In a speech delivered after he returned to Banjul following a foiled coup attempt against his regime on December 29, 2014, Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh said, among other things, that “Those who advocate and sponsor violence for regime change should know that they are not only acting in violation of the human rights and legitimate interests of those affected, but it is also against the will of the almighty Allah.” What a great paradox that Yahya Jammeh, who habitually disparages and dismissed the very idea of human rights barely a week earlier, would now talk about “the violation of the human rights” of those affected, namely, himself. Has Mr. Jammeh forgotten that back in 1994, he advocated and sponsored violence for regime change when he forcefully overthrew the government of Sir Dawda Jawara? Did it only occur to him within the past few days that overthrowing a government through the barrel of the gun represents a “violation of the human rights and the legitimate interests of those affected”? Come on Mr. Jammeh, a brick does not become a brig just because you call it so!
The violent attempt to overthrow Mr. Jammeh did not come as a surprise to close observers of the Gambian situation. In spite of Jammeh’s denials over Gambian dissatisfaction, and in spite of the fact that he has repeatedly won “elections” in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, the reality is that Jammeh’s government is brutally repressive of dissidents, that he has completely monopolized the political space to the exclusion of everyone else, and that his critics and opponents are on the receiving end of an alarming politics of exclusion which treats them as if they have no right whatsoever to question or criticize their own government. Since 1994, freedoms of expression and association have been systematically denied Gambian citizens. News media houses have been subjected to arson attacks (Radio 1FM, The Independent newspaper), confiscated by the government (Citizen FM), and banned without explanation (The Independent). Journalists have been arrested, often tortured and jailed for varying lengths of time without warrants, without charges and without the slightest respect for their human rights or the rule of law. They have been murdered in drive-by shootings (Deyda Hydara), or made to disappear without trace (Chief Ebrima Manneh), or forced into exile for expressing legitimate opinions on issues of national concern. Does Jammeh want to tell us that ALL Gambians are happy with these rampant human rights abuses, including the brutal gunning down of unarmed, peacefully demonstrating school children on April 10 & 11, 2000?
If only a handful of Gambians are dissatisfied with his record as president of The Gambia, natural justice requires that their dissatisfaction be given full legitimate expression. So please stop claiming that Gambians are totally satisfied with your record as if Gambians were a single monolith, a single individual who is totally beholden to you. A critical mass of Gambians know that Jammeh has failed in many crucially important respects, they are dissatisfied, and they will say so whether Jammeh likes it or not. That is simply the nature of the constitutional, rights-bound political dispensation called the Republic of The Gambia which belongs to Jammeh as much as it belongs to the poorest beggar in Banjul or the most criminally-minded felon at Mile Two Prison. Citizenship is an irreducible commodity equally shared by all citizens. It is also an inalienable right that may not be, that cannot be forcefully denied by the most tyrannical of regimes. Sovereignty rests with the people and cannot be taken away under the most repressive of regimes simply because it is a spirit that is untouchable and unreachable by the walls of a prison, the lashes of the police or the bullets of the killer squad. And it may not, cannot be monopolized by any single individual, however powerful they feel.
Gambian opposition parties have to seek police permission, which is often denied, in order to hold rallies and address their supporters. Gambian government ministers, civil servants, and military personnel are sacked and often arrested and jailed without the slightest explanation as to what crimes they had committed against the laws of The Gambia or for the most trivial of non-reasons, at the personal whims of Jammeh. As we write, some prominent Muslim elders are being held in jail and tried in a lawless “court of law” for performing their religious ceremony at the moment they believed was the most appropriate for it, because Jammeh had ordered the entire country to perform this ceremony on a particular day. To add insult to injury, a lot of Gambian courts are now manned by Nigerian judges and magistrates (commonly known as mercenary judges) some of whom are of dubious legal credentials and some of whom do whatever they think Jammeh would like them to do. So there is a lot of dissatisfaction among Gambians, civilian and military, and one can safely predict that since constitutionally mandated avenues of change are virtually closed in Jammeh’s Gambia, more violent attempts to overthrow his repressive regime will happen because Jammeh will not start respecting the rights of Gambians anytime soon. The only human right he recognizes is his “right” to rule the country for as long as he possibly can, for a “billion years” as he likes to put it, because he is totally insensitive to the virtue of political sharing of the state that nature imposes upon him. The All Mighty Allah he likes so much to cite frowns upon injustice of any kind, especially of the kind inflicted on their own people by power-drunk rulers like Jammeh. He certainly can take that to Allah’s bank.
Jammeh’s reference to “the violation of the human rights of affected individuals” (himself) as in the quote above is part of a bigger aspect of his selective appropriation of the institutions and structures of the nation-state system. He cites human rights or the rule of law only under two particular circumstances: One, when it suits his personal interests to do so, as in the quote above. And two, when he blames the West for allegedly meddling in the affairs of what he considers his personal country. He ignores constitutional provisions whenever they clash with his personal interests and cites them whenever they serve his personal interests. This pattern points to an extremely selfish political character common to insecure dictators everywhere. It also demonstrates Jammeh’s tendency to pose as the very personification of the Gambian nation-state. For example, a couple of weeks ago when he was asked in a TV interview why he criticizes the West when they assist The Gambia in the building of roads etc., Jammeh blurted, among other incoherencies:
“Where did they help us? They are not helping me. If the West refunds to Africa what they have looted for the past 400 years plus 25% interest… They are not giving us any aid. They are giving us something that is infinitesimal compared to what they have taken from us. So they are not giving me any aid. They are not making me any favors. Let them give back to me what they have taken for 400 hundred years and see whether I will ask them for anything. They are not giving me aid. In fact that is even an insult. If you take a bull and give me only the horns and you tell me you are helping me…that is an insult.”
In the above paragraph, Jammeh freely moves from “us” to “me” as if us (Gambia) and me (Jammeh) are one and the same entity. The idea of “I am the state” is a common staple of power-drunk dictators. They get so mentally blinded by power that they lose the ability to see themselves as individuals separate from the institutional character of the state. Another extreme example of this tendency was greatly inflated in Mobutu Sese Seko, with whom Jammeh shares a striking mental resemblance. When at the height of his power Mobutu was asked about his vast fortune as head of state of a poor country like Zaire, he shot right back at the journalist: “Is this what you call fortune? What about the fortune King Leopold of Belgium stole from us? What about the fortune the Belgian colonialists stole from us?” (See the documentary, Mobutu: Roi du Zaire). Also, when he founded his Popular Movement for the Revolution (MPR) Mobutu insisted that all citizens of Zaire – dead, alive and unborn – were part of his party. Not to support the MPR literally meant total exclusion from the space of Zairean citizenship. Like Jammeh, Mobutu practiced a virulent politics of exclusion which was the cardinal practice of the colonial regimes they like to blame for their extremely damaging political blunders. Jammeh goes even further by equating himself with Africa because the so-called and totally non-existent 400 years of colonial rule and the billions the West stole from us did not come from what we know as The Gambia alone. In fact, the entity called Gambia is a relatively recent entity in African history. It is certainly not 400 years old.
Jammeh knows that he no longer really enjoys political legitimacy both in his own mind and in the reality of Gambian political history. He will of course deny the fact in public; but deep in his mind, he knows that he has no moral authority to be president of The Gambia twenty years after he promised to step down only after a two-year transition period and twenty years after he declared that “in fact, ten years is too much” for anyone to stay in power after his solemn, God-witnessed oath to make sure that there are term limits in the new Gambian constitution. As a Gambian, Jammeh had the right to contest the presidency in 1996 like everyone else. But he has no right to occupy the institution of the Gambian presidency as if it is his own personal domain, to the exclusion of everyone else, and to insultingly declare to anyone who cares to listen that “he will rule the Gambia for a billion years.” He certainly would, if he could.
Fortunately, he cannot rule the country for even a hundred years simply because he will not live that long or if he does, he would have been so old and shriveled, so physically depleted that he could not don his grand boubous and drag himself, his sword and his worry beads around anymore. So he is just being characteristically rude and contemptuous of Gambians when he brags that he will rule The Gambia for a billion years.
A couple of days after the December 29 incident, BBC journalists repeatedly asked me in an interview why people are trying to violently overthrow Jammeh when the Gambian people keep voting for him in presidential elections. This question is part of the almost normalized culture of political exceptionalism so common in Western political, social and media circles – the idea that in Africa, it is okay for one man to keep winning elections over and over and over again even though such a scenario may not even be contemplated in western countries, however popular or successful a leader is. The longer and more complex answer to why people like Jammeh keep winning elections in spite of their terrible leadership incapacities has to do with the nature of Gambian and by extension African political cultures, which have remained virtually unchanged from the precolonial period to date. Evidence of this political culture is displayed in the use of such terms as Mansa Kunda and its equivalents in other Gambian-African languages to describe constitutional governments, in the widespread belief that a Mansa (president) is appointed by God, and in the equally erroneous idea that to oppose a Mansa (president) is to oppose the will of God. In a similar vein, the majority of Gambians do not directly attribute their poverty and suffering to Yahya Jammeh or his government. If you ask the average villager in rural Gambia why they are poor, why they couldn’t afford money to send their children to school or buy a bag of rice, they will likely point to Allah rather than to the poor leadership and bad governance of Yahya Jammeh. And until and unless there is a radical transformation of this political culture which will bring it into line with the new constitutional dispensation that rules their lives, many Gambians will continue voting for Jammeh. The sad reality is that free and fair elections in the true sense of the term is not possible within the context of our current political culture. We need a mind revolution that will politically empower Gambians and enable them to hold their leaders accountable and kick them out through the ballot box if they lost their political legitimacy. In the absence of an empowered people, dictators will continue to abuse our rights and justifiably angry people will continue attempting to remove them through the barrel of the gun.
But an unchanged political culture is just one side of the answer to the BBC’s question as to why people keep electing Jammeh. The issue is really not whether Jammeh keeps winning elections. The issue is whether he should keep running for office in the first place, whether it is right and just for one man to monopolize the leadership of our country to the exclusion of all other citizens who have equal rights to lead the country if they so desire and if they get the popular mandate to do so. It is from this particular perspective that Jammeh no longer enjoys either the political or the moral legitimacy to remain head of state of The Gambia. Like I said, he might deny it all he likes in his public utterances. But deep inside his mind, he knows that his continued occupation of the Gambian presidency is illegitimate, since it is based on a lie he told the Gambian people 20 years ago; namely, that he will make sure that there is a presidential term limit of two five-year terms; that in fact – and these are his direct words – “ten years is too much” for any president to stay in power in The Gambia. Well, Mr. Jammeh, how about 20 years for too long?
Of course, it is a waste of time to ask Jammeh to reform his ways. Or to investigate the many brutal crimes against Gambians committed under his watch and often by his own orders. So we are left with the sad realization that as violence has been used in the past to try kicking him out of power, so will violence be used again, and again, and again for the same purpose of kicking him out of power. So we brace ourselves for inevitable bloodshed in our dear country and pray only that the causalities be as minimal as possible.