A GIANT AT REST
Scripting pages of booming accolades in memory of Comrade Ousman Manjang should be a humbling walk in spite of the involvement of the parallel processes of trying to contain the enormity of the loss to us all as well as the task of providing an index of the meaning of that named loss. But Ousman Manjang’s life, his struggles, his quests were essentially about how to transform loss into a renewed passion for life; about how to transform individual catastrophe into a call for collective solidarity. Ousman Manjang’s entire life was one long battle for transformative progress for all oppressed people, particularly for Africans and people of African descent everywhere. It was a life quilted with ceaseless bouts, of incessant fagging at seemingly unyielding obstacles; of scaling endless waves of misrepresentations and misappropriations; all of which bear witness to his dedication to liberationist ideals, to his tenacity as a revolutionary, to his love for the freedom of the oppressed, the voiceless and the marginalized. Ousman Manjang’s ease of pace, his disarming simplicity, his empowering camaraderie, his love for people from all walks of life speaks of him as Everyone’s unfailing Brother. Despite his ferocious intelligence and fierce determination, Ousman Manjang remained a huge, calm sea all his life; his voice itself incapable of any range beyond a heavy baritone and bass. The word modest does not sufficiently explain Ousman Manjang’s modesty. In his death, Gambia and all of Africa have lost the authority and wisdom of that special and reassuring voice. He radiated a down-to-earthness and a generosity of spirit that opened his heart and his home to everyone.
Wherever Ousman Manjang lived in Stockholm became a crowded hangout for the general run of Black immigrants: Africans, African Americans, and African-Caribbeans. The late Imam Seydou Nourou Taal used to live under Manjang’s roof while on holidays from Saudi Arabia; but so did the self-made Reverend Collins Leone (from St. Lucia); and in the gulf between the two men of God a steady but constant file of revolutionaries fake and real, intellectuals of varied hews, beer buffs and old junkies, diverse groups of hangers-on found a hearty welcome at Manjang’s. His home was the place you ran to if your husband went rogue, or if your wife tried to crack your head. Ousman Manjang was the person to telephone if you needed a lawyer; if you were unfairly kicked out of your job, if you were a refugee and you needed a coherent story; or if you were a revolutionary soliciting solidarity with your cause. Ousman’s belief in the collective spirit, his constant call to organize, his dedication to community all underscore his lifelong quest for progressive change. His range of interests, his web of connections remains peerless (except perhaps for Gambia’s most famous revolutionary, Momodou Dumo Sarho).
Ousman Manjang’s birth in 1952 to Aja Siginey Corah and Bakary Kuini Manjang coincided with the resurgence of political activity in Banjul spawned by the extension of franchise to the Colony by the British colonial authorities. The Democratic Party of Reverend J.C. Faye founded in 1951, was followed by the coming into existence in 1952 of Ibrahima Garba Jahumpa’s Gambia Muslim Congress and P.S. Njie’s United Party. These produced the mobilization that gradually matured into a nationalist political movement towards Gambia’s attainment of independence in February 1965. The founding of the Protectorate Party (later to become the PPP) in 1960, injected a new dynamism into an already clamorous but lightweight political establishment. Besides the inevitable tidal flow towards self-rule, the emergent ethnic identities of these parties (a consequence of colonial policies) partly provided the impetus for alliance-building, cross-carpeting, horse-trading and clientelist politics as they vied with another to gain footholds in both the Colony and the Protectorate. This was the topography of the political landscape that obtained in The Gambia during Manjang’s formative years in Bathurst of those days.
Although the landscape reeked of the oppressive presence of British colonialism, the tiny Gambian elite that helped run the administration together with the pioneering core of politicians comprised too harmless a group to evoke anything quicker than donkey-cart speed towards anti-colonial transformation. But what the country lacked in rebellious energies its urban youth eagerly absorbed from elsewhere. The waves of militant unrest for self-rule across the continent and the violent struggles against white colonial and racist domination galvanized Gambian youth into a political radicalism that provided fertile soil for the ideology of Left-wing nationalism. This orientation was itself bolstered and reinforced by concrete action in the form of training Gambian teenagers in Nkrumah’s Pioneer schools in Ghana; the activities of the National Youth Council, the spirited surge in the creation of Left-leaning autonomous organizations (The Black Brotherhood, Kent Street Vous, The Tonya movement, and subsequently, The Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Foundation). Ousman Manjang, even as a young teenager was already hawking loose copies of Sechaba in the streets of Banjul with his lifelong friend and comrade, Sulayman Gassama. But more than just that, Ousman Manjang with plucky determination packed a bag and set on the road to go fight alongside the PAIGC in their liberation war against Portuguese colonialist brutality in Guinea-Bissau.
Manjang’s evolution into a thinker and practitioner was certainly fortified by the work of The Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Foundation. Absorbed into the radicalism of the urban youth of the sixties Manjang, like many of his peers, sought theoretical clarity for understanding the processes of social change and development. The continental quest for independence from colonial rule, for freedom, was a pressing and overriding actuality everywhere. But what to do with that freed nation-self once independence was won was a question that commanded equal urgency. Was Gambia, and Africa generally, to disengage from the pillaging colonial capitalist system and embrace instead a socialist system of organizing its economies and social relations? Or were the newly independent states to carve out for themselves indigenous paths to growth and development; paths that were relatively untainted by doctrines founded on Western economic and social history? These questions, general political strands generated by the Afro-European encounter, were to occupy Ousman Manjang’s mind all his life. Thus, “the Foundation” built a library stacked with all manner of books on philosophy, sociology, politics, literature. It started an adult literacy program running night schools, organizing debates and symposia, and consolidated its niche amongst Gambia’s array of radical political organizations. The library doubled as a venue for meetings but perhaps more importantly, as a radicals’ hangout. For Manjang and most of his peers the choice was as clear as noonday. Fundamentally regarding President Dawda Jawara as a pliant Anglophile well versed in Dickens and the ways of empire, and therefore, a culturally molded representation of neocolonial continuity, Manjang and Gassama hit the campaign tracks in the country-side to support independent candidates that vowed to frustrate Jawara’s plans to lead the country after the 1972 general elections. Their vision, buoyed by Maja Sonko’s defeat of the PPP candidate in Lower Ñoomi by-elections several months earlier, was eventually squashed by a resounding PPP victory. Jawara’s lead at the polls and the historically explosive deaths of Matarr Sarr and Saul Samba the following year, were events that consolidated Manjang’s view of Gambia as a neo-colonial state whose bureaucratic and transactional exercise of power were not only divorced from the everyday experiences of the citizens, but were impediments to socio-economic development and democracy.
Having earlier on graduated first from Crab Island and then St. Augustine’s High School, Manjang left Gambia in 1974, first to Sierra Leone and then to Liberia where he worked briefly with socialist ideologues later to become founders of MOJA-Liberia (Movement for Justice in Africa – Liberia) before travelling to Sweden.
Manjang blossomed brilliantly in Sweden. He learned first-hand how Socialist ideas on working-class militancy contra the profiteering drive of industrial magnates were carefully managed by successive Social Democratic governments. Not only were important sectors of the economy state-owned (including banks), but industry was persuaded to endure progressive taxation in order to buffer the state’s coffers financing welfare programs. A healthy, well-educated and skilled workforce provided the best reservoir of social capital upon which industrial growth can be constructed for the long term. He quickly built a network of contacts with progressive minded immigrants from other countries and with friends within Swedish leftist organizations. In 1975, he became a founding-member of the Gambian Organization and its first General Secretary in Stockholm.
Ousman quickly obtained an MSc. Degree in electronics and electrical engineering at Chalmers’ Institute of Technology in Gothenburg completing his final exams at KTH in Stockholm. Instead of taking up employment as any engineering graduate, he agreed with Saul Gassama and Tijan Koro Sallah that they must all return home to found a mass movement of progressives amongst workers and peasants as well as professionals; hoping to mobilize some old comrades from a decade ago to re-engage in mass work. The hope to deliberately build a movement with a true mass base, founded on the idea of erecting an umbrella organization of all kinds of progressives and oppositional elements whose objective was to improve the conditions of wage labourers, unionized workers, teachers, health sector employees, and the peasantry, foundered upon the treacherous and deliberate expansion of that mobilization amongst the Field Forces; a prospect that had been foreseen and proscribed even before they left Sweden for Gambia in 1979.
Barely two years after the founding of MOJA-Gambia, the trio found themselves heading back to Scandinavia, in the traumatic aftermath of the bloody Kukoi Rebellion of July 1981. Back in Stockholm Ousman buried himself in work organizing Gambians, but also engaging in propaganda work that would establish MOJA-G as a relevant political organization within the Gambian polity. The Movement’s first successful propaganda assault on the PPP government was to help produce a documentary with Swedish filmmaker, Lars Westman. Motståndet (The Resistance) exposed corruption and human rights abuses in Gambia, prompting thousands of Swedes to cancel holiday plans for that winter to our country. President Jawara’s government in characteristic frenzy, sent a high-powered delegation headed by the then minster of Justice, Fafa Mbye, to Sweden to protest showing the film.
Ousman honed his writing skills and refined his ideological convictions and political strategies, producing perhaps, his most important ideas in news magazine articles in the 1980s. For Ousman this was akin to a return to the radical tradition in Gambian journalism in which he indulged since his teens in Banjul. Sulayman Gassama and Manjang were frequent visitors to the newspaper houses of both Baa Tarawale and Melville B. Jones in Pignard street; taking a keen interest in the latter’s anti-colonial writing and pro trade-unionist outlook while harrying the former into publishing their anti-establishment write-ups.
Shortly after Manjang resettled in Stockholm, MOJA-G began publication of Balang Baa which was subsequently followed by The Gambia Newsletter (GNL) owned by the Gambian Organization. Both these papers were initially written and edited by Manjang alone before editorial boards were set up. His formidable skills as an agitator were expressed in MOJA’s New Year Messages, pamphlets written in concise and clear prose dwelling on the concrete conditions of “the poor and toiling masses”. It carried messages exposing government corruption and the emptiness of repetitive promises that made only the already rich even wealthier while the poor groundnut farmers were offered promissory notes that continued to dwindle in value. On numerous occasions the pamphlet’s call to fellow Gambians to stay away from attending the Independence Day parades sent jitters to the governing circles causing ministers to take to the air to angrily denounce the “irresponsible lies of exiled terrorists”. The government was indeed unaware that its panicky reactions and denunciations were spreading more fear and mistrust amongst the people than the paper’s instigation alone could merit.
Then Ousman wrote one of his most important articles in GNL in March 1983. Matarr Sarr: The Murder that shook Gambia immediately elevated the status of GNL to a serious news magazine serving the informational needs of newly established communities of Gambian refugees in many European cities. Recent reprints of the article, after more than 30 years (!) in numerous online sites is not just testimony to Ousman’s analytical prowess. It more than anything else promulgated his powers of perception and his ability to uncover the economic motives and power dynamics that inform public policy while at once baring the government’s insidious neo-colonial posturing in propping up foreign business interests to the detriment of the growth of local capital.
This article was followed by the publication in West Africa magazine in April 1984 of his two-part essay Nation-building in The Gambia. If the article on Matarr Sarr jolted Jawara’s government from its alansaroo/takusan slumber, this one was to prod it into hyperactivity. The article explored the root causes of the July 1981 Kukoi rebellion and the Jawara government’s efforts to restore stability, the mismanagement of the External Aid Fund, and pretentious efforts to fight corruption and corrupt practices. Manjang broke down into concrete and tangible detail knotty or otherwise seemingly inscrutable connections within the then murky world of Gambia’s politics of patronage and clientelism; fixing a keen eye on the intricacies of the politics of the powerful lineages of the wolof nobility and its dependent professional castes or ñeeñoo of the urban centers.
The government of President Dawda Jawara went on an insurgency, frantically purchasing loose copies of the magazine at newsstands to “incinerate them out of circulation”. It was a remarkable sort of the violation of the right to freedom of expression, but one could hardly sue the government for buying newsmagazines even if its intentions for doing so were clearly less than honourable. It was, nonetheless, a clear case of how power works to control the narrative of itself while killing ideas it considers dangerous to its reputation and its politics.
These articles were followed by other essays: The Senegambia Confederation – A Marriage of Convenience; The African Left – Crusaders without a Cross; Africa and the Non-capitalist Path to Development. Other articles were to follow after Ousman’s return home to Gambia in 1994.
Over the years Ousman produced numerous materials, although many of his political ideas found expression in interviews and debates published in diverse news magazines. Ousman’s genius consisted of his uncanny ability to tease the central planks of the arguments from competing narratives, exposing the contradictions they fail to harmonize and conflating these with his own arguments.
Ousman was gifted with a mind that thrived everywhere, particularly, in chaotic environments. Back in the days, out of the disarray and papery chaos of unpaginated materials clogging his desk, Ousman would be punching keys of the old typewriter unmindful of distributing tobacco spills and the yellow blotches of palm oil here and there. For Ousman it was always the work, the work that liberates, that needed focus. With an incredible presence of mind and memory, he could crank into print lush and beautiful verse, always with obvious biased authorial intention; politics and literature must serve the interests of marginals and the subaltern. But he never succeeded in completing his literary projects as the claims on his attention especially in the last decade became incredibly huge. Material conditions forced him to postpone personal projects in favour of the political and this, I suspect, is an enormously difficult choice for Third world dissidents dealing with the unresolved contest between the personal and the public; doing work that appeals to one’s psychological and private ambitions (often motivated by fame or personal gain), while requiring to answer to the very public role of serving the needs of the embattled environment, the political struggle; i.e. the contest between Freud and Marx (Jameson, 1986). In his case, Marx always had the upper hand. This was the same reason Ousman Manjang the engineer never actually earned a living as one, bar his half-hearted tenure at the Swedish telecommunications giant Telia in the late 80s. He would complain of the gloomy emptiness he felt in spending nights at hotels in European cities.
In Gambia Ous ran GAMSEM (Gambians For Self-employment), an NGO that provided micro-credit facilities to people in need of financing small businesses and who would not otherwise qualify for bank loans. Although that work made primary demands on his time, he always had his ultimate goals clear: to collectively arrest power from the incontinent hands of a crackpot and establish a democratic order in Gambia. This meant a multi-frontal struggle, giving time and energy to enhance the parliamentary effort at coalition-building while at once attempting to put into practice the idea of constructing peaceful, democratic and progressive alternatives to it, especially because the effort failed in three consecutive election cycles! He was involved in the processes for coalition-building in NAAD, attending meetings as an observer and forging links with individual politicians from different parties. But his life at this point as a revolutionary was to survive and operate within the boundaries set up by tyranny while looking for alliances determined to crush it. Rogues of the tyrant attempted to cease GAMSEM’s assets in a bid to cripple Ousman’s work. Having failed in that monstrosity they still staged a more sinister scheme with an arson attack on his home. Ousman remained defiant and was not deterred by the attempts to liquidate him.
It was after this attempt on his life that he produced one of his major works relating to the creation of a National Front; a strategic outline of programs designed to further isolate the tyranny and expose its occult squads of assassins. The programs, involving key roles for Gambians abroad and the oppositional base of independent candidates, were the outcome of a rationale skeptical of another coalition effort. The ideas, originally designed for limited circulation, were deliberately exposed even before Ous could stitch them together into a final draft. Once again, this was an effort to assemble large sections of the opposition for an onslaught against the APRC tyranny. It was no surprise then that he had been approached by some leading members of the UDP (United Democratic Party) to be flag-bearer for the 2016 coalition whilst Ousainou Darbo was in custody. Citing reasons of health, he politely declined the request.
Ousman’s passion for truth, for a selfless practical search for that social truth, inspires and generates an equally dispassionate bent for revolt, for change, for “steady improvements” in the conditions of the poor and the dispossessed. He dedicated his life to the struggle for liberation, the hope to improve the living conditions of ordinary workers and peasants. He was willing as a young teenager to die so that the people of Guinea-Bissau may live more dignified lives.
Ousman’s legacy of championing the cause for social justice is a struggle that must prevail. Those of us who knew him as an unwavering revolutionary mourn his demise even when we must at once celebrate his life. For his is a life that needs to be emulated; our memory of him must live on. We also hope that Ousman’s death in October reanimates the national conversation on injustice and the dizzying and cloudy vision of power in the Gambia, especially given the ferocious urgency of the age.
We extend our condolences to Hamedou Drammeh and Sajor Jallow acknowledging their support for Ousman these final years and to Sulayman Gassama for the loss of a lifelong brother, a friend and comrade.
We salute all those young men and women of the Independence generation whose lives were exemplars of self-sacrifice and resistance against domination.
We mourn with the family in bearing the weight of this huge grief; and we in all humility, proclaim our acknowledgement of Mariama’s role in her brother’s life; in standing beside him through thorns and storms, suffering harassment and detention in sturdy support and defense of his convictions, his principles, and his work.
We pray and mourn with Kuini, Aja and Mamie.
Rest in Perfect Peace, Alufa!
Momodou S Sidibeh
For Ousman’s Comrades.