By Baba Galleh Jallow
In a recent “Letter from Africa” column for the BBC’s Africa service, veteran Ghanaian journalist and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene writes about how 2017 was a year that saw the departure of several African sit-tight and not-so-sit-tight rulers. She narrates how in Ghana “out went John Dramani Mahama and in came Nana Akufo-Addo.” In Angola “Jose Eduardo dos Santos stood down.” Of Zimbabwe she writes, “The event that led to President Robert Mugabe finally stepping down after 37 years still seem somewhat surreal.” In Uganda, she notes, “President Yoweri Museveni was having a little more difficulty maneuvering to stay in power.” And in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down after two terms. . . .
She is being replaced by 1995’s Fifa World Player of the Year, George Weah.” Ohene also mentions how Uhuru Kenyatta “was safely back in the Kenya State House” after Odinga boycotted elections, how “There are continuing demonstrations against President Fuare Gassingbe” in Togo, how in South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa just “defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become the president of the ANC”, and how in Botswana, Ian Khama has “announced that he will be leaving office when his term as president comes to an end in April next year.” The Botswana story even includes a narrative about how just before he announced he was stepping down next year, Ian Khama had openly defied Donald Trump and voted in favor of a resolution asking him to withdraw his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She informs us that in fact, with the exception of Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, all African leaders defied Trump’s threat to withhold aid and voted in favor of the resolution. Ohene ends her interesting piece with the poetic note that “As the calypso would put it, 2017 is ending on a roll.”
A Gambian fan of Ohene’s “Letter from Africa” reads through this piece always expecting the next paragraph to say in tiny Gambia, the people voted out a dictator and resolutely refused to be intimidated or to back down from their insistence that Gambia Has Decided it will no longer be ruled and bullied by Yahya Jammeh. The reader cannot believe that Ohene does not mention The Gambia at all. The disbelief is magnified, almost surreal because the popular revolution that ousted Gambia’s dictator of 22 years without a single violent incident is arguably the most dramatic historical event and the most dramatic change of leadership to happen in Africa 2017. Zimbabwe perhaps comes second, because while there is a change of leadership there, there is no change of government since Mugabe’s ZANU PF still remains in power. In Gambia, there was both a change of leadership and a change of government. Indeed, so dramatic is this change that we now have a New Gambia that in many respects literally bears little semblance to the old Gambia, Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia.
The dramatic event of December 2016 to January 2017 when the Gambian people forced Jammeh out of power after 22 years of brutal dictatorship was an event of universal significance and universal presence, and ultimately an event that morphed into a universal project of rejection against African dictatorship. Media all over the world covered the event, countries and organizations all over the world expressed solidarity with the calm and peaceful Gambian people who stared a brutal regime straight in the face and told it no, you have to go, without putting themselves in harm’s way by inciting violence. ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations Security Council, and individual governments from the United States to Russia stood firmly behind Gambia’s decision and insistence that Jammeh must go.
Yet, Elizabeth Ohene omitted this monumental event of world historical significance from her account on the ousting and even near-ousting of African leaders in 2017. Well, the calypso probably did not say this but the whole world knows that if 2017 ended on a roll as far as the ouster of sit-tight leaders is concerned, Gambians ended 2017 in an even bigger roll with the ouster of a dictator who publicly and repeatedly claimed personal ownership of their country and threatened to rule them for one billion years. Ohene’s omission, for whatever reason, is just simply inexcusable.
Of course, we do not need Elizabeth Ohene or anyone to tell our story for us. We do not need anyone to remind us, or indeed the world, that in 2017 Gambia decided that she would no longer be bullied by a brutal dictator. If countries were ladies, Gambia would be the ultimate heroine and role model for all African countries in the manner in which she calmly and decisively expelled her macho ruler from her shores and reclaimed her right to peace, freedom of expression and association, and freedom from political bullying on her own shores. Gambia demonstrated loud and clear that with effect from 2017 she reserves the right to vote her leaders out in free and fair elections and to assert and exercise her full right to self-determination. And of course, when it comes to telling Gambia’s story, Gambia does it best because she lived it, breathed it, and expressed it in loud, clear and no uncertain terms.
And so our issue with Ohene’s narrative is less about why Gambia’s story is not mentioned and more about the fact that a BBC column purporting to show how 2017 saw a series of dramatic departures of veteran African leaders can possibly omit the Gambian case. Nor is it that Gambia is hungry for mention on the BBC because over the past 23 years, we have had our full and fair share of BBC coverage, from Jammeh’s dubious claims to have found a cure for AIDS, to his dramatic concession of defeat on December 2, 2016, to his fateful recanting of this concession on December 9, to his hollow threats to deal with ECOMIG forces should they dare to invade, to the last minute flourish of diplomatic activity and threatening planes flying low over state house that saw our self-styled Babili Mansa and Nasiru Deen quickly boarding a flight into exile to avoid ECOMIG capture.
Surely, an African columnist of Elizabeth Ohene’s stature and experience could not possibly have forgotten about these dramatic events? Was it an editorial decision to excise the Gambia story from her original piece, or did Ohene really forget? Some Gambian Facebook commentators on the issue have suggested that it was an oversight on Ohene’s part. Well, we may perhaps give her the benefit of the doubt with a generous pinch of salt. This is simply because the events of Gambia 2017 are too big to be omitted from any history of leadership changes in Africa 2017.
History is full of examples of people trying to silence the future and what happened in Gambia 2017 is a people’s refusal to have their future silenced. Dictators like Yahya Jammeh are particularly addicted to this impossible attempt at silencing the future. When dictators silence the media, they are trying to silence the future sounds of protest that could be inspired by media exposures of their corrupt and brutal practices; when they silence critics, they are trying to silence the future sounds of discontent and dissent that could be inspired in the public mind; when they pass draconian laws banning public gatherings, they are trying to silence the future voices of dissent that will be heard at those gatherings and the sounds of the protests they could potentially generate.
In all cases, they fail to silence the future because the very act of trying to silence the future creates the noises and the sounds and the protests of the future that will eventually push them out of power. For twenty-two years, Yahya Jammeh tried to silence The Gambia’s future through acts of brutality against the media, against critics, against political opponents, against protesters. But even as he tried to silence the future, he inspired the lyrical revolution most dramatically expressed by Killa Ace and generated the sounds of public displeasure and discontent that eventually led to his downfall. When he tried to silence the future of Gambian democracy by passing draconian and manifestly unjust electoral laws, he inspired the Sandeng protest and the arrests of the UDP leadership, the sounds of the Kalama Revolution, the resounding sounds of the Gambian marble against dictatorship, the silent stares of Gambians at heavily armed soldiers on our streets, the indignant calls for him to step down from all sectors of the Gambian community, the loud and uncompromising hashtag of Gambia Has Decided, the rolling of ECOMIG tanks into Gambian territory, and the take-off sounds of the plane that finally whisked him off into exile.
Equally ineffective has been people’s attempts to delete the past. While dictators often try to delete the past by omitting the good deeds of their critics and opponents from the national narrative and by denying their roles in atrocities they commit against their critics and other victims, it is also a common practice among historians in both narrative and writing cultures. Some prominent griots for example have been known to omit embarrassing or otherwise uncomplimentary details of their communal histories from their versions of oral traditions and history. But in this day and age of instant recording and communication, an attempt to delete the past – either deliberate or otherwise – is simply more impossible.
Especially if that past, like Gambia 2017, embodied events so prominent that they mobilized universal attention, universal discourse and near-universal support for the Gambian people. And while we do not in any way accuse Elizabeth Ohene of trying to delete our recent political past, we are obliged to say for the African historical record that as far as peaceful revolution and a dramatic change leadership goes, Gambia was on a roll in 2017 and has entered 2018 on a roll, with confidence in her heart and a strong determination to succeed on her mind.