Reflections on Gambia

You know you must be suffering under cataclysmically bad leadership when you find yourself looking back on a past president and discovering yourself grateful for the awful things he didn’t do to your country or in its name.

I’m finding myself these days wanting to write thank you notes to all kinds of people for whom I’ve never harbored a shred of admiration before. Dawda Jawara is one of those people. Looking back, the Gambia under Sir Dawda was a heck of a place to live in. Peaceful and yes prosperous by today’s standards.

Yes, there were constitutional crises in there, along with corrupt deals and a coup stage by Kukoi that end up destroying lives and livelihoods. But now after living under the current president, I discover a reluctant gratitude to the leaders of yore.

Twelve years ago, I was in my communal home in Fagikunda when Yahya Jammeh and his junta took over the government. At the time, I was on summer break from my sixth form studies. I felt a sense of despair about the event even then. Notwithstanding my belief that Sir dawda’s prolonged grip on power is detrimental to good governance, the track record of coupist in West Africa hasn’t been stellar either. Their rhetoric on taking over is not followed up by their actions. Even at that tender age, I have seen enough examples in the sub region to know that the soldiers with a difference moniker touted by the AFPRC junta is nothing but hooey.

Fast forward to the year 2006. Here I am: after a decade of living in the United States, and three years since I last set foot on Gambian soil, witnessing the inauguration of Yahya Jammeh for his third take at the presidency.

As my friends and I watched the pomp of Yahya’s Inauguration on television, the sense that returning to United States was somehow abandoning my country during a time when it needed activists more than ever grew palpable. It was both frustrating and pathetic to think the likes of Ousainou Darbo and Halifa Sallah are the only ones left trying to fight back against what seemed to be an almost unstoppable rising tide of Jammehism in the Gambia. When I voiced my concern to my younger brother Ebrima, he smacked me on the back of the head and said something to the effect of “are you crazy? Get out of here while you still can.”

Get out of here seems to be the only pursuit of most Gambian youth these days. The patriotic fervor and the ingenuity it fosters in citizens to toil and make their political entities a happy and prosperous place has been zapped from most Gambian youth. Growing up, I have been lectured that a good education is all I needed to live a better life. I took it to heart, studied hard and to this day I still harbor a great deal of respect for Kebba Jadama (my first grade teacher) who sacrificed his time and taught village kids like yours truly the intricacies of the English alphabet without getting paid for it.

These days the advice to get a good education is secondary to the pursuit of making a passage to the west. When elders pray in mosques, you don’t hear them asking for a better education system, instead they pray for the opportunity to have their kids make it to the Promised Land (Europe and the United States). We have come from a society that value education to one that fancy and pray for the departure of its human capital to foreign shores. That is what twelve years of Jammehism has wrought on the Gambia: a despaired and destitute citizenry whose only resort is send their young ones in rickety boats across the ocean hoping that they will make it to Europe and make life easier for those left behind with the remittances they send back.

Jammeh apologist will always point to the “development projects” his government has instituted since 1994. They will talk at length about the television station, the coastal and north bank roads. This is pure unadulterated nonsense. What else is he supposed to be doing? If you travel on the Brikama- Basse highway like I did on my recent trip, you will be amaze at the disrepair that has befallen the once mighty trans-Gambia highway. It is a sad case study in irresponsible governance.

If you watch the pomp and pageantry of yahya’s inauguration, the multi million dollar extravaganza that follows: be it the free Youssou Ndour show or the McCarthy Square gala where our boy king (Yahya) was dancing like a kid in a candy store, you wouldn’t know that thousands of his country men are struggling day in and out to get a square meal. Our braggart of a president was also sound engineer on that fateful day. He kept walking from his seat to check on the sound system the type of which he claimed doesn’t exist on the African continent. In fact if you believe Yahya only four of its kind exist in this world and he is the proud owner of one. The best part of his con game is when he claimed to have purchased the system for the youth. I couldn’t help but yell bullshit at the TV.

That in essence is what the Gambia has degenerated into. The government is synonymous with Yahya. Taxpayer funded projects are Yahya’s projects. All you hear is Yahya did this, Yahya did that. It makes one wonder what good is the Gambia government?

Opposition politics is virtually dead on the ground. Granted there are thousands of people who oppose Yahya with a vengeance, but the leadership and organization to make it a viable force to reckon with is lacking. The opposition parties are electioneering entities. What we need to counter Jammehism is a movement and nobody is offering Gambians that kind of radical shift. Instead what we have is half ass election year politicians and in the intervening years they are dormant. PDOIS came close to a movement but they are too dogmatic. You’ve got to win first in a society like the Gambia before people start listening to you. Educating them when someone else has a larger microphone to drown you out with will not get you far. And that has been what plague PDOIS from the jump-start.

With hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth daydreaming about making it to Babylon (Europe and US), an explosive situation is brewing in the country. It is a dangerous and flammable issue that needs concrete policies to solve and not the infantile demagoguery of Yahya Jammeh. He kept harping about working on youth issues, but thousands of them, semi educated and distraught roam the streets of urban Gambia with no plausible plans for the future. Our only hope for security is to pray that no sinister elements get through to them, because that would be catastrophic in consequences.

A new bourgeois class is burgeoning in the country. The old money learned to cope and lay low. They (old class) still possess most of the valuable pieces of property in the Gambia. They are mostly anti establishment, but the terror that comes with publicly opposing the king of Kanilai is too much of a bargain for most.

There is a construction boom going on. Almost all of the money behind comes in the form of remittances from those living abroad. No wonder every Gambian wants to send their kids abroad. Living and working in the Gambia (unless you are part of the bourgeois gang) will enable you to hardly feed your family not to think of building a house.

My Gambia trip is a mix bag of emotions. On one hand I was happy to see my family and friends again and enjoy that warm Gambian hospitality. But at the same time feel sad at the deplorable economic environment that most of my countrymen live in.


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