An Eye Witness to Freedom by Momodou Bah

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Excerpt

Political change in The Gambia

On Tuesday, 30th December 2014, at 10:00 GMT, I was at the university library when I started receiving calls and text messages from friends all over Senegal asking me what was happening in The Gambia. They told me that there were reports of an ongoing coup in The Gambia. I was unaware of anything as I was busy with my Master’s thesis on the theme “Politics and Foreign Policy in The Gambia: From 1965 to 2014”. I logged into one of the most popular online blogging sites about The Gambia and the state media websites. I always balance the information to analyse and tell the truth from lies critically. But the story was confirmed to be true according to all the websites I had consulted.

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On the one hand, the State media reported that the State House was attacked by a well-equipped, well-funded group of Gambian terrorists living in the U.S.A., U.K., Germany and Senegal with support from their collaborators abroad with sophisticated automatic machine guns and assault rifles. Five of those attackers launched their assault from the main gate of the State House by Albert Market, while the three others attempted to enter through the rear entrance by Marina Parade. The leader of the attackers was Lamin Sanneh (codename ‘Gibia’), a former Lieutenant-Colonel of The Gambian Armed Forces and former Commander of the State Guards Battalion who was dismissed from the GAF and fled to Senegal and then to the U.S. He was accompanied by Njaga Jagne (codename ‘Bandit’), a retired Captain of the US Army; Baboucarr Lowe, a former Warrant Officer Class 2 of The Gambian Armed Forces referred to as ‘Bai Lo’ who was wanted in connection with drugs and had fled to Senegal and then to Germany, former Private Modou Njie (codename “Mike’) of The Gambian Armed Forces and Private Landing Sonko (codename “Young’), an active member of The Gambian Armed Forces who was on study leave, was a former orderly of Ex-Lt. Col. Sanneh. During the exchange of fire at the main gate, Sanneh and Jagne were killed. Lowe and Sonko escaped while Modou Njie was captured. The attackers from the rear entrance included Musa Sarr, Ex-Lance Corporal of The Gambian Armed Forces (codename ‘Kampama’); retired US Army Sergeant Papa Faal and Alhagie Nyass, former personnel of the defunct Gambia National Gendarmerie and one Dawda Bojang.

Faal positioned a heavy machine gun at the Accidents & Emergency Unit of Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital entrance and repeatedly fired rounds at the gate. Nyass, who attempted to ram his vehicle into the gate, was shot dead. Dawda Bojang, dressed in military uniform and body armour and positioned by a heavy machine gun, was also killed. Musa Sarr and Papa Faal fled, leaving their equipment and army attires behind. Other group members were stationed at Brufut Heights, some 25 kilometres from Banjul, the capital city. They were: Cherno M Njie (codename “John’), the main sponsor of the attackers and proposed Interim Leader. He fled the country after the attack failed.

On the other hand, the anti-government bloggers were blaming some soldiers loyal to the Jammeh regime for letting down the coup plotters and foiling what could have been the fall of a twenty-one -year old totalitarian regime that had reached its climax. This was one of the many unsuccessful coups since President Jammeh accessed power in 1994. By this time, many Gambians were already fed up with Jammeh’s administration. Activists and freedom fighters wanted to remove him at all costs. Jammeh was accused of great violations of such human rights as freedom of speech, secret torture and killings; journalists reported missing mysteriously, bribery and corruption, and scandals of all sorts, among other serious crimes. In addition, some members of The Gambia National Army were deserting the barracks to become self-imposed exiles. Other soldiers were doing some internal arson attacks. Public markets like Latrikunda and Brikama were set on fire without anybody capable of catching the culprits. The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation Construction (APRC) had its headquarters set on fire. Some renegade soldiers later claimed to have done it. From 2015 to the 2016 presidential elections in The Gambia, the country was electrified with fear because of threats by outside forces and incendiary speeches from President Jammeh.

Jammeh’s provocative messages were directed not only toward his critics but toward the Mandinka ethnic group he considered his main critics. Jammeh had used both ethnic and religious cards to divide the people. He would, from time to time, attack the church as well. It was that very reason why he declared the country an Islamic state. He changed it from a secular state to The Islamic Republic of The Gambia. The church was furious. In the aftermath of this shocking declaration by Jammeh, Father Edu on Gambia Radio and Television (GRTS) strongly condemned it. He bravely declared that the country is one and indivisible. It is a country of Muslims and Christians, and Pagans. Mr Edu further stressed that the country had never witnessed such hostility against Christians before and urged people to stand up against it. Senegambia has never experienced ethnic or religious strife. We always live together as one. We have families that accommodate both religions in one home, house, room and bed. We have husbands and wives of different faiths. We share food and celebrate Eids and Christmas, and Easter together. In a nutshell, Senegambia is one example of the most tolerant and peaceful coexistence in terms of religion and ethnicity in the whole world.

So it was against this backdrop that I decided to descend to the political ground to guide my country to a peaceful, free and fair election. In mid-July 2016, my friend and former classmates at Nusrat, senior lecturers at the University of The Gambia, Samba Bah and Njima Camara requested my services to guide some political science students on a study tour to Dakar. As usual, I took the students to many places around Dakar. We visited the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS) Headquarters. It is a huge building along the Main Clearance Road known as VDN. We were lectured on the party’s history, and I did the translation in a kind of “mini-seminar”. The students’ interest in politics and the pertinent and persistent questions from Pa Malick Syngle Nyassy and Essa Njie caused the presenters to tease us by asking whether we wanted to form a political party. We visited Amnesty international’s regional branch in Dakar around Cheikh Anta Diop Avenue. We discussed extensively and with concern the human rights violations in The Gambia: the execution of nine death row prisoners by a firing squad at Mile II Central Prison in August 2012, the case of Sait Matty Jaw, a university student who was under state custody and Solo Sandeng who was recently tortured to death after he was arrested and detained during a peaceful demonstration that was organised by the United Democratic Party (UDP) under the leadership of Lawyer Ousseynou Daboe in April 2016. I profited from the question and answer session, to announce to them my decision to set up a civil society organisation in The Gambia to promote peaceful, free and fair elections in the forthcoming elections. Strategically, I just wanted to put them in the loop, but it was a risky undertaking in The Gambia at the time. The students were flabbergasted at my decision, whereas Amnesty International agents looked indifferent to it. We, all the same, exchanged contacts, and they advised me to be careful. I had to leave the students in Dakar to return to Banjul for the formation of the association scheduled on 23 July. Before the trip, I had done some groundwork. My first step was to meet my spiritual guide and ask for his blessing. Serigne Haddy Niass is a very well-known religious leader in Senegal. He is a mufti and a great scholar whose pedagogy is unmatchable in Senegal. He told me that he was not happy with the decision because it was a risky undertaking due to President Jammeh’s brutality toward intellectuals. I ultimately persuaded him to the cause. I told him that it was a mission that I had to fulfil. So he blessed me and gave me the green light. If it were only him, he would not have allowed me to go because of his love for his disciples, but as I’ve forced it out of his hands, he had no other choice but to bless me and let me go. I then told my wife, and she, too, had no choice. I also spoke to my Dad and Auntie, they were uneasy about the news, but they blessed me and consented despite their worries. I also talked to my Dad’s elder brothers, Imam Bubaccar Hydara, who we affectionately called Ba Mawdo and the Alkalo (Village Head) of Sinchu Baliya, an older brother of my Dad. They and Ba Mawda have the same mom. Like everyone, they raised concerns of the same kind but blessed me and wished me good luck. To minimise risks, the first person I targeted was the Minister of Interior, Ousman Sonko. I wrote him the following letter:

Subject: Request

Dear Minister,

I am a Gambian national who studied at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. I graduated with a double Masters; in African Studies and Teaching of English.

To demonstrate patriotic love for my country, I want to create a peace Movement for all. This, I would like to bring further to your attention in an audience that I hereby solicit from your humble self.

The Movement will promote peace and stability in The Gambia before, during and after the forthcoming elections. So as my dear Minister responsible for security in the country, I judge it necessary to meet you to talk to you about it before any activities.

Please, Honourable Minister, accept the assurances of my deep and sincere respect for you. Thank you.

Yours faithfully,

Momodou Bah

Attached to the letter was the following Manifesto:

THE PRO-GAMBIA MOVEMENT

Dear compatriots,

Over half a century since Great Britain has passively given the Gambia its independence. Contrary to other African nations like Guinea Bissau, Algeria, Angola, and Zimbabwe, to name a few, which snatched their Independence from their colonial masters through violence. Due to its small size, it was incorrectly predicted by analysts like Berkley Rice that it would never survive as a country.

However, the country has survived beyond expectation since its founding fathers did their quota of putting it on the rails to peace and stability. This is why our country was honoured to host the Headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)’s Human and Peoples’ Right Commission. So, from Edward Francis Small, through Momodou Gabba Jahumpa, Pierre Sarr Njie to Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, all embarked on the train of NON-VIOLENCE to negotiate Gambia’s Independence. This makes me believe that we should not sway away from the peaceful roads that our forefathers have constructed in our endeavour to take the country to its next destination.

We all know that our country is going through bad times: foiled coups and other outbursts of violence have shaken the peace and stability our country has been enjoying for a century. Furthermore, the 2016 elections are fast approaching, and the atmosphere is tense and electric. You don’t need to be a political analyst to know this because the evidence is visible and tangible for all to see.

Also, violence is not the right way to change; the perfect way to change is by getting to the polls. It is better to throw “stones” into the ballot boxes of the candidates of our choice than at one another’s heads. Violence is easy to start but difficult to end. In addition, all those countries that have experienced the so-called Arab Spring revolution are still undergoing the terrible sequels: rapes, lawlessness, “I don’t give a damn” attitudes, hunger, civil war, blood baths, opportunistic invasions by terrorists, no business activities, the collapse of the economy, destruction of the country’s infrastructure, risky migration. For instance, had the December 2015 attacks succeeded and had all their strategies been executed, Banjul would have been bridgeless. The bridge linking the capital to the rest of the Western region would have been destroyed, and it would have taken years to rebuild. The list of sequels is endless. God gives power to whom He wills and takes it back whenever He needs it again. So, if we hear and believe in Him, we should not bring chaos into the country.

Given all this, and alone with my conscience, I would like to take my civic responsibility to set up a non-alignment movement called PRO GAMBIA. As Franz Fanon put it, “Every generation has its mission; either you fulfil it, or you betray it to a relative opacity”. The goal of this movement is to help maintain peace and stability in my homeland and thereby invite all fellow compatriots and peacemakers, political stakeholders (government and opposition), friends of The Gambia and the diaspora, the press/bloggers and the international community to dialogue and work towards peace and stability in The Gambia and for The Gambians.

THE PRO-GAMBIA CONCEPT AND DEFINITION

The word PRO is not only a preposition but also an acronym. It means in favour of something. So, in this case, it means in favour of The Gambia. Not in favour of the government nor the opposition but instead in favour of The Gambia as a nation. The acronym PRO also stands for Patriotic Republicans’ Orientation.

Analytically, I was trying to woo the Jammeh administration to embrace my ideology by accepting us to operate without harassment. This was why I dismissed the Arab spring as a successful revolution in some countries and indirectly condemned the coups even though I firmly believed that the place of the soldiers was not in the palace but in the barracks.

To see whether I caught the attention of the Interior Minister, I submitted the letter by noon, and upon my return home, I received a phone call from his secretary as soon as I put my right foot into the compound. When my left foot joined the right, I asked the caller who she was. She told me that she had received my letter and that the minister wanted to meet me the following morning. So, I gave her my word and presented myself to the interior ministry as promised. While going there, I took along some striking pictures from primary school to university days that featured me in my leadership roles. The main reason for doing that was to impress him by portraying a good image of me to build a first impression. I immediately understood that the minister was unsure of my motivation and had deliberately avoided meeting me. He had assigned his permanent secretary to meet me instead. At 10 o’clock a.m. I was introduced into the permanent secretary’s office. When my eyes set on my host eyes, I immediately recognised him. It was Nai Ceesay. He is my Dad’s friend. I’ve known him since my childhood when we used to ask him to buy a football for our local team. I couldn’t control my surprise at knowing him, so I beamed at him. He, too, suspected that I knew him very well. I told him I was from Sinchu Baliya and Alieu was my father. He was happy to meet me and told me that my Dad was his long-time friend and he was the one who sold him his compound in Sinchu, where he built a large poultry house. The Gambia is probably the only country in the world where almost everyone knows directly or indirectly. Knowing that the P.S. was partly won over because of his relationship with my Dad, I built more confidence when presenting to him my project and constructing a very good profile of myself as a peace campaigner. He welcomed it and promised to persuade the minister to the cause. As in the manner of a father and a son, he pulled out 200 dalasis and gave it to me for the fare. He would repeat a similar gesture anytime we met in our subsequent encounters.

From there on, I started team building. I had a list of potential members. I had identified these people during the numerous visits they paid me in Dakar while they were students. I identified patriotic, smart, energetic, and intelligent students. This was more or less secret recruitment I had been doing over the past seven years preceding that moment. I was able to meet approximately a hundred of them. Whomsoever I met, it was the manifesto I would talk to you about first. I met them at schools, in the streets, in restaurants and even in their houses to convince them of the cause. I met Lamin Cham, a friend who once visited Dakar at the UTG Science club during a twinning with the UCAD Biology Challenge Club. Mr Cham got his B.A. at UTG, and I inspired him to pursue his M.A at UCAD, which

he did with flying colours. He earned his PhD and is now a top virology scientist in Europe. As his mentor, Cham told me he would put his head wherever I asked him to because of his hope and trust in me. I also met with Saidou Jallow. Saidou was another student I inspired to join UCAD through the French program at IFEE. He also had a view similar to Cham’s. Moreover, Saidou was instrumental in identifying other brave and dynamic young leaders, such as Talla Camara and Essa Jesus Jatta. They would eventually become Pro-Gambia Association’s Vice President and Secretary General. When I met Mr Jatta, he told me that my project convinced him and that he was willing to risk his life for the country. I also met James F. Mendy at Westfield. I first met him in Dakar during his trip with MDI, where I was their guide. Mr Mendy, like almost all the people I’d met, shared our ideas, and he said that I had come at the right moment as he had recently written a book on peacebuilding. He was going later to become the association’s Information Officer. Ndey Sokhna, Lamin Ceesay, MS Jallow, Auntie Oumie, Ebou Cham, Albert Jameh, and my late teacher at Nusrat, Musa Jallow, also had similar reactions to the project and accepted responsibilities. So when I was sure that we had enough members, I convened them to form the association. I chose 23rd July not only because it is a historical day but also because I was trying to predict the country’s future. Historically, the founders of the country’s independence gathered at Marlborough House for talks on independence. The prediction was that I had chosen 23 July to foresee the fall of Jammeh’s regime. He took power on 22 July 1994, and the date is celebrated every year. So the idea was that 22 July would no longer be celebrated in The Gambia the following year as 23 July would be used to celebrate our role in the change of government. Number 23 also marks the number of years Jammeh stayed in power, while the second digit 3 points to the country’s third presidency.

Author

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Momodou Bah (Momo) was born on 2nd November 1984 in The Gambia. He attended Sinchu Baliya Primary School, St. Peter’s Technical Junior School and Nusrat High School. He then moved to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, where he obtained his Master II degree in African and Post-Colonial Studies.

Subsequently, he was admitted into the Senegalese Teacher Training Elite School and graduated with a Post-Master’s degree in teaching English. He has taught English at Lamin Gueye High School (Dakar), Mako High School (Kedougou), and recently Brindiago and Djibidione High Schools in Ziguinchor, Senegal.

Momodou Bah presented himself as a candidate in the December 2021 Presidential elections in The Gambia, but his nomination was rejected. He speaks English, French, and four Senegambian languages. (Source: Foroyaa Online)