OnMonday, December 20th, state-media, GRTS radio and television announced that President Jammeh the following day, Tuesday December 21st, was to fly to the Republic of Guinea in order to grace the occasion of the inauguration of president-elect Alpha Conde in Conakry. Members of Gambian officialdom and of the foreign diplomatic community, who usual line up at the Banjul international Airport to see the president off were informed of the time they were expected at the airport. And accordingly every one was in place waiting and waiting and waiting again before word came around that the trip had been cancelled. There was of course no official explanation of the sudden cancellation much less apologies. The incident seems to be allegorical indication of the state of things in the country. Where exactly are we heading towards?
Last week government issued a strong but amateurish statement denouncing the Senegalese leader Abdoulaye Wade and his government over the seizure of 13 containers of arms in a port in Lagos destined for Banjul, Kanilai Farm, a company owned by President Yahya Jammeh personally. Though the discovery of the freight was done about two months ago, events unfolding from it seem to keep most people in the Gambia apprehensive, making them wondering more and more where the country is heady towards.
Why are things like they are today in The Gambia, why is everything running amuck, with the “the best Inspector General of Police” alleged to have plotted with robbers and to have spread the word that he was selling cocaine for the president, why has everything turned upside down and inside out? The hero of yesterday, acclaimed for having defended the Republic and foiled a coup attempt in March 2006 now being accused to have been behind the same coup, what is happening? One week a man is accused of having said the president has more than ten tons of cocaine in the country and the other week more than two tons are found hidden in a warehouse that the president had accorded to a some strange-looking “investors” despite lots of protests from the owners in Bonto, how could this have happened? The arrest of eleven men and one woman, all of them aliens, was said to lead to the discovery but where are their Gambian partners? Why it is that none of them is yet caught? Is it because someone high up in the pyramid of the powers that be is also party to the racket?
The gang operated from two bases. One is the warehouse lying in Bonto village already mentioned the other is at the Baobab Islands off Kulorr. The first the men got from the president and the other, previously unpopulated, was the place where the president was once televised pretending to have disappeared into the thin air where he also was shown performing some fetish rites. Incidentally, both places are in theses ways linked to President Yahya Jammeh. Villagers in Bonto and Kulorr had for long take it the six Venezuelans were in some secrete but legitimate business with government as the places had always been surrounded by armed guards. This was so visible it could not have escaped the attention of the authorities if not their consent. But in The Gambia of today all eyes turn away from things said to belong to “Oga” or the “big man.” So it is with his monopoly over the mining of sand for construction; the diversion of thousands of tons of rice donated by the Kingdom of Japan; the expropriation of landed properties belonging to dozens of people, including the late Dr. Lenrie Peters and Banta Kaira; the permanent engagement of contingents of soldiers from the Gambia Armed Forces for work on the president’s privately owned farms: the takeover of the Abuko abattoir; the fate of the sale of shares or deal between state telecommunications companies GAMTEL and GAMCEL; and so on and so forth goes this catalogue. Why is this so?
The inconvenient truth is that The Gambia today thrives under a dictatorship of a special type. There are obvious similarities with classical bloodthirsty dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s (The Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko, Equatorial Guinea’s dynasty of Nguemas, or Central African Republic’s Jean Bedel Bokassa, but there are some less manifest differences. The classical dictatorships were the make of bygone times, of early post-colonial transition before citizens could sufficiently comprehend the nature of the new polity dressed in the gowns of the European nation-state; Cold War and continued, at times even worsening, economic deprivations.
The Jammeh dictatorship, on the other hand, came at a time when African leaders were toying with the idea of a second Liberation, following the conclusion of the Cold War and the coming into age of African leaders who were too young to have first hand experience of colonial rule. The matter was no longer a question of the doctrines of ideology but how one relates to the market. Instead of the sets of prescriptive ideas offered by political ideologies there was now only a set of one-size fit all prescriptions from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank fuelled on by a triumphant neo-liberal outlook that took sway over the whole world, practically. Unlike Congo, Equatorial Guinea arrived the Central African Republic; The Gambia had run the longest lasting multi-party democracy on the African continent between 1965 to 1994. This was however largely ignored because of the country’s geopolitical absurdity and minute size could be easily seen as the basis for such African exceptions. But could it not have been the same exceptionalism that laid behind the July 22nd coup that brought “Oga” to power? Remember this came at a time when most of Africa more less adopted the concept of multiparty democracy. The prescription everywhere was to downsize the state both in roll and size. More attention should be paid to the emancipation of the market than that of people, communities and citizens; on productivity than the inequalities that its rise might lead to. Following IMF and World Bank prescriptions in the middle eighties, the Gambian state laid off many public employees, dismantled the Public Works Department, and many other institutions in efforts at downsizing the state. But ironically enough the same state recruited almost the size of the numbers being retrenched into a new Gambia Armed Forces, National Gendarmerie and other instruments of coercion and repression. The Gambian state ended up being weaker in its civilian functions and stronger in its repressive role. The series of nonsensical civil wars then raging across countries in the sub region made feasible such change of profile. But it was a change of profile that was to prove fatal to the First Republic and several years later a weakened government was easily overthrown by a group of soldiers. Unlike about twelve years earlier when people, civilians as well as men in uniform, rose to defend or fight for control over a state they thought they had stake in, in 1994 almost everyone was an outsider and only little resistance was met by the plotters. In fact it remains to be confirmed that the event was nothing more than just a mutiny, which after the departure of the elected president naturally turned into a coup.
While the rest of Africa moved towards democracy Gambia was being drawn into the grip of a virulent dictatorship. After some hesitation, the successful plotters turned themselves into a junta that was soon to be turned into a single man’s property. On top of it all was Yahya Jammeh, brutal like Amin and only slightly better exposed, but streetwise or criminal minded enough to seize important opportunities when he sees one. While tapping resources and other aid from the erratic Khadafy of Libyan, he made the best out of Nigeria’s isolation under Gen Abacha, the Taiwanese out of their isolation, and sudden coming of Babanding Futanke Sisoho. Of all these ropes it was his criminal partnership with Mr. Sisoho that was to last the longest and to enrich him most. Though Sisoho himself was cast aside soon after, the channel, contacts and connection of international crime has been his legacy to the Jammeh regime. If it was not a container of heroine, if not diverted crude oil aid from Abacha it was Mobutu’s loot of gold and diamond; if not gun and blood diamond running with Victor Booth, as a panel of UN experts alluded, it was the Millennium Airlines saga……..and now the cocaine scandal, why have we fallen so low?