End of an Era: The Enigmatic Yahya with an Illusory Legacy?
There are mixed reasons to celebrate and remember July 22!
Alagi Yorro Jallow
There are reasons to celebrate the “July 22 Revolution” and remember President Yahya Jammeh in a simple way. This may be with national prayers in churches and mosques to heal and reconcile a divided and polarized nation, to move on from the whole aspect of nation-building, or to give it a more positive outlook and more positive understanding, whether it can best be described as amoral not immoral, but amoral in the Gambia’s history. The Gambian people are not blind to the darkness and oppression of the Yahya years.
Although controversies and unsolved cases marred Yahya’s 22 years rule, what will also be forever engraved in The Gambia’s history are his contributions in infrastructure development. Infrastructures were built that were unprecedented in the history of our country that provided a venue for Gambians to highlight cultural heritage, propagate arts and culture, generate tourism, improve and contribute to economic growth.
Remembering the “July 22 Revolution” might speed up the process of reckoning. This can start with the retelling of the horrors: the knock on the door before dawn for an arrest without warrant, the rape, regular beating, and water cure, the cigarette burned through flesh, the wires attached to genitals and breasts for mild electric shocks.
The struggles are worth retelling. It is the responsibility of those who lived through those difficult days to keep the memories alive for the future generations, to ensure that the abuses are not repeated. Those who dared challenge the dictatorship often paid the ultimate price. This is worth celebrating, as democracy has endured despite numerous attempts and persistent threats to civil liberties. The greed that gave rise to the word “dictatorship” has been tamed. The systematic violation of human rights is over.
Beyond the physical horrors, there was the insatiable greed for power and wealth, with the dictatorship confiscating opponents’ businesses and handing these over to cronies. As the nation is seeing, the alleged amassed wealth is mind-boggling, with 86 bank accounts, 131 movable and immovable properties, and $50 million in accounts alone, impossible for a salary of 22 years. Basically, the thrust of remembering this day is moving the nation forward from just looking back at what has happened in the past and encouraging everybody to cooperate in nation-building.
Yet, President Adama Barrow’s revolution is unfinished. Corruption remains rampant at all levels of government and democratic institutions are weak, including the police and judicial system, which has failed to make anyone accountable for the abuses of President Jammeh except the “NIA Nine” and the few “Jugglers”. Millions have not been recovered in ill-gotten wealth, and no one has been sent to prison for amassing such wealth.
According to Freedom House the Gambia’s political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 dues to Adama Barrow’s victory in the December 2016 presidential election but the regime shows little respect for personal rights and civil liberties, there is urgent needs for improvements.
The cumulative outcome and costs of President Jammeh’s dictatorship are incalculable. He was not content with simply being a president who had been reelected to four terms of the Gambian presidency. However enormous, his plunder of the nation’s wealth is only one of the costly consequences of his evil rule.
During his 22 years in power, the Gambia fell far behind several neighboring countries in West Africa in the pursuit of development, becoming “the basket case” in the region. Democracy was destroyed, the economy was in ruin, and a culture of corruption, violence, and cynicism arose.
Hundreds of Gambians were killed, imprisoned, tortured, or displaced from their homes and communities, or they simply disappeared without a trace. Also with impunity, women were raped and degraded by the military, police, and other criminal elements known as the “Green Boys” and the “Jugglers”.
President Jammeh’s economics of debt-driven growth was disastrous for the Gambia. His regime was not interested in inclusive development, long-term state-building, or the genuine social transformation of the country, despite its “Vision 2020 Blueprint” rhetoric. Instead, President Jammeh was mainly concerned with perpetuating his personal hold on power by favoring family members, friends, and other cronies. Thus, he simply created new elites or “oligarchs” rather than abolish them — supposedly one of his main justifications for dictatorial rule. Those who dared challenge the regime’s monopoly on power whether politicians, businesspeople, political activists, lawyers, farmers, the urban poor, journalists, or students — young or old, rich or poor — were intimidated, imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured, or summarily executed.
Section of Gambians have branded President Jammeh as merciless and even a criminal, true, but let us not forget the achievements of Jammeh’s administration before everything turned sour. It’s not always easy to see the good despite the bad, particularly because there are events which happen that we may never fully understand. The infrastructures that Yahya’s administration has left us is a reminder that we should all start building something good despite hard times. A good foundation with the right maintenance can lead to productivity
In his one of his speeches, he made a promise to make the nation great again and in a way, he did. Infrastructures were built that were unprecedented in the history of our country that provided a venue for Gambians to highlight cultural heritage, propagate arts and culture, generate tourism, improve and contribute to economic growth.
A lot of Yahya’s infrastructures today still stand like the Gambia university, Gambia Radio and Television Services, and other infrastructural developments, Kombo Coastal roads networks bridges, schools, the Supreme Courts complex and amongst others, because the people behind these infrastructures still believe that the mission of either providing a venue for performance, giving aid to the sick and connecting people is not over. Until now, these infrastructures continue to help our economy in their own aspect. Some of them are recognized landmarks that help sectors of the economy like the real estate market by increasing the value of homes or properties nearby or accessibility to establishments.
Today, the Gambian people must refuse to forget the atrocities committed by President Jammeh’s regime, and we renew our demand that the perpetrators of these crimes be brought to justice. We also reiterate our position that the government of President Barrow should relentlessly pursue and reclaim all the ill-gotten wealth accumulated by President Jammeh’s family and its cronies. Moreover, the victims and their families should be given justice and compensation in full. Any call for unity, reconciliation, and forgiveness, which bitterly divided the country, will be empty and meaningless unless truth and justice are upheld.
The Gambian people must affirm their commitment to telling the truth about the horrors of President Jammeh’s dictatorship so that it can be remembered as one of the darkest periods of the Gambian history.
The Gambian people must reject the argument that democracy does not work in the Gambia and that only a dictatorship, benevolent or otherwise, can bring our country to prosperity. We must instead encourage and harness the full democratic capacity of our people and institutions to progress as a nation. Although inequality and injustice continue to persist, we believe the solution to these problems lies in deepening our democratic institutions and practices, empowering the marginalized, and exacting accountability from our leaders and ourselves.
I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the attempts by some individuals and particularly public figures to whitewash President Jammeh regime’s wanton violation of human rights and to distort its political and economic record. I call on all our politicians to take a definite stand on the abuses of President Jammeh’s dictatorship. I challenge them to join our call to never again allow the conditions of tyranny to take root in our society. I demand that candidates who directly or indirectly participated in and benefited from the regime apologize and, if necessary, make restitution for their role in the regime or their support of it.
I joined the Gambian people aspire to keep alive the ideals and heroism of the many brave Gambians who fought the regime. For as long as we remember and share these stories, and I believe that future generations of Gambians will learn the lessons of the years of struggle leading to the defeat of the dictatorship during the People’s Power Revolution on December 1, 2017.
The fullness of democratization, especially the creation of a political and socio-economic order, which respects the dignity of all Gambians, has yet to be achieved. It is our responsibility now to continue and complete this unfinished struggle and start with the truth.