So, it’s actually happened: that concursive political punch has landed on Yahya Jammeh. The one thing that very few thought was even remotely possible. Well, I’m not as surprised as they are.
All was well in Yahya Jammeh’s world. His was a coup d’etat way back in 1994. It was four of them and Jammeh was their leader. Internally, very few criticised their move. People’s patience had grown thinner with Jawara’s government – after it failed to address the poverty that was tyrannising their lives. The people wanted a new government, whatever its genesis. An end to what was over three decades of hopelessness was well-nigh.
Yahya Jammeh saw himself as the Messiah. He’d retired from the army and went on to win an election he stood in two years after the coup. Ending corruption, providing opportunities for the youth and promoting development in rural areas mattered most to him in his first few years in office. He went ahead and built schools and hospitals in many communities. In others, he gave them paved roads and bridges. Power lines were drawn. Life, to some, was getting better.
But more was defining this man as the years went by. I, like other Gambians, watched from the fringes as Jammeh steadily assumed greater power. It made a lot of appeal. Very soon, he was waxing tyrannical, showing unbelievable disregard for the constitution, the rule of law, and human rights.
In all truth, Yahya Jammeh felt threatened as he gained greater power. And so he relied on the security forces particularly the National Intelligence Agency. They were effective in the best sense of the word, and so they did his bidding. Perceived opponents, for no clear reason, soon got rounded up, detained for long periods, and tortured. Even students got shot and killed.
During his 22-year reign, the place also was hell for such-and-such people like journalists. They were harassed, detained, and even held for long periods under trumped-up charges. One has sinced disappeared and another murdered. The people later realised they were under the yoke of a tyrant, after all.
Yahya Jammeh didn’t care. He was winning elections even as they held little meaning to many. In 2006 for instance, nearly half of the country’s registered voters did not bother to vote. Yahya Jammeh repeatedly pledged to bury six feet under anyone who opposed him, and vowed to remain in office for the next forty years. “Elections and coup d’etats cannot remove me from power,” he would say openly.
Through all of Jammeh’s enhancement of his power and by extension his wealth, it’s his cronies who told him he was good. That he was on the right track. To them, whatever Jammeh did, was in the best interest of the country. Even bad things. I all along argued it’s unsustainable to run such a government. Others have tried it before and failed. Yahya Jammeh wasn’t any different.
And so this year – after 22 years – the autocratic leader finally met his Waterloo. But not without a fight. Jammeh had upped his brutality by a notch against those he saw as his enemies. First to get brutally whipped was my friend, Solo Sandeng. We’d met at an April press conference he helped organise on behalf of Gambia opposition.
One week later, the opposition United Democratic Party youth leader mobilised a small group of youths to take to the streets demanding electoral reform ahead of the December election. When they did on April 14, they were quickly rounded up.
Two days later, all but two of the UDP’s topshots were also arrested. They’d barely started a protest march upon receiving news of the torturing death of Solo Sandeng. They were later sentenced to three years in jail by a money worshipping judge from Nigeria. Ousainou Darboe and co were found guilty on grounds they disturbed Gambia’s peace.
For once, it looked like all the bad things were coming to haunt him. People had started making calculated moves against him. The anti-Yahya Jammeh cause was gaining increased momentum. Everyone was playing his part: the politician, the journalist, the activist, the market woman – everyone. Some were doing it dirty, especially those in the diaspora. But people were still less convinced.
If Yahya Jammeh had known, he wouldn’t have added insult to injury, however. To him, it was the Mandinkas who were the troublemakers. He promised to bury them ‘nine feet deep’. The Mandinkas were angry but Jammeh didn’t care, and would not apologise. He was going to win this year’s election even if they didn’t vote for him, he assured himself.
This was not a Mandinka-only show, it was turning out. The whole of Gambia were involved. They’d grown tired of him and his crude ways. He was gonna get fired come election day. Jammeh knew but little.
Gambia opposition had also started regrouping and reorganising. They’d started looking so determined. It soon became hard to foresee anything than them moving serenely in the right direction. A successful rally here, a house-to-house chat there. They were getting better and better, more and more assured. It was more like it.
On election day (December 1st), Jammeh finally wilted in the heat of a One Gambia, One People furnace. It was in sensational style, and people were cock-a-hoop. First he couldn’t believe what was happening. Announcement of results was going to conclude early but for his interference. I was at Election House and I knew all was not right. Alieu Njai, the Electoral Commission Chairman had been talking to him on the phone. The old man was being threatened. Jammeh later gave in. He called and said he was going to concede defeat. I was surprised.
When he did, it lacked conviction. This was not Yahya Jammeh. This was someone else. One week after his concession speech, I was proved right. First it was state television GRTS. They refused to show President-elect Adama Barrow’s victory speech on the day it was supposed to be shown. I spoke to the editors there, and sensed something was wrong. This feeling became stronger after the TV announced that Yahya Jammeh was going to address the nation the following day. And when he did, it was the real Yahya Jammeh.
He said he was annulling the election. The IEC’s officiating of the election was biased, he argued. People were shaken to their core. But it soon became clear to even Jammeh himself that he won’t be able to annul this election. Pressure had started to mount and all what was left of Jammeh was to fall on the last but not the least option. He was taking his complaint to the courts.
The next time he appeared on television, I felt sorry for him. It’s on the day Muslims converged on State House to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. I couldn’t remember when I last saw him look like that; looking so dejected, and thinking why things didn’t go his way. And I admitted he didn’t need to think hard in getting the answers.
I soon realised gone were the days when it was all good for a leader to be feared than loved. In this day and age, it’s very foolish for a leader to be oppressive. The people will rise against you. So far, no tyrant has been able to successfully weather the worst of people power storm. For Yahya Jammeh, what very well came to pass is the Hermetic maxim that, ‘as above, so below’.
Written By Lamin Njie
Former Standard newspaper editor Lamin Njie wrote from Serekunda. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org