On many occasions in the early 2000s, I would wake up with only ten dalasis as my only possession in this wide world. I would then trek from Talinding Kunjang – without breakfast – to Westfield. I would go to the newspaper vendor and buy a newspaper called ‘The Independent’. I chose that paper as my favourite newspaper at the time for two reasons: its fierce and uncompromising stance of independence (thus the name), and the language. It had excellent writers who wrote excellent English language. The cofounder of that newspaper was Baba Galleh Jallow, author of the book Defying Dictatorship, the book under review.
The biography of Professor Baba Galleh Jallow is as inspirational as his essays. Baba almost became a school dropout when his father showed that he was not interested in Western education. But due to his tenacity and fondness for books, he kept reading until the then headmaster of the school in his hometown discovered his potentials, convinced Baba’s father to let him go back to school. A stroke of luck for The Gambia, I would argue. He continued his education till he completed his high school programme. He then went further to study in Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone where he obtained a degree in History and Political Science in the year 1991. He continued to seek knowledge and obtained a master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Rutgers University, New Jersey in 2005. Still not satisfied, Baba went further to obtain a PhD in African History from the University of California at Davis in 2011. Currently, Baba is teaching history at La Saale University in Philadelphia, USA.
Baba has been a journalist almost all his life. He worked with the Daily Observer and had a series of run-ins with the then government. Due to a fierce and uncompromising editorial, he was always at loggerheads with the regime. He was arrested and detained many times but stuck to his guns as long as it was possible. When the management at his paper insisted on interfering in his editorial stance, he resigned. He cofounded the Independent newspaper which I have referred to above. Here, the efforts of the dictatorial regime to stifle his voice intensified leading to arson attacks on his paper. Ultimately, Baba left the country and went into exile for 17 years. Thus, Baba has the moral right, ability, expertise and first-hand experience to write about and against dictatorship. This is what has brought us all together here today. We will journey together into this struggle of Defying (permit me to add, and preventing) Dictatorship.
The purpose for which this book is published has been very comprehensively put in one of the essays entitled ‘Deconstructing Yahya Jammeh’. In the words of the author himself:
‘The purpose of deconstructing Yahya Jammeh is not to merely criticise, however justified such criticism is. Nor is the purpose simply to vent anger, however justifiable, at his systematic abuse of our rights and responsibilities as Gambian citizens. We deconstruct Yahya Jammeh to highlight the many contradictions that characterize his political character and his assertion of absolute power over Gambians while denouncing the absolute power of his colonial predecessors. We deconstruct Yahya Jammeh to demonstrate that Gambians have come of age, and that we will record his history for current and future generations of Gambians so that they will be empowered and never allow any single individual to abrogate their God-given rights of citizenship the way Yahya Jammeh has done for the past twenty years. We focus the limelight on his mind, thoroughly understand his mentality and explain for the edification of the Gambian nation and anyone interested in the postcolonial African dictators.’ (Page 10)
Thus we see that this book can serve the reader in many varying ways. It records history, offers advice to political parties, offers psychological insight into the mind of the dictator and exposes the double standards of African dictators who continuously lambast the West but have all their children brought up in the West. They buy expensive houses in the West, run to the West anytime they are sick and yet continue to insult the West.
What do we fear as human beings? What is it that we are afraid of? Humans fear what they do not know. Anything that is not understood by humans sends shivers of fear in their spines and thus they do one of two things; remain quiet and survive or run away for their life. Writing these essays, especially the ones entitled ‘Deconstructing Yahya Jammeh’ exposed the complexities of Yahya Jammeh. It made Gambians understand who he was – where he was coming from – and how his mind worked. Thus enlightened, many Gambians threw away that fear, and with it caution. We started speaking out. They are now empowered to voice out their opinions because they now understand the dictator. Having read some of these essays, I wrote a poem called Country Boy.
I was a country boy
Didn’t even have a toy
By then I used to be very coy
Ancient tactics I used to employ
I was lucky to be sent to school
Even though many thought I was a fool
I came to the city and thought, this is cool
I could even picnic and swim in the pool
Later, I was called to the service
I never tried to return to the province
I served in many areas with reverence
My main modus operandi was pretence
Then I had a unique opportunity
Which truly tested my wavering sanity?
But to absolute power it gave me proximity
And, guys, you all know that I am very witty
I somehow became the people’s choice
Suddenly I had found my non-existent voice
My people and I will now forever rejoice
I then arranged to have my own group of boys
I didn’t allow anyone to against me rebel
I had my own group of supporters, a cartel
I made sure that there were no voices of dissent
Until this slap you gave me of recent
Now you say I must go home
That my time has finally come
I then ask you, /can I at least go to Rome?’
(29th December, 2016)
This was written while Yahya Jammeh was still here and I remember Prof Pierre Gomez commenting, ‘Thank you Musa for writing Yahya Jammeh’s memoirs’. This is what Baba’s essays on deconstructing Yahya Jammeh did to many people and as I have shown, I included.
Therefore I can safely say that the book Defying Dictatorship is not only defiant in its outlook, but therapeutic as well. The style is such that it is easy to read and understand and it is very fitting for an audience of all categories. Intellectuals and elites can find resonance with it. The layman, like me, can find resonance with it. Students – particularly students of the University – need to study this book. The book does not only chronicle the evil deeds committed by the previous regime – the dictatorship – but goes further to offer an explanation into the mind of the dictator. For instance when Yahya Jammeh dropped the titles Babili Mansa and Nasiru Deen without explanation as was his wont, the author sought an explanation by delving into his mind. Thus he created an imaginary Arab king with whom Yahya Jammeh had a conversation. Thus we read:
‘So what is the meaning of this word Babili Mansa? What is all this?’ he asks his guest.
Yahya Jammeh dutifully chuckles and offers and explanation.
‘Oh, Babili Mansa. It means the king who builds bridges. My people gave it to me a few years ago when I built a bridge that the Western infidels and exploiters failed to build after 400 years of colonial rule.’ (P. 9)
This imaginary conversation goes on until the Arab Sheikh finally warns Yahya to stop people from calling him Babili Mansa and Nasiru Deen.
Baba uses a style which has the potential to attract anyone into the world of his essays, sometimes venting anger, frustration, being sarcastic and sometimes humorous. For instance he uses this beautifully in the essay entitled ‘Why Jammeh jippo’ on page 121. He writes:
‘Gambians must be forgiven for the tendency to search for reasons of state action in the occult or supernatural realm. This is a direct consequence of our knowledge that Jammeh is a great public admirer of the ‘occult’ and the ‘supernatural’. He makes no secret of his ‘prowess’ in the realm of the occult and unfailingly holds a holy book and prayer beads in his hands (also a sword, just in case someone tries something funny around him). One is amazed at the facility with which he embodies the personas of both fetish sorcerer and sheikh of Islam at the same time. This is not necessarily bad, since we must maintain our African identities even as we embrace and practice our Islam, Christianity or Judaism.’
Using different narrative styles therefore, Professor Baba Galleh Jallow in this book offers us a record of the history of Yahya Jammeh’s rule of The Gambia. In it also he delves into the somewhat ‘sick’ mind. This helps us understand who the man behind the capricious foreign policies during the past 22 years. While doing this, he has told us at length what dictatorship is and how it should be fought and avoided in the future. Whoever reads this book, be it a governor or the governed, will detest dictatorship and stand against it uncompromisingly. I am hopeful therefore that this book will be read by both the governors and the governed in this country and indeed in other African countries as well.
It is indeed a must-read for anyone desirous of having an understanding of Gambian politics, particularly how we descended into a dictatorship which has left a scar on the collective conscience of Gambians. The aftereffects of this dictatorship, the fight against it and the efforts to defenestrate the dictator have all been chronicled in this book. The book also offers advice on how Gambians should guard against ever sliding into another dictatorship in the future. Thus it should adorn every bookshelf in The Gambia, particularly in the homes of students and teachers of political science and history.
Defying Dictatorship: Essays On Gambian Politics is available at Timbooktoo bookshop on Garba Jahumpa Road, Bakau for D500.