By Mathew K Jallow
It is a word pregnant with historical innuendos and carries a stigma that correlates to bitterness and suffering. The human devastation it has caused to Africa is unimaginable. In so many ways, it is perhaps the dirtiest word in Africa’s sociological lexicon; still used by political demagogues to resurrect ancient tribal feuds, and foment discord, but don’t tell that to the Gambia’s disreputable mafia capo, Yahya Jammeh. In his twenty-one years of tortures, killings and economic pillage, Yahya Jammeh has persistently used tribalism to create potent, but invisible divisions along lines of tribe, with reckless abandon. Yahya Jammeh’s tribalism is less than subtle; in fact, it is indiscreet, duplicitous and cruel, but also downright repugnant and counterproductive. Last week, when Yahya Jammeh’s blind tribal bigotry again burst out in familiar dramatics and usual antagonistic polemics, he betrayed more than just his loathe of Mandinkas; he also exposed his spinelessness and veil attempts to pit the Mandinkas against Gambia’s other tribes. Yahya Jammeh’s mindless flaming of tribal bigotry is dangerous and cowardly, but most Gambians have by now overcome that pathetic chapter of history riddled with tribal wars and forced subjugation into slavery. On a campaign tour back in 2011, Yahya Jammeh first made his strongest, unprovoked tribe motivated attacks on Hon Ousainou Darboe, and on that occasion, like all the various other times he manifested profound fear of the Mandinkas, he again threatened to kill, in his effort to induce fear, stave off political dissent and remain in power in perpetuity. Yahya Jammeh truly exemplifies an unhealthy obsession with the Mandinkas, and his frequent anti-Mandinka outbursts, are not unlike his banal attacks on the west; in particular, Gambia’s historic partners and benefactors; the USA, UK. and the EU. The residue of inter-tribal quibbles that remains in Gambian society, do so within the parameters of the law, and have never escalated into violence, since the advent of colonialism centuries ago. But, Yahya Jammeh seeks to reverse that peaceful history by foisting acrimony and tensions on the Gambia’s various tribes. Yahya Jammeh’s ignorance is truly emblematic of tyrants whose failures intersect with their insatiable lust for political power, which compels them to reach back into history to revive Africa’s old tribal orthodoxies based on conflict, war and slavery. This disgraceful politics is what is practiced in the Gambia, and it is the bedrock of Yahya Jammeh political ideology; brutal, dangerous and unforgiving.
Yahya Jammeh’s deliberate stroking of inter-tribal rifts in the Gambia, in his determination to stay in power, is not new. The military regime he heads is ideologically premised on exercising the worst form of tribalism known to Africa; guaranteeing his Jola tribe, who barely consist seven percent of the Gambia’s total population, not only all the key positions in government, but over seventy-five percent of the senior positions in government and its ancillary agencies. Gambia long ago unwittingly became West Africa’s face of political embarrassment, but it wasn’t always like this. Two decades ago, only Senegal rivalled Gambia as an oasis of democracy and the rule of law, on a continent first mired in endless tribal strife, and later, subjected to harsh rule of military dictatorships. Today, Gambia is a shell of its former self; an unfolding dystopia still writing its own story, and a history still waiting to be written. The days of multi-tribal conformity to the same values may soon be over, and the romanticism that gave Gambia that name of endearment, which everyone proudly wears on their sleeves, would soon lose its magic. The smiling coast of West Africa, an effective marketing tool, which has attracted the hopeless romantics, beach lovers, nostalgic tourists, and diaspora returning home to kiss the ground of the land they love, is slowly dissipating into obscurity. In the short space of two decades, the Gambia; that “smiling coast of West Africa,” has achieved notoriety as the last remaining hellhole in a sub-region slowly crawling out of the trenches of political catastrophe. In a sub-region once coursed by the prevalence of devastating tribal wars and military dictatorships, West Africa is gradually transforming itself into Africa’s epicenter of democracy and the rule of law; albeit reluctantly adapting to the changing dimensions of modern political theory. But, to a large degree, fear induced ambivalence still predominates in pockets of Africa, and no country exemplifies this quandary more than the Gambia. The degree of resistance to the emerging political paradigm sweeping across the African continent has left Yahya Jammeh mortally petrified, and ECOWAS leaders saddled with crippling moral dilemma. And as Yahya Jammeh guiltlessly attempts to resurrect the Gambia’s ancient tribal animosities, ECOWAS remains stuck between a rock and a hard place; reluctant to confront Yahya Jammeh and help force change, on the hand, and passively watch Gambia unravel and descend into political anarchy, on the other. ECOWAS leaders’ awareness of Gambia’s political crisis and their disinclination to engage Yahya Jammeh, is extremely perplexing in its total lack of objective reasoning.
The deafening silence of ECOWAS and the AU does not portend well for Gambians and ordinary ECOWAS and AU citizens. For, while the group of ECOWAS leaders was meeting in Dakar, Senegal, late last week, for the 49th Extra-Ordinary Summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), across the border in Gambia, Yahya Jammeh was again threatening the Mandinkas with death, causing the deafening uproar of Gambians from across the globe. And as ECOWAS and other international institutions still remain focused on the fantasy of peaceful, free and fair elections, their total ignorance of the Gambia’s oppressive political system could not be starker. The unlawful rigging and denial of access to fair electoral process is entrenched in a recently promulgated law. Besides, the divisive tribal bigotry Yahya Jammeh is propagating, has further cemented the will of the Gambian people to deny him another term of mayhem and catastrophic disruptions; killings, forced disappearances, mass incarcerations, the perils of mass exodus, and continued cannibalization of Gambian society and economy. And recently, Yahya Jammeh, by simple proclamation, unilaterally raised the fees for aspiring presidential candidates by 10,000%, from $250 in 2011, to $25,000 in 2016, effectively pricing the opposition out of the democratic process and the electoral marketplace. But, fact based anecdotal evidence suggests that elections, for this year, are unacceptable, considering the atrocities and need for moral and economic repairing of a country ruined by greed and tribal bigotry. The demands for Yahya Jammeh to step down are pervasive everywhere Gambians reside, besides, most recently, apart from vowing to kill members of the majority tribe, Yahya Jammeh also threatened to ban all public protests, which are constitutionally guaranteed. Yahya Jammeh’s threats of the use of violence against Mandinkas in past instances were mostly clouded in ambiguity; but last week was different, explicit and downright scary, and further reaffirms Yahya Jammeh’s imperviousness to reason. It is not possible to overstate Yahya Jammeh’s ruination of Gambian society, and his dearth of human sensitivity is frighteningly familiar. With his recent assault on the Mandinkas, Gambians have reached the breaking point, and beneath the superficial tranquility, the underbelly of Gambian society is a rumbling earthquake of rage and bitterness. And, the fact still remain that Gambia is a place where dabbling in politics is a dangerous enterprise, and even living in political neutrality is constantly like walking on egg shells; guaranteeing no insulation from state-sanctioned mental and physical harm. In the binary choice between living free and under a tyranny, Gambians will always choose freedom, and for now, as the monotonous chorus demanding no to the sham elections grows ever louder and bolder, and the familiar refrain; “Yahya Jammeh Must Go”, is also pervasive and ubiquitous in Gambian online fora, public media and general population. From the serene shores of Karting, to the grassy hills of Sare Gainako and beyond, the yearning for a Gambia free from the permanent nightmare political tyranny and divisive politics could not be more evident.