If Ban­jul’s buf­foon stays, Africa suf­fers

CityPress - - Voices -

There is no need to ask why Gam­bia’s Pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh changed his mind and minced his words. Af­ter 22 years in power, Jam­meh has learnt that minc­ing his words makes them eas­ier to swal­low.

Forget the non­sense about ev­i­dence of vote rig­ging and the call for a God-fear­ing um­pire to con­duct fresh elec­tions. Jam­meh, a self-pro­claimed god, has been at the helm for 22 years. Sud­denly, he is at a loss re­gard­ing what hap­pened to his om­nipo­tence.

He knew that once the re­sults were an­nounced and his chal­lenger, Adama Bar­row, was de­clared the win­ner af­ter re­ceiv­ing 43.2% of the votes – com­pared with his 39.6% – the game was over. The only thing left – his last card – was to eat his words and, in an empty rit­ual to sug­gest he was still in charge, he de­ployed troops in the streets of the cap­i­tal, Ban­jul, and around the coun­try.

Jam­meh’s grand­stand­ing is a ploy to ne­go­ti­ate a safe pas­sage for him­self, and a soft land­ing for his Mandinka tribes­men in the mil­i­tary – 200 of whom he pro­moted in one week. It has noth­ing to do with the mis­ery of the nearly 2 mil­lion cit­i­zens who live from hand to mouth.

The peace ini­tia­tive by Nige­ria’s Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari and other lead­ers who form part of the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (Ecowas) is a good start­ing point. If the lead­ers were un­der any il­lu­sion that the buf­foon of Ban­jul would go with­out a fight, they must be wiser now, af­ter he made empty prom­ises in pri­vate talks to step down.

Buhari and com­pany had not de­parted from Ban­jul when Jam­meh de­ployed troops in the elec­toral com­mis­sion’s head­quar­ters and au­tho­rised his party, the Al­liance for Pa­tri­otic Re­ori­en­ta­tion and Con­struc­tion, to for­mally file a com­plaint at the Supreme Court, re­ject­ing the re­sult of the poll.

But how will judg­ment come from an empty Bench? The Nige­ria-born Chief Jus­tice, Em­manuel Fag­benle, was re­port­edly fired in May, and nei­ther he nor any of the other six judges ap­pointed by the pres­i­dent has been re­placed. Yet Jam­meh must leave by Jan­uary 19.

We have seen this non­sense be­fore from the play­book of Liberia’s for­mer pres­i­dent, Charles Tay­lor, and, more re­cently, the Ivory Coast’s for­mer pres­i­dent, Lau­rent Gbagbo. Dic­ta­tors, whether they are il­lit­er­ates like Tay­lor or pro­fes­sors like Gbagbo, never go away peace­fully. They will try to take the coun­try down with them, if they can.

It is more com­pli­cated if they have stolen, si­lenced the op­po­si­tion and shed blood to re­main in power. Jam­meh has made a name for him­self in these ways and, apart from his blood­stained hand, he also has a Rolls-Royce, val­ued at £700 000 (R12.2 mil­lion), to show for it.

When he seized power in 1994, he was a young lieu­tenant on a mea­gre salary. But, in a few years, he man­aged to amass what his pre­de­ces­sor, Dawda Jawara, could not dream of, even af­ter rul­ing Gam­bia as prime min­is­ter and pres­i­dent for 32 years.

In an email sent to me on Wed­nes­day, a businessman, who is a fre­quent vis­i­tor to Ban­jul, said Jam­meh “con­trols all the prof­itable busi­nesses in Gam­bia, from farm­ing [and] oil [to] real es­tate, even down to bak­eries scat­tered all over the coun­try”. There are also un­con­firmed re­ports that, thanks to his Moroc­can wife Zeinab, he owns one of the best shop­ping malls in Morocco.

With this ex­tra­or­di­nary busi­ness chain, it is not sur­pris­ing that Jam­meh wants to hang on to power. But how can he ex­plain that, even though Gam­bia re­lies on donor fund­ing and is one of the poor­est coun­tries in Africa, he still robs it?

He does not care, nor will he per­mit those who hold a dif­fer­ent point of view to ex­press it.

He has built what he refers to as “The Mile 2 Ho­tel”, but it is known to the pub­lic, es­pe­cially those who dare to cross him, as Mile 2, Jam­meh’s in­fa­mous prison.

In 2004, he warned jour­nal­ists to toe the govern­ment’s line or “go to hell”. No one knew what that meant un­til Deyda Hy­dara, the editor of in­de­pen­dent news­pa­per The Point, de­fied govern­ment. Hy­dara has since dis­ap­peared amid strong sus­pi­cions that he was mur­dered by state agents.

But Jam­meh’s iron fist was not re­served for Gam­bians alone.

The man who boasted that he would rule for a bil­lion years was linked to the killing of 44 Ghana­ian mi­grants about a decade ago. Ini­tially deny­ing knowl­edge of the killings, he later agreed to pay $500 000 (R7 mil­lion) to the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

Jam­meh has long been a prob­lem, but Ecowas mem­bers did not pay him much at­ten­tion un­til af­ter the 2011 polls, which the body de­clared were deeply flawed. Even though Jam­meh said at the time that there was no way he could lose – ex­cept “if the Gam­bian peo­ple are all mad” – this was an elec­tion in which he was can­di­date, voter and um­pire all by him­self. He did it in three pre­vi­ous elec­tions and got away with it. So, if Ecowas mem­bers think this one will be dif­fer­ent, they are wrong. It is not Jam­meh’s fault. He is used to a con­ti­nent led by unin­spir­ing lead­ers, to say the least. Is it the scan­dal­wracked Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma who will point a fin­ger at Jam­meh, or Nige­ria’s for­mer pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan, who was al­most over­run by ter­ror group Boko Haram? In a show of con­tempt for the con­ti­nent’s lead­ers, Jam­meh re­fused land­ing rights to the plane fly­ing Liberia’s Pres­i­dent Ellen John­son Sir­leaf, the cur­rent chair of Ecowas, to Gam­bia’s Ban­jul air­port last week­end. She had to be es­corted by three re­gional lead­ers – Buhari, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghana’s John Ma­hama, who him­self had just lost an elec­tion. Amass­ing troops around the head­quar­ters of the elec­toral com­mis­sion and mil­i­taris­ing the streets even be­fore Buhari and com­pany were air­borne out of Ban­jul are signs of des­per­a­tion and cow­ardice. We have seen it be­fore in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. There will be pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in four African coun­tries in 2017 – Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda and So­ma­liland. What hap­pens in Gam­bia could de­ter­mine how far Jam­meh’s bad habit may spread. It will be a ma­jor set­back for the con­ti­nent if the gains made by the peace­ful trans­fer of power in Nige­ria and Ghana are eroded by the mad­ness in Ban­jul. The buf­foon must be re­moved im­me­di­ately. This is the most im­por­tant task for the Ecowas lead­ers as they meet in Nige­ria’s cap­i­tal, Abuja, this week­end. Ishiek­wene is the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and editor-in-chief of The In­ter­view magazine and a mem­ber of the Paris-based board of the Global Edi­tors Net­work

Yahya Jam­meh

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