irrelevance and oblivion, of the old political establishment, for shrinking their primary task of defending citizens from the draconian rule of a madman.
The recent, but unpredictable domination of the political space, so rapidly, is an indictment of the old order, and exemplifies the ravenous craving for political change, which the new sheriffs in town, Mama Kandeh, Dr Isatou Touray and Amadou Barrow symbolize in their sudden rise from political nihilism into the publics’ sensibilities. The historic significance of these unfolding political events is symptomatic of both the rousing public support that recognizes the urgency of political change, but also the historic propensity of Gambians to trample upon and obliterate a string of successive iron-clad opportunities for change. This is not lost on the broader voting population. And now, the wildly popular GDC party, which took Gambia by storm, is predisposed to the unflattering criticism by a sub-segment of diaspora activists for having worked with Yahya Jammeh, or who have an agenda that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with party leader, Mama Kandeh’s political qualifications or lack thereof. In the same vein, UDP’s nomination of a presidential candidate has confirmed the party’s predictive flat-lining arising from the obscuring shadow cast by party leader Ousainou Darboe’s absence, compounded by the mellow demeanor of party leader Amadou Barrow. The independent candidate Dr Isatou Touray excites a section of the diaspora activists, even as traditional and religious opponents challenge the new social norms that give license for female candidates to indulge in every sphere of public life. As the weeks unfold, the antipathy towards Dr Touray’s presidential aspirations will be tested by her superior academic standing and expansive work exposure, but her ability to overcome this antediluvian resistance is predicated on her preponderant strength, which paradoxically is also her controlling weakness; her gender. The primitive closemindedness of religion is still a major barrier to gender equity in Gambia, a western concept, which is at variance with the local social norms of primarily Islamic nation, and whether other antithetical counter-forces can mitigate the binary spectacle of myopic cultural norms and less than gratifying religious hyperbole, remains to be seen. But, if there are three things on which there is consensus; it is the festering toxicity of the Gambia’s polarized political system, perennial inability to subvert narrow party interest for the public good, and inveterate paralysis of the diaspora to influence political events at home.
The malleability of citizens, exploited by the regime, exists in tandem with the contradictions of citizens’ quintessential political resilience, which Gambians now express in political rallies, unhindered by fear and unafraid to exercise their rights as free people. And in spite of the ideological rigidity of the religious indoctrinaires challenging Dr. Touray, and the searing animus underpinning the scathing invectives against Mama Kandeh, neither will budge from the political limelight, even with the steep opposition by sanctimonious religious zealots and familiar ethnic biases. Beyond that, it is stating the obvious that Yahya Jammeh’s caricature also validates the reality of his self-serving political bigotry, for which he often launches gratuitous attacks designed to malign his opponents; real or imagined. But the underwhelming and simplistic bluster; the centerpieces of Yahya Jammeh’s grim reign, no longer have the terrorizing effect they once did, in past election cycles. Paradoxically, as the battle-lines are drawn by surrogates of Mama Kandeh and Dr Isatou Touray, on the other side of the political continuum, the proponents of coalition still seek to build bridges, as the last best hope for political change. But, the key to the momentum of turning aspiration into real change lies in the hands of a newly empowered population and Yahya Jammeh’s capricious slippage from ignorance to crippling madness, will no longer deter the march towards a new political dawn. As citizens’ determined to cast aside the amour of self-preservation for the pride of liberty, what seems so overwhelming, is the pragmatic shift from the convenience of ephemeral refuge from state terror, to the reverence of personal dignity. It is a well-established fact that Yahya Jammeh is not adverse to resorting to riveting cruelty, all because Gambians long ago surrendered to the impolite ramblings of his small-mindedness, creating a flashpoint in the midst of West Africa, which turned Africa’s most stable democracy into a pariah state. This year, democratization of electoral politics has come to the Gambia, and the need to demonstrate religious fidelity to the political process is a patriotic calling. For this year, like previous election cycles, Gambia’s overarching task remains the creation of enduring political unity among parties, and not unlike past elections, the challenge is to change Gambia’s pathetic political circumstances. It is a national duty; a collective responsibility, but first Gambians must overcome the boondoggle that threatens to tear apart the cause of liberty, even before electioneering takes off in earnest. Again, this year, the patriotic task before every Gambian is too sacred to squander on petty quibbles and nonsensical political melodramas.