By Foday Samateh
In his phone call to concede the election to Adama Barrow, The Gambia’s despot reflected aloud that he had come to power on a Friday and lost it on a Friday. The inference is superfluously apparent. Still, this is, as he likes to be called, His Excellency, Sheikh, Professor, Doctor, Alhagie Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, Naseeruddin (Defender of Islam) and Babili Mansa (Bridge Builder). Even when he had his political demise on his mind, he wouldn’t leave his pronouncements to speculations, especially on matters pertaining to his self-proclaimed insight into the Divine Decisions. It was all Allah’s Will, he asserted lugubriously. And even as he professed rare humility for his shocking defeat, he couldn’t help himself to dispense unsolicited advice to the President-elect. The new head of state must maintain peace and stability, he counseled, “because without peace and stability, let me make it clear, you cannot achieve anything in anywhere in Africa.” In other words, Barrow must imitate his lording over the country in the name of national security. A man with a soupçon of self-awareness in that ignominious position would have been reticent about recommending governing style to the victor. The election result is, if anything, an unmitigated repudiation of his record and mindset as a leader.
Yahya Jammeh’s rise and fall share more striking similarities than the mere coincidence of timing. There’s no more special providence in them than in the most mundane human events. If he insists, the celestial conclusion to be drawn from his defeat is that the Almighty has disfavored him and cast him away as a parable of disgrace like the iniquitous rulers in the Scriptures. The truth is, his fate is more earthly than ethereal. As in the case of all vain villains, this compulsive egomaniacal has succumbed to the inevitable law of political physics — His phantom greatness has shrunk to what Mark Anthony calls “this little measure.”
Nonetheless, there’s something surreal about his usurpation of power, his reign of terror, and his spectacular loss of grip on the scepter. Without any warning, this nonentity of a soldier had put a gun to the country’s head to declare himself the absolute ruler, bestrode the nation like a Colossus for twenty-two long years, only to be reduced to his pitifully mortal self. Hence, he proved to be a fascinating character in the most disturbing of ways.
Elections in general are about the future, but this one is uniquely less so. We celebrate the outcome as a categorical end of our national nightmare. In this defining moment, we look to the future not for its own sake, but largely on the joyful presumption that it will be nothing like the past. Whatever Barrow’s merits are, we embrace him almost exclusively for representing a stark break from Yahya Jammeh. The beginning of the future matters greatly less than the end of the past.
We screamed the scream of joy, and dance the dance of rejoicing at homes and in the streets, because we feel and know with certitude that the surprises and shocks that may come later will bear little resemblance to the grueling experience we’ve been through as a nation. We’ve freed ourselves from the claws and clutches of a demagogue. We’ll now go to bed without worrying about the midnight knock from the secret police for speaking our mind. We’ll not be at the mercy of a puppet judiciary that is at the beck and call of a vindictive despot. Journalists will not be blacklisted as enemies of the state, much less abducted, detained incommunicado indefinitely or assassinated. Torturers will not be rewarded with sumptuous feasts while their victims are left gasping for their lives in gulags or disposed of in unmarked graves. Citizens will not flee into exile for their beliefs or get nabbed at the airport as soon as their flights landed. Businesses and the national treasury will not be bankrolling the dictator’s insatiable, pecuniary intemperance. Private properties will not be seized or destroyed without compensation. The state institutions and resources will not be personalized for the use of one avaricious man. No tribe will be singled out as unpatriotic or nonGambian and threatened with extermination. Our country will not make international headlines for all the wrong reasons. Our president will not be consorting with rogue regimes. No more public ravings, infantile rantings, incoherent diatribes, delusional declarations of a tin-pot tyrant. No more messianic pretensions of a mercurial maniac. No more bizarre claims of miracle cures by a quirky quack. And no more witch-hunting raids to force feed innocent people with hallucinogenic concoctions because the deranged crackpot in the State House thinks witches were responsible for his aunt’s death.
For all these and a million more reasons, we scream and dance on the grave of Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship. We disagree with the great American novelist William Faulkner because we cannot accept that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To us, this past isn’t only past, it’s dead! It can never be resuscitated or resurrected. And we have little use for the great Irish Poet William Butler Yeats’s lamentation that, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” In this election, the best are full of conviction while the worst lack all passionate intensity.
We scream and dance because we have served justice to Yahya Jammeh and condemned him to eternal infamy. Given all he had done to us, it would have been an indelible national shame had he died in power. And it would have been quite unsatisfying had he been overthrown in a coup or chased out in a popular uprising. He would have claimed that he was still loved by the majority of nation. It’s only fitting for a man who had imposed himself on us and showed little regard for democratic values to be voted out in a democratic election. But for that, we would never have had the opportunity to watch him on television conceding. That moment was the indispensable closure we would otherwise never have had.
We’ll remember him for countless things, including his gross abuses of power, rambling speeches, unconscionable antics, puerile vows of bravery, extra-judicial killings, clownish grins, and sheer waste of our time for the better part of a generation. All his blunders and plunders, however, will now be seen in the new light of his humbling moment of concession. It’s the final scene in the reality-defying story of a self-purported mighty god unmasked as a miserable, little man.
When the President-elect stroke his ego by way of consoling him that he would be consulted for advice, this dwarfish thief who likes to be garbed in a giant’s robe responded in this unforgettable words: “I’ll be a farmer in Kanilai.” That’s superlatively gratifying and saddening at the same time. It bookended the moment of concession and the entire Jammehism as tragic in a Shakespearean sense. It’s hard not to hear in it an echo of the most quoted line of the most Machiavellian character in all of the Bard’s creations. Just before he’s killed in the Battle of Bosworth, Richard III cries out for help to escape the inescapable in the most unusual yet human way: “A horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!”
A kingdom for a horse? A country for a farm? Why do all bloodthirsty tyrants think alike?