I begin by congratulating Gambians for successfully taking another step towards bringing our country back, this time electing national assembly members to serve as the legislative branch of government. Special congratulations to the United Democratic Party (UDP) who won 31 of the 53 districts up for grabs. The results leave no doubts about which party has the most loyal voters and they now enjoy a significant majority in the parliament, enough to legally bully their way through any legislation if all their members of parliament choose to vote together. Over the past few days, the UDP supporters have been celebrating their well-earned victory. Like many Gambians, one particular celebration caught my attention and is the focus of this piece. UDP leader, Lawyer Ousainou Darboe is on video speaking to supporters before bursting into song at the end. Now, i know it’s become taboo to even bat an eyelid at Darboe and UDP but there’s also that saying about “fools dare to tread where angels fear to go”? Yeah, that one! Sign me up for Fool School but this is too important to ignore.

In the “unnoticed” part of the video, Lawyer Darboe publicly refers to our Women’s Affairs Minister, Fatoumatta Tambajang, as “The Honorable Vice President”. This, despite all the controversy surrounding the numerous failed attempts by the Barrow administration to make her the VP…but I’ll get back to the significance of that utterance later. The part that unsettled many Gambians was the fact that, unprompted, Mr. Darboe led the singing of “Lawyer Darboe yeh bankoe taa”, which translates to “Lawyer Darboe has taken over the country”. I found these words and that video disturbing on so many levels. Thankfully, the ensuing discussions on social media showed that i was not the only one. As usual, the good lawyer’s self-appointed lawyers were quick to his defence. One of the explanations given was that Mr. Darboe did not mean the words literally and that it’s just a song from 1996. That explanation almost sounds reasonable but I upon closer examination, I found still found it very worrisome for the following reasons.

For starters, one of requirements of a good leader is to have a very good understanding of the people, the times and the pulse of those they’re leading. Mr. Darboe should understand that we are in 2017, not 1996. Gambians have been through great trauma under a brutal dictatorship, led by a man who used words like “deka bi maako morm” (I own the country). Barely 3 months after getting rid of that regime, there has been a lot of political and tribal tension which makes this a very delicate time in our nation’s history. The rhetoric on social media has revealed some deep tribal tensions that many of us wanted to believe do not exist in our peaceful Gambia. The war of words, explicit and subliminal, has been raging on between Mandinkas, Fulas, Jolas and Wolofs. We have seen the extent of devastation that ethnic and tribal conflicts have caused in other parts of Africa and our leaders cannot afford to use words that have even the slightest potential to inflame tensions. So hearing those potentially inflamatory words from the leader of the biggest political party leaves me with 4 possible explanations.

1. The leader is out of touch with the masses and does not fully understand the current heightened ethnic/tribal tensions fuelled by politics.
2. The leader understands the tensions and does not care.
3. The leader understands the tensions but chooses to further stoke the fires because he believes it works to his advantage.
4. The leader simply got carried away with emotions and did not fully think about his choice of words at the time.

Given Mr. Darboe’s status as an elderly statesman who has a very good chance of eventually rising to the presidency, any of the first 3 would be scary for The Gambia. I therefore hope that option 4 above wins the day if and when Mr. Darboe chooses to explain his choice of song.

The second reason I found the song so disturbing was the suggestion of total disregard for the current president. Many Gambians and non-Gambians are questioning whether President Barrow is capable of running and in control of the government. One foreign journalist recently referred to him as an “accidental President” and it’s probably the one time the public saw Mr. Barrow display any emotion in an interview as he defended himself, emphasizing that his presidency was no accident. At such a time, I would have expected the man he publicly referred to as his “Political Father” to use language that will empower Mr. Barrow in the eyes of the world. Singing that “Darboe has taken over the country” only emasculates the president and further strengthens the rumor that Barrow is a mere puppet being told what to do. Singing that “Barrow has taken over the country” would have been a lot more helpful. Better yet, “Gambians have taken over the country” would have been even better as it would be a UNIFYING message – one that the country needs right now.

Thirdly, when i first read the complaints about Darboe’s song, I did not take it as a big deal because I thought it was his supporters singing the words and he just sang along to be polite. That was excusable for me even if it would have been in poor taste. I was shocked and disappointed to see that the song was started and led by the leader himself! I really pray that our leaders are not so conceited as to publicly lead their supporters on songs praising themselves! The sycophancy problem is one we’re trying to get away from and we hope New Gambia will not be led by new “HIV curing Babili Mansas”. Darboe has been in the public eye for decades and I want to believe we would have seen it by now if he had an ego of such disturbing proportion. Again, I want to believe that it was one slip-up driven by out of control emotions that will not be repeated.

Another explanation I heard from the lawyer’s self-appointed defence lawyers online was that Darboe only sang those words but they should not be taken literally. That explanation would have been comforting except for what we witnessed in US politics. It happens to be the same argument Donald Trump’s supporters used when they told us that we should “take him seriously but not literally” during the campaign. We were told that it was just rhetoric and he would never “institute a Muslim ban” or “build a wall”. Sure enough, Mr. Trump has given us all the more reason to follow the advice to “believe them when someone first tells us who they truly are”. Coming from that experience, the UDP leader’s words sent shivers down my spine. Trump has taught us to believe what leaders tell us rather than distrust our ears and believe what we want to hear.

Finally, back to Mr. Darboe’s reference to the Women’s Affairs Minister as “The Honorable Vice President”. Said separately, I may have brushed it off as just a slip of the tongue. However, when followed by singing that he has taken over the country, I am left wondering whether it’s not deliberate and that he is sending us a message. Despite realizing that their attempts to force a constitutional amendment was found unconstitutional, despite her never having been sworn-in, despite thousands of Gambians calling for the administration to appoint a legitimate vice president, Mr. Darboe’s insistence on publicly referring to Madam Tambajang as “The Honorable Vice President” is very worrisome. Oh, and Darboe also tried to “lawyer” us with an unconvincing argument that the constitution does not give specific timelines for the appointment of a Vice President thereby justifying the administration’s failure to appoint one for over 3 months. One can easily connect the dots to reach a plausible conclusion that the real message from Darboe is “I have taken over the country and will do as i please…and my anointed one shall be Vice President by any means necessary”.

The Gambia has been through great pain. We finally broke the chains of bondage to get rid of an autocratic ruler who killed, jailed and maimed because his delusions led him to believe that “he owned the country”. We believe that GAMBIANS HAVE NOW TAKEN OVER THE COUNTRY and that the leaders we elect are there to serve us and not own us. Great trust has been shown to Darboe and his party by the overwhelming majority they were elected to the national assembly with. We pray they appreciate the sanctity of that responsibility and take great care in the execution of their duty. Every action must be critically evaluated. What our leaders do may not be seen by all but what they say travels far and fast…and can have grave consequences on those who hear them and they way they interpret the words. So actions matter, but WORDS MATTER TOO.

Sana Sarr