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A Gambian kaleidoscope

A Gambian kaleidoscope

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Gambians are preparing for what is bound to be a historic presidential election. Historic in the fact that from 1995 to 2016, Gambians knew nothing but tense and volatile elections. Most Gambians under the age of 30 would tell you that green is the colour they associate most with Gambian politics.

It’s the party colour of the then autocratic APRC and has dominated our public media space under the leadership of Yahya Jammeh from 1994 to 2016. Not that there weren’t other political parties, it’s just that Jammeh’s grip on the local traditional media meant that up until 15 years ago with the advent of social networks, most Gambians consumed heavily moderated state-controlled media content.

The upcoming December 2021 presidential election has given us a rainbow – a true blessing as the rainbow is. In 2016, the tides changed with the creation of Coalition 2016, choosing the colour gray as their organisation colour. The coalition comprised seven political parties: UDP, PDOIS, NRP, PPP, NCP, GMC, GPDP and the Inter-Party Coordination and Unification Committee (IPCOU). And two independent National Assembly Members, Committee for Democratization, Sustainable Peace and Development (CDSPD), and other civil society organisations.

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After many failed attempts to beat Jammeh at the polls, the parties realised their strength was in a collective strive, not individualist aspirations. This was truly a national and diaspora effort to free The Gambia from one of its most brutal sons and has become a bookcase example of how to peacefully uproot a dictatorship.

The diaspora component, in particular, was crucial in the struggle by exposing and amplifying the voices of dissent due to the repressive nature of the then toxic political environment. Activist and media organisations such as DUGA, GDF, GYU, Coalition for Change, Freedom Radio, Gainako, Diasporium, The Gambian Echo, The Fatou Network and many others contributed immensely towards our freedom.

In December 2016, a new inconspicuous and achromatic shade of gray beamed through, riding on the coattails of a very inexperienced but lucky leader, Adama Barrow, a former UDP member, who won 43% of the votes under the Coalition 2016 ticket. It was the Italian polymath and painter, Leonardo da Vinci who stated, “A gray day provides the best light” and Coalition 2016 did just that for all Gambians.

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Collectively as a nation, we happily applauded for anyone but Jammeh. Anyone but a king wannabe, we said. There was a national high and international benevolence. The Gambia became the world’s darling overnight. The seemingly dull gray folks pushed out the vibrant and boisterous green party out of office.

In retrospect, the gray of Coalition 2016, synonymous with our second liberation (first was from colonialism) mirrored our grim national mood. According to psychology, we think of gray as solemn. It’s not a colour of extremes, but rather of middle ground, of reasonable agreement. The dull nature of the Coalition 2016 colour itself and its unassuming methods kept the nation guessing its possibility to succeed and had us all on the edge of our seats. Coalition 2016 became a mockery magnet for Jammeh. He underestimated the gray folks – to his detriment.

Three years into office, the mysterious and shady nature of the colour gray rubbed off Coalition 2016’s flag-bearer, President Adama Barrow. The man whose now party colour, gray is nowhere on the rainbow spectrum, slid his way through the rainbow positioning himself as a player – a stranger imposing himself on historic dominant party colours, Brown (PDOIS), yellow (UDP), blue (NRP), former blue now pink (PPP), and purple (GDC).

President Barrow subliminally hijacked Coalition 2016 by taking most of its members from other parties and then took their colours as his now party, National People’s Party’s official party colour. Gray too became a big boy overnight in Gambian politics, showcasing that President Barrow must not be underestimated.

Just as power emboldened President Barrow, freedom too emboldened Gambians. It took only a few months of President Barrow being in office for new political parties to pop up. The political party colour struggle began with the mushrooming of dozens of new parties due to our newfound freedom. During the presidential nomination process in October 2021, 26 presidential aspirates submitted their applications but only six parties NPP, NUP, PDOIS, UDP, GDC, and one independent candidate qualified on 4th November 2021.

Colours colliding

Gambians under the age of 30 most likely do not remember presidential elections this boisterous, emotional and exciting. Gambians are free once more to express themselves sans reserve. The cacophony on social media is at fever pitch. The debates, insults, arguments and absurd tribal divide have taken over the Gambia media space. Each party is aggressively selling its agenda with most parties being unreserved in their opposing tactics. Gambians are blinded by team gray, team yellow, team red, team blue and white, team orange, and team purple. Sentiments are raw as we towards elections (tomorrow). The media blitz is both entertaining and captivating for an audience that had only been accustomed to seeing APRC’s green dominate the media space during elections. These elections are very different due to their kaleidoscopic nature. Each party is busy churning out its spiel justifying why we should favour it:

◊ Team Essa Faal, the independent candidate with his accomplished local and diaspora strategy team is acting superstar and promises to be the saviour that will uplift us from deep stagnation. The newie high-flying, highly strung (as proven by his nomination transport fiasco speech) politician is paddling his way into the belly of the country to share his message. He too wants us to give him a chance to turn around our country as their campaign slogan states. His supporters are young, energetic and ready for system change.

◊ GDC’s flamboyant Mamma Kandeh is busy attacking the incumbent on his ‘ineffectiveness’ and his naxanteh (deceiving) politics. Both Barrow and Kandeh have been calling for a so-called unification of Gambians via a very dangerous and sly strategy — by going to bed with the APRC camp. Both men have bitterly split up the APRC cake to their benefit, under the disguise of a ‘unified’ Gambia. If any party understands showmanship, it is GDC.

Their leader, Kandeh understands the power of the media better than PDOIS and UDP, as he was heavily visible and available to the press pre-2016. This might also be because Kandeh had more liberty than PDOIS and UDP hence the mainstream suspicion that he was always Yahya Jammeh’s proxy.

◊ PDOIS’ Halifa Sallah is talking directly to Gambians for a chance to deliver a credible and socially-inclusive government with his cogent arguments. They too have not been left behind in media framing. They have young influential faces trying very hard to showcase a less rigid party that will be for all Gambians while trying to debunk the notion that they will not turn us into a socialist state, as the socialism stigma is generally associated with PDOIS. Their poverty eradication focus is one we have heard plenty of times from politicians yet to be in the system – once in, they soon realise that it’s a herculean task that many end up quitting.

Does PDOIS have what it takes to uplift Gambians’ socio-economic status in five years, since Sallah claims to only want to serve one term? The ‘conscience’ of Gambian politics has been busy adding new PDOIS members to his steadfast supporter base due to his party’s new mainstream communication strategy. One must confess that he is one of our politicians whose rhetoric has been most consistent – even if he scares plenty with his sometimes rigid manner.

◊ NPP’s emboldened incumbent president is flexing his muscle by constantly attacking his famaa (godfather, Darboe), endlessly calling on him to retire. His party has been continuously bombarding us with manifested infrastructure development videos forgetting about the Coalition 2016 promises that got him into office. His media handlers are trying to portray a man on a mission to turn The Gambia into a first-world country overnight, missing out on the human impact he has had on the lives of the average Gambian since he came into office. We want to know how he will curb the disastrous infant, maternal mortality rate in our country. We want to know when we can enjoy constant electricity like our Senegalese neighbours. We want to know how he is dealing with corruption issues in government. Mr President, we want to know how you will impact our lives beyond concrete and asphalt. We do not need a constant reminder of how you ‘saved’ us all from Jammeh in 2016. That is behind us. We need you to look forward. Mr President, hubris is a deadly trap. Please bring down the temperature for our national unity and cohesion.

◊ UDP’s Ousainu Darboe is calling out President Barrow on his ‘corrupt’ and inept ways and trying to convince Gambians that UDP is truly not a Mandinka party due to its ethnically diverse executive and membership. As he crisscrosses the country discussing his 5-Point Agenda, some of his staunchest militants are busy destroying his strides by foolishly boycotting media houses and personalities. Their media strategists and social media troopers are passionate and force-feeding us a new image of him – a softer, friendlier and agile Darboe. A man who we must give a chance to prove to us just how much he loves The Gambia. A man whose handlers say, paid the highest price in the fight for our freedom due to the forfeiting of his properties, the damaging of his lucrative law practice, and his eventual imprisonment by Jammeh’s jungle court.

A price many Gambians have paid as well during Jammeh’s repressive rule. Many believe that individuals such as Ousman ‘Koro’ Ceesay, Solo Sandeng, Ebrima ‘Chief’ Manneh, Alhagie Mamut Ceesay, Ebou Jobe, the 50 plus migrants massacred, and many more Gambians and non-Gambians Jammeh murdered, maimed, castrated, raped and psychologically tortured have all paid the ultimate price.

◊ NUP’s Abdoulie Jammeh, the dark horse as he is being called is a newie politician. This man who kept his cards close to his heart surprised all by breezing through the nomination process and beating out better known or heavier branded parties. The boy from Satay-Baa (slang for Brikama) really shook Kairaba Avenue. NUP is silently making strides in their western region base, which can be a spoiler for both UDP and NPP. As the local saying goes, he has truly thrown sand in the big boy’s chereh.

Looking back at the last five years, The Gambia has transformed into a better place for most of us, or at least for the people who are still not yearning for Yahya Jammeh’s return. There is an undeniable fact we are more at ease in our country. We feel that we can finally participate politically without retribution.

Whether the government is dealing appropriately with internal insecurity, the flourishing of blatant corruption, harnessing a thriving economy, putting in place a solid healthcare and education system, among other pertinent issues, that is another argument. What is for sure is, we finally have our individual liberties back. Now we can share and post photos of our candidates of choice on our social networks giving the Gambian social media space a rainbow effect without repression.

As we go to the voting booths tomorrow with our beloved marbles in hand, it will be a proud moment to delight our eyes on the array of colourful metal boxes painted orange, red, blue and white, yellow, purple, and gray. We have prayed for decades for a day like this; a day we can have options to drop our marbles into any box of our choice and then freely discuss our choices when we get home, without worrying about the Jammeh informal informants made up of our maids, gardeners, drivers and even neighbours.

Come December 5th, our new president is expected to peel himself off his party colour and embrace us all as Gambians, even if we did not vote for him. We envisage a leader who will allow us to weave our colourful expectations on our national fabric he is to safeguard.

The author is founder of MakalliMatta Consulting, a global communications firm based in The Gambia and Senegal.

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