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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Nectar and poison

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By Talib Gibran

In 2016, I hopped on a plane to Türkiye for a two-week assignment, a year after the Fethullah Gülen attempted coup. I visited the most important places and the most painful places. I met the heroes, who put their lives on the line to resist a coup and survived, with missing limbs or permanent bullet scars. It was a touching experience and it was the first time I actually saw true nationalism. Whatever we have here in The Gambia is not nationalism; it is what it is. Turkish people love their country and that was manifested before my eyes in cities across the country, from Istanbul to Ankara. At least 20 other African journalists joined us on that trip. They arrived like the Avengers. They would go for regular shopping and even, occasionally, pay for carnal pleasures. One of the journalists from Ethiopia, who I got close to, told me he has three cars and his own compound. I didn’t even own a bicycle. He told me what his salary was and my eyebrows raised on their own. That’s what I received in a year. I refused to tell him mine because he would think I was kidding. I don’t think my salary was up to D4,000 at the time. It was a starvation salary and it is a miracle I survived on it for long. Quite embarrassing. I hated myself and the system that both exploits and impoverishes hardworking people. Before we returned, I filed more stories than him and that made me even more upset. Throughout the trip, I kept thinking about when I would reach that stage to receive such a fat salary. It’s seven years on, with more sweat and sacrifice, but there isn’t much difference in my standard of living. He probably owns a plane now or a Bugatti. I have now believed that hardwork isn’t rewarding at all. It’s a myth and a deception, meant to fuel the fire in poor people. It is a poverty trap. It showed in the Former Presidents’ Bill, which was taken to the National Assembly with a certificate of urgency. What is even urgent about it? We do not have an ex-president. We vote in presidents and give them power and privileges. We then vote them out because we are no longer happy with them but the privileges continue until their death, and then continue with their widows or widowers until their death. They eat the nectar and we eat the poison. I remember my Ethiopian friend’s salary when I saw the budget estimates and how much is earmarked for the Speaker of the National Assembly. I have been upset all over again. But it is The Gambia, mate. If you don’t smile, you will cry and I would rather do the former. In this Gibramble, I do the usual, creating an imaginary conversation and wishing it was real. 

Talib: Mr Speaker, how’s it going at parliament?

Honourable Speaker: It is exhausting. Those kids keep arguing. Sometimes, when I lie in bed deep in the night, I would think, you know what, I am done. But the benefits are too much. The privileges, ironically, are a discouragement to resignation.

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Talib: What kind of benefits?

Honourable Speaker: Both monetary and prestige. I am the third most powerful person in the country, behind only the president and the vice. People are changing constitutions to stay in power. Why would I quit voluntarily?

Talib: Did you learn that from my uncle Jammeh?

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Honourable Speaker: Oh yes, I learned everything from him.

Talib: Okay let’s talk about the benefits. From next year, the government estimated your salary to be 1.2 million dalasi. That is D100,000 a month. Why did the government give you this much money?

Honourable Speaker: Because I threatened them.

Talib: With what?

Honourable Speaker: That I will let their bills die.

Talib: How would you do that?

Honourable Speaker: When the voting is done on any government bill, I will say “the nays have it” even when it is the opposite.

Talib: Surely if you do that, the NAMs will resist.

Honourable Speaker: No, they will not. I frighten them too. All of them are scared of me.

Talib: How is anyone afraid of you?

Honourable Speaker: I use my Jammeh look and two phrases.

Talib: And what are those?

Honourable Speaker: I look but I don’t look, if you know what I mean.

Talib: No, I don’t know what you mean but I will let it pass. How about the Jammeh phrases?

Honourable Speaker: Let me make myself very clear… and will not be compromised.

Talib: You’re right. He says those a lot. Now, let’s talk about the responsibility allowance. D360,000 is estimated for this. Tell me, do you feed the whole of Tallinding?

Honourable Speaker: More than that. A lot of people depend on me. The part of Foñi that doesn’t follow that Tamba boy and his militia group all rely on me. I am the new Jammeh in Foñi.

Talib: My uncle will not be happy hearing that.

Honourable Speaker: He’s in Obiang land bluffing. He will only see Gambia on television.

Talib: Don’t say that. He’s done a lot for you.

Honourable Speaker: I’ve done a lot for him too.

Talib: What exactly did you do for him?

Honourable Speaker: I became Speaker and helping people in Foñi, which he hasn’t done in almost a decade and keeps telling them he is coming back.

Talib: Many Gambians still believe he is the best, not just Foñinkas.

Honourable Speaker: All the good ones die young. I believe that saying. And I also believe Jammeh will live for over 100 years.

Talib: You’re not young either and still alive and kicking. Does that mean you’re not good too?

Honourable Speaker: I have no comment on that. My status speaks for itself.

Talib: Indeed. Now, your residential allowance is D480,000. Are you renting in Tallinding?

Honourable Speaker: No, I am not. It’s my compound. I bought it since you were in diapers.

Talib: Then what do you do with residential allowance?

Honourable Speaker: I don’t know. Ask Seedy Keita, the finance minister. He put it there.

Talib: But you’re the one receiving it.

Honourable Speaker: Yes. Wait, really? I counted my money last time but I don’t remember that sum. Hope someone isn’t diverting my privileges.

Talib: Maybe it is your deputy, SK Njie. He seems to be neck-and-neck with you in privileges.

Honourable Speaker: I don’t want to talk about him.

Talib: Why?

Honourable Speaker: Because he is like Baby Doc, the former Haitian leader.

Talib: How about Papa Doc, his father?

Honourable Speaker: Yes, that is me.

Talib: Right. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Honourable Speaker: I want him to fall far from me. If he falls close, I’ll pick him and throw him away.

Talib: But why?

Honourable Speaker: He is a sycophant.

Talib: What is the difference between you two?

Honourable Speaker: I am an elder sycophant.

Talib: And what is he?

Honourable Speaker: A fresh sycophant. Very dangerous. 

Talib: I like him better. He’s smarter than you.

Honourable Speaker: Why would you say such a thing? That’s treason.

Talib: SK replaced Sheriff Bojang as information minister. He used to frequent Sheriff’s office.  Perfect script.

Honourable Speaker: He was looking for something or someone there. 

Talib: I don’t know. There were a lot of desirable things in his office; or should I say desirable people?

Honourable Speaker: But how is he smarter than me? I am a walking encyclopaedia. I can remember the names of the last three Speakers of the National Assembly.

Talib: That’s where he beats you. You remember the past; he remembers the future. He got on the plane to Equatorial Guinea with AJJ. He still returned and occupied the seat of power. If that were you, even if you stopped at the airport and waved AJJ bye, you would be farming cannabis in rural Gambia.

Honourable Speaker: At least I would get high all the time and wouldn’t have to listen to the terrible English in parliament.

Talib: Not a bad thing to do at your age. But that’s not the point. What I am saying is that sycophants, and that includes you, are very smart. We always say their luck will run out when the administration changes. It never does. They have perfected their art. Don’t be surprised SK becomes ANM’s minister, if he gets that elusive seat.

Honourable Speaker: If that happens, I’ll go through the eye of the needle.

Talib: You should not worry about SK; worry about me.

Honourable Speaker: Why would I be worried about you?

Talib: I’ll lobby as you did and take your place.

Honourable Speaker: If that happens, the assembly building will go through the eye of the needle.

Talib: Goodluck with that. Now, I want you to explain to me why there’s D240,000 professional allowance for you.

Honourable Speaker: This allowance is given to me for being a consummate professional. Despite being trolled by NAMs like Yaya Menteng, I don’t get up and beat them up. And for listening to bad English throughout the sessions. It takes a lot of my energy. I need to be compensated.

Talib: But you keep getting dragged into silly arguments with the NAMs. You say “Honourable Member” a million times each sitting as if they don’t hear you.

Honourable Speaker: They hear me but pretend they don’t because the sessions are live-streamed. They want their constituents to see them fighting with the Speaker. That’s why I said I deserve to be compensated.

Talib: Talk of compensation. I saw D124,000 robbing allowance. Why would you be given allowance for robbing us?

Honourable Speaker: It is not robbing, as in robbing a bank. You see, this is why Jammeh never liked journalists. You think you’re smart but you’re not. It is a clothing allowance.

Talib: I know Jammeh never liked us. He killed us and called us illegitimate sons of Africa.

Honourable Speaker: Did you see the getzner I was wearing when I asked that NAM to sit down?

Talib: Why do you keep shouting at NAMs? You’re in parliament because of luck, they are there because people trusted them with their votes.

Honourable Speaker: I would rather take the luck from the president than the trust from the people. It’s easier to please one man than a constituency of angry people.

Talib: But why would taxpayers buy clothes for you after buying you a vehicle costing a fortune?

Honourable Speaker: No, these things are taken from our salaries and allowances. In the end, we pay for ourselves. It is not free.

Talib: No, you don’t. It is free because whatever salary or allowance that is deducted is still from the taxpayers.

Honourable Speaker: That makes sense. I never thought of that. I’ll move a motion that we shouldn’t deduct anything from our salary since that salary is from taxpayers too. We will just take it.

Talib: I am sure you will.

Honourable Speaker: The vehicle thing is in the past. But you’re talking about the clothes as if I am the only one who receives the allowance. Everyone does.

Talib: Everyone? Even Almameh Gibba?

Honourable Speaker: Yes, everyone. Of course, we are not equal but we all have clothing allowance.

Talib: Then why does he still dress like Al-Shabaab?

Honourable Speaker: I told you he’s part of the militia group. Imagine, I was insulted and cursed because I facilitated alliance talks with the ruling NPP. The militia group broke away and named themselves APRC No Alliance but still got into alliance with Mamma Kandeh. How can you be no alliance and still be in alliance? Does that even make sense?

Talib: No, it doesn’t. The name sounds like a civil rights movement.

Honourable Speaker: Exactly. Almameh is a loose cannon. He will soon start advocating for Foñi’s independence.

Talib: If that independence is attained, I will be the president myself.

Honourable Speaker: So, you’re from Foñi. You set me a trap. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a jungler behind the curtains. This interview is over.

Talib: Mr Speaker, final question. Honourable don’t go, let us conclude in a civil manner. Mr Speaker, D108, 000 for telephone allowance. Do you buy a new phone or credit?

Honourable Speaker: I buy the phone company itself. Fool. 

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