The purpose of deconstructing Yahya Jammeh is not to merely criticize him, however justified such criticism is. Nor is the purpose to simply vent anger, however justifiable, at his systematic abuse of our rights and responsibilities as Gambian citizens. We deconstruct Yahya Jammeh to highlight the many contradictions that characterize his political character and his assertion of absolute power over Gambians while denouncing the absolute power of his colonial predecessors. We deconstruct Yahya Jammeh to demonstrate that Gambians have come of age, and that we will record his history for current and future generations of Gambians so that they will be empowered and never allow any single individual to abrogate their God-given rights of citizenship the way Yahya Jammeh has done for the past 20 years. We focus the limelight on his mind, thoroughly understand his mentality, and explain for the edification of the Gambian nation and anyone interested the mental anatomy of postcolonial African dictators. Since some of us are denied access to our National Archives and therefore the opportunity to write histories of The Gambia, we will work with the primary material in Yahya Jammeh’s mind to which we have direct access through his words and actions, and write his history for our National Archives.
Yahya Jammeh denies Gambians their basic humanity by claiming that there is no such thing as human rights or by equating human rights with alien western practices (unless of course when his own “human rights” are threatened by an armed insurrection like the one we saw on December 30, 2014; in which case he will ardently appeal to the notion of “the human rights and legitimate interests of the affected persons”). As we have repeatedly argued over the years, human rights are natural and universal, not western, eastern or African. Every human being is born with God-given inalienable rights that may not be abrogated under any circumstances, and may temporarily be suspended only under exceptionally legitimate circumstances, such as under a state of emergency. The natural function of human rights is to safeguard the dignity of the human person, and no westerner has a greater share of human dignity that any Gambian. All human beings are created equal and endowed with an equal level of dignity that is natural, human, and inalienable. To grant ownership of human rights to the west is to perpetuate the age-old myth and racist western exceptionalism that Africans are less than human. It is to prop up the very dehumanizing, racist and othering western discourses about Africans that Yahya Jammeh claims to be against. He is therefore sadly confused and bereft of rational logic when in trying to deny Gambians their rights as human beings deserving of dignity, he grants exclusive ownership of human rights to the West. This tragically sad behavior betrays an inferiority complex on the part of Yahya Jammeh that spills over into a confused, illogical and self-deprecating ascription of more power and agency to the West than the West deserves or may ever lay claim to.
Yahya Jammeh likes to condemn and blame colonialism for not developing Africa. We have repeatedly argued that expecting colonialism to develop the colonized smacks of naivety if not outright foolery. The aims and objectives of colonialism were to subjugate and exploit, not to free and develop the colonized. To keep harping on how colonial rule did not develop The Gambia is a sign of ignorance about the reasons of Empire and the nature of historical reality. That said, and judging from his record in office, Yahya Jammeh’s regime is almost a carbon copy of the oppressive colonial state he so likes to fleece. In fact, Yahya Jammeh’s regime is more despotic in many respects than the colonial state. This is because while the colonial state unjustly oppressed “othered subjects” of Empire, his regime unjustly oppresses fully-fledged, indigenous and free citizens of an independent nation who share equal ownership of the country with him. Yahya Jammeh rules The Gambia like a colonial Leviathan who, unlike the original Hobbesian Leviathan, does not even depend on a Covenant that guarantees him the people’s loyalty in exchange for their protection by an all-powerful state. Under him, The Gambia is a state of exception in which he arrogates to himself the power to decide who expresses their legitimate opinions, who deserves to be deprived of their private property, and who deserves to live or to die without any regard whatsoever to the laws of the land that he is sworn to uphold. Yet, Yahya Jammeh is a citizen like any other Gambian; he should respect the human rights of his fellow citizens just as he would like his human rights to be respected. There can be no selective appropriation of the right to enjoy human rights or any selective application of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you if you were in their position.
One of the cardinal characteristics of Yahya Jammeh’s regime is press censorship which incidentally, is a very colonial instrument of oppression. Censorship was the weapon colonial rulers used to silence African journalists and nationalists who protested colonial exploitation and the denial of the rights of colonized peoples. Its principal purpose was to silence those who would challenge the colonial rulers’ “unjust right” to do as they pleased with African lives and properties. Its purpose was to prevent the generation of informed dissent and hatred for oppression among the colonized. Censorship was meant to prevent the virus of political awareness from infecting the mind of the colonized peoples. It was to prevent the kind of political enlightenment born of informed opinion that leaves no room for a state’s oppression of its citizens. As a site for the production and dissemination of knowledge, the press represented a threat to colonial rulers whose interests lay in unquestioning obedience by an exploited and oppressed people. And it should be noted that the censorship laws deployed by the colonial state in Africa were obsolete and long discarded laws in their own countries. Laws from 19th century Britain were used by British colonial rulers to silence dissent in 20th century Africa, a fact that revealed how for the colonial state, African colonies were spaces of exception and otherness that could be treated in ways not acceptable or even conceivable in their own countries. Those same obsolete laws of 19th century Britain were further recycled and inflicted upon their own people by Yahya Jammeh and other postcolonial dictators in 21st century Africa.
The practice of using colonial laws in postcolonial spaces was particularly prominent in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, Kutu Acheampong and Jerry Rawlings PNDC regime. The Emergency Powers Act, 1957 (the year of Ghanaian independence) was said by the Nkrumah government to be “in substitution for the Emergency Powers Order in Council, 1939.” Nkrumah’s Books and Newspapers Registration Act, 1961 was almost identical to the Books and Newspapers Registration Ordinance, 1894, and the Newspapers, Books and Printing Presses Ordinance, 1934. Acheampong’s Newspaper Licensing Decree 1973, replicated the Newspaper Registration Ordinance, 1896, and the Books and Newspapers Registration Ordinance, 1897; Rawlings’ Preventive Custody Law 1982 was similar to the Emergency Powers Order in Council, 1939; and the Newspaper Licensing Law, 1989 was almost an exact replica of the Books and Newspapers Registration Ordinance 1894, the Books and Newspapers Registration Ordinance 1897, and the Books and Printing Presses Ordinance 1934. This mind boggling use of draconian colonial laws in independent nation-state space suggests identical behavioral patterns and mindsets between colonial and postcolonial states and leaders in Africa.
One does not need to look very far to realize that like his Ghanaian counterparts, Yahya Jammeh muzzles freedoms of expression and of the press for the exact reasons colonial rulers muzzled them. In 1998, Yahya Jammeh invoked an old colonial law – the Telegraph Act of 1913/14 – to silence Citizen FM under the pretext that the media house was not registered under the long obsolete colonial law. If The Gambia gained independence in 1965, how could a Gambian media house be expected to register under a colonial law of 1913/14? The reality was that Yahya Jammeh banned and confiscated Citizen FM because Baboucarr Gaye had the foresight to translate the content of Gambian newspapers – including the state-owned Gambia Daily – so that the majority of Gambians who could not read them could understand what was going on in their country. The resounding popularity of the immensely useful news translation program could only frighten a regime hell bent on keeping its people in the dark about matters fundamentally affecting their lives and livelihoods. That the Telegraph Act of 1913/14 was used to silence Citizen FM throws into sharp relief Yahya Jammeh’s colonial mentality and the colonial character of his regime and nullifies any moral authority he has to condemn colonial rule. Suffice it to note that in pre-colonial Africa, people were not denied the right to criticize and question the actions of their leaders. Knowledge was public property and issues of public interest were everyone’s business. Democracy in its indigenous African forms subjected the will of the ruler to the collective will of the people and rulers were often removed from power if they crossed the boundaries of acceptable social etiquette and civility. Tyrants who habitually opposed and frustrated the will of the people or insulted their dignity were violently or otherwise removed from power, much like the many attempts that have been made since November 1994 to violently remove Yahya Jammeh from power.
It is therefore an insult to the human dignity of Gambians and Africans that Yahya Jammeh characterizes democracy as an exclusively Western form of governance. Democracy is simply the name in English for a very African and human practice that preceded the colonial encounter by many hundreds if not thousands of years. It is in fact a culture of universal civility common to civilizations from ancient China to ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, ancient Greece and ancient Africa. Disregarding and silencing the legitimate opinions of Africans became the norm through censorship practices introduced by the colonial rulers and currently perpetuated by African rulers like Yahya Jammeh. Ironically these internal Africa colonial rulers pretend to be defenders of precolonial African cultures that knew no censorship. Yahya Jammeh condemns colonial rule but habitually behaves like a colonial ruler. There is such a thing as internal colonialism in situations where citizens are treated like colonial subjects without the right to question the activities of their government or otherwise express their legitimate political opinions. Our indigenous Gambian concepts and virtues of moyaa in Mandinka and nitteh in Wollof underpin the grave importance of civility and respect for human rights and dignity in traditional Gambian society. Not surprisingly, many Gambians today say of Yahya Jammeh that amang ke moti or Kii du nit, a characterization that references his lack of moyaa or nitteh in the Gambian public’s estimation.
Furthermore, the prison, the gun and the secret police – the greatest weapons of oppression in the arsenal of Yahya Jammeh – are direct products and legacies of colonial rule. These coercive instruments upon which Yahya Jammeh depends for his personal security and which he uses to abrogate the rights of free Gambian citizens are among the many “invented traditions” and “imported artifacts” of colonialism in Africa. Mile Two Prison, Yahya Jammeh’s self-declared five star hotel, was built by colonial rulers; it did not exist in precolonial Gambia. Armies existed in precolonial Africa for the purpose of guarding the security of the people, which was not totally coterminous to the security of the ruler as it is in today’s Gambia. Guns, especially the canon and the machine gun that surround Yahya Jammeh in his residences and public appearances everywhere, were imported into Africa by colonial rulers. They were the same weapons used to subjugate Africans and bring them under the control of colonial rulers. Under Yahya Jammeh guns continue to serve the function of subjugating Gambians and keeping them under the suffocating control of his regime. Institutions like the National Intelligence Agency are virulent reincarnations of secret police outfits deployed by colonial rulers and fascist regimes in Italy, Germany and other western countries. Hitler’s regime, Mussolini’s regime, Stalin’s regime, Pinochet’s regime, the regimes of the most brutal dictators of modern world history made use of secret police and ubiquitous informers to spy upon and oppress their citizens. Secret police did not exist in precolonial Africa and are not needed in free societies like Gambia without any threatening external enemies. In effect, Yahya Jammeh is at once defined and protected from political accountability by the same weapons that defined and protected colonial rulers from political accountability. Yet, at every possible opportunity, he vehemently condemns colonialism for not developing Africa and the West for talking to him about democracy and human rights. Surely Mr. Jammeh, we have our own democracy and human rights, like human societies everywhere. Only that you are not practicing our own democracy and human rights, which is as good as anybody else’s. Again, remember Mr. Jammeh, colonialism does not necessarily have to be externally imposed. There is such a thing as internal colonialism of the kind imposed by your self-confessed dictatorship on free Gambian citizens. Some Gambians support you; some Gambians oppose you. Both types of Gambians should be free to support or oppose you without fear or favor. That is African democracy at its best.