Much has been said about Yahya Jammeh’s abuse of power and heinous crimes committed while in office. He has pedalled a tissue of abuses ranging from bullying and torture to mass murder. During his 22 year tenure, he has managed to comprehensively dismantle all state institutions and previously well-established public and private enterprises, while maintaining a terrorising grip on power. He has been able to get his tentacles into the Gambian psyche because of several reasons. The more commonly mentioned ones are his divide and rule tactics and exploitation of the intellectually and financially poor, who would act out his orders to stay within the ruling circle and then try and out-do each other as they jockey for position within the same circle. It is like a death cult – a race to the bottom.
If the colourful stories of Pol Pot, Idi Amin et al are anything to go by, long after Jammeh is gone, historians and colourful media houses will be clambering over each other to study and depict the main reasons why he was able to cling onto power using brute force for so long. I am of the opinion that the passage of time will point to the following three reasons:
- Anti-Establishment Demagoguery
Jammeh created a simple yet effective narrative that the political operators in the First Republic, especially ex-president Jawara were archetypal “Establishment” politicians. It was handy that Jawara scarpered very readily when threatened and wasn’t effective at countering this narrative while abroad. A strong argument in Jawara’s favour could be that he had to be inherently part of the “Establishment” to wrestle Gambia’s sovereignty away from the British Crown; but that is an argument for another day.
What is fascinating is that we have seen Jammeh’s anti-establishment demagoguery being played out today by Donald Trump in the U.S.A., Brexiteers in the U.K. and Le Front National in France to great aplomb. Dare I say Jammeh has been a trend setter in International politics – albeit purely by accident?
- Primeval Modus Operandi
His modus operandi is primeval and unsophisticated, with a bit of demagoguery and populism sprinkled in. I have often asked myself why Gambians have struggled in the past to understand his modus operandi and act out against it. One answer lies in the nature of the human psyche. Human beings have a tendency to over-complicate things and assume that simple concepts aren’t worthy of our intellectual capital and time. The problem wasn’t so much that Gambians didn’t understand Jammeh’s manipulative machinations, it was that they didn’t accept it – they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that their president could be so primeval and scheming in a very unsophisticated, yet consistent and determined way. Jammeh sensed early on that Gambians had let their guard down so he pounced, and he has kept on pouncing ever since. On our religious freedoms, way of life, customs, traditions and on everything we hold dear and sacred. He has “flipped the script” as our American friends say.
All reasonable people would agree that elections are a good thing. When it comes to Jammeh’s Gambia however, this widely held view has been turned on its head. Jammeh himself has declared on a few occasions that his rule is “ordained and sealed by Allah” and that even though some of his more servile followers have declared “no to elections”, he feels that elections are necessary as they would enable him to see which towns and communities didn’t give him their vote. So is a general election a good thing in this context when Jammeh uses it to victimise his own people and fraudulently cement his power base? The answer to that is on a postcard. Some might chuckle and shake their heads in disbelief at Jammeh’s childish comments relating to elections, not realising the debilitating fear words like that can impart on poor village farmers who have seen trading routes for their groundnuts and vegetables shut off because their town was perceived to be opposition-supporting.
The fact that the elections would be rigged in his favour is a forgone conclusion. He has got the president of the not so Independent Electoral Commission quivering in his back pocket. The culture and mechanisms of rigging Gambian elections have been perfected and engrained into the political system by Jammeh and his cronies over the last 2 elections; starting from when he decided that he’d had enough of opposition members of parliament. The fact the elections will be rigged doesn’t mean that the real vote results would not be fed back to Jammeh. Votes for him would massage his ego and provide his insecure soul with much needed self-gratification. Communities who dare vote against him would be ostracised at best or vindictively targeted at worst. The people of Baddibu, Basse, Serrekunda, Bakau and Banjul have felt his wrath at various points over the last 22 years. Hopefully this insight provides a robust answer to commentators scratching their heads as to why Jammeh is bothering with this election façade while refusing to allow serious independent observers such as the EU agents to monitor them.
Yahya Jammeh is an unsophisticated creature of habit, but it is his dogged determination and primeval brute force that have helped him cling on to power for so long. He is a very rigid character with primeval survival cunning but no refined intellectual curiosity or clarity of thought. He is neurotic, instinctive and reactionary and certainly not measured and patient.
Unfortunately for him, his inflexibility and consistency of character is an area of great weakness, which can be easily exploited. A lot of Gambians now fully understand Jammeh’s game plan and have started to make in-roads at countering it. Over the last two years in particular, he has struggled to assert his authority through brute force. His killing of Solo Sandeng and jailing of peace full UDP supporters didn’t achieve its intended aim of stifling protests. If anything, the clamour of dissenters has been getting louder and Gambians have been openly pledging their allegiances to opposition candidates Barrow and Kandeh.
The weeks and months following this latest sham election should be interesting. Jammeh’s old tried and tested methods might not work this time. Maybe he has bitten a bit more than he can chew. No doubt, time will tell.
Written By Damel Gomez (Pen Name)