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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

How Yahya Jammeh came close to destroying the fabric of Gambian society

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By Tumbul Trawally

One thing we have all learned from the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is how effectively Yahya Jammeh lethally used tribalism and money, to sow discord within Gambian society. First, he recruited every able bodied, willing boy from the Fonis, into the security forces. After consolidating his power in the army, he got rid of his partners in the AFPRC, one by one. That is how we ended up with a “General Saul Badjie”! There were more “generals” with the surname “Badjie” in the army than there were people with the same surname in Sibanor. Second, to facilitate the robbing of government coffers, Yahya Jammeh placed cronies in strategic positions, heading parastatals. There were more managing directors with the surname “Sanyang” than there were people with the same surname in Sintet. Obviously, my intimation is a hyperbole, but it underscores Yahya Jammeh’s disregard for education, qualification, or experience. This was a cynical ploy to defraud The Gambia government, through his cadre of loyalists, most of whom were from the Fonis. Even in under-developed countries, the title of “general” comes with a minimum amount of education and military training. You don’t just bestow titles, without merit. His message to them: Jolas did not get a fair share during the Jawara era; it is time to play catch-up. Nothing is farther from the truth! The Jolas, just like the other rural residents, were slow to embrace western education.

Sir Dawda was blind to tribal labels; he saw every citizen as a Gambian, first and foremost. After the PPP came to power, in 1962, some of his closest associates called for a “Mandinkanisation” of the civil service. Prominent among them was a former vice president. Sir Dawda rejected that idea! His answer to his critics: let the Mandinkas send their children to school. He understood the dangerous precedent it would set and would be a gross violation of the rights of the fired civil servants. 

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The Mandinkas heeded his advice and sent their children to school. While my grandfather and father’s generation ceded western education, and the ensuing jobs that come with it, to the residents of Banjul and the urban areas, who were disproportionately Wolof, my generation did not. The increase in enrollment of the rural kids engendered diversity, competition, and a larger educated and productive workforce. 

The Creoles (Akus) were the first group of educated Gambians, most of whom came from Sierra Leone, to serve as clerks in the Colonial Administration; followed by the Wolofs of Banjul and the urban areas. The Wolofs arrived in Banjul, in large numbers, in 1885, following the defeat of Sait Matty Bah by the French and their local allies, the king of Saloum, Gedel Mboge, and his associates: Sait Touray of Kataba, Sababh; Gumbo Gaye of Ngen-Sanjal, Sanjal; and Jatta Seleng, father of Mama Tamba Jammeh of Illiasa, Baddibu. Sait Matty Bah was the paternal grandfather of the longtime imam of Banjul, Alhaji Momodou Lamin Bah.  

As residents of Banjul, the Wolofs had no choice, but to send their children to school. It was out of necessity – there were no farmlands in Banjul, unlike Saloum. All Muslim societies were very sceptical of the white man and his religion. That partly explains the slow acceptance of western education by the residents of the provinces, where most Mandinkas live. However, even the Mandinkas, Fulas, Jolas, Sarahules in Banjul and the urban areas sent their children to school. Do Janneh Kunda (Sarahules) on Hagan Street in Banjul, or the Mamburays (Mandinkas) of Kombo/Spalding Streets ring a bell? Very few Gambian families produced more educated Gambians than them. 

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After the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), the veneer of invincibility of the British Empire was shattered. Britain won the war, but it was a hollow victory. From that point, the British knew that independence for the colonies was inevitable. Therefore, they built Armitage School, in 1927, to educate the children of chiefs and their close associates, for them to become the future administrators of the country. Before Armitage was built, the children of chiefs were educated at schools in Banjul and the urban areas. For this reason, Mama Tamba Jammeh of Illiassa, whose father, Jatta Selung, was the Chief of Baddibu, attended Mohammedan School, in Banjul, in 1905; meanwhile, his son, Kebba Jammeh, attended Armitage School. Matarr Ceesay of Njawo, Upper Saloum, Central River Region, was also among the first, few educated rural residents. This resulted in a concentration of educated Gambians in the rural areas, from the beginning to the mid-20th century, around chieftaincies, in places like Brikama, Kudang, Salikenni, or Essau; or the trading centres of Georgetown, Bansang, Basse, or Kaur.  As you can see, The Gambia did not have a “tribal divide”; she had a rural-urban divide, in terms of education.   

Meanwhile, the United African Company (UAC) was tasked with the provision of higher education for the children of their traders, to become the professional class of the Gambia. I am not sure, but I think S Madi Limited played a similar role for the children of their traders.

Sir Dawda abhorred tribalism and understood the impermanence and “shifting sands” realities of politics, where loyalties and alliances change and evolve, over time. Politicians are no different from the general population; they look for paths to the advancement of their careers. The late AB Njie and the late Garba Jahumpa began their political careers in the Muslim Congress Party, which merged with the Democratic Party, to form the Democratic Congress Party. MC Cham began his political career in the United Party (UP). However, these politicians ended their political careers as members of the PPP and were among its staunchest supporters. The late Mam Alieu Jack, and the late Attorney General Lamin Saho were Wolofs, but were early supporters of PPP. Sir Dawda knew that no great party or country can comprise one tribe. 

The other lethal weapon in Yahya Jammeh’s toolkit: was “money”. To the dismay and horror of many Gambians, we were surprised that his killers [The Junglers] were not hired mercenaries from Casamance, but Gambian citizens from all tribes and regions of the country.  The Junglers were motivated by money. Each Jungler had to justify his presence on Jammeh’s payroll; as a result, the more brutal and outrageous you were, the higher you were regarded and rewarded. It worked pretty well for Saul Badjie; therefore, each Jungler tried to outdo Saul Badjie, in wickedness, and brutality, which is a tall order. At the end of the day, innocent Gambians and non-Gambians paid a huge price.     

In The Gambia, unlike Rwanda or Kenya, where political atrocities were tribal based; Gambian atrocities were the work and responsibility of a single crazed, demented, megalomaniac, hell-bent on maintaining power, at any cost. For that—we should thank God! The proof of that is he killed his own brother, Haruna Jammeh, for advising him to be more empathetic. Mafugi Sonko, a Jola, suffered beyond belief. Besides those who paid the ultimate price (their lives), or maimed, no one suffered like Mafugi Sonko. Here was a driver, who was not privy to the planning of the 11th November 1994 coup attempt-but languished in jail for nine years.  An overwhelming majority of Gambians see the Jolas as hardworking and honest individuals. Yahya Jammeh was an “equal opportunity dispenser” of misery and deprivation. 

TRRC witness Alagie Kanteh correctly summed up The Gambia’s misfortune: He characterised Yahya Jammeh as a narcissist, megalomaniac; Sanna Sabally as a liar, and a paranoid schizophrenic; Edward Singhatey as a sadist, who delighted in inflicting pain and suffering.  That became a lethal concoction of brutality, and depravity. The deepest parts of hell await the five members of the AFPRC and the Junglers, who perpetrated such heinous crimes against innocent Gambians. No amount of pilgrimages to Mecca, Rome, or Jerusalem can atone for their sins. 

Education is very important! The worst torturers during the brutal reign of Yahya Jammeh tended to be the least educated. It is not a coincidence that the relatively educated members of the Army (Momat Cham, Alagie Kanteh, or RSM Jeng) tended to be the voices of reason and moderation. Yahya Jammeh purged them from the army, and was left with the likes of Saul Badjie, Umpa Mendy, Alagie Martin, or Sanna Manjang: Monsters with a human face. Some of us are old enough to remember the brutal dictators: Idi Amin of Uganda; Bokassa of the Central African Republic; and Samuel Doe of Liberia. The common denominator between these tyrants: lack of education.     

I, like most Gambians, have friendship and familial relationships across tribal lines. According to my father, my grandfather was more fluent in Sarahule than Mandinka; I can barely construct a sentence in Sarahule. My mother’s family are Serere; I can barely understand a word of Serere. Some of my best friends are Jola; some of my nieces and nephews are Jola or Fula. There is a lot of intermarriage within Gambian society. My relationships are a reflection of the relationships of most Gambians. Very few of us can claim to have their roots in only one tribe. 

Yahya Jammeh pitted tribes against one another, and the likes of Momodou Sabally played along. No amount of money or title should warrant that! We are better than that: the behaviour of Momodou Sabally, Edward Graham, Saul Badjie, and the Junglers. In order to inject moderation and sanity into our politics, the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) should remove the “plurality clause” from the presidential elections to a majority clause”. In a plurality, the presidential candidate can be elected with as little as 20% of the votes, as long as he/she gains the most votes. Yahya Jammeh knew that and it was his reason for his divisive politics of “divide and rule”. When a candidate, just like Senegal, needs a majority (51%) of the votes, to be president, he/she appeals to all sectors of the society.

We are one people; let us never, ever forget that! We are closer to one another than Yahya Jammeh wished us to believe. We should avoid emphasising tribal identities, once again, just like Senegal. We should emphasise our national identities, as Gambians. Full stop! No single tribe has ever achieved greatness ALONE! The great empires were comprised of multiple tribes and ethnicities: be it Mali, Ghana, Rome, Egypt, or Mauryan (roughly modern India) empires! 

Mr Tumbul Trawally who lives in Seattle, USA, is a graduate of the University of Washington and City University of New York. He has an MBA and a postgraduate degree in Accounting. He hailed from Karantaba, North Bank Region.

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