Giant billboards used to sit in the empty streets of The Gambia. Across from them, you will see a group of unemployed youths sitting on a bench, brewing “attaya” and talking of going to “Babylon.”
But how would they get there? The Gambia has one of the highest visa rejection rates thanks to President Yahya Jammeh’s switch of foreign policy. Gambia had a policy of non-alignment until President Jammeh came in 1994 straining relations with the West.
The strained relations worsen as Jammeh became autocratic. Human rights abuses, extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced detention, and disappearance became the norm. Development partners like the European Union started to withhold millions of dollars in budgetary and development aid. The economy started to submerge under a sea of high domestic borrowing and unserviceable international debts.
With the cloudy economy, Jammeh took a monopoly of businesses, dictated monetary policies and exchanged rates against the warnings of the International Monetary Fund.
Unemployment went from 6% when Jammeh took power to 38.7% as of the summer of 2016. Rural poverty rose to 72% as agriculture steadily declined. Jammeh admitted that over US$100 million had been spent on agriculture during his 22-year rule and no progress was made. For the most part of his rule, Jammeh was also the agriculture minister. The sector employed more than 75% of Gambians, but in the past 5 years, the service sector became the number employer. More than half of The Gambia’s workforce work in the service sector and only 32% are involved in farming. Most of the farmers are not commercial but subsistence.
Many youths have left the villages for urban centers. In the tourism development area, they posed as bombsters, unofficial guides who will often end up being holiday sex mates for old British and Scandinavian holidaymakers. Must used the new connection disguised under love to secure visas to Europe. Jammeh’s government crackdown on them.
In The Gambia’s elections, the youths spoke through the marble about their frustration. They voted in Adama Barrow. Barrow may understand why the youths are attracted to Europe having lived in the UK as a young man, before saving up and returning to start a real estate business that freed him and his family from poverty.
The same poverty is what the many youths are trying to free their families from.
They pack up a few belonging in a schoolbag and cross The Gambia’s porous border with Senegal. They then start their journey across the Sahara to Tripoli, Libya or to Rabat, Morocco. They will cross the Mediterranean into Lampedusa or Sicily in Italy, or cross the Atlantic into Spain.
Many have died during the journey and the number of Gambian deaths, in the hundreds remain unknown. At least 10,000 Gambians have successfully crossed the Mediterranean and live in asylum camps. At least 75% of Gambian asylum cases were denied. Gambians are mostly considered economic migrants, although they are also running from abuses.
On Friday, a political earthquake consumed President Yahya Jammeh. In a Saddam Hussein like post-Iraq, youths climbed large billboards and tore down the huge images that celebrated Jammeh. One of the images along the Trans-Gambia highway was celebrating the coup that brought Jammeh to power 22 years ago.
At the entrance of Banjul, The Gambia’s island capital, youths shouted “wajeh koh,” “ajindii,” meaning “bring it down” in the local Wollof and Mandinka languages. A huge poster of Jammeh urging the people to vote for him was held by two young men dressed in some jeans and ragged t-shirts soaked with sweat from their run under the tropical sun that baking the ground. They held on to the poster and pulled with all their strength. It started to tore apart.
One of them ran up the stairs of the ARCH 22. A landmark building that cost Jammeh nearly US$2 million to build to celebrate his “bloodless coup.” At the top, the young man in a fashion reminiscent of the taking down of the statue of Saddam Hussein took down the two gigantic photos of Jammeh to a wave of cheers and hurrahs.
They laid the torn posters on the ground and started dancing “baramasendeng and mulaichenkin.”
Posters of Jammeh across every town and city in The Gambia was taken down. Within hours, there were no photos of him, including one that visitors first see when they enter Gambia. From the country’s only airport, a huge picture of Jammeh welcomes visitors and it is right next to a military barracks reading: “Welcome to The Gambia, the Smiling Coast of Africa.”
Soldiers stood by and watched the poster being taken down. It was an unbelievable sight. Some days earlier, anyone that attempted to climb up the Arch 22 or taken down a poster of Jammeh would have been stopped by an armed officer, who was likely to give you a free slap that would make you believe that you have died and resurrected. Instead, they were waving at the people celebrating, smiling and giving free hugs, not free slaps.