By Amran Gaye
Here is the story as it is told: for a long time, a tyrant ruled over our lands. Wealthy beyond Gambian measure, surrounded by an army of courtiers in the palatial retreat he’d built in his home village, he had merely to point at a fruit on a tree, to paraphrase the Olof proverb, and we would sprint to harvest it for him, so great was his power over us. And so the years piled on his reign, his list of titles growing ever longer, adding more minutes to the evening news, everyone resigned to the fact of his permanence…
But there was trouble brewing. The tyrant’s main method of rule was fear. Fear of saying anything against him. Fear of criticising anything related to him. Fear of openly supporting any other candidate during elections. This fear was well-founded: the tyrant used brutal methods to put down anyone who did not bend a knee, and bragged about it on national TV just to drive the point home. It was very effective: all over the land, and on our radios and TV sets, we saw and heard nothing but an unending stream of adulation and praise for the tyrant, sometimes bordering on worship. His NIA made us believe they had ears in every wall, could turn any relative of yours to snitch against you – so we whispered our fears in the night in close proximity with people we trusted, and in public kept on a game smile and carried on.
But fear has an Achilles heel: its cousin resentment. The more the citizenry were terrorised, the more their resentment grew, even as they put a smile on in public and played along with the party line: that the country was amazing, that soon it would be a “super power”. And it grew and grew, until at last the resentment overcame the fear and, quietly and one by one, the citizens cast their votes against the tyrant, in such large numbers that he lost the presidential election, something unimaginable just five years before.
We all know what happened next: the concession, the retraction, the impasse, and finally the exile.
The tyrant had fallen, the reckoning had begun. And after the reckoning we would build a nation as had never been seen before. Suddenly everything was going to be alright.
At least, that’s how the story is told, as the foundational myth of New Gambia.
But like all foundational myths, it both simplified what came before, ridding it of any nuance, in the service of having a common legend without complications to believe in; and also underestimated what was to come, as if the hardest part was getting rid of the tyrant, and what followed would be relatively easy.
We’ve seen that’s not the case. New Gambia was born inheriting all the liabilities of Jammeh-era Gambia: our electricity issues, our unbelievable amount of foreign debt, the corruption and kickback systems that are so prevalent in our economy, and many other things. A society doesn’t change overnight, and the problem we identified and got rid of was just one of many problems, perhaps the biggest but by no means the only, or even the most dangerous.
Which brings us to this election. I’m sure you’ve watched many political pundits analysing and reanalysing the results, reading present and future signs from them like modern-day soothsayers. There isn’t much I can add to their domain of expertise. So I want to show you instead what I saw this election in Banjul, and what it made me feel.
My brother ran for a councilor seat this year, and I played a part in his campaign. I had returned home from the US only three months previously, and so I had no idea what to expect – my last experience of Gambian politics was Jammeh throwing biscuits out of convoys, and giving heated speeches at rallies promising and threatening in equal measure, while his poor translator scrambled to keep up. In other words when it comes to political theatre, it was more theatre than political, and this was reflected in the abysmal voter engagement, a sense of malaise hanging over the very act of voting: what be the point, when it’s just theatre and the winner has already been determined. This attitude led to a particular cynicism that accompanied all our political discussions and tainted them, slowly poisoning the well of our democracy. As Jammeh himself once memorably put it: he did not campaign for votes to win, but used votes as a barometer to measure which areas wanted development and which didn’t after he’d won.
The first telephone conversation I had with someone, after Jammeh lost, was quite possibly the only real political conversation I’d had with anyone in The Gambia on an international call. So paranoid had the nation become that people feared being tapped and their phone conversations reported. So once it was verified that Jammeh was gone it was as if the floodgates that had held back all our words broke open. Suddenly every Gambian had a political opinion, and didn’t care who could hear it.
And it is invigorating, being able to talk about the future of our motherland and leaders with my friends, siblings, parents and aunts and uncles, people next to me in taxis, beggars, work colleagues and even complete strangers, all of them intelligently engaged in the process with their own chosen candidates and reasons. We all see clearly what’s at stake, and we have regained faith in the electoral system, believing that our choices **will** matter and count.
In my brother’s campaign I did not see just a group of self-centered interests working each to achieve their goal through the candidate. I saw a community – the youth, merr, pa, koto – that came together around a son they had chosen themselves, one who had convinced them even before the campaign began that he was to be trusted, that he would look after their interests and listen to them. And once they had decided he was the one it was almost magical, as egos were cast aside and everyone took on responsibilities to get him elected. A WhatsApp group initially created for planning and logistics soon turned into a community hub, an online version of Box Bar Ward where people checked in and on each other, sent prayers, inspirational messages, news and sometimes even memes and jokes.
I hope my optimism comes through in my description. I am very heartened at the direction we are headed in – politics has not held this level of excitement for the ordinary Gambian citizen in a long time. The closest analog I can think of is another tense political time: our fight for independence. By all accounts it was a thrilling time to be alive, at the dawn of our creation, as we both sought to stand on our own as Gambia, and define what being Gambia even means. I feel that way now – we are on the cusp once more of breaking free and becoming something beautiful, something we will be proud to have left behind for our children, if we only make the right choices.
Which doesn’t mean it’s all nice and peachy. As with other democracies, ours is far from perfect. The connection between politics and money, what is allowed and what is not, is still ill-defined. Not to kick on America while they’re down, but money has played a big part in corrupting their politics, in such an insidious way that it’s become impossible to separate the two. We must learn from cases like this, and implement laws and limits now, at the beginning, when things are still pliant and changeable. It will get increasingly hard to implement them as time goes on and the lawmakers become ever more beholden to wealthy masters, who bankroll their entire campaigns and shower them with gifts.
There are other things we’ll need to figure out as well, such as the nature of power and its relation to our laws, and just how much of it is vested in an office rather than in the person occupying it, a distinction we’ve continued to grapple with. But these are big things that will not fit into a short piece. And as long as we avoid the trap of hubris and learn from our past I am certain we will achieve goals beyond our wildest dreams.
When I left for college I left a broken Gambia, one which suffered terribly under the whip of dictatorship. I returned to this: the birth of a democracy, leaders truly chosen by their people, an engaged and active citizenry, and the heavy fog of paranoia and terror dispersed from over us. If that’s not the Great God of Nations smiling on us I don’t know what is. Now all that’s left to do by us is to stay to The Gambia ever true. Everything else will follow.