By Salmina Jobe
Saturday, 30 July 2018 was not an ordinary day for many Gambians both at home and abroad because on this day, Aja Fatou Asombi Bojang (RIP) took her last breath in faraway Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, to join billions of other human beings who have passed on to eternity before us. As usual, messages of grief, condolences, eulogies and other controversial comments poured in from all over the world thanks to the power of social media.
Certainly, this attests to the special place that the old woman has in the country’s history which is simply that she was the mother of Yahya Jammeh, the president of The Gambia for a little over 22 long years. A marked distinction among the comments provoked by the obituary was the clear and opposing views on the issue between supporters of Jammeh’s APRC party on the one hand and those who hold deep resentments against his tyrannical rule. The latter are genuinely incensed by Jammeh’s show of extreme callousness to the emotional needs of the relatives and colleagues of his foes who passed away abroad during his days at the helm of government as personified by such people like the late Honourable Buba Baldeh, Honourable Foday Makalo and even coupist Kukoi Samba Sanyang, all of whom were denied burial in the country by Jammeh! After all, life is life and everyone deserves the dignity of burial in his or her place of choice or that of their close relatives. Therefore, while for the former, it is a great loss and period of deep mourning for the loss of a mum, a certain opinion in the opposite camp is that this is no cause for a ‘national mourning’ given that her son sent so many people into their early graves many of whom were even denied a decent burial as they simply disappeared or were secretly buried in unmarked graves by Jammeh’s killers.
Meanwhile, the critical factor in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the obituary with potentially huge implications for national reconciliation and healing would be the position of the President Adama Barrow’s government on the debacle. Ostensibly, it had become a sensitive issue which required tact and the recourse to the greater ‘national good or interest’ above all parochial views or considerations. It was therefore quite heartening, to say the least, that the government rose to the occasion with remarkable maturity, sensitivity and a strong focus on national unity when a high-powered delegation headed by no smaller a personality than the Vice President , Ousainu Darboe to the bereaved Jammeh family’s residence to console with them in their hour of grief and offer prayers to the deceased. That it would be Darboe to lead such a government delegation is quite paradoxical in that in at least 20 of Jammeh’s 22-year iron rule, Darboe must have been number one target on the dictator’s hit list, as indeed were the countless cases of harassment he and his supporters.
Indeed, but for Yahya’s democratic defeat in December 2016, Darboe and his colleagues were condemned to perish in Mile 2 jail having been sent there by a Jammeh kangaroo court! That single act of magnanimity as well as emotional and political maturity denied Jammeh and his APRC party the gift of victimhood that they would otherwise have been relishing had government acted with the Jammeh-style callous indifference! Finding themselves in the same room and for the same purpose of extending condolences to the Jammehs produced the rare moments of exchange of pleasantries between the two camps – what a great moment that moved national reconciliation several notches up!
Who was Aja Fatou Asombi Bojang?
As I have personally never met or interacted with the late Aja Fatou Asombi Bojang, I will rely largely on the ‘testimonies’ of others who have interacted with her at one time or the other. I learnt that she spent decades plying her occupation as petty trader in food commodities like smoked fishes, fermented locust beans, palm oil and other vital ingredients in the traditional Gambian cuisine which she transported from the Fonis to the rapidly growing urban centres in the Kombos. That immediately suggests that she was engaged in a decent work in the food supply chain of the country, which, however, may not only be the best paying job in addition to having to put up with not-so-pleasant odours throughout the time that she spent trading in them. One source informed that she always opposed Jammeh’s excesses of all types that led to occasions of friction with Jammeh when direct communication between them would cease for quite a while.
Perhaps my best impressions of the old woman are the extracts from the eulogy published by Momodou Sabally in the The Standard newspaper. Having been a former Jammeh confidant, Sabally was in a good position to interact with others nearer to him, including his mum. This reveals an amazing account of the humane, caring and truly motherly nature of Aja Asombi to those she interacted with, not just when these people enjoyed the grace of the sudden and unpredictable ‘King Jammeh’, but even when they fall foul of him! We read in Sabally’s story of how the old woman became seriously concerned with his conditions in Jammeh’s jails and even going to the extent of sending him food and mobile phones to enable them (Asombi and Sabally) to directly communicate, speaks volumes about the wonderful and superior humane qualities of this old woman. Adieu Aja Asombi! I am therefore tempted to conclude that the dictatorial traits that Yahya Jammeh demonstrated throughout his reign of terror were NOT inherited but rather acquired perhaps through substance abuse that he is reported to be steeped in.
Balancing the reconciliation equation
The commendable performance of the Barrow government on the occasion of the death and burial of Aja Fatou Asombi Bojang will certainly earn it and The Gambia an impressive high mark on the reconciliation scorecard, but that is not enough! I had earlier alluded to the resentment and even some degree of anger in the camp of the government’s own supporters but even more so among those closer to those denied burial in The Gambia by Yahya Jammeh. I therefore suggest the following ‘compromise’, or simply action that would sooth or assuage the grievances of these group of fellow Gambians as follows: immediately launch consultations with the families of Honourable Buba Baldeh, Foday Makalo and Kukoi Samba Sanyang to offer them support for the reburial of these relatives or associates in the country befitting them. Buba and Foday, having been Members of Parliament of the First Republic should receive state reburials to honour their status and contributions to national development. That way, the government would score positively on both sides of the political divide. This will also promote reconciliation well ahead of the TRRC, and remove the ill-conceived criticism that the move to honour Jammeh’s mother was for political reasons only.
Director, Centralized Project Coordination Unit at Ministry of the Environment, CC & Natural Resources (MECCNR)