In the early afternoon of Sunday January 28, 2018, we walked into President Barrow’s small office in his official residence at State House, Banjul. The meeting was arranged by one of the President’s closest aides in whose company I was. It is our first meeting – ever.
First the obvious: Barrow is a big man both literally and figuratively. Standing side-by side with him, I was dwarfed. Barrow is also a man who is overwhelmed by the mess he has inherited in a country where people have very short memories, and both personal integrity and professional competence are very rare and UNVALUED. To compound his predicament, his options are limited by the small number of educated people who are truly loyal to him. The Gambia is a small country with Big-Country problems!
Walking into that meeting, I didn’t know what to expect quite frankly because as a Diaspora Malang, or Semester, everything I know about Barrow is through others. There is very little info I could bet my life on. The downside of being an UNPAID Voluntary Public Commentator is, even when you want to disengage for personal reasons, some won’t let you. Not a day passes without somebody sending me an audio or video clip that they believe I should comment on. Even during my nearly four-weeks stay in the Gambia, I ran into complete strangers who not only recognize me but want to discuss various issues because of what I wrote about X or Y topic some time ago. The only stranger I could oblige was the resourceful Dr. Palmer of the RVH who gave me a very honest, and insightful assessment of the healthcare situation at our principal public hospital – the kind of help they REALLY need versus the type we in the diaspora often send them, and how things could be done to address issues effectively. This is a topic for another day. The rest of my fans, I had to ask to be excused because god knows not only did I lack the time to engage them, I’m as baffled as they are about many Gambian issues.
Anyhow, there it was that late January afternoon I seated across a small table from the Gambia’s Number One citizen trying to assess him by throwing balls at him figuratively speaking. Much is said and written about Barrow’s style, character, and intelligence. This is understandable because he heads an entire country. However, what would serve us best is to present a holistic picture of the man and the reality he operates in. The Gambia’s foremost Yellow journalist or Tabloidist Pa Ndery Mbai calls him a weakling who is also a dim bulb; Pa Ndery’s main female competitor for the urban market Fatou Camara reinforced this by suggesting Barrow could be sleep-walking through speeches written for him without being the wiser about their content. Even elements within the UDP supposedly loyal to Lawyer Ousainou Darbo (the most baffling anti-Barrow group considering Darbo and co arguably owe their lives to the man,) haven’t spared Barrow. An amateur comedian in Europe who claims to be Mr. Darbo’s grandson, and a few other online characters have been especially vicious in their personal attacks on Barrow for “betraying” Darbo. Too many whacky theories, too much senseless talk devoid of context.
While some of the things said about Barrow are incontrovertible, much of what is thrown at him has to do with frustration-venting by those disappointed their preferred choices lost to him, or angry they’re not appointed to the office they seek. And in typical Gambian fashion, the rest of us are not even bothering to take a good look at the people we want to replace Barrow with. At least three of our current opposition leaders have no business heading any organization because of their moral turpitude (as in verifiable history of dishonesty, decadence, and outright criminality. And some more colorful characters are planning to launch new parties. Yet we are still not paying any attention to this potential danger.
Anyway, if your image of Barrow is based on what you hear from online media, you’ll be really surprise by the man if you get the chance to meet and interact with him directly. I was. The man I met isn’t slow or “clueless” or “weak” as I heard people say about him countless times before our meeting. As usual, the truth is more complicated than such simple adjectives. The biggest surprise for me was how frank Barrow was in our exchange. I didn’t even have to bring up his main deficiencies, he did that himself. Right at the start of our exchange, he said: “Look, at the Coalition Convention, I was the youngest, least educated, and least experienced of all the candidates. Yet I won.” (For the record, Barrow does have more education than Hamat Bah.) If this sounds or comes across as pompous or valedictory, that’s because of lack of imagery.
You see, I was watching his body language as he spoke throughout. The mouth lies easily, the body doesn’t. Barrow wasn’t saying this with the kind of arrogance and chutzpah we’re used to seeing from our leaders in Africa. He was speaking nonchalantly as a regular country boy who has been chosen by fate and saddled with an enormous responsibility he never really sought. He gave me an in-depth rundown of how he came to be UDP candidate. In May 2016, -totally out of the blue, leaders of a UDP chapter in Kombo North first broached the subject of nominating him as the party’s candidate in the December Presidential election as the entire top leadership of the party was in jail at the time. The imprisoned leaders had another candidate in mind. The Kombo group came to their decision as soon as they heard what Barrow had to say at a small private meeting they organized and to which they invited him as Guest speaker. It took him a couple of weeks to consult and convince his immediate family. Knowing the imminent danger he would face, some of his kin tried to persuade him to reject the UDP candidature offer. He ignored them and decided to risk it all by accepting the honor. He went on to become Coalition candidate after receiving the backing of delegates from other opposition parties. This is an abbreviated version.
After nearly two hours of listening to and exchanging views with Barrow, it became obvious to me why he trounced his more experienced colleagues. I believe the phenomenon called Native Intelligence (more than Nativism) played a crucial role. Educated people rely on theories, facts, and resumes to trust others with public office. The illiterate, semi-literate, and unsophisticated rely on gut feelings, emotions, and ‘soul-connections’ to do so. Most Gambians are either illiterate or semi-literate and, in this area, Barrow has tremendous advantage. At close range, he talks straight in simple terms without any pretense and in a self-deprecating way. He also listens carefully to what you have to say with open curiosity making you quickly feel at home with him despite his high office. Without saying so, what comes across is a country man who is at ease with himself and his roots in a way we have never seen before in the Gambia – not from Jawara, and certainly not from Yaya Jammeh. Per his house staff, he hates to eat by himself, or the Toubab way: Barrow shuns the spoon, and likes to eat with his bare hands with family and friends just like he did before becoming President. If the import of this is lost on you, you’re yet to understand the real Gambia! This is a man who will easily connect and bond with most Gambians.
There is much hyper-ventilation these days about Barrow’s ineptitude online or as I now realize, in the Other Gambia. In Online Gambia, Barrow is on life support politically and waiting to be replaced by another coalition to be led by a man named Halifa Sallah who is touted as the best thing to happen to Gambian politics. In the real Gambia, Halifa Sallah is DEAD politically. The next Presidential election will be his political funeral. This might come as a shock to some, but it’s the painful truth. My advice to any doubter is to step out of their comfort zone (the online-obsessed urban Echo Chamber in the Gambia) and ask the average Gambian about the man. The chasm between the two Gambias is wide. Perhaps that’s an allegory of the shameless culture of False Pretense we borrowed from the Senegalese and now engage in mindlessly. However, self-delusion often has unpleasant consequences. Many will realize this in coming elections.
Anyone who tells you that Barrow is the ideal leader we’ve been waiting for is either uninformed or a liar because he is not. Thankfully, the man doesn’t pretend that he is. The fact is, Barrow has serious Style issues he needs to rectify. Even those like myself who have real sympathy for him, feel frustrated by the many UNFORCED ERRORS Barrow makes. Appointing a convicted drug dealer like Musa Suso Adviser? Allowing Jammeh loyalist Sidy Njie near his family? Keeping most of the Pretend-blind folks who helped Yahya Jammeh loot millions of dollars of our money for years on the public payroll? These are things that no one who truly cares for Gambia or Barrow’s own legacy will encourage or defend because these actions are offensive to the conscience and any sense of natural justice. Crooks or moral weaklings who knowingly abetted the looting of the Gambian public till shouldn’t be cuddled by any leader – no matter who they are.
Ultimately, Barrow’s destiny is in his own hands. His opponents are more powerful online than in the real Gambia. More important to me, Barrow is so far as clean as any of the major Gambian politicians currently active. I know this for a fact because I’ve made it my business to go beyond the Headlines and the internet to investigate the background of every single one of the top politicos we have. And god knows given what I know, Barrow is a catholic priest compared to most of the others. My advice to those eager to see his back is to please first do some research on those vying for the top job before endorsing anyone. A “clueless” leader who is honest, modest, and humble enough to be receptive to others’ ideas is much better than a know-it-all egomaniac, or morally degenerate conmen who see high political office only as an avenue to living their fantasy life at public expense. If we’re not careful, we just might end up with such a character. South Africans stampeded an honest man named Thabo Mbeki out of office as President in 2008. Look how wonderful his successor turned out to be!
What cannot be overemphasized is Barrow needs to summon the courage to rid himself of EVERY Yaya Jammeh appointee who heads a public Department or Agency from Security to the Civil Service (Permanent Secretaries, Directors, General Managers.) MOST of these people are simply UNQUALIFIED for the positions they hold! Plus the very notion that you can achieve meaningful change in a new setup by keeping in place those who are the bane of the old order is at best foolish and counter-intuitive. And morally, it deprives one of the justification for initiating the change in the first place. If they’re ethical and competent, how did we land in the mess we are? The incompetence and ineffectiveness in government is mainly due to these people. This is Barrow’s Achilles heel. If he doesn’t act, they’ll be his undoing.