THE KING OF BECHUANALAND AND JAMMEH’S VOLTE-FACE IN THE GAMBIA
Dr Karamo NM Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 10, December 16, 2016
The King of Bechuanaland
The King of Bechuanaland was very oppressive and suppressive, in short brutal. He killed his subjects, took their properties and did whatever else he wished to them. They got fed up with him and plotted to get rid of him. Enough was enough! A group of citizens got together secretly to decide how to go about it. They flung around all types of violent ideas. Some wanted to assassinate him, some wanted to poison him, some wanted to launch guerrilla warfare against his disorganized and weak army, others wanted to kidnap him. A lame man sitting at a corner of the room during the meeting raised his hand and said calmly, “I have a better idea!”
“What can you do?” someone tried to make fun of him. “Lead us in a battle against him?”
“Let him speak,” another intervened.
“Find out what are the three things he likes the most and come back to me,” he requested.
The men did their research through the close associates of the King who did not like him, although they always pretended to, because of fear, vested interest, or both. These associates carried out the King’s dirty orders. They clapped for him whenever he spoke in public, even when, as almost always, he spoke rubbish. He had no respect for them. Nevertheless, they sang his praises until the day he got rid of them – one way or the other. Then the lucky ones, who managed to flee, sought sanctuary in other kingdoms. From their safe abodes they hurled insults at their former boss, forgetting that they once sang songs for him to dance to.
The people of Bechuanaland called these former supporters of the King “the weather men”, because of their abilities to change their colors. The King himself made fun of them: “Look at you, opportunists! There is no shortage of people like you in this kingdom. I can change you like my dirty socks!” Despite these insults, they never resigned. Scholars, lawyers, army generals and men old enough to be the King’s father were among “the weather men”. They all called him “Our Father Who art on Earth!”.
The conspirators met again and a report was given to the lame man: the King loved meat, gold and to be flattered. “OK,” he said, ”we will send a delegation to him from all parts of the kingdom.”
The delegation went to His Oppressive Royal Highness. They took a lot of gold and a herd of fat cows for him. They showered him with praises and told him he was the best of his lineage in a thousand years who ruled their land. Although he was a coward who never saw the sight of a battle, they called him the Conqueror of the Conquerors! Although he could hardly read and write, they called him the Scholar of the Scholars. They offered to give him every year 1000 fat cows and a weight of gold equivalent to his own weight.
The King had never felt so good. However, he had one problem and a rather big one too; he was a small man with little weight. In order to get more of his favorite toy (gold) he had to do a lot more eating than he has ever done in his life. So he ate and ate and ate! Within a year he gained so much weight that he could hardly be recognized. In fact, as the months passed by, the elders started to get worried about their ability to find enough gold to match his weight! When they finally got to the end of the first year there was relief and a big celebration in the kingdom as the cows were herded into the city and the servants carried the gold to the throne. Before the end of the third year, the King had become so fat that he suffered a heart attack and died.
The morals of this story, which I wrote for the first time on October 21st, 2016, are obvious and several. Power and greed can blind, wisdom is stronger than force and oppressors or bullies are often weaker than they appear.
Memories of Addis Ababa
When I tried to publish the story on my website in October, my editors (family and friends) advised me not to, because someone in The Gambia might think I was referring to him. I relented, but their concern gave me an idea to write to His Excellency, my President, Sheikh and Babili Mansa Dr Jammeh, confidentially, to remind him of a conversation I had with him at the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, only a year after the coup on July 22nd, 1994. About two months before the coup, I had been privileged to meet, in a palace close to the Ghion, the fine gentleman whom Jammeh had overthrown (Sir Dawda Jawara).
The palace had been inhabited by Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah. He was overthrown by Lt. Colonel Mengistu in 1974, died and was buried under the floor of a lavatory in 1995. His lions and golden forks and knives were still lying in the palace at the time of my visit. Few people in this world have the opportunity to closely perceive the history of so many fallen (and yet to fall) African leaders in such a small area, within such a short period of time, as I did in Addis in July 1995.
I was taken to Selassie’s palace by another fine gentleman, also a Minister and an uncle (B.B. Dabo), a man I have always appreciated and respected. One of the Emperor’s most famous quotes is: “It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked”. How sadly still true, in spite of a modern world with educated, knowledgeable and sophisticated humans in an internet-age!
A 10-year old child today, in The Gambia and the rest of the world, can own a laptop and have access to information about almost everything, the totality of which the whole world did not possess only three times his age ago. The purpose of knowledge is to make life better for ourselves and others in this world and (for those of us who believe in God) the hereafter. If, in spite of all the knowledge that we have today, in The Gambia and the rest of the world, the animals are still ahead of us in compassion, then maybe we should think of calling the animals humans and ourselves animals, because compassion makes us truly human and humane. In any situation in which our actions can hurt others, especially when we have the upper hand or believe we have the right to hurt, compassion can be the strongest basis for voluntary compromise if we are truly human and humane.
Jammeh was surrounded in Addis Ababa by young men and women from my high school or village and other contemporaries who had known me because of my student activities at high school. There were also older compatriots from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now AU), both of which I have worked for.
In an attempt to encourage me to join the new head of state’s government, I was given unequalled attention by the visitors. Jammeh was warmly welcomed by my colleagues from the UNECA and OAU (one of whom later became his Minister), who also thought I was a natural candidate for a Ministerial position. One night, late, as I ate grilled mutton and watched television with him, I decided to seize the opportunity to advise him to be careful about two dangers: power and wrong advice. He listened with such attention and modesty that I felt that he was a good man, who could be trusted to do good for The Gambia and who would leave after the two-year transition that he had promised.
But there came the bad news whilst I was with him that same night. It was as if a warning to me. As I walked out, one of the aides whispered to me that the Minister of Finance, Koro Ceesay, was killed under mysterious circumstances (on June 23rd). Another told me that Capt. Sadibou Haidara, member of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Party (AFPRC, of which Jammeh was Chairman), had also died, in prison on the 3rd of that fateful month. He and Lt. Sana Sabally had been arrested and accused of an attempted counter coup. Too many deaths for my liking! By the time the delegation left, I had decided not to accept any offer from the new Government, a decision I stood by in spite of subsequent efforts to persuade me, directly or indirectly. However, I decided to continue sending investors and humanitarian organizations to the country, which I had started to do since 1992, during the Jawara Administration.
Power and bad advice corrupt
I met Jammeh again twice during my visits home, the last time in 1999, but he was no more the Chairman I saw in Addis: elders had “begged” him to run for the office of President (as they did with Jawara in 1992 and may do with Barrow in 2019), his weight had changed and, drastically, his tone. It was clear to me that I was the student and he was the confident lecturer who had learnt in office and whom the rustle of leaves on the windows of Ghion hotel would no longer bother. He was President and determined to stay. The dangers of power and bad advice, which I had warned against, seemed to have crept in.
Reports of disappearances, killings, imprisonment, beatings, etc, were increasing. His accolades were also increasing. I sometimes found it difficult to believe that the young man (now referred to as Kebba (the Old Man)), who quietly and humbly listened to me in 1995, from a country where citizens put hadamaya (humanity – in my native Mandinka) before everything else, is the one under whose watch all such terrible things were said to be happening.
In addition to my concern for the safety of my compatriots at home, I began to feel uneasy in the last few years, for the first time in my life, about visiting my own country. I have also never felt a stronger urge to speak. Yet, family and friends advised me: “He is very dangerous. If he can’t get you, he may go for your relatives in The Gambia!” Acquiescent, but unhappy that if everyone keeps quiet in the face of wrong goodness will never triumph. In a sad twist, relatives and friends started to be picked by the security forces. They included a cousin of mine and the brother-in-law of one of my nephews. As I was running around to arrange the release on bail of my dear cousin, a brother was picked up. Earlier, in order to avoid arrest, another friend had fled to Senegal, where he died. Although these arrests had nothing to do with their relationship with me, I was quick to learn something – when there is landatambo (excess) in oppression, anyone may become a victim, even the silent.
When there is such landatambo, even the agents of oppression themselves can become victims, because of one reason or another (fear, misinformation, greed, poverty and/or other factors). They may be forced to oppress even their friends, neighbours and relatives, including their spouses, whether they like it or not. I learnt these facts several years ago when at home for another visit and decided to advise someone publicly accused of being the top assassin for Jammeh. He was a security officer who had harmlessly worked under Jawara for many years. I had known him since childhood, so he came willingly when I contacted him through a mutual friend of ours. His Boss had earlier put him under house arrest for several months before releasing and redeploying him.
He drove to me in a black mercedez benz, without a number plate. It was at the time of the maghrib prayer when he arrived. He agreed to pray with me and after the prayer I talked to him about the rumours I have heard. I warned him that “life is too short and one day we will all be accountable for the bad things we have done in this world”. He did not deny or accept the rumours, but he told me what he had personally gone through with his Boss. Like Jammeh in Addis, I was astonished at how well he took my advice and how ordinary he seemed in private. “If you don’t advise me, I don’t know who would,” he thanked, informed me that he was sick and left. He died some months later. That was in 2007.
I tried to try my hand with Jammeh last month (November). “It is time to write,” I said to my nephew in England and other confidantes. If there was still a potential flare of goodness in him that I thought he had in 1995, as he joked with his entourage and as I sat with him, it might not be too late to spark it. I might be able to get his attention, change his style and start a process of reconciliation and healing in The Gambia. After all, I am an apolitical citizen with no hatred for him and just wanted to advise him in camera and not on camera. There is never any harm in igniting a rusty engine. Like Hercules, I might be able to lift the ugly mountain of unfettered power from someone who had everything that he perhaps never dreamt of.
As Lord Acton puts it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” How many of us would not behave like Jammeh if we were in his shoes? As history has shown again and again, perhaps his problem is not particular. Perhaps the problem is the weak and ungrateful human being in him which lurks in all of us and which overcomes so many of us each time God’s Favour comes to us unexpectedly.
The power of prayer
Surprisingly, even the victims’ immediate families told me, “Be careful! Just pray!” They expressed the spirit of The Gambia (prayer), a country where people would lift their hands and pray at every opportunity. I stopped, again. Acquiescent, but steeped in guilt, I decided to now focus on what I believe so many Gambians, better than I, were doing across the nearly 11,000 square kilometers of Gambian territory, a tiny but blessed nation.
“If I have to only pray then I better go to Mecca (because I am good enough on my own, but I am fortunate to live only a couple of hours away by plane from the Holy City) and do it there,” I decided. To Mecca I headed, for umrah and prayer for The Gambia. The Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) did say that prayer is the weapon of the believer and this is supported by the Holy Bible.
The elections came on December 1st and miracles happened! On the day before the results were announced, a friend of mine, arguably the most prominent Gambian businessman, asked me: “What do you think?” “Insha Allah,” I stressed, “Jammeh would lose, but I cannot predict his reaction or that of the Gambian people.” It was just a feeling and nothing more! Or if anything more, it would be the power of Insha Allah from the heart.
President Jammeh did lose to a man very few people knew and the President graciously conceded. I have never been so much interested in Gambian politics. I was glued to the television set (which I rarely watch), as the results of the elections were announced.
I have never felt prouder as a Gambian, as I watched kids singing and dancing in joy! I was proud of my compatriots at home and the united coalition of political parties. I was impressed by Jammeh’s excellent speech as a Muslim and a democrat, demonstrating to the world that there is no conflict between the two and falsifying criticisms that he is neither. The concession helped him to wrestle his enemies to the ground with incredible feat and pave his way to the positive annals of The Gambia and Gambians. I was happy for everyone. الحمد لله!
I arrived in Abidjan, the next day, for a business trip. I flashed my passport in front of the immigration officer who processed my papers at the airport. He smiled, saying “Felicitations!” Success is sweet, even if your role is only to pray!
Too good to be true?
Is it all or partly too good to be true? Jammeh shocked Gambians, or most, on December 9th. Upon second thought, he could not believe that he has lost. His change of mind was an expression of the disbelief and fear of what lay ahead of him. He must have watched and/ or listened to reports of his pictures being torn and soldiers celebrating with civilians. Most terrifying for him must have been the pictures and videos of atrocities, such as the charred body of Ceesay, and the calls for him to be handed over to his former Justice Minister at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ordinary Gambians had reason to celebrate euphorically, but I think that statements of a few of the coalition leaders should have been better calculated, after Jammeh’s unexpected concession. The Gambia is now flung into confusion and the risk of civil conflict, with a dangerous ethnic dimension. Jammeh has allowed his enemies to rise over him again and historians are rewriting the annals. I better turn my passport upside down on my way out at Abidjan Airport!!
Hadamaya and “tribalism”
What can we do? As someone who has had several political opportunities since high school, but turned down all of them, and as a Catholic-educated Gambian, Muslim, Mandingo with a Fula base, from three regions (grandfather from Niumi, parents from Kiang, born in Foni), I feel a sense of objectivity about nation, “tribe”, religion and politics, which many compatriots may not have. It is for this reason, that I have finally decided to dip my finger into Gambian politics as our nation stands at historical and political crossroads.
Before any attempt to answer the question of what is doable, it would be honest to admit that Jammeh’s 22-year rule has destabilized the traditional Gambian hadamaya, across the board. Jammeh did so through an amorphous type of relatively quiet violence the like of which had never been seen in The Gambia before. I doubt if there is any Gambian family (even his strongest supporters) who has not heard the sound of his whip at least once. I doubt if there are many. Even as a distant observer, it appeared to me that the biggest victims were those closest to him, including Jolas, army and intelligence officers and his Ministers. This is why even the good things he has done are ignored by his critics and may be subjected to reversal after his rule. This is also why I think it would not be easy to find very many Gambians who would sincerely defend him out of love instead of fear.
Hadamaya was also struck at the core through the exaggeration of “tribalism”, which was never a serious issue in The Gambia before Jammeh. However, his “tribal” tirades against Mandingos were both of his making (in order to mask his oppression of other ethnic groups (including his fellow Jolas)) as well as those of some of my fellow Mandingos who have fallen into his trap or into whose trap he has fallen. I have in recent years heard some non-Jolas describe him scornfully as “a Jola President!” Ironically, I have also heard a Jola describe him the same way! The best statement I have heard from a Gambian with regard to Yahya’s “tribal” ploys was from a Jola civil servant who was once stranded in my house in Accra: “If he puts us in the limelight whilst he rules, he would put us in danger the day he leaves”.
Jammeh may not be a “tribalist” by conviction, but someone who uses “tribalism” for political expediency. He proudly exposed his Mandinka side to me in Addis, including (if I remember rightly), the time he spent in Kiang, his ability to speak the language, and telling “Mbemba (a Sarahule) that Sarahules are Mandingos!” He quoted the Holy Qur’an to me in Mandinka and the only languages I could remember being spoken around him were English and Mandinka. So why did he publicly threaten to exterminate Mandingos? Why did he publicly choose “hell instead of a Mandingo Government in The Gambia”? So how did things go so wrong that the UN had to warn him in June 2016 about the genocidal implications of his anti-Mandingo threats? The answer is not as complicated as you may think. As Bob Dylan’s famous 1962 song goes, “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” – power and bad advice!
Who is not guilty?
It is also essential to recognize that every community, in every corner of The Gambia, has accumulated guilt during Jammeh’s 22-year rule. Some of us are guilty of being silent, some because they voluntarily work for him in positions of responsibility (or did so at one time or the other) and others because they support (or did so at one time or the other) his policies, either in public or private. The statistics are easy to compile; just look at the official list of Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Directors and army officers since 1994 or simply look at the old editions of The Daily Observer and other local papers. The old tapes and videos of GRTS would be revealing too. For those who wish to be more thorough on the violence side, please look at the list of political prisoners, killings, arrests, etc, and compile the names, in each case, of those who actually carried out the orders, if you can.
The results would reveal what should be obvious: Jammeh’s supporters, past and present, can be found in all Gambian communities from Banjul to Basse, Cape to Cairo, York to New York. If we have to go for the truth, which is our right, then we must go for the full truth and not half-truths and everyone should honestly ask himself/herself: “Did I ever do anything wrong for Jammeh or condone anything that he did wrong?” Some terrible things have indeed happened in mainland Africa’s smallest country for 22 years! In a country of less than two million (the fifth smallest on the mainland), with intense social interaction, where most people know each other or are related directly or indirectly, the best way for reconciliation is not to rush and point fingers. If you point one finger to someone, the rest may be pointing at yourself and others close to you.
What can we do?
Based on the above, I would, first and foremost, advise that ”tribalism” must never be tolerated in The Gambia. No one can claim to be better than Jammeh if he hurls a “tribalistic” insult at you and you hurl it back at “the Jolas”. We should never hound the Jolas, in particular, because we do not want to prove Jammeh right and because the army is still in their hands. Similarly, no one can be better than Jammeh if you preach the violence that you accuse him of. The only way to revive the Gambian culture of accommodation and tolerance is to judge wrong doers as individuals rather than tribes or regions and, even better, to forgive each other as much as possible. Gambians must not forget Mandela so soon. We must not forget that Mandela suffered longer than the length of Jammeh’s rule, under rulers truly Bechuanan to blacks.
Secondly, military intervention must be avoided as much as possible. Senegal seems keen to intervene militarily. Many Gambians are angrily urging them to do so, quickly, forgetting the history of Senegalese intervention in the Gambia (1981, when The Gambia did not have an army) and Guinea-Bissau (1998, when Senegal was accompanied by Guinea). The Senegalese are our brothers and sisters and they should be our first port of call when we are in trouble. However, Senegal has very serious scores to settle with Jammeh and the rebels of Casamance, which may serve as strong motivations for the barrel of the gun. Abundant historical and contemporary evidence show that military intervention is always easier than the management of its consequences.
As I write this article on December 13th, a part of my conscience is pulling me away from The Gambia, our homeland. I can hear the cry of thousands of voices, the soft innocent voices of children I do not know. They make me feel like forgetting my own problems in our beloved Gambia and to start weeping in empathy for those little angels who could have been Gambians. They are little Syrian children, some (according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)) unaccompanied, trapped in the rubble of buildings in Aleppo as bombs rained on them. As these horrified children weep, four West African heads of state take off in their plane from The Gambia, empty-handed, after unsuccessful negotiations with Jammeh. If he did not listen to them would he have listened to me, even if I had spoken or written? If Jammeh and the advocates of military intervention cannot hear the voices of the children of Aleppo would they hear mine?
Finally, what should Jammeh’s fate be? I have told friends several times not to worry about or feel sorry for The Gambia. I always believe that The Gambia would emerge in one piece, stronger, from the experience of the Jammeh era. Instead, we should all be saddened and sorry for all those who have been killed, unfairly imprisoned and severely hurt in other ways during the Jammeh era. I am also sorry for the Kebba Jammeh, a young man overwhelmed by political power and stained with so many lifelong accusations, especially those of bloodshed. I would not like to be in his shoes and wish he was not in his! Those who have the direct right to forgive or not forgive him are his victims. However, in order to maintain or revive the rule of law, we have to entrust the newly elected government with the administration of this issue on their behalf and on behalf of our nation. Jammeh would have done such a great service for himself if he had not revoked his own decision. Beware of power and bad advice!
Optimistic about the future
As I write this modest and critically objective contribution, Gambians remain very uncertain about Jammeh and many are terrified at the possibility that he will cling to power by force. A friend of mine told me again, “Please hold on! Wait until he goes before you publish this article!” This time I disagreed! I want all Gambians to read this article. My hope is that it will soften the hearts of all sides, our hearts, towards each other during these challenging times, so that we do not descend into conflict.
Negotiations are ongoing under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Other efforts, we may or may not be aware of, are taking place. They offer chances for Jammeh to exit, peacefully. I am optimistic that, Insha Allah, he would eventually realize that digging in his heels may be hastening what I believe he is trying to avoid (the ICC) and what he is trying to seek (amnesty). I sincerely hope that he would take the opportunity to give himself and The Gambia a smooth transition to the third republic. The outcome of the 2016 election was divine and Gambians should continue to use prayer, patience and wisdom rather than violence to reach the promising future that lies ahead of us.