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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

I told you so… My Open Letter to former Gambian President Jammeh seems, to me, as relevant today as it ever was — and will be in future.

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Twenty two years ago this week (November 17, 1999, to be precise), I wrote an Open Letter to then President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh of The Gambia.

In the letter, I provided a brief history of Gambia-L, perhaps the first Internet forum for Gambians around the world. I also explained that he should not have seen Gambia-L as hostile to his government, but as a source of valuable criticism. In conclusion, I said to him that he should avoid the fate of many leaders, including former Presidents Jawara and Mobutu who were fell disgracefully or violently from power because they blinded to their shortcomings by their flatterers. Well, he never listened, and we all know what happened to him.

I edited the letter to shorten it and added links to pertinent Gambia-L postings which are still online. Additional text I have provided for better flow of the extract are in square brackets, and ellipses (…) are in places I have edited out text from the original. I added emphasis for some texts by formatting them in bold.

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I sincerely hope my Open Letter to President Jammeh demonstrates to all the importance of speaking truth to power. I also hope that those in power will learn former President Jammeh’ folly, or they can be sure they’ll suffer his fate, when he failed to learn from the mistakes of leaders before him.

You can find the complete and original letter here: https://tinyurl.com/y4fr2ffu

I am writing to invite you to help increase the benefits of Gambia-L, and the Internet to The Gambia. Gambia-L is an electronic …forum created in January 1996 [to discuss] issues related to The Gambia …

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Discussions and announcements on Gambia-L cover [various topics], …. [including] current [Gambian affairs] … For this reason, many opinions have been expressed about you and your government on Gambia-L, and the debate continues round the clock, and every day.

Not all … postings on Gambia-L flatter you or your government, [and some see it as a forum for] … “anti-Jammeh people.” I have received suggestions that I … created Gambia-L because I oppose your government. While I do not agree with some of your policies, I did not help start Gambia-L to provide a forum for your critics.

Following your overthrow of the Jawara government, I started using one of my e-mail accounts in early in August 1994 to discuss developments in The Gambia with few of my friends. We were finally able, in January 1996, to find a more convenient host for the list at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Washington, USA, [and named the list “Gambia-L”].

UW hosted Gambia-L until last May [1999] when we were forced to find a new host [because some] Gambian subscribers to the list started threatening a Gambian employee of UW who sponsored the list there. [They] …threatened the Gambia-L sponsor …because they were dissatisfied with discussions on Gambia-L, especially the many postings on the list that were critical of you and your government.

Fortunately, we were able to migrate Gambia-L to St. John’s university … without serious interruptions in service. The move to St. John’s University has been a blessing in disguise [because] … postings to Gambia-L are now archived … and accessible to Internet users [worldwide] …

Gambia-L [is] … managed by … volunteers, including me, who are responsible for approving requests for subscriptions, and handling other administrative details. Subscription to Gambia-L is open to everyone, except for the case of one previous member who was expelled because of his rudeness, and insults to people on the list. All postings to the list are automatically distributed, without the intervention of any of the managers …

The fact that Gambia-L managers do not intervene in the distribution of postings to the list, coupled with the free and open nature of subscriptions means that Gambia-L could not possibly be aimed at providing a forum for people to thrash your administration. While it might be true that most postings are critical, rather than supportive of your government and policies, this is only because your supporters and/or government officials have failed to respond to the criticisms of your government on Gambia-L.

[In] … the past few weeks, there have been postings suggesting that your government has a list of Gambians overseas who are black-listed and being watched-for at border crossings by your immigration officials. Another posting mentioned that some Gambians were having their passports seized when they submit them for renewal because they are deemed opponents of your government. I was, to say the least, disappointed that only one government official, Tombong Saidy, … responded to these postings. It would help … if other government departments and agencies would get more involved in the dialogue on Gambia-L to help set the record straight, and dispel rumors.

It is my strong opinion that contrary to what some of your supporters are saying, Gambia-L and those who criticize you on it are valuable resources to The Gambia government. As you know, Gambians are susceptible to telling people what they want to hear and not necessarily the truth. This, in my humble opinion, was the reason that former President Jawara was blind to obvious shortcomings in his government, and ultimately paid the price with his downfall. … I suggest that rather than dismiss Gambia-L as a forum for your opponents, you should use it as a source of valuable information and advice you will never get from those in your inner circle more interested in self-preservation than what is best for our country.

May I mention that the importance of getting sound, truthful feedback has been demonstrated amply in history. You will recall that the late Shah of Iran, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, General Mobutu Sesse Seko of the former Zaire, and Samuel Doe of Liberia, to name a few, all died in disgrace and/or violently after being overthrown from seemingly unending dictatorships. The one lesson [they] failed to learn was that the greatest insurance against a shameful end to power is to give the truth a chance to be heard (emphasis added Nov. 16, 2021). And, Sir, if you think for one second that you are the exception to this rule, you should think again (emphasis added Nov. l6, 2021).

I would like to reaffirm my commitment to the idea that Gambians … have a right … to exchange information and ideas with each other. For this reason, I would like to see Gambia-L used … to enhance communication, and increase understanding. We would be foolish to use something that continues to unite people the world over to divide us, and set us further back in our quest for national prosperity (emphasis added Nov. 16, 2021).

In this regard, I am pleased to inform you that … Gambia-L subscribers [have shown an interest in starting] … a dialog … [Thus, a] recent Gambia-L posting from Dr. Abdoulaye Saine … [was] received with enthusiasm by many subscribers … I invite, and strongly encourage you to join us in charting a course of action to increase understanding, and foster a healthy debate among us.

Toward this end, I would like to offer some suggestions about how we can make Gambia-L, and the Internet even more beneficial to The Gambia. First, … Gambia-government Departments and agencies [should] either subscribe to the list, or … have a system in place [to ensure] … that they receive all discussions that relate to them. The Gambia already has Internet connectivity, and I see no reason why there should not be an effort to ensure that every government Department has at least one Internet-enabled computer.

Second, I would like to suggest that … government Departments set up … Websites that are informative, engaging and of consistent quality [to provide] … a valuable link between the Gambia government … and Internet users all over the world. Furthermore, the huge and increasing numbers of worldwide Internet users means that developing an Internet-presence strategy for the Gambia government will be a valuable investment for many years to come.

In conclusion, I would like to say that it is my sincere hope that the appeals for reconciliation and healthy debate on Gambia-L will be heard, acted on, and that we work to make the forum and the Internet a valuable resource to our nation. To paraphrase a Wollof saying, “you should dance when God claps for you.” It is my belief, Mr. President, that we’ve started dancing to a tune of cooperation on Gambia-L, and I invite you to join and help us use the medium to improve the welfare of the Gambian people.

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