Dr Karamo NM Sonko

Yahya Jammeh, President of the Republic of the Gambia, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A lizard in a desert

In the scorching heat of the desert, when sunlight and air create the impression of falling rain, deceiving the eyes with mirages unreachable, a man drove his car, in boredom.  He suddenly saw the sign of a tail…then a body… and a head.  A monitor, a monitor lizard ahead, crawling across.  “Hurrah!” he shouted, ramming his foot on the accelerator. He chased it, drove around it, until the poor animal could not run any longer. He got out of his car, grabbed it, plucked out the eyes with his knife, left it and watched in entertainment as the animal struggled in the sand.  Having had his fill of fun, he drove away.

I always love to walk. In my early years at St. Augustine’s High School, I walked from Banjul to Serrekunda. I never took notice of something along the road until I met a lecturer in the second smallest country on the continental mainland, known as “the Switzerland of Africa”. She, like the numerous people I have met around the world, who have visited our little country, told me, “I really loved The Gambia!” The reason for her love was rather unusual and, at first thought, you may even consider it trivial, until you go beyond the first. It is not what you may have in mind, no, no! She is African, was young and did not meet any bumpsters in Bakau. Instead, she loved The Gambia, because she found something that she never saw anywhere else in the world, a road sign that so many, including me, never paid any attention to: DRIVE CAREFULLY! THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN.

Those around me

Someone from Sonkokunda told me yesterday: “Yahya is having fun with Gambians. He will let you “sing”  and “sing” and when you are tired of “singing” he would step down.” As an advocate of peace and reconciliation, I am very much encouraged by this statement.

I am indeed fortunate to be alive, up to and including this day, when  many young Gambians call me “Uncle” and “Big Brother”.   When I look at some of them with their grey hair, I see how I, myself, must be looking like and how, as an African and Gambian traditionalist, I must behave.  These young men and women include ordinary but very nice people. They also include engineers, lawyers, bankers, economists, business men and  women, and other professionals, with qualifications ranging from higher education certificates to doctorate degrees.  Upon receipt of “The King of Bechuanaland: Jammeh’s Volte-Face in The Gambia (“The King I” for short),” one of them sent me a beautifully conveyed message by email, which carved my position in an undeclared Mandinka traditional hierarchy,  through a proverb: “An elderly person seated sees much further than the youth  standing!”  The proverb was welcomed, because I knew it was sincerely meant to be both a compliment and a shield  against a potential debate with, in this case a younger brother called Yusu, who is a competent international lawyer, capable of disagreeing with me and even launching an offensive.  I sometimes tell my European and American friends that in their culture “young” is a compliment, but that in mine it is the opposite.

Yusu went further and offered an olive branch to Jammeh, worth much more than the six pence he modestly claimed:

“One good counsel I drew from your deep and intuitive thoughts resonates with the power of healing and reconciliation. However, while the victims are central to any genuine calls for reconciliation, having suffered egregious crimes, which in the true spirit of faith and destiny they may be able to forgive, he too needs to offer an unconditional apology to Gambians as well. This is my six pence.”

Another young man, in international trade finance, to whom I am an honorary uncle, wrote to me, with independence in thought, eloquence in style but respect in tone:

“Thank you uncle Karamo.  … Negotiation is the way to go and the preference of every Gambian, I would imagine.  All those who clamour for external military intervention would be doing so out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, and as a last resort.  There are two sides to every negotiation and I do not believe that Yahya has any intention to negotiate.  In that case, what do we do?  In that case, we have a binary solution – either let an emboldened and vindictive Yahya rule over Gambia for as long as he lives with its attendant consequences or hope that external forces flush him out, again with consequences.  Both of these are sub-optimal solutions, but our choices are limited.  I believe in the power of prayers backed by deeds.  In short, I hope negotiation works but I doubt if Yahya and his cohort are interested in that.  I hope and pray that I am wrong.”


Muhammed, is his good name. He makes it clear to his uncle that military intervention is a “last resort”. Honestly, I do not want to contemplate military intervention, even as a last resort.

Yusu and Muhammed’s messages, in highlighting the importance of age in our society, offer another potential solution – getting  more elders involved in talking to Jammeh. Under normal circumstances, Gambian elders should be able to convince Jammeh to step down, just as elders “begged” him to run for the office of President in 1996!  Unfortunately, present circumstances are not normal and neither Yusu nor Mohamed is the President of The Gambia.

From Uncle to Nephew

I was demoted from my elderly position that Yusu and Muhammed placed me in to  a “junior” position when one of my uncles in The Gambia called, after their messages, to express a sentiment that seems to confirm the feeling at home (in The Gambia, not Sonkokunda): “I think this man will not go without force!” My own peaceful uncle, even my peaceful uncle! Then I went on Skype with another nephew, Lamin Eff: “Uncle, if he refuses to go they may have to get him out by force.”  Another one, another subtle advocate of “soldier- go-get-him!”

However, it is clear from the messages of Yusu, my two nephews and my dear uncle that Gambians (or many) are advocating military intervention out of desperation.  People are fed up, angry and in a hurry to see an end to the Jammeh regime.  Gambians are peaceful people but they are in a hurry now and therein lies the danger.   When a man is starving he may eat from the fire!

The Iraq factor 

Something seems to be developing at home and abroad among my compatriots which I would like to call the Iraq factor: oppressed citizens  ready to welcome foreign military intervention in order to get rid of the cause of their oppression. Most Gambians may ask “So what is wrong with that?” I would answer: “Remember that Iraqis cheered American troops as they moved into Baghdad, but later turned their guns on their saviors. The Americans were forced to abandon a shattered country. Out of the ashes of American bombs and Saddam’s brutality, emerged ISIS, which (some may say) makes Al-Qaeda moderate.  There are some exceptions of military intervention, especially when there is no other choice, after a tyrant has fired the first shot, but they are rare and I do not want to contemplate it for our lovely little nation. Yes, even as a last resort, unless an uncle insists I give him what Yusu and Muhammed gave me.

The Ivorian analogy

In the current crisis in our country, Gambians love to cite the example of Gbagbo in order to justify military intervention. Indeed there are many similarities between Jammeh’s present behaviour and Gbagbo’s past. However, we must not limit the similarities in attitudes, but also note that Côte d’Ivoire is still in the process of  breaking away from the violent legacy of  the Gbago era (which extremists are trying to benefit from, as the March 2016 attack at Grand Bassam showed). I cannot think of a better personal example than the face of the 5-Star hotel I was staying in at the centre of Abidjan, when I started to write this sequel: soldiers, road blocks, security guards and security bars. It was (still is) like a mini fortress to enter, in spite of the apparent calmness in the city.

When a former killer warns you against killing

When a former killer warns you against killing, you better take him seriously.  When a veteran warns you against war, you better fear war. I am indeed fortunate to be alive, up to and including this day.  This day, when I can tell you that one of the uncountable things in my life, that I am most grateful to the Almighty God for, are my meetings with some extraordinary people, who have left me with many quotable quotes. One of these was a 13-year old mathematical whiz kid whose tale inspired me to write the fictional “The King I”. Another was a soldier known  as “The Brigadier”  or “Cowboy” in a Portuguese speaking country that has not known very many good night’s sleep since the colonial period. I once sat in front of this nation’s greatest war hero.  He was the “The Brigadier” or “Cowboy”, a Mandingo General whose past exploits were narrated to me by witnesses. Incidentally, he was a Gambian who walked away from our shores at the tender age of about 15 to seek his fortune not across the Mediterranean but towards the savannah and tropical forest. I have met this soldier.

I have met this soldier and I have walked for kilometers on the jungle paths, across dense foliage through which the sun could hardly penetrate. These were the territories where he had won his battles, speaking Portuguese creole with the real sons of his new country, where his courage earned him adoption. I saw where he burnt down a Portuguese army base to ashes. I went past the silent forest where he singlehandedly and empty-handedly wrenched life out of a powerful mutinous guerrilla no one else could face. I flew over the intimidating trees which watched a boy, called Foday, a foot soldier, shoulder-fire a Russian surface-to-air missile and bring down a feared Portuguese fighter pilot and his jet. “When I got to his plane, I found the bastard crouched inside, dead!” In war, men can become beasts and, as another old army General put it, “it takes only three weeks to turn a man into a beast”. Foday was one of the calmest and nicest men I have ever met in my life. Yet, he killed an enemy and insulted a corpse!

Thou shalt not kill

I met this soldier, the Brigadier, after he had changed his mind about killing, because he had learnt something new that he never knew. Decades after all his experience as a local military legend, one day the grey-haired Mandinka Kebba, with a prayer bead in his hand, warned me in his office: “Sonko, if you were to read the Qur’an and understand the value the Almighty Allah has accorded to human life, you would never dare take a life!” In the year 2000, he was killed by the same troops he had successfully led against the Portuguese in pursuit of freedom and against his President, a man he had also served as an aide-de-camp to during the liberation struggle.  He succeeded in overthrowing the man he had once carried on his back in rough terrain, during the struggle, and those who once risked their lives for him in rough terrain ended up killing him. Both happened in war. When his death took place I was perhaps the only one in the world, not with him, who suspected that he might have voluntarily chosen to die, rather than take a life, because of what he had learnt late from the Glorious Qur’an. Better late than never.

It took a long time for many Gambians to believe he was dead, because many were convinced that he had supernatural powers. A friend confirmed this belief to me: “He can fly away at the height of battle!” Later, whilst I was speculating how he died, a young driver, another Lamin, who had served under him came to me, as if he knew what was on my mind, and reported what seemed to be in line with what the General had told me. Lamin recounted how his enemies overcame his defenders and found him in a room. He begged them to let him pray two rakat. After the Salaam they ended his life with gun butts and sticks because, like Geronimo, there was widespread belief that he could never be killed by a bullet. This was what Lamin told me about this fallen soldier I once met.

He was a friend of Jammeh’s. ECOWAS, the UN and perhaps Jammeh himself tried everything to get him to retire from the army and peripheral politics before his death, but he not agree. They promised him prestigious positions in the UN system, but would, or could, not accept them, because of interest group pressures.  People used to queue outside his office, telling him what pleased him in the interest of their interests. The human tongue can be as deadly as a gun butt.

Better late than never

I sincerely hope that Jammeh’s decision to reject the election results does not lead to a refusal to step down when his term expires. Maybe we are all getting too “excited”, as the woman from Sonkokunda pointed out, because we are confusing or taking the two for one.   The possibility of military conflict, which may lead to the loss of lives, unnecessarily, is worth talking about only if Jammeh takes the two as one. The President may also be changing in his last days in office. Difficult to imagine, but who really knows? If he is determined to stay, he should heed the voice of the Brigadier. The Brigadier was not a religious Sheikh, our President is supposed to be one. Better late than never.

The President still has three viable channels of listening to the Brigadier, putting the pieces together and exiting peacefully. One is the Supreme Court route, which many Gambians see as a farce. I think it can be helpful as an exit strategy. Our President, like a mason who rebuilds  walls he demolishes, can get the Court (or whatever resembles it) up and running on the 10th and let them reject his rejection and then make an announcement: “Fellow Gambians, I have exercised my legal rights, respected the decision of the Court and the will of my people and will now accept the results!” Dream? If not, I have no doubt that Gambians would be so relieved that they would cheer rather than boo him.

If he does not tune into the Supreme Court channel, I can only think of him turning to ECOWAS again (difficult and embarrassing) or calling for the intervention of another third party he trusts as a negotiator. The latter may be the head of state of a country he considers to be a friend.

There is still hope, as a 90-year old friend of mine in Bakau told me last night. That encouraged me. I found someone older than my uncle who might be seeing what my uncle could not.

I hope so. God has His Laws. If you do not believe in Him, I would say nature has its laws. These cover the animals and plants. Only? How about the humans? Of course, obviously. The human being is even more important, because of our responsibility in respecting these laws and the value the laws attribute to us. If we disobey them we face the negative consequences, whether we know it or not. If we obey them, we reap the rewards, aware or unaware. Think about that.

My stories are not about Jammeh alone.  Although they are most relevant for him today, because he is the one in our driver’s seat, they are messages for all of mankind (no blame on women!) to be careful about how we treat each other. The stories are for you and me. Going back to our driver in the desert, he got married later. He got three children, all of whom were born blind!  Think about that.

Call it the punishment of the Almighty God or call it coincidence, but pay attention to the gears and steering wheels of life. When we drive carefully, both literally and figuratively, the life we save may indeed be our own.  Therefore, our academic visitor from the kingdom of the Swazis had a very important reason to appreciate something in our homeland, something much more than just a road sign.

Greetings: the Call of Humanity

When the Jolas greet each other, traditionally, they go (literally translated):

Ka soomaayi?” (“Is there sweetness?”)

Ka soomaayai  kebb!” (“Yes, only sweetness!”)

Given that there can be no “sweetness” without peace, the Jola response becomes the same as that of all the main languages of The Gambia – Mandinka (Khaira dorong!), Fula (Jam tang!) and Wollof (Jamma reck!). The common thread in all these four languages is peace – Soomu, KhairaJam and Jamma.  We are a people of peace!

The voice of a neighbour

About 14 miles from Jammeh’s village of Kanilai, lies one of the biggest villages in The Gambia. It is a special village, near the border with Casamance, where all the ethnic and religious groups in The Gambia coexist in harmony.  As a poor, but uncontaminated, proud and very happy child, I spent the early days of my life trudging the footpaths, hunting in the forests, fishing in the river and attending the Catholic school of this village. Yes, those were simple but very happy days – no Soviet or American invasions that I knew of, no credit card bills, no AIDS, no mobile phones, no global warming that I knew of, no locked gates and barbed wire fences, not even an army in The Gambia.  No young men who drank alcohol, refused to pray, drove trucks into crowds and were called Muslims. No pulpit boys who kidnapped kids, forced them to rape girls and were called the Lord’s Resistance. No deadly ruffians who torched Christians and were Hindus. Those village days taught me that it is better not to need money than to have it and worse to need and do not have it.

It was an unknown village, because it lay about a mile and a half from the highway and did not have even a Middle School until the end of the 1990’s. With the formation of the army under Jawara, many of the young men of the village, who had no recourse to better sources of employment, flooded the army.  Two of these men became infamous because of their association with Jammeh and because the bells of bad deeds always ring louder than those of goodness. The good name of the village was tarnished and the sacrifices of its thousands of inhabitants went unnoticed or were ignored. The nation never noticed the group of staunch self-declared UDP supporters in the village.

The nation seemed unaware of Jammeh’s onslaught against Jolas whom he accused of bewitching the successful boys in his security services who hailed from the village. The village remembers the day that the President stormed in and out, threatening to use his superior supernatural powers to deal harshly with the Jola witches and wizards of the village. The casualties included a young Mandinka woman who was forced by the President’s witch doctors to drink a concoction, which led to her death. They included a group of old and sick Fula women, thrown into the back of a truck and forced to report to Kanilai, accused of witchcraft. They included an old Jola community leader who died in humiliation, after he was forced to drink the substance that killed the young Mandingo woman. I remember three days in the life of this old man; the day he shocked me by telling me that he would die for me if necessary; the day he made fun of himself by trying to recite one of the shortest surat from the Qur’an which he said he would but could not; and the miserable afternoon when I sat with him on a mat in my little round bungalow, built on the land he had given me. His voice cracked, at the point of tears that afternoon: “They said I ate my own son (another Lamin), the police man!!”

A message from a name

This village has a very special message for Jammeh, the understanding and acceptance of which he and The Gambia can benefit from. It is a message embedded in language and culture, which together with politics and environment, universally differentiate one ethnic group from another, though only superficially, as one human “tribe”.  This message stems from the Call of that human “tribe”, the universal Call called “greetings”. Through the Jola name of its founders, the village is calling out to the President, a Jola, through all the names the President loves to be called by (Dr, Sheikh, Professor, Babili Mansa, etc.). This neighbor of Kanilai is calling and is called:

Isoomut jaat mambu teyto or for short: Sintet.

Sintet, Mr Presidentas you can tell from the above, means:

If things are not sweet today, please leave!”

In other words:

“If there is no peace today, please go!”



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