Dr Karamo NM Sonko

Heeno Occassional Postings, No. 12, February 10, 2017

Images and imaginations

The human being regularly lives an imaginary life. We imagine things that do not exist, confusing ourselves by creating conflicts between what exists (the truth) and what does not (falsehood). We create images in our heads. We subject ourselves to these imaginary thoughts and use them to destroy ourselves and others.

Falsehood can be destructive, whether it precedes or succeeds the truth. Hitler in the 1930’s and 1940’s convinced Germans to destroy themselves and wage war on the world, because of ideals that were tantamount to false images.  In Italy, Mussolini did the same in supporting Hitler in the Axis Powers and to justify his brutal attack on Abyssinia. In Cambodia, within a period of only two years (1975-79), Pol Pot decimated an estimated 25% of his people, because of policy-induced starvation, overwork and executions.  In Rwanda, in 1994, the Hutu majority government convinced Hutus to carry out a genocidal mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. In 2003, the US led its allies to invade Iraqi because  it was believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which he did not. We are still suffering from the consequences.

This is why the media and movies (the double “ms”) are so powerful. They appeal to our imagination and make us seek, love, desire and die for even what is not true. I once met an old lady who fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990’s. I was very sad when she told me her story. I asked what I could do to help and the reply was: “A tv set, because we don’t have one where I stay”.  No wonder, the media and movies have joined the ranks of the biggest businesses in the world. In the US, for example, the NSI’s total number of television homes in 2016 was 113,314,340. My old lady was not dreaming alone and dreaming without reason.

Let us come closer home, in fact let us come home. In 1981, Kukoi convinced thousands of peace-loving Gambians that “Enough is enough” and that they must fight the Senegalese “invaders” who forcefully brought Jawara back. A neighbour of mine on Tobacco Road (Banjul) stabbed a government vehicle several times in front of me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.  “Because it belongs to Jawara!” he replied. I have a friend who still carries the mark of a stray bullet, because he went with peers to watch a film called “The Arrival of the Senegalese Invaders”! They imagined that life would be better under Kukoi and many young Gambians died pursuing an ideal they did not understand. When our imaginations run wild, they can be destructive!

Smarter than you might have thought

Have you ever asked yourself why Jammeh was able to fire and hire Ministers even in the last days of his downfall? Have you asked why he was able to use an institution as solemn as our honourable National Assembly to extend his term by 90 days (three whole months!)? They cooperated with him even when his downfall should have been obvious.  You have already had your answer.

Jammeh, as President, was actually smarter than most Gambians might have thought. Why do you think he claimed to cure AIDS and catch witches? Why do you think he wore a big white boubou and carried a big staff? Why do you think he carried the Glorious Qur’an (or what his critics say only looked like one) and always mentioned Allah (SWT) in his speeches (again which his critics say was only lip service)? I cannot judge him, but whether sincere or not in his looks and pronouncements, he succeeded in creating a trade mark in his appearance and an image of himself as a very serious Muslim.

Why did he chant “Al Samaday!”? This catchphrase was popularized by him among Gambians, most of whom knew neither its meaning nor where it came from. According to my sources in Brikama, the catchphrase originated from a very popular crazy man. He could look at people and tell their innermost secrets. Some people called him “the blessed mad man”.  According one of these sources, the man walked into their home one day, for the first time, as she walked out of their house to join a crowd of family members and friends outside. The mad man looked at her and cried, “Oh you with a big stomach, who likes to hide in your room and eat all the futoo of the children!”  “I almost collapsed, because that was exactly what I did that day!” she blushed, as she told me the story.

Why did he give himself so many titles? The first time I heard the many titles from a Gambian in Mauritania, I thought he was joking until the day I visited home and saw the names on billboards with the President’s pictures. A foreigner told me: “I love that name – Babili Mansa!”  He loved it, even though he did not know what it meant. Why you think he gave himself all these names? You have already had your answer.

Undoubtedly, his strategy succeeded for almost 23 years. “We must not underestimate this President of ours!” a civil servant in Serekunda told me. There are many people who believed he could cure AIDS, although I personally knew one former patient who appeared on GRTS saying he was healed, but later admitted to me that he was still ill. There are some, in and outside The Gambia, who believed that he was eliminated, because he promoted Islam. As he intensified his Islamic utterances, it became clear in his last days that the former President wanted the “theory of the serious Muslim” to gain higher ground than that of the tribal card.  Within the Gambian context, the Islamic card is very tolerant, but (like anywhere else) the tribal card could have been deadly if pushed too far.

The religious and tribal cards

Therefore, it was fortunate that he did not fan tribal sentiments the same way he did before the elections. He could have easily done so, as there were reports that a handful of ill-informed Jolas (in a settlement near where a relative of mine lives) buying cutlasses to attack Mandingos. Even more dangerous, was the unreported but confirmed firing of mortars into Kanilai by the Salif Sarjo Casamance rebels, which could have signaled a “tribal” onslaught in Foni. Miraculously, not a single person was hurt by this fire! The entry of ECOWAS troops into Gambian territory on the 20th January provided an ideal moment for a potential massacre, just as the return of the RPF army provided the right moment for Rwandan Hutus to react to incitement by their leaders to slaughter Tutsis in 1994.

Maybe Jammeh did not use the tribal card, because he never seriously believed in it, like the rest of our people.  Maybe he did not, because, as my friend Mustapha put it, “he is not suicidal”.  In any case, we have to give credit to ordinary Gambians, including the Jolas, who did not form any militia. This is because we are a peaceful and “non-tribalistic” people (read “The King I” & “The King II”). As the former President himself proudly noted, after finally agreeing to step down, not a single life was lost throughout the political impasse?

The imagination and images that oppressive leaders use to perpetuate their actions may also destroy them in the end. This is what happened in Germany, Cambodia, Italy, Rwanda and recently in The Gambia. Jammeh’s human rights violations are definitely not comparable to Hitler’s, Pol Pot’s, Mussolini’s or those of the Hutu leaders in 1994. However, like them he successfully exploited his subjects’ fascination with imaginations and used this to create fear not only through his actions but also through his words and imagery (imagined and visual).

Jammeh had built an image of himself ruling The Gambia for probably “a billion years”. He had also said that there would never be a “Mandinka Government” again in the country. Naturally, he must have been taken aback by the truth that both dreams turned out to be untrue so soon. However, even when the reality struck, he imagined that he could hang on to power and evade the draculas on the Gambian streets who wanted his head for themselves or the ICC. Some of his supporters were quick to sense the reality and switch sides. Some of us can be rather “flexible”, rather fast! Others stayed with him for as long as possible in the vain pursuit of a dangerous fantasy.

Why was he so adamant?

There was so much at stake for Jammeh. The biggest was the possibility of being sent to the ICC. The longer we stay in political office, the more likely it becomes to do wrong things and the more wrongs we do the more difficult it becomes to quit the office. The second was ceasing to be President and losing all the powers and privileges that go with it. The highest on this list was the possibility of losing the wealth he publicly stated would protect even his great grandchildren against poverty.

The figure of his net worth that has emerged since his departure sounds like a huge exaggeration ($900 – 2 billion!), but even a tenth of this, if true, is too much for a small economy such as The Gambia’s. Whatever the figure, it must be one of the main reasons why he imagined an army, Cabinet and National Assembly that would support him. The National Assembly, his closest advisers, and the security forces reinforced his imagination, even as numerous soldiers (including officers) deserted or folded their arms, and all his cabinet resigned or were fired.

ECOWAS military intervention, which I was opposed to because of the fear of potential losses of lives and the fact that Jammeh was already finished (especially after the oath of office of Barrow), has helped to crush his images of using the instruments of public office to stay in power. The arrival of his friends (the Presidents of Guinea and Mauritania, which I had suspected would happen in “The King II”) helped to turn them to dust. In the end, the ECOWAS intervention became necessary only as a show, rather than an exercise, of force. It facilitated Jammeh’s acceptance of the reality, but it was not the cause of his demise.

The demise of the Jammeh era was ironically engineered by himself, his advisors and some of his supporters. Internally, the coalition deserves credit (especially those who were arrested or killed). Externally, Gambians abroad have played their part through one of the most active social media campaigns in the world, financial contributions and encouraging friends and relatives at home to support the Coalition. There is much that the world can learn from this exemplary combination of national actions or citizens’ power, serious regional military threat and high-level diplomacy.

As he finally left for the airport Jammeh told the press, “Allah has decided that this is the end of my term….” Unfortunately, it took him so long to realize and/or accept this and in the process destroyed all the chances of the advocates of peace and reconciliation, such as myself, to have him retire in Kanilai! There is something we can learn from this experience through the Glorious Qur’an, which the former President always carried: “They are deaf, dumb, and blind, so they return not to the Right Path” (2,18). Images, even when they appear fragile, may be impossible to break away from.

Drums of war

On Saturday, January 14th, after the failure of the ECOWAS negotiators to reach agreement with Jammeh, the day before, the drums of war started to be beaten with ferocity. Most of the strongest men and women from The Gambia and outside the nation were smashing them with all their energy. The strongest muscles were descending on them! “Attack! Attack!” the chorus went, as in a match of gladiators. Yahya Jammeh had again given his enemies the opportunity they had been looking for for almost 23 years – get his head!

I received a message the next day from a nephew: “A military strike is imminent in the next 24-48 hours!” That was what I never wanted to hear, just what I never wanted to hear! Nobody seemed to be listening to my call for a peaceful solution to the deadlock! In search of shoulders to cry on, I wrote to my family and friends:

My dear family and friends,

I was told by some of you yesterday that military action is imminent within the next 48 hours; this means within the next 24 hours! As military action becomes imminent, should we stop praying for peace? NO! Unless we hear the sound of gunfire, we must not!


However, we must NOT pray for peace, whilst our hearts are calling for war; that is like Jammeh saying he believes in Allah (SWT) whilst challenging His Will and subjecting his nation to the possibility of unnecessary bloodshed.


I have no doubt that Jammeh’s Presidency is over, by the Will of God. God always shows us His Signs, but we are often too blind to see them. All those who are clamouring for military intervention seem unable to understand or accept that even without this, Insha Allah Yahya would go after the 19th. So why shed innocent blood for what is inevitable? As I had stated before, what we are seeing now are the last kicks of a dying horse. So why should we shoot a dying horse and risk killing innocent bystanders?


I have done and I am doing my part. I have and continue to pray. I have written and my stories have reached the apex of ECOWAS. Last night, I wrote to two friends of Yahya (one a head of state), both of whom I have met outside The Gambia. I believe he may listen to them IF they accept my request to reason with him. I am yet to get a response. I have even tried to contact Yahya directly, but was again told not to!


I have and continue to do what I can to seek a peaceful end to this crisis, which unfortunately Jammeh’s recalcitrance is making impossible, only FOR NOW.


I wish to ask all of you to continue with prayer and patience from YOUR HEARTS. Use the famous Mandinka dua: ALLAH MANG NTANKALA KATA NING KATA TO’OLLA!”


Difficult to translate, but I think it means: “May Allah (SWT) Protect us against trouble and trouble makers!” AMEEN YAA RABBIL AALAMEEN!


Searching for (in)justice

Very shortly afterward, I got an audio by WhatsApp from a friend. It was a recording of Jammeh and the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Chairperson of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS. Jammeh’s voice sounded desperate. I immediately felt like doing something. I thought he was sincere about what he was asking for – the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.

In “The King II” I had thought that this could be his way of putting the pieces together and exiting peacefully. If I could help, through my contacts who had the power to intervene, directly or indirectly, and send judges to The Gambia immediately, the President might take the opportunity of the verdict to step down. He might announce that he had exercised his rights and all that he wanted was justice. I could not imagine the Court ruling in his favour, with all the available evidence, and I did not think that that was the President’s objective either.  I was to be proven wrong.

My scramble For peace

“Before my nephew Muhammed accuses me of only praying (“I believe in prayer and deeds,” he wrote in “The King II”), I better get up,” I told myself.  “After all, even heaven is attained by both.”

I wrote to a friend of mine, an influential former Mauritanian Minister:

Blood may be about to be shed, unnecessarily! As you may be aware, talks have again broken down between Jammeh and ECOWAS. ECOWAS, with the full support of the UN, AU and the rest of the international community are dead serious about launching a military strike. They are saying that the inauguration must take place on the 19th. Please consider asking President Aziz to offer to mediate. Here lies a great opportunity to help.

I wrote to a Sheikh I knew was close to Jammeh:

As- Salaam Alaikum Sheikh,

I hope that, by the Will of Allah (SWT), that you and your family and all those who work with you are within the “Rahma” of Allah (Subhanahu Wa ta’Ala).  


I am writing with regard to the events in The Gambia, which you may be following. The President may be about to bring disaster on himself and his country and I am wondering if you can reason with him. The forces of ECOWAS, backed by the international community, are preparing to intervene militarily in The Gambia because all the negotiations with him have failed, after his rejection of the recent election results.


I am writing to you as a man of wisdom and as someone who knows him well. What he is doing does not serve the cause of Islam, his own interest or that of his country. I am a Gambian without political affiliation, objectively following the truth, whilst seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in my country and peace in our world.


Jazzak Allahu Khairan!


Then I sent a message to my best hope for immediate attention, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, through a good mutual friend of ours. “This may be just what he is looking for!” I wrote. “When can we talk?”

I met Mrs Johnson Sirleaf about 21 years ago (time flies, especially when you are getting older!), in New York city and then in Abidjan. She impressed me with her calm, cool and collected personality. She was then Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the UNDP and I was running a continent-wide African business organization which had a zero balance in its bank account. That was the most challenging professional experience I have ever gone through. One day in Accra, during the first UN-sponsored pan-African investment conference of its kind, which I initiated and coordinated, I unhappily murmured to a Camerounian friend called Ahmad. He responded: “When God is helping you, He sometimes puts a big obstacle on your way. If you cross it, everything else would become easy.” I was 20 years younger then and 20 years less intelligent about life, so I had nothing to say, except “nothing to say!” If it was today, it would be: “Thank you for your wisdom!”

Mrs Johnson Sirleaf never wasted words and her calculated decisiveness was written all over her face. I can still see her in Abidjan; seated at a desk, patiently, whilst her Assistant (Evets) and the rest of us wiggled and bumped our heads with each other.

I was confident that she would do something, because she was seriously committed to peace in The Gambia, although Jammeh’s refusal to budge was making her mission impossible. Buhari must have been fed up with Jammeh. The Nigerian House of Representatives had made an asylum offer to my President which he ignored. Buhari, being a soldier (former General), older man and President of Nigeria  might already be preparing to teach Jammeh a lesson; force him to realize that he was but a former army lieutenant and President of the smallest country on the continent. Maybe to even enforce the traditional African  respect for big brothers. Sall might be in a hurry to settle a score over the Casamance rebel issue; a dream come true! As a former President, Mahama did not have any muscle to flex, although he was of great symbolic importance in the negotiation process. In contrast, Mrs Johnson had many things in her favour, including patience.

I did not hear from my Mauritanian friend and the Sheikh, but Evets replied almost immediately and said he was ready for a call. He told me that the judges had decided not to go to The Gambia. When I persisted, he assured me that he would try his best and come back to me. I knew he was serious.


Then came the bombshell! My friend, Mustapha, and nephew, Sarg, told me that Jammeh had recorded Mrs  Johnson Sirleaf, without her knowledge. I felt disgraced. Shortly afterward, I received a statement by her Press Secretary, and later in the evening the President herself was on the BBC’s Focus on Africa, expressing her disappointment at what had transpired.

I gave up! There, was a man I was indirectly trying to help, in directly trying to help my country, but he would not let me. It did not make sense to me! Was my outgoing President going out of office, going out of his mind or going out of both? My family and friends had told me that I was wasting my time. I persisted because of the thought of external military intervention and its potential consequences in our beloved country. I have seen too many military interventions gone wrong in this world. With all the military might nations today possess our world is not safer than it was 50 years ago; in fact it has become less safe, because of violence and counter violence.

A few days earlier, I had asked an uncle again if he thought it was a good idea for me to call Jammeh. Understandably, most Gambians were furious and terrified, even my uncle. They seemed ready to make any sacrifice to get rid of a dying horse that was making its last kicks and provoking them to lose a peace they must treasure. No one seemed interested in listening to the son of Foni, nephew of Kiang and grandson of Niumi.  My uncle replied: “Yes, but only to greet him. Never ask him to step down, because he would consider you an enemy!”

“To call just to say “Ka soomaayi?”, dear uncle?” I gave up again!  I could see the war mongers in the social media laughing at, and telling, me what my brother, Yusu, had already told me: “I told you!”

What could I do? I could only beg God and try to talk to my fellow men and women. I had done these. I must give up talking and turn to prayer again as in the pre-election period. Jammeh was upsetting even the peace seekers. Was the ugly Shaytaan having a ball with him? Telling him directly, or through those he trusted, that he could rule for an imaginary “billion years”? Telling him that the ECOWAS threat was only a bluff and an imagination and that the “billion years” were the reality?

After the celebrations

AlhamdoulilLah, it has ended well. The swearing-in of our newly-elected President happened in Dakar as Mustapha had predicted. Jammeh has left, gone to a country where no one had expected him to go. Even in his last moments he terrified Gambians with an image that he was eternal and convinced the international community that he was more powerful than he actually was. Few people realized that about 95% of his army were actually not supporting him, according to sources within the army itself.

Most Gambians may never be able to fully appreciate how fortunate we were that a war did not break out. We could have become Rwanda, if the  Jolas had risen up against the other “tribes”.  We could have been less than Rwanda but still a very bloody mess, if even 100 determined state house guards or 100 Casamance rebels and mercenaries had seriously confronted the ECOWAS troops on Gambian territory or decided to cause havoc in the civilian population. We could have, but did not because, as Stephen See, a prominent American business man with investments in many African countries, saw it: “Prayers work!” Yes, our prayers were accepted, efforts blessed and peace overcame violence. Never in the history of ECOWAS had anything like this happened. Those who have even basic understanding of the history of military intervention worldwide know that things can go wrong even in the most unlikely scenario with good intentions and the most unequal military antagonists. Have you heard of OPERATION RESTORE HOPE in Somalia in 1992? Therefore, we must never rush for military action as far as there is a chance for peace and to save innocent lives.

We have survived nearly 23 years of the terrible side of the Jammeh era. We must be grateful to God and celebrate, but in celebrating we must not forget that what lies ahead may be equally challenging. Our country has emerged physically intact as I had hoped, but would The Gambians stay intact? I suspect they may not be for some time, after the celebrations. The faults are already appearing in the nation, but the long term would remain bright if we remain grateful for what we have and what we have come out of.

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