22nd July: A Gambian under Jammeh’s rule

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By Aisha Dabo

Today 22nd July, President Yahya Jammeh leads celebration for the twentieth anniversary of his coming into power in The Gambia. In 1994, the fresh faced and emaciated lieutenant led an army insurrection which quickly morphed into a coup and dislodged the sit-tight civilian administration.
After a two year transition, the Second Republic of this former British colony was born.
Still growing up in the First Republic, I won’t be doing justice trying to explore the days of the old regime. But of the Jammeh regime, I can talk about…if not for anything….Jammeh has overstayed, the number of coups “real or fake” that he has foiled is enough indication.

Twenty years is a long time if not a generation and Jammeh’s metamorphosis from the titles of lieutenant, captain, Rtd Colonel to Sheikh Professor Doctor, Nasirul Deen Yahya Abdul Aziz Junkung Jemus Jammeh shows just how far Gambia has come with their ruler….. Ah yes I forget to add His Excellency and “Babili Mansa” for his prowess in banishing demons to make way for a bridge.

The breathtaking length of honorary pompous designations is enough proof of the man’s love for titles, some intriguing – others fake, like the Barack Obama award which caused some embarrassment to the government.
It’s celebration time for his temporary “supporters”…yes “temporary” until he arrests, abuses or jails them… Whether there is just cause for raising a high five is obviously not so justifiable for many others.
The man has become known around the world for castigating the west for its neocolonial and patronising relation with Africa, throwing brutal swipes at homosexuals, journalists, human rights activists even branding them the illegitimates of Africa.

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He unashamedly wears his dictator tag with a proud spring in his step, beating his chest and calling himself “a dictator for development”…..whatever that means.
No one will deny some infrastructure development has come to Gambia during his rule but I leave the pleasure and privilege to delve in Jammeh’s developmental feats to his APRC minions and supporters.
Referred to as the “revolution” by its apologists, the 22nd July had been competing for attention with the 18th February Independence Day. At some point the day which gave birth to the nation paled into insignificance, becoming a meaningless pastime…an attempt that seemed more like trying to rewrite or erase a nation’s past.

Over the years, the distinction between the executive, legislature and judicial arms of governance has become blurred to a point where it is virtually nonexistent.
As a demonstration of his powers, Jammeh appoints and sacks speakers, appoints and sacks judges, magistrates, and civil servants. It’s a one man show, with Jammeh as lead character of course.
Issues regarding the ruling APRC, Jammeh’s businesses, are all run using state machinery. From 1994 when he had no money in his account, Jammeh has become so wealthy that he donates to the state, funds state projects. In reality….He is the State and the State is him. No surprise if he is crowned king one day, as some parliamentarians are suggesting.

The Gambia obviously has a Constitution that obviously recognises basic rights. The country adhered to many international protocols and conventions as well but that doesn’t guarantee rule of law. It has become known as the “State of Fear”, an open prison etc
Just a reminder, the Gambia was considered a beacon of stability and an oasis for human rights in a post-independence Africa where rights were a misnomer. Banjul was for good purposes home to the African commission for human and peoples’ rights… then.

Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh is God-sent. He can cure AIDS, diabetes, cancer, barrenness, hypertension and other disease of the body, mind and soul. You just name it….but he can’t cure Ebola. Don’t blame him; the disease is foreign to West Africa.
I served a one jail term for holding a “microphone to the public without a permit”
I was tried for giving false information to a public servant because I took the pain of writing to the president about a “DREAM” I had.

I was given life imprisonment for printing t-shirts with the refrain “End Dictatorship Now” and “Freedom”. One of my co-accused Micheal Ucheh Thomas died in detention.
I have been remanded in custody for over a decade, now I am resigned to my ultimate fate of dying in prison.
I was accused of masterminding a coup and I have since mysteriously disappeared along with five of my supposed co-conspirators following a car accident when being transferred to a jailhouse in a place called Janjangbureh.

I have been sentenced to death with others for a coup I helped foil
I was harassed, pursued, detained then tried as an opposition youth for holding a meeting in my neighbourhood.

After the state decided that I should have no independent floor to vent to my head and heartaches by closing down newspapers and radio stations, I resorted to the internet.
Few years later, the hawks struck with an anti-internet law under which I could be jailed for 15 years or fined for “frivolities” even if I am outside the country’s jurisdiction.
I was fined and with possibility of a one-year jail term hanging over my head for sharing with the world through Skype details about opposition rallies, “without a broadcasting license”…. Well…I didn’t know I needed one when using VoIP…thought that was the media’s “priviledge”, but they will say ignorance of the law is no excuse.

I could be detained for months without trial…again the system knows when its right for me to appear before a court of law…… you know there lots of things to consider: do I have black eye etc.
I was forced to drink dirty concoctions during a state-sponsored witch-hunt. But don’t blame the Almighty State for taking me hundreds of years back to the inquisition period. It has it benefits for I know I am no witch… for those declared so…well they were exorcised…..for free.

And there was more!
I was maimed, abused during a student protest, some of us got killed for protesting the torture to death of one of us and the rape of another by state hired guns.
Now, cowed and silenced, I whisper even in the relative safety of my room. But I don’t trust my brother, sister, father because they could be hired informants ready to overlook blood and turn me in to the secret service for expressing a nonconformist opinion.

I think….. of course I think I have a brain and free will… but I avoid letting my thoughts beyond my membrane. Having negative or dissenting thoughts about the president and his regime is suicidal because Jammeh has supernatural powers and can hear them….

Hey being arrested for an interview or dragged to court for refusing to have the president’s photo pasted on MY CAR is nothing comparing to incommunicado disappearances, torture, my rights….
Rights? Do I even have rights? ….oh yes I do when I dance to the tune of power… but again I don’t need freedom of speech as the government speaks for me,
I don’t need freedom of assembly because the state knows when to summon me to a meeting or be a cheerer outdoing others like me under the hot sun to wave at passing motorcade….My benefit? Sweet biscuits he throws at us as his hummer past….uhmmmm… Nothing tastes like those biscuits given my eating is reduced to one paltry meal a day.

I don’t care about all the accidents or the deaths that the scramble for biscuits causes.
I love the state-sponsored parties in Banjul, at the beach and the festivals in Kanilai. I love my president; he pays for me to have a great time plying me with free food, free drink and the lot.
I have at least one relative, like most citizens, who was arrested for no apparent reason, tortured.
When the person is released he/she is maimed for life or comes home to die….when the family is not lucky we never see the person again.
I didn’t budge when nine death row inmates were executed just after the Ramadan, a period of repentance…but hey… H.E. knows best.

We all accept he is closer to God. Remember he is a Sheikh, a Nasirul Deen (protector of the faith).
I was arrested and charged for requesting a police permit to hold a peaceful protest against those executions.
I offer free labour by working on HE’s farm every year. He saved me from all the wrongs of the post-independence old guards and I should show my gratitude by slaving for him.
I am jobless; my only option is to migrate to Europe. You know me… I chose the “backway”… you have read my story over and over again.

I have died in the Sahara desert many times over after being abandoned by those Godforsaken smugglers.
When I was lucky enough to reach Libya, I was kidnapped and a ransom for my release was placed on my poor parents’ heads.
When I don’t die in Libya, I wait to die in the Mediterranean either because smugglers threw me at sea, then I realise I can’t swim…. or asphyxiated by the smoke of the boat’s engine.
When I reach Italy, I wait for months in an overpopulated centre, hoping my case will be given some attention; when that does not come to pass I am bundled back home.
Now I sit idly by brewing Chinese tea “attaya”, listening to reggae which sharpens my anger at everyone and everything in sight.

From someone afar, all such occurrences are laughable at some point, 1.8 million taken hostage by one man….and in the 21st century…. *This man would have been a perfect fit in the immediate post-independence Africa. He must have missed his time (no pun intended).*
The Gambia is nicknamed « the smiling coast » but I doubt I have and had anything to smile about or celebrate for the past 20 years.

While, I complain silently on these streets, hundreds believe it’s the price to pay for “development”
They are celebrating the God-sent Saviour of the land whose revolution provided the magic wand which developed the country and ushered it on the path to becoming “the Silicon valley or Dubai of Africa” in a few light years by just having four days working week….yes..Miracle do happen
And when I come to die, knowingly I will never be buried in The Gambia as a fitting “illegitimate son/daughter”
“When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right” Victor Hugo.

This was first published in 2014

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