Recently the online Gambian community has been set afire by the disappearance of a young lady who posted a video of a traffic officer abusing a schoolgirl. While it is not a 100% certain where she is, suspicion has fallen on the State, with reports that she received threatening calls after posting the video, and her phone has become unreachable since.
I write this not from a political point of view – I am neither running for office nor do I have a political party. I write in the spirit of Gambia, the motherland, and the covenant that came into being when we agreed to come together as a nation, setting aside tribal divisions and sharing one thing in common: that we are all waa Gambia. I write because all we the citizens have are our words: the State and its leader have commandeered the army and other security services – institutions that should answer to no masters but the People and our constitution – in order to exert its will forcefully on us.
I write because though we all have an interest in the advancement of our nation, we have under the threat of violence been made to understand in no uncertain terms that we may speak only words of approval for the government, even in cases where it backtracks on its own decisions: white is good, we are told one day, and all who speak of black are enemies of the nation; white is evil and black is good, we are told the next, and all who speak of white are traitors who wish to destroy the country. I write because we have become a nation of scared whisperers, our national dream become one of escape abroad, our youth interested in nothing but leaving, fleeing, ready to put their own lives at risk even as the borders that lead into Europe become ever more tightly closed.
I write because Gambia is all we have, for better or worse, the one thing we all own as our birthright, no matter what else we may or may not possess.
Sadly the young lady’s case is not an exception. Since ’94 the country has become increasingly militarized, the whole nation become a giant barracks, with a leader who is answerable to no one, and whose decisions and actions are final and absolute. To effect his will he uses a collection of sticks and carrots afforded him by the power we have placed in his hands, in order that he might head our national project, not as an emperor or monarch but as the captain of Team Gambia: not above us looking down but on the same field, amongst us, helping us to become the best team we can be.
The first stick is the stick of fear and self-preservation. In the past two decades we have come to be conditioned to believe that there is an intelligence agent around every corner, listening and waiting for us to speak out of turn, so that we may be dragged off to receive our due punishment, gone missing while our families search day and night, grown increasingly desperate. The President openly boasts about his “five star hotel”, referring to the Mile 2 prisons, which is in such a deplorable condition inspectors from the international community were denied entry to it, and we hear horror stories of people picking cockroaches out of their food, and sick prisoners having no access to a prison doctor. This threat is directed not at criminals – rapists and murderers and all the other members of that underclass who deserve imprisonment – but at anyone who voices the least dissent or disapproval. And so cowed have we become as a people that the audience to this proclamation will laugh and applaud, as if imprisonment and torture and mistreatment of their fellow citizens are the funniest things ever.
The second stick is the stick of division. Like children in a house with a violent and brutal parent, when one child suffers his wrath we keep our sympathies to ourselves, keeping our distance from the marked child so that we might not fall into the same situation. The political process – which is integral to a democracy and for creating the marketplace of ideas from which we choose the best for the nation – has become so poisoned that it is impossible to have a proper conversation. Gambia – a land known for our peace, our hospitality, our sense of community and overcoming the odds together despite our great poverty and lack of resources – has become so sharply divided we turn against each other, become mortal enemies merely because we hold different political opinions.
In any functioning democracy a supporter of the ruling party should be able to have a fruitful conversation with an opposition party supporter, each making arguments for the merits of their separate parties, disagreeing vehemently, and then, after the conversation, be able to carry on as neighbor with neighbor, friend with friend, all of us one big family. Instead merely to support even a single opposition policy – or speak once against a ruling party one – is to mark yourself as a pariah, shunned by both friends and family as if you are the carrier of a highly infectious disease, one with no cure other than “repenting” and throwing your full throated support behind the current regime. And despite the fact that a country is a complex system that one man cannot even hold all of in his head, despite the fact that the government implements both good and bad policies, like any other government, we are not allowed to walk any kind of middle ground, to laud the good policies and criticize the bad ones. The only form of engagement allowed is wholehearted and full praise – anything else is marked as a betrayal, one which the executive takes personally and reacts to vindictively with the full power of the State. It has become common to see people paraded on national TV to “apologize”, humiliated before the whole country in order to set an example. This, we are being told over and over, is the price that ANYONE except the President himself will have to pay for saying anything against the Government, even if they have the best of intentions.
The third stick is the stick of propaganda and a kind of forced mass delusion. In five years, we are told repeatedly, we will become an economic superpower. Never mind that we have almost no resources and negligible international influence, never mind that we cannot even supply the whole country with electric power, and the parts we DO manage to supply have to play a game of musical chairs with NAWEC, with frequent power cuts become so normal we have learnt to sigh and just make sure our devices are charged when they come back on. Never mind that we are near the very bottom of just the African countries GDP table – not even counting international – with all our immediate neighbors ranking above us, and a third of the population living below the international poverty line. In the meantime we are forbidden from remarking on the very real problems we face – from the dysfunctional ferries to the need for a better health care system to the high illiteracy rate – in pursuit of this pipe dream, as if merely giving voice to wishful thinking and repeating it over and over will somehow harden it into fact.
And while these sticks are used to drive us from behind, a carrot is dangled in front of us, saying: obey and praise and tow the party line, and you will be rewarded with positions and wealth and power. All the privileges and perks that we have delegated the State to assign have become just one large bag of goodies placed under the control of the Executive, with ministers and other high government officers hired and fired and rehired, sent to prison under “economic crime” charges, government positions become a game of Russian roulette.
And the worst thing about all of this is not the arrests or the torture, not the abuse of power by the Executive or the suppression of any kind of dissenting opinion. The worst thing is that we have come to subscribe wholesale to this narrative: that things being this way is normal, that people who speak up deserve what they get in return, that the executive has the right to do anything it wants, and this is its prerogative and we just have to accept it and live with it. That what is due on to Caesar must be rendered unto Caesar.
But Caesar was a tyrant and Rome an empire, and Jesus, when he spoke these words, spoke from a position of religious authority and in reference to the relationship between religion and the state. We live in a much different time and our political system is a much different one.
I see people who agitate for change online, who loudly proclaim that the President must go. But the problems we face go much deeper than this: we have left our government vulnerable to being at any point taken over and held hostage by anyone we happen to elect. We have the three branches only for show – it is commonly known and accepted that the President alone wields all the power of the State, his decisions overriding anyone else’s. The checks and balances we have in place are completely ignored by the executive when it suits whoever is in charge, and this will continue to be true no matter who we have in charge, now or in the future.
And in a way we are all complicit in this state of affairs, no matter what side we support.
I would defend anybody’s right to support the ruling party, even if I find myself disagreeing with what they say, or decide to throw my own weight behind another party instead. But I ask these supporters: is this really the kind of Gambia you want? Where we can never ever give voice to any kind of dissenting opinion?
Think back on history – a mere three decades ago supporting the PPP was the safest option, ensuring that you were behind the party in power with all the perks that that entails. And now: who dares walk down Kairaba Avenue with a PPP shirt on, loudly proclaiming that the previous regime was a better one? Who can hold a PPP rally without risking imprisonment or worse? No party will be in power forever – those who lead now will fall out of favor when the next regime replaces them, the next party comes into power. And when that happens and you are in the minority, will you think it is fair to be hounded and persecuted the way minority opposition supporters currently are? Even a mother, who loves her child more than anyone, will not spend her every moment applauding every single thing the child does – it is universally agreed that this would be a very bad thing for the child, leaving it with no sense of right and wrong, and absolutely no feedback to prepare it for its entrance into the world. As a religious country it is taken as given that only God is perfect and always right – surely, if you truly believe in the party you support, apart from voting for it in elections it is also your primary responsibility – even as it was for the mother with the child – to work hard to make it a better party? And the only way to do this is to be ready to listen to opposing viewpoints, to get out of the ruling party bubble – where everyone largely agrees with you – and look in the mirror that those who are not part of your party hold up to you, that you might better see yourself.
And on the other side, we are not really helping the situation when we decide to walk down the same route, answering hassteh with hassteh, saaga with saaga, branding all APRC supporters as traitors and dumb and greedy right from the get-go.
For one thing, by going the personal route of insulting the President, his family, and everyone connected to him, we are making it far too easy to have our very valid points dismissed as just a bunch of people abroad who have “no home training”. We could write a book about everything wrong with the motherland, and have firm ground to stand on, but if we have a single saaga ndey in it, a single insult aimed at anyone, the whole book will be dismissed and all focus placed on that single insult on that single page.
For another, it turns off all the people in the middle who may have reservations about the government and not be willing to support the ruling party, but also are not exactly enthused by the endless bevy of personal attacks and invective hurled at people on the ruling party side.
All the people we admire for having achieved change through peaceful protest – from Mandela to MLK – only succeeded because they realized one thing: the greatest risk involved in bringing about change is that we may, if we are not careful, become the same as that which we seek to change, the beauty and purity that we start out with gradually evolving into the very ugliness we set out to erase in the first place.
If we speak of democracy as the greatest good and what Gambia lacks we must be even more democratic than we wish for the country to be; if we speak against the government bringing force and violence to the table we must respond with calmness and show by example that it IS possible to make our arguments without descending to that level; if ruling party supporters brand anyone who opposes as a traitor and calls us names we must realize that this charged language is merely a trap in which those who use it have fallen, and by responding in kind instead of sticking to the issues we are falling into the same trap, ensuring that we never make any progress. I strongly believe that the only way to achieve the change we seek is to police ourselves, to insist on dignity and respect in all our dealings even with – ESPECIALLY WITH – people we disagree with completely and have no common ground with. This is only fitting, for in the end the motherland is a land of dignity and self-pride, of sutura and Jaama and the barrkeh of a people who are God fearing and filled with the spirit of community and neighborliness and what our Bantu brothers and sisters call Ubuntu (and what the Olof capture in the saying “nit nitaaye garabam”).
In the end the way of violence is a single way, overrun by weeds and rocks and potholes; the way of words and peaceful protest is many ways, inexhaustible as long as there are Gambians willing to stand up for truth and for justice. As individuals we may be arrested and tortured, we may be placed under duress and humiliated and even have our lives placed in danger, in order to break our individual spirits, but the spirit of Gambia is eternal and will never be broken. The ones who lead us may choose force in order to compel us to their will because it is expedient and silences dissent immediately, but love and respect cannot be compelled in a body – only fear can. And those who rule through fear will leave no legacy, after their passing all traces of them will be washed away, as if they never were, their names mentioned only with the shaking of heads and a frown as we remember all the harm they did.
We have no guns – all we have are our words and speech. But that is enough, if we only use them wisely.
(Apologize in advance for not being as active in comments – having strained hand issues – should actually not be typing but had to get this out. I’ve made it public so feel free to share)