By Abdoulie Fatty
Gambians went to the polls amid a weary, tensed and unpredictable backdrop on December 1st 2016. Shrouded by heightened tensions, constructed by the circumstances of the occasion and birthed by the unmistakable importance of what was at stake. The momentousness of the outcome of the pollswas not lost on Gambians, both here and in the diaspora. Returning the incumbent to power, yet again, and the perceived terror and brutality to be visited on the population for all the show of discontent, disloyalty and blatant disapproval was not a misplaced fear. It was conceived by the empirical ruthlessness of Jammeh. The manifestly unmasked display and show of disgruntlement at the regime earlier in 2016 insofar as Jammeh was concerned, deserved unforgivingand cruel consequences. The Solo Sandeng protest for electoral reforms. The aftermath of the sheer force and brutality meted out on Darboe and his supporters for simply marching to demand the body of Solo Sandeng, dead or alive. The whole machinery of the PIU and NIA terror, crystalizing the mindset of the regime, its systematic terror system and the extent to which it would go to crush dissent and any hint of discontent.
After the dust settled, amid growing avalanche of opposition to Jammeh, relentlessly gathering momentum, such as the “Calama Revolution” by brave Gambian women, mostly middle-aged and uneducated, was symbolic in display but even more resonant in meaning and effect, the conditions for retribution would have been near perfect. After such outcry and Gambians publicly insulting Jammeh, signaling that people had reached the end of their tether, there was an unwritten but undisputed acceptance, that if Jammeh won the election, he would take the whole country, bar APRC stalwarts, at ransom and punish, in such brutal and severe ways that this country had never witnessed. Those were the reasons why the stakes were high and emotions understandably charged. The fear of the unknown despite considerable optimism by many that change was inevitable in December 2016. The likes of me, worried of being overly optimistic only to be crushed rather cruelly by a heavy defeat of the Coalition, possibly subconsciously, remained fairly pessimistic, perhaps as a mechanism against an almost destined disappointment. Yet, I remember December 1stvividly. It was a beautiful and mild day. The blue sky and white clouds sporadically appeared, with profound visibility, perhaps mirroring the curious mood of the nation as Gambians went to the polls in undoubtedly one of the most important presidential elections since independence, for various, yet, obvious reasons.
I went to the Alkalo’s house, very early, just after 7:00a.m or thereabouts, with mistaken belief that as venue where I registered for my voter’s card, that was the polling station. Only to be redirected to a school, five minutes-drive away. Around the junction, while driving to the station, I saw my neighbour. I stopped and she boarded the vehicle. Small talknaturally ensued, simple and unforced. Only a few days before, I mustered the will to tell her, politely but strongly about what I thought of Jammeh. Hitherto, this was a topic that we never discussed. I knew she was APRC, through and through. She may have assumed I too was APRC. Well, until my utterances, although measured and concise, perhaps dispelled any notion of my being APRC. So, the two strange bedfellows, heading to a polling station, suspiciously avoided talk that would disturb the early morning December harmattan chilly–breeze. Or, perhaps, there was little need to talk politics, even superficial and mundane stuff that were not controversial, because I had revealed my hands in our conversation days earlier and my political loyalty had been divulged. Yet, we both knew, when we cast our votes, albeit in secret ballot, we would be casting for different candidates, at opposite ends of the spectrum, seeking different outcomes. I wanted change. She wanted continuity, for the status quo to remain.
Then the results emerged. The nation rejoiced in a jubilant mood. Unprecedented. The euphoria of defeating Jammehwas electrifying. The impossible had been achieved. The man who claimed he would rule Gambia for a billion years was left with his tail hanging between his legs when he was unceremoniously bundled into a private jet to start life in exile, just like he had caused thousands of Gambians during his two decades of ruthless reign. The cards had turned. A man whose self-assuring ego is immeasurable, had his ego fatally dented. The man who ruled this land for more than two decades, with iron fists, killed and maimed to entrench himself, all of a sudden, was rejected by the people and forced to flee to seek sanctuary elsewhere, on a foreign land and unfamiliar terrain. Befitting end to his despotic rule.
The expectations of the Gambian people and the whole world were very high. Expectations for “New Gambia” became more than a political slogan. It became a symbol of hope, change and aspiration. As if, collectively accepting that finally, the shackles that had been wrapped around Gambia’s neck and suffocated it for twenty-two years had finally been removed through the will of the people hence a legitimate expectation of the dawn of a new beginning, anchored on democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
However, very early on, amid the euphoria, behind the scenes and within our hearts and minds, reluctantly, we were noticing cracks in the wall. As we were still in the honeymoon period, we pretended, conveniently, to overlook some of these underlying inadequacies and problems. The mammoth leverage the Coalition government had, began to gradually diminish as problems, inherent differences, began to surface, at full glare, before the Gambian people. The rift between Darboe and Barrow, became public and edgy. The whole Coalition agreement disintegrated. Darboe was fired. The once political allies, became foes and their proxies went for cut-throat politics. Emerged the reincarnated Seedy Njie into the scene and the likes of Dou Sanno, became Barrow’s chief protagonists, his bulldogs, against the UDP and anybody who did not believe Barrow was up to the task.
Unfortunately, the cessation of the Coalition pact, prematurelyand antagonistically, set the tone for the trajectory of the “coalition?” government. Everything became adversarial. Barrow became obsessed with clinging onto power at all costs and by all means. UDP aiming to unseat him and the turf of war became ever more malignant, acrimonious and personal. The betrayal by Barrow, they would allege, and the open scars that it left unhealed, can only be cured by taking away from him what matters to him most, which at face value, at the moment, seems to be POWER. In the middle of all these political tussles, Gambia had been left completely stranded, unable to wriggle its way out of the mud.
Who would have thought back in January 2017, after Barrow’s swearing-in, that in February 2021, APRC would continue to occupy a significant space in our body politic? Very few. The collapse of the Coalition and the seeds of discontent, tribal undercurrents, deep seated political polarity and mistrust that have been sown, created a political vacuum for APRC to utilize and it did so shrewdly. They saw a weakness and space to fill and exploited it. Such that, we have recently seen large billboards about the APRC congress, right in our faces, as if to provoke us that after all, they are as relevant and alive today as they were on December 2nd 2016. How and why APRC remains relevant in our political discourse, after everything that had been said and revealed at the TRRC, the serious human rights abuses and violations that Jammeh orchestrated and his entire security apparatus perpetrated, beggars belief. It is not an accident or coincidence. The problems we are encountering are manufactured. Now we are challenged by the side effects of the product that we once put on a pedestal, only to later discover that the material and its ingredients were nothing short of “clueless” and out of depth.
The disintegration of the Coalition and the fragmentation of UDP, the power struggle between Darboe and Barrow, stalled the entire socio-economic and political process in the “so called” transition period. Barrow, being the chief culprit, has to take the blame. No sooner had the poisoned chalice, the usual trappings of African presidency befallen him, he started surrounding himself with people, that he trusted to be loyal to him and distanced everybody that showed any hint of disloyalty, and slowly started paving the way for remaining in power, not for three years as he promised the Gambian people, but indefinitely. So much that the very constitutional review process that his government initiated, is now seen as not only toxic for his political and presidential aspirations but a hindrance and therefore, despite the biggest consultative process ever over a national document, Barrow and his loyalists have little appetite, for the draft consultation to see the light of day again, after its dismissal in the National Assembly in September last year.
The last four years, despite some small progress, have been largely a waste. Sometimes I wonder, despite respect for human rights and tolerance for freedom of expression, that we have actually regressed. It is painful but that seems to be the reality. After 56 years of independence, we are unsure of our future. It appears we are standing on the brink of political paralysis and somehow, pulling and attempting to wrestle ourselves from our current predicament.
Abdoulie Fatty is a lawyer and interested in democracy and human rights.