On the potholed streets and alleyways of Greater Banjul, it’s a macabre scene repeated many times; young men with limited education driving around in regime issued, gas guzzling vehicles, doing Yahya Jammeh’s dirty work; arresting, incarcerating, torturing, maiming and murdering innocent Gambians and non-Gambians alike.
But, just last week, a rare appearance on Freedom Radio by one of such young men, Ousman Bojang, provided Gambians with information no one, hitherto, knew existed, and clearly confirmed the deleterious nature of Yahya Jammeh’s AFPRC military regime. But, Ousman Bojang also gave subliminal clues as to the fidelity of most Jolas to the concept of one nation in which all Gambians thrive, unseparated from the broader Gambian family by mortifying ignorance or the dangerous attraction to the unsustainable tribal bigotry.
As repository of state secrets, Ousman Bojang’s extrication from the stranglehold of an artificial social construct that pits Jolas against Gambia’s majority tribes is an undeniable affirmation of Yahya Jammeh’s ideological isolation on the issue of tribal separation. Certainly the significance of Ousman Bojang’s revelations is not lost on Gambians, more importantly; he simply reechoed the challenges that confront Gambians and justified the national obligation to forcefully remove Yahya Jammeh’s toxic regime from power.
But of all the vexing Ousman Bojang revelations about Yahya Jammeh’s divisive tyranny and acrimonious pro-Jola sentiments, one stands out above all the others as extremely Rwandasque in character and indoctrination. Yahya Jammeh’s creation of a Jola army, out of the public glare, hit the airwaves like a ton of bricks. Yahya Jammeh’s regime’s formation of a secret Jola army, paid for by the Gambian people, and designed to enforce his stay in power despite popular opposition, is more a confirmation of his morbid fear for his own life than a stubborn desire to remain in power.
But now, with all the egregious crimes committed on behalf of, and on orders of Yahya Jammeh, the reality of a mass popular uprising is not without basis, and seems more likely as Gambians reach the extreme level of their tolerance. And last week, that reality was echoed in more instances than one. To begin, I never thought Sedia Bayo and I would agree on anything centered on the Gambia’s political struggles; until now. In spite of my reservations about his qualifications and ability to head an organization of any repute in the struggle, our ideas for uprooting Yahya Jammeh and restore civility and rule of law in Gambia are strikingly similar. Simply put; Sedia Bayo has impressed me with his proposal for an urgent nationwide resistance movement to put an end to Yahya Jammeh’s anachronistic military regime.
The similarities of Sedia Bayo’s and my views in moving the stalled national struggle forward is increasingly and rapidly gaining momentum, at home and abroad. The meeting last week of opposition leaders and their call for resistance to the regime’s perennial impunity, in sync with what the public wanted to have happened, was a hopeful sign. Years of online media exposure of the hair-raising human rights violations in Gambia have left Yahya Jammeh’s military regime completely weakened, shunned and virtually isolated by ECOWAS and the vast majority of African leaders.
But despite the frequent flares of violence against the Gambian people, and Yahya Jammeh’s intermittent ranting and raving against the west; most notably the EU, and the US and UK governments, Yahya Jammeh is simply hiding his fear of losing power, and terrified of what will happen to him. What is also certain is Yahya Jammeh’s constants efforts to create distraction from the real economic hardship facing Gambia. To this effect, Yahya Jammeh’s new drumbeat over gays and lesbians is a smokescreen and a political distraction, from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, like the three months witch-hunting exercise around the country in 2009, this too, could cost lives. Already, a quiet, but massive social disruption is taking shape as some of Gambian gays and lesbians head for the hills across the border into Senegal, or descend further into deafening obscurity in a society where their existence is held in contempt by a bigoted minority.
The vigorous debate over gays and lesbians rights in the west, over the past two years, gave Yahya Jammeh an opportunity to exploit the issue and draw attention to himself. Increasingly, Yahya Jammeh wants to cast himself as an anti-western rebel, a position that has endeared him with nations that practice strict Sharia codes, as well as benefit from badly needed financial sponsorship.
By challenging western values on homosexuality, and deflecting attention from an economy on the borderline of ruin, Yahya Jammeh, will also temporarily mute the ongoing frustrations over Gambia’s denial of access to UN Rapporteurs sent to separate fact from fiction in the Gambia’s less than stellar human rights record. And Gambians, who unenthusiastically participated in a lackluster demonstration against gays and lesbians sanctioned by the state and designed to impress financiers from the Middle East, would rather have protested the murders, executions, mass incarcerations, exorbitant cost of food and services, never ending hiring and firing, relentless arrests and detentions of innocent Gambians and the tyranny of the Jola minority.
And with some gay men recently paraded on national television and put on trial, the Gambia has once again been plunged into another ideologically divisive non-issue by a regime that never failed to manipulate unsuspecting Gambians and creating philosophical acrimonies and deep social and cultural polarization in Gambian society.
A blogger who spoke for all Gambians recently contextualized Yahya Jammeh’s ridiculous anti-gay and lesbian circus as; “Gambia does not have a gay and lesbian problem; Gambia has a Yahya Jammeh problem.”
The degree of ridiculousness of the gay and lesbian debate in Gambia is matched only by their corresponding invisibility in Gambian society. The public expressions of homosexuality and other manifestations of crossing the gender divide are such a taboo in Gambian society that only gays and lesbians with distinguishable feminine and masculine characteristics and behaviors will risk ridicule and social ostracization in a society where their obscurity is enforced by society.
The social norms and religious dogma in Gambia prohibit the public expression of homosexuality, and for Yahya Jammeh to make it an issue, only aggravates gays and lesbians self-imposed exile into total obscurity, and away from prying eyes of homophobic zealots in the payroll of the regime. As a people joined by a common desire to bring about political change, Gambians have reached the end of the road; the limits of their endurance and the boundary of their tolerance. The diaspora dissident movement; the online media and civil society organizations have laid the foundation for Yahya Jammeh’s forcible removal, but the diaspora cannot do it alone.
The active participation and leadership of the political establishment and the Gambian people is both necessary and inevitable to move from the point of desire to the point of real political change.
The diaspora, therefore, calls on the political parties and the Gambian people to be more vocal, more engaged and more pragmatic in the determination to see political change through mass, popular nationwide demonstrations. Yahya Jammeh may have his Jola army, but he has to know that for every Jola youth he can rely on for defense, there are ninety-three Mandinka, Fula, Wollof and other tribal youth. To put it another way, the Jola population on the entire planet equals the total Fula population in Gambia alone. Any Jola army Yahya Jammeh stands up for support will face a glaring numerical disadvantage, and a fight it cannot win.
Today, fear of getting entangled with the regime has paralyzed the political opposition and public into inaction and inconsequentiality. This morbid fear that has permeated Gambian society has its roots in the gruesome murder of Koro Ceesay, the 2000 student massacre and the November 1994 military executions, but it does not justify abandoning the responsibility of holding the regime to account. But as it is, political activity has deescalated to near complete silence, which has allowed the regime to ban protests and demonstrations, despite being constitutionally guaranteed and beyond the prevue of the regime to ban.
In addition, the diaspora movement may have inadvertently given Gambians a sense it has the answers, but that is far from reality. The fact is; real power resides in the people and the opposition.
In order to succeed, Gambians must converge together the combined civilian and political opposition into a monolithic force for change. If we do, we can never lose the price of freeing Gambia from the clutches of a Casamance-born tyrant; Yahya Jammeh. Together, we have to make Gambia the next Burkina Faso. The time for balangbaa is now. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity.