It all had the ring of a soviet coup, political machinations of the politburo, the death hand of courter comitas and perfect plot of backroom operators. If it was not true, it could have been taken straight from a non-fiction book on the wrangling and wrestling of power at the heart of the Soviet Union or from a highly sophisticated sci-fi novel. But it is true, and it is real: the sacking of Ousainu Darboe, the big beast of the UDP, with Amadou Sanneh and Lamin N Dibba from the government of Adama Barrow. The Gambian media, for once, like a thermostat, not a thermometer, was able to shape public opinion, not reflect it – a sign of how an independent media can inform the citizenry, keep the-powers-that-be accountable and strengthen democracy.
Last Monday, most of the newspapers splashed on rumours rumbling on social media: that President Barrow sacked his sacred cow deputy Ousainu Darboe. Like Joseph Gobbles, the suave, savvy and smooth propagandist of Hitler, Ebrima Sankareh, Barrow’s spin doctor pirouetted: the story, he claimed, is “false”, cooked up from the figment of the overstretched imagination of people.
If it was an act of displacement activity, designed to distract his master’s prey from jumping the ship of state before being pushed, well he succeeded. And Darboe, his sharp political acumen betraying him, believed in the false sense of security he was lulled in. It is akin to having your lawn being packed with tanks pointed towards your direction for complete obliteration and annihilation, and being told hang on a minute, don’t read too much into it, because it is a simulation exercise, working out ways to rescue you when Armageddon struck. For Barrow and his team, pulling this trick was a stroke of genius. For Darboe, it was political miscalculation over-masticated. How could he not see it coming?
For months, relations between Barrow and Darboe were enveloped in a venomous chalice. As president and vice president, they cut an odd couple. That their bromance degenerated into such pitiful state was extraordinary. To Barrow, Darboe was a self-admitted political godfather. The latter saw the former as a protégé who would parachute to the direction pushed towards. But power pinches a paroxysm of poison into what could have been a solid political partnership.
Victory of the first skirmish, no doubt after the successful putsch of Barrow’s team, belongs to them – yet. Brace yourself Gambians. Fasten your seatbelts and shoot your heads towards the direction of travel, because the fight over who will control the wheels of state will drone on until 2021.
The starting pistol was fired after the firing of Darboe and his political chums. It might come as a surprise that Barrow wielded the political knife, and scalped the head of his political paterfamilias, rendering himself a political patricide. There will be howls of betrayal, cries of heresy and damnation of apostasy against him for doing so. But are they justified? Are they politically sound? Could he not live with the causation and forget about the consequences his frosty relationship with Darboe wrought? To the eye of the politically uninitiated, the simple and straightforward answer would be: cohabitation, not casus belli, should be the modus vivendi. How wrong!
In our presidential system of government, like any of its kind around the world, there should be complete confidence and trust between the president and his deputy. The vice president serves at the pleasure of the president, must command his/her full confidence and abide by collective cabinet responsibility. To have a rivaled power bloc within government shatters the authority of the president, fatally undermines the authority to get things done and paralyses the machine of state. The buck stops with the president.
The clue is in the name: the president presides, and the government governs. The vice president is like the other half of the president, responsible for deputising where instructed and authorised to. That was precisely why Barrow’s decision to sack Darboe was as bold as it was bang on point. By doing so, he has signaled to Gambians and the wider world that, contrary to conventional wisdom, he is not a touchy-feely headless chicken. He has shown that his famous death stare exudes determination, his sombre face seriousness, his slow purposeful steps practicality, and his clip responses in conversations a solipsistic sphinx with a riddle.
He could have decided, as president, to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to his authority being shredded, but he acted decisively, putting paid to that. He proves that he is made of steel, had balls of steel and a ruthless streak to unleash when push comes to shove. For days – weeks, even, it seems – he has been wrestling with the Shakespearian dilemma: to be, or not to be? To fire Ousainu Darboe or not? The decision to get rid of Darboe was a difficult decision, hence, as he pondered about the enormity of it, he dithered, equivocated and tergiversated. Like a Trappist Monk used to paying homage to a useful God that has gone rogue, diminishing any lingering hope and decimating trust – cornerstone foundation for faith – he turned against a Jupitererain salvation. No one can accuse him of not reaching out: he did extend a hand of friendship and frisson to Darboe and other UDP officials jailed by former president Yahya Jammeh on frivolous charges, after taking over power, using his presidential prerogative of mercy.
One reality of leadership is to face up to opponents, face them down and fence them off. Ducking or diving from it is irresponsible and could lit the chateau of political power in flames. Politicians are, should be, realists, not fantasists fitting their political aprons on fantastical fictions. Reality is the yin and yang. You have got to have your feet on the ground, ears in the air and eyes on the horizon to be in tuned, on time and on target. As the leading American 20th century philosophical science fiction writer, Philip K Dick, stirringly quipped: “Reality is that, which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That is the cue: if you believe in something, you have got to have the courage of your conviction, and do what is right, with the capacity to convince to hammer home your reasons to the people.
The tussle between Barrow and Darboe reflected a battle between two strands of the UDP: the purist and the pragmatist. The purist wants to detoxify the government, and its institutions, from anything reeking of Jammeh’s vestiges. While the pragmatist – and Barrow belongs to this camp, as inferred from his public stance and statements – wants to bury the hatchet of the past, focuses on challenges of the here and now, and get on with the job. It is the right approach. Even though it exposes the pragmatist to flaks of renegade revolutionists, they are the sensibles going with the wind of history because the mandate given to the president from Gambians in 2016, under a coalition ticket, was for him to be president for all Gambians, not a partisan person. In twisting the knife on Darboe and company he fulfilled his duty and responsibility to Gambians.
There is no point having epicaricatic delectation over the political misfortune of the political dinosaur, Darboe. He has been in the political jungle long enough to see this as a blip, a flash in the pound that will come to pass. Down but not yet out of the political game, his party still commands majority support in the country post-Jammeh. If the country is to go for election tomorrow, he will be swept to power in a resounding victory.
It is a straight fight for the heart and soul of The Gambia between Barrow and Darboe. Forget about Barrow’s youth movement. It is a fig leaf for the political vehicle he will ride on to fight re-election. If proof was ever needed: his decision to fire Darboe, throwing caution out of the window. Battle-hardened, ready and willing: he has signaled readiness to go mano-to-mano with his former party, with all the consequences that it entails. Political spectators, the race bell for the 2021 presidential election has tolled: on your marks, get ready, go! To quote the former French king Louis XV ( 1710-1774), who, so cocksure about his indispensability, simpered: “Apres moi, le deluge (which roughly translates after him, the floods, meaning France would plunge into chaos). After the Barrow versus Darboe showdown, expect both flood and political earthquake!
Amadou Camara studied political science at University of The Gambia. He worked as an associate editor at The Standard, and currently resides in the United States.