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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Buba Baldeh, Deciphered

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In any case, Buba, in 1982, was the stormy petrel of Basse politics. Running as an independent candidate for the Basse constituency that year, Buba single-handedly took on the entire PPP machinery. His rise defied gravity. His popularity ran rampant. It was partly because of his charm and wit, and partly also because of his unrepentant outspokenness. The PPP bigwigs descended on Basse to thwart his rise, but it was not to be. Buba was flying with it – and with great aplomb!

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Why not? In the prelude to the general elections, there was never any doubt, and barring unexpected mischief at the polls, that the incumbent Basse Member of Parliament and a veteran of PPP hinterland politics, the late Alhaji Kebba Krubally, was en route to defeat. Buba had amassed enough constituency-wide support among the youth and women, and across tribal lines. The election mandate, as Buba had ardently argued, and in starkly populist terms, was about change as opposed to keeping the status quo, visionary imagination as opposed to crumbling leadership, a sense of proximity between the leaders and the led as opposed to a kind of leadership operating at a remove, and seemingly unconcerned about the realities of constituent life.

As a child, already developing an incipient interest in politics, I recall staying up late on election night in 1982, waiting for the returns with my late uncle Naphew Jallow, a veterinarian by profession but a man with an irrepressible fascination for the fanfare of politics. When the results for the Basse constituency came in, quivers were felt in and around town. The defeat of Krubally left my uncle demonstrably emotional. He, like men of his generation in town, had invested a lot of loyalty in Krubally; had hung onto the faintest of hopes in the PPP man sneaking out a victory. But victory on the other side, for the independent candidate, had unmasked a great divide between the young and the old in Basse, with the former supporting, en mass, the man from nearby Mansajang Kunda.

As a candidate on the campaign trail, it was hard not to be wowed by Buba. With his neatly-coiffed Afro, Buba was observably handsome. Nature had gifted him a well-sculpted face, a sturdy physique – energy and promise burst at the seams of his glandular political self. In Buba, boredom and apathy never sought refuge. He embodied youth and vigour, tenacity and perseverance. He was a politician with first-rate oratorical skills, able to command the rapt attention of his audience. His speeches, at times forceful, had flourishes of conviviality and humour in them. He knew when to lighten it up and when to up the ante, all within the same breath. 

His politics was steeped in culture, for Buba was a cultural man, writ-large. He proudly wore his Fulani culture on his sleeves, but out on the hustings, and in mingling with the voters, his cultural disposition had no pretense of multi-dimensionality. He was well-versed in all the three major languages and cultures (Fulani, Mandinka, Wolof). He might have been fluent in Serahule, too, given his native Mansajang Kunda’s closeness to Sabi, that perennially important Serahule community in the larger context of Upper River Region politics. 

But if Buba was a good politician, it remains to be seen if, in hindsight, politics was the right entrée for him. Politics is a nasty sport. It is at once exalting and corrupting. “I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live,” Socrates demurred. Buba’s unassuming character and personality stood at variance with the subterfuges and shortcomings of politicking and political office. In the grand scheme of things about everything Gambian representative democracy, it is usually a huge expanse between the ideal and the doable. There is only so much a leader can do for his constituents. With a pin-size national economy, and with insurmountable problems affecting every facet of constituent life, a representative can hardly deliver the goods for his people. The end result becomes disillusionment and a sense of detachment on the part of the leaders.

Perhaps Buba had wanted to channel his energy to a cause higher than the one he was probably championing during his days as project director with the Freedom From Hunger Campaign (FFHC). Prior to entering politics, Buba was already dealing with the folks in the hinterland, coming to terms with and dealing in, the intricacies of rural life. Perhaps a foray into politics was going to put him on a new and better lever to tackle the challenges of public life. 

But Gambian representative democracy is inherently flawed and inadequate. How else, among other variables, to explain Halifa Sallah’s defeat in Serekunda East? Sallah, who gave away a chunk of his monthly salary to his constituents, would eventually lose to someone who would keep all his monthly earnings, underscoring once more why voters, certainly those in The Gambia, can and do make tragically irrational decisions. The success rate of our representatives is measurably scant, if present at all. Buba’s prodigious energy, witnessed during his early rise to political prominence, would fizzle out shortly after election victory.

It became obvious, although the signs were already there anyway, that Buba had wanted to join the ruling PPP, rather than maintain his brand as an independent man. And when he eventually cross-carpeted to the PPP, Buba disappointed a lot of his supporters in Basse. Charges of “opportunism” and “betrayal” shot through the roof. It turned out that Buba was indeed trying to join the very system that he had ridiculed and attacked during the campaign. It was a tragic mistake. 

And a missed opportunity. Buba’s support in URR was massive. In fact, he was already making steep in-roads into the national consciousness. He was riding a crest-wave of regional euphoria with the possibility of it mushrooming far and beyond. 1982 was ‘The Year of the Independent’: five independent candidates won seats in parliament, the most at any given time in our nation’s electoral history. Of all the five independent-elects, Buba was the most noticeable, the most dynamic, and the one with both the regional heft and awe-inspiring personality, to translate his gains and those of kindred political souls into a national undertaking. An opportunity existed for a new movement, an alternative to the two-party stranglehold on Gambian politics. 

But Buba didn’t see the possibility of a realignment of the political order and nor did he actually show the zeal to think strategically beyond his massive electoral victory. He would eventually abandon his seat and join the PPP, forcing Basse back to the drawing board with a brutal bye-elections campaign. (The National Convention Party candidate Ousainou Baldeh, also of Mansajang Kunda, would lose to PPP’s Alhaji Omar Sey by the slimmest of margins: fifty-something votes.) Buba’s support base was still there, only that this time he wasn’t running, preferring a low-key involvement to actually being seen taking sides between his kinsman and the party he was gunning to join. 

In 1987, Buba was nominated to parliament, and he would become an elected Member of Parliament for Jimara, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Health, and minister of Youth, Sports and Culture during the First Republic. And before going on self-exile, he would work for President Yahya Jammeh as deputy party mobiliser for the ruling APRC and then as managing director of the Daily Observer.

Buba’s political career was a checkered one – one that began on a high note but later morphed into monumental missteps, one that heralded a lot of promise but gradually withered in value due to underuse or neglect. Cast the large share of the blame elsewhere. The Gambian political environment is co-opting not liberating. The system presents a false choice between joining the mainstream of mediocrity and the fringe of banishment. It is hard to be in the opposition in Gambian politics; harder still, for those in opposition to remain true to their core beliefs in the face of off-putting externalities thrown down their paths. Dynamic political aspirants, like Buba, can easily lose their bearings in the chicanery of Gambian politics. Buba was meant to do big things, but he was largely undercut by a system not amenable to those trying to think unconventionally.

But if the endgame of his politics was far from dazzling, the same couldn’t be said of his humanity. Buba was the perfect gentlemen with unpretentious manners. He was humble to a fault; he could literally give up his seat to a toddler. He was exceedingly generous with his money. I saw him donate wads and wads of cash during campaigns; but even in real time, away from the political circus, there was an immense elasticity to his kindness. His personality was infectious. During campaigns, I saw how easily he connected with the people. He would mingle with them, shaking hands and hugging and listening patiently to their concerns. During football matches, he could be seen, adorned in his Fula “chossan” attire, tip-toeing the sidelines supporting Manju FC, the side from Mansajang Kunda and one of the powerhouses of Basse football. There was nothing obscure about his intentions. Buba was genuinely helpful and friendly. 

It is his endearing personality, more than his politics, which will leave him permanently embedded in the national memory. 

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