Hassoum Ceesay, Historian and author

Hassoum Ceesay, Historian and author

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Hassoum Ceesay is the director-general of the National Centre for Arts and Culture and leading historian. In this special edition of Bantaba, The Standard’s managing editor, Sheriff Bojang, talks to Mr Ceesay about a historical perspective on elections in The Gambia.

How important is the 4th December election from a historical perspective?

Well, speaking as a historian I will say that all multiparty elections are important, if not vital. As we speak The Gambia has the longest uninterrupted multiparty electoral experience in Africa. Since 1951, Gambians have voted in free and fair multiparty elections 17 times without a break! This is unique in Africa. Gambians have never in the past 73 years waited for more than five years to be called to the polls to elect their leaders in multiparty elections. Gambians were voting in multiparty elections before Spain or Portugal, for example. The 2021 presidential elections, however, are not epochal as say in 1960, 1962 or even in 2016! I compare the 2021 elections to the famous 1977 elections which pitted Sheriff Dibba against President Jawara. Dibba had just resigned – or was he sacked? – from the ruling PPP and took on Jawara. It was hot and almost dangerous. The NCP were saying Sosalaso!, a Mandinka war song. Even the New York Times were excited enough to send a reporter. But he returned home sad, as it was peaceful, too peaceful to earn him even an inside page story!

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Six male Muslims – three Mandinkas, two Wolofs and a Fula – are vying for the presidency. Interpret this for us. What does it tell us about the voter demographic in The Gambia?

Well, the statistics is telling of the long journey that our Republic has taken so far in its rich democratic heritage and the increasing levels of inclusiveness in Gambian politics. In the 1982 presidential elections, the candidates were two Mandinka, no Wolof, no Fula, and two Muslims! Earlier in 1972 it was one Mandinka, one Aku, no Wolof, no Fula! One Christian. No female ever had a ballot box in our presidential elections. This is telling of the need for women to continue to canalise the female voter torrent which is much more powerful now than ever. But truth be told, what the archives tell me is that since the 1950s women have been at the centre of Gambian politics as voters, mobilisers and elected representatives. Gambian women had the vote earlier than women in some members of the EU, for example.

Of course six names are on the ballot but analysts seem to agree that this is a two-horse race. Do you agree or do you foresee a December surprise sprung by a dark horse?

This is an election fought by six candidates. Each has a rich public life and  political life. They are in it to win. We historians, sometimes we are even more interested in the losers because they can tell us more about the winner also, and the state of the polity. In 1972 when Sir Dawda defeated the UP presidential hopeful Percy Coker, analysts quickly sounded the alarm that if care was not taken, our young republic would become a de facto one party state as the defeat was so resounding. Jawara was in the apotheosis of his political life. He seemed unstoppable, until his former VP, Dibba, came to form the NCP and oppose him for the 1977 elections and ensured that our country remained a sound multiparty democracy.

You talked about the 1977 election, but judging by the spirited campaigning, wouldn’t you agree that 2021 will be the most keenly contested presidential election in The Gambia?

Yes. The more so because the candidates have invested heavily in campaign infrastructure: sleek campaign videos, sheaves of posters and scarves and T-shirts, road shows, and have inundated our mediasphere with messages. Furthermore, this campaign shows that Gambian democracy has matured. No country can teach us how to do elections; 70 years of multiparty voting is a proud heritage. Gambian elections have always been eventful and boisterous with much pace and racy. The Gambia is right now on the fast lane towards progress and prosperity. The six candidates share a patriotic zeal to bring more development. The winner on Saturday can only increase the canter into a gallop.

As you just indicated, politics has become a dollarised business in The Gambia as evidenced by the expensive campaign, can you give us anecdotes of how money or the lack of it, affected the political fortunes of some politicians in The Gambia?

Well in the 1950s, when our political party format was taking shape, there was quite an imbalance in the dalasi fortunes of our party leaders: PS Njie of the UP was a rich lawyer supported by Momodu Musa Njie, our first millionaire. So UP splashed money in the 1954 and 1960 elections such that West Africa magazine did a short story on “Pound Politics in Bathurst”! Yet, PS’ rivals like IM Garba Jahumpa of the Muslim Congress Party and Rev JC Faye of the Democratic Party were poor enough not to even afford a Land Rover to do their campaign. Rich women like Hannah Forster had to support Rev Faye to pay his deposit in the 1954 elections! Then came the Sanjally Bojang effect in 1960 when he splashed money into his PPP such that the 13-month-old party won more seats than the decade-old parties. So money has always been critical to political success elsewhere, and so in our republic.

A corollary to the question would be, what are your views on campaign finance reforms or even government funding political parties with a view to levelling the ground as is done in some countries?

I believe as a measure of the maturity of Gambian multiparty democracy, government will in the near future subvent political parties and the press and the arts. It is our political party politics which brought us freedom in 1965 supported by the vibrant press of the 1950s and 1960s and egged on by our gewels like PPP’s Bakary Marong of the siko fame and Marie Samuel Njie, the UP songstress. In those early days, each political party had a bevy of gewels to sing the praises of the party leaders and pass on the party messages; also each party had a newsletter or newssheet: The New Gambia of the PPP, Spark of Congress Party, African Unity of the UP and so forth. The early parties were good at communicating in the era before mass media.

Now the elephant in the room. Tribal bigotry has featured prominently in this campaign notably with the anti-Mandinka rants of former president Yahya Jammeh and NPP national president Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang. Give us a perspective on how tribalism has shaped Gambian politics even before independence.

Well, I believe there is no tribalism in Gambian politics. Our political leaders, the six vying for the top post in our republic, are too mired in our positive ethnic configuration to be tribalists. They speak more than their mother language; President Barrow, for example speaks six Gambian languages; they have intermarried into other ethnic groups; and the party executives are multi-ethnic. Also, In The Gambia we do not have ethnic enclaves. If I say Matoto in Conakry, for example, you know who lives there; If I say Kibera in Nairobi, you know which group lives there. Here God has blessed us with multi-ethnic enclaves; there is no electoral constituency in our republic where more than 60 percent of the voters belong to one ethnic group. I believe also that all the six candidates have been on record during this campaign condemning ethnic bigotry and asking Gambians to see ourselves as one. This is gratifying enough. Moreover, our compounds are multi-ethnic; our markets are multi-ethnic, our radio and TV stations do multi-ethnic programming, and our offices are multiethnic. So who can be a tribalist here?

Others would disagree and say you are glossing over the facts. But given the reality of politics, don’t you agree that tribalism will continue to be a major factor in the politics of The Gambia for decades to come?

I maintain that tribalism is not a factor in Gambian politics. I say this based on historical evidence before me garnered during 27 years of my work in our archives and museum. When Jahumpa created his party in 1952 and called it The Gambia Muslim Congress Party, an editorial writer in The Gambia Echo lamented “Why The Gambia Muslim Congress?” The Imam of Bathurst, Momodou Lamin Bah, even distanced himself from Jahumpa. In the end he was forced to change his party name to The Gambia Congress Party which he merged into the PPP in 1968. When Sanjally Bojang founded the PPP in 1959 and called it the Protectorate Peoples Party, the new party leader Jawara said no, and changed the name to People’s Progressive Party to make it more inclusive. When Dibba left the PPP in 1974 and created the NCP apparently angry that the PPP was cozying up to a certain section, he lost the 1977 elections even in his supposed strongholds. So the Gambian historical archives tell me that Gambian voters have a peculiar way of punishing political leaders who want to play the negative ethnic card. The NRP was launched in Gunjur; the NPP in Bakau; the GDC in Bijilo, for example. I believe our political leaders are too aware, too sophisticated, to play a negative ethnic card.

UDP holds sway in the heartlands of Baddibbu, Jarra and Kiang; APRC reigns supreme in Foni; and Barrow commands Upper River Region. Regionalism is a key issue in this election, historically, why do particular regions support particular candidates?

Well, there is nothing amiss in politicians having solid bases. In fact, a political leader without a turf is not a successful one. The UP has always had Bathurst and Saloum as its base from 1954 to 1970, for example. Such that even when UP leader, PS Njie, told his constituency in Bathurst “I am not interested anymore”, he still won the 1972 elections in Bathurst North. The NCP of Dibba has always had the Baddibus and Bakau as base. Gibou Jagne reigned supreme in Serekunda; so did OJ, for example. Yaya Ceesay was MP for Jarra for 34 years. Dembo ‘By Force’ had solid political control of Bakau from 1977 to the 2000s just like the Kims control Pyongyang! The reasons are legion: popularity, charisma, familiarity and of course relevance.

However the dice falls, this will be a very consequential election. How will it affect The Gambia’s international relations, especially with our most immediate and important neighbour Senegal?

I urge that our relations with Senegal should remain as unique and privileged  as they are today. During the past five years, we have rebuilt our ties with our brothers in Dakar to its heights and that is good news. The Gambia stands to benefit more from having strong and privileged ties with Senegal than otherwise. We feel very much secure diplomatically and physically by having excellent ties with Senegal as we have today. Having such exceptional ties with Senegal will not impugn on Gambian independence. There should be no narrow nationalism when it comes to our relations with Senegal. When Kukoi tried to destroy our democracy in 1981, Senegal came in handy to save us from an inchoate Marxist revolutionary; when we became independent in 1965, Senegal sponsored our candidature to join the OAU and UN and we got admission in both bodies in world record time; in 2016 Senegal stood firm by us to remove the despot who was too afraid to leave power.

Echoes of the past continue to be sounding boards in this election. For example, you have UDP’s Ousainu Darboe who was brought up by UP’s PS Njie; you have First Republic vice president BB Dabo playing a major role in the UDP-led efforts; you have Fatoumata Jahumpa-Ceesay the daughter of Gambia Muslim Congress leader gunning hard for President Barrow and so forth. What significance or impact will these have on the outcome of tomorrow’s election?

It has great significance with a lot of positive impact. It shows that The Gambia still maintains her political traditions. In France, you have the Gaullist traditions, for example.  The PPP and Jahumpa tradition, the PS Njie tradition are traditions of tolerance, inclusion and respect. When PS Njie was voted out of office in 1962, the first change of government in Africa through the ballot box (another unsung Gambian democratic credential), his base in Bathurst asked permission from him to attack Government House and chase out the “PPP Boys’” as they were called then, from power. PS refused and said he believed in the rule of law and was going to surrender power, but fight the election results in the courts. For 18 months he was in court. In October 1963, the West African Court of Appeal ruled in his favour, sort of; that the 1962 voters list was faulty and therefore the elections could not have been correct. Bathurst was tense. UP were celebrating. Governor Windley spoke to the Foreign Office and soon Whitehall Mandarins advised the Queen to do an Order-In-Council to obviate the court decision and promoted Jawara from Premier to PM the next day. PS felt cheated but accepted it in good faith. He did not want to burn the country to get to power.

PPP was a humane and patriotic party which led us to independence, republic, and gave us the dalasi and central bank; it also gave us the charm of being the bastion of human rights and democracy. Under the PPP The Gambia was the only country in Africa holding regular free and fair multiparty elections aside from Botswana and apartheid South Africa. So the Gambian political legacies and traditions should be kept alive and the impact will be a more participatory, stable, and open-minded Republic of The Gambia. This is why historical knowledge should be given priority in this country to help build patriotic citizenry.

Any last words?

Well, I believe in the future, presidential candidates should undergo a basic test on Gambian history and geography. Leaders must be imbued with historical knowledge and consciousness such that they will be more patriotic. They should know our heroes and heroines and epochal dates. You cannot be patriotic if you do not know Gambian history. Historical knowledge inspires and guides. Also, those who seek to lead our republic should know our River Gambia, its islands, valleys, hills and creeks and mangroves so that they appreciate what resources, the beauty, we have and which they can transform to develop our nation.