‘The Dictator Is Us’: A critique

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By Amat Jeng

If you have been following the hegemonic discussions on Gambia’s political and social life, you most likely have come across the luminous and cogent posts and commentaries by Alagie Barrow, the author of The Dictator Is US, a book released last month with much fanfare. Barrow, who spent a good part of his life in the US, navigating between a diasporic nostalgia for the homeland to some military duty for Uncle Sam America, has finally established himself as a prolific thinker and commentator on Gambian affairs. This is painstakingly proved in his book.

The ex-ante of the book launch was characterized by numerous praises and posts by friends, admirers, and loved ones, some of whom haven’t read the book. This article is neither a review of the book nor an attempt to regurgitate what has already been said about it or the author. Rather, it is an attempt to critique (not criticize) the work of an author whose command of the English language and approach to intersubjectivity I so dearly and ‘fearfully’ admire.

First, let me go down memory lane: I first met Alagie Barrow in 2019 in The Gambia, after having befriended him more than a year. When he accepted my invitation to see me, I also invited his arch nemesis, Njundu Drammeh, the man who walks around with a spoon in his pocket. Musa Bah (The Scribbler), the seasoned educationist and linguist who also walks around with a one-meter earphone wrapped around his neck, like the eloquent and humble APRC’s Dodou Jah, also graced this evening. It was such a soirée!

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When I saw the title of the book on Facebook Republic, like most people, I was flabbergasted, so my face grew larger than its cover. I thought Barrow was too offensive. I read the title again and again, checked the comments, and sipped my coffee. Then, the famous phrase ‘Where were you?’ came to my little mind (pun intended).

In The Dictator Is Us, Barrow pulls off what many Gambian analysts have not been able to do: With a well-crafted polemic, he succeeded in blending political psychology, social psychology, and anthropology in explaining the making of Yahya Jammeh and the institutionalized kleptomania which ran gamut during Jammeh’s era. Barrow took us back to his childhood days in Bundung, and this speaks to the adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ He laments how neighbors have lost the sense of neighborhood, leading them to report one another to Jammeh’s secret police. Among other things, the book chronicles Jammehism and how some people abated Jammeh to turn the country into his private fiefdom.

The underlying theme of The Dictator Is Us is that Gambians should be blamed for Jammeh’s brutality and leadership. While this perspective raises some fundamental psychological and sociological implications, it has some blind spots. First, the author focuses too much on the actors and structures that enabled Jammeh to rule as a dictator, leaving little room for those brave men who stayed in the country and stood against tyranny. It is evident that some Gambians abdicated personal responsibility and abated Jammeh; however, a handful of others have done the opposite.

Secondly, Barrow is of the view that Jammeh was created and nurtured by our society. This view ignores the symbiotic relationship between a society and dictators: A society makes a dictator, and a dictator makes a society. In our case, it was not because of the breakdown in truth, honesty, and family values that Jammeh became a dictator, as Barrow wants us to believe. From those who knew Jammeh when he was a young gendarmerie, words have it that he has always been a vicious and fearful young man whom the neighbors would call upon to discipline their delinquents or beat up their thieves. From a social behavior point of view, this can be attributed to childhood trauma and narcissism. Jammeh is a man who derives pleasure in the suffering of others – a sort of schadenfreude. It is unfortunate that Barrow does not dig deep into Jammeh’s upbringing and how his childhood trauma might have found expression in his system of governance. Although Barrow is right to argue that some so-called judicial experts and political prostitutes could have done better.

The third point that Barrow ignores is the psychological tactics of dictators. One fundamental trait of dictators is their ability to penetrate deep into society using different state apparatuses, no matter how enlightened that society is. Hitler did this in Germany. Mussolini did this in Italy. Pinochet did this in Chile. Lee Kuan Wen did this in Singapore. Franc Albert-René did this in Seychelles. Out of the rubbles, Lee Kuan was able to turn Singapore into a beacon of hope; Mussolini dismantled democratic institutions to build a fascist system; Hitler, after crying in his sick bed when he was told that Germany lost the First World War, came to symbolize the face of all evils, surpassing only King Léopold of Belgium who killed more than 10 million Africans. Dictators can thus reorient societies.

This is not to disagree with Barrow on his view that, in many ways, society has an enabling role in the making of a dictator.

The fourth point that Barrow perhaps deliberately omitted is the issue of choice. Leaders have three choices when they come to power: One, they consume power and use it to create a good legacy for themselves; two, they allow power to consume them and become vile dictators; and three, strike a balance between the first and the second. The last one requires pragmatism. Li Kuan chose the third option. Jammeh went for the second one. And for the case of The Gambia, society cannot be blamed for the ineptitude and sins of a small number of elites that were hell-bent on sustaining a brutal dictatorship. Therefore, Barrow should not see Jammeh’s brutality as a result of “our inaction”; rather, he should see “our inaction” as a result of Jammeh’s brutality.

The Dictator Is Us is a harbinger and a lingering proof that dictators cannot function without followers. For this, Alagie Barrow must be credited for bravely exposing the ineptitude, mediocrity, hypocrisy, greed, and unpatriotism of some Gambians. The bad news is that not many people will read the book. However, the good news is that we now know how it feels to be ruled by a dictator, and almost no patriotic Gambian in their right mind wants to go back there.