When you first visit The Gambia, as you exit from the country’s only airport in Yundum, you are graced by the face of a man wrapped in some white gown like a clean bed sheet from Ritz Carlton. He has a hat pointed at his head, holding a wooden scabbard guarded by prayer beads. Poised like a caliph on a conquest, he holds a book, which we later learned was a Koran in his right hand and gave an awkward smile with a sign that reads: “Welcome to The Gambia, The Smiling Coast of Africa.”
On the streets of The Gambia, you can only find the image of one politician on billboards – the country’s president, Yahya Jammeh – a contentious former military strongman who wants to be addressed as Sheikh Professor Dr. Alhagie Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jamus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa.
He is supported by an elite group of strong Islamic clerics, most of whom studied Wahabi form of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. They gave him the title of Sheikh and Nasirudeen and Jammeh declared The Gambia an Islamic Republic. He has installed himself as the moral police of the nation and his statements are law. Jammeh is feared by many with the help of his National Intelligence Agency and his elite presidential guard battalion called the State Guards.
“Walls can hear you and they will report you. They are NIA,” said Abdullah. “If the NIA take you away and you are nobody, you can kiss your life goodbye or come back handicapped.”
Human rights activists say Jammeh has a special paramilitary called the ‘Jungulars,’ who only act under his supreme orders. Hearing the story of the Jungulars, how they operate and their secret execution and torture missions are like the idea of B6-13 in Scandal. But Jammeh has no Olivia Pope. He fell apart with the potentially only possible one.
Jammeh tailored laws to suit him and has absolute control. He has used the country’s deeply divided opposition as underlings and every action from political opponents are well planned to avoid arrest, enforced disappearance, and detention, torture, persecution or even death.
During elections in neighboring countries like Senegal, pictures of presidential candidates are seen littered on billboards but in The Gambia, politicians fear that putting up billboards will lead to them being vandalized and subsequently to their arrest for treason-related charges.
Rightly so… In June 2011, Jammeh’s former Information Minister Amadou Janneh was arrested for distributing t-shirts that read: ‘End Dictatorship Now.’
Janneh was excited and start his t-shirt distribution after addressing students at the country’s only university during African Liberation Day. Coincidentally, it was also Jammeh’s birthday.
Janneh was arrested, charged with treason and sentenced to life.
Today, he is a free man after Jessie Jackson visited Banjul and secured his release. Janneh is an American citizen; the same opportunity may not be accorded to local opposition leaders who do not have the power of the blue passport like human rights attorney Ousainou Darboe, who for long has been carefully using the courts to channel his disagreement with Jammeh’s government but is now serving a three-year sentence for protesting the torture death of a senior member of his party.
Jammeh is seeking a fifth mandate this winter and for the first time, The Gambia has a female presidential candidate. Dr. Isatou Touray was the woman who for more than three decades went against all odds to fight against a deeply-rooted traditional practice of female genital mutilation. She has proven the unconventional way of doing things, in a good way, breaking stereotypes and getting even President Yahya Jammeh for once to make a decision that will not sit well with his mighty Supreme Islamic Council.
Jammeh banned female genital mutilation, after decades of shying away from it. A law was swiftly passed criminalizing it but before that, Jammeh tested Touray.
Touray was arrested in October 2010 after political analysts started talking about her possible candidature for the presidency with the opposition UDP. She was taken to court on theft charges over project funds that had ‘nothing’ do with the government.
“They arrested us and our arrest was politically motivated. It was all a farce and a set up to tarnish my image and to make sure that I do not have the credibility to run,” said Touray.
The organization that funded the project said Touray and her colleague, who is now her campaign manager, Amie Bojang-Sisohore are innocent and demanded their release. The Gambia’s government lost the case and the courts freed Touray.
Defiant, Isatou Touray upon her release from the country’s notorious Mile II prisons walked towards the president’s official residence, the State House. Attempts to stop her were unsuccessful. She was marching to confront the country’s Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy and to demand answers from President Yahya Jammeh.
She was some 500 feet from the presidential palace when her husband stopped her.
It was probably President Yahya Jammeh, the man with the awkward looking smile on the billboard that greets you when leaving the airport, biggest mistake.
Touray’s trial prepped her for the next phase of her fight – ending the dictatorship that has plagued the nation and the oppression of the many people whose reproductive rights she has fought for.
Her campaign is breaking barriers and doing what many traditional politicians are afraid of doing. Her campaign has been live streaming videos of her events on YouTube and Facebook. At least the opposition UDP tried live streaming an audio of a political rally leading to the arrest of Lasana Jobarteh. Jobarteh was prosecuted a paid a fine of $1,250 for ‘broadcasting without a license’ to an online newspaper called Freedom.
But Facebook and YouTube are not newspapers or radio stations. They are social media platforms and anyone can go live on them.
“Since Jammeh will not give airtime to opposition members and critics on the state broadcasting network, we topted for social media where Jammeh faces a strong opposition,” Touray’s team.
But the audacity of Touray’s campaign team does not stem from the live broadcasts; Touray did not just make history by becoming the country’s first female presidential contender, but has become the first presidential candidate to put a billboard as big as the one with the man that greets you at the airport exit on a Gambian street.
When I first saw the photo of the Touray billboard, I was more than wowed. My brain twirl and it was gone with the wind – fabulous! I got dizzy with joy seeing one of the seven wonders of Gambian politics. Touray’s critics have called her and her campaign team arrogant. Jokingly I called them the ‘arrogantologists’ who are antagonizing Mr. Jammeh. I said to myself: ‘what audacity!’
So I bet Jammeh exclaimed too but dared not directly do anything.
The billboard did not stay up too long. It disappeared like ‘jinanding malaika’ and may never be seen again, in my grandmother’s words: ‘Abadan,’ meaning till ‘thy kingdom come.’ But for Jammeh, it sends a message that the challenge posed by Touray is no joking matter. Touray last month in a televised addressed called President Jammeh ‘the former president’ and in front of AU staffers called him a ‘dictator.’
She has pulled support from Jammeh’s main constituents: youths and women and Jammeh’s 50,000 youth rally only saw fewer than 5,000.
Jammeh has been overly quiet. Quite unusual for the man I will say Donald Trump is mimicking when he said if he was president Hillary Clinton would be in jail. Yup, he did say that and Dana Bash did not make a mistake when she said Trump sounded like an African dictator who gives orders to their Attorney General or law enforcement to arrest, prosecute and jail someone. Umm hmm, Yahya Jammeh for you right there.
Whiles Dr. Touray’s campaign team remain defiant, there use of modern day technology and reimaging campaign styles to reach people in The Gambia is undoubtedly clever and groundbreaking and hopefully so, others will adopt such a strategy long after her campaign is over.