There was no looking over my shoulders. I posed for photos with my exiled colleagues for our social media audiences, covered stories of anti-government protests and even reported on sensitive military operations. That’s the freedom one enjoys in Senegal. But I was reporting on my country, The Gambia, and my government has demonstrated the capacity to hear dissent from afar.
So, when I packed my backpack and set out for home, there was a tinge in fear in me. The least of repercussions I anticipated was a police interrogation at the border. I, however, passed without any trouble. The immigration officer at the border station was busy on his mobile phone. So he leafed through the pages of my passport and stamped on the first empty spot he came across. I heaved a sigh of relief.
On my way out of the station, I saw a teenage boy, locked up in a cell. He was sobbing. Under normal circumstances, I would have enquired how and why, or even protest at the treatment of such a young boy who, by law, could not bear any criminal liability. But circumstances were not normal. So, I hastened down to the car garage. Yet the relief I felt did not last long.
We drove for barely three minutes when we encountered a military checkpoint – the first of few changes I would see since I left here a week ago. Our vehicle was screened by two of the soldiers on the road, though dozens more could be seen hiding in the bushes. Two more military checkpoints would be found on my thirty-minute drive journey to the ferry crossing.
I arrived in the capital in the evening to a festive atmosphere. It’s Christmas time. The New Year is in the horizon. This is the first such Christian feast ever since Gambia was declared an Islamic Republic. But the living patterns remains very secular.
There was musical jamboree, some featuring musicians from Senegal. Muslims and Christian out in the streets, marching in unison.
One notable change, however, is the absence of billboards with screaming season’s greetings and photoshopped pictures of President Jammeh. The Hashtag GambiaHasDecided billboards have instead sprung up. The president himself is conspicuously absent from public view. All roads lead to Kairaba Hotel, the temporary office for President-elect Adama Barrow.
The Gambia is in a political crisis. It’s been almost one month since election were held. But incumbent President Yahya Jammeh has, in a shock move, refused to hand over power despite earlier conceding defeat. He has ruled the country for more than twenty-two year with absolute control over power. But his grip on power is loosening. Public defiance apparent. There are reports of threats of civilian uprising. Senegal-led Ecowas military intervention is said to be imminent. And, President Jammeh is not taking these threats lightly.
There’s heavy security presence. Armored vehicles still patrol the streets. Sandbags have been put up at key junctions, manned by dozens of military personnel. In the streets of Greater Banjul, soldiers are out and about, behind thick flower shrubberies and on top of story buildings. While driving home, I saw one of them dancing to music playing on his mobile phone.
That explains the mood here. Banjul is calm. This is the smallest, but one of the most stable countries in mainland Africa. The longstanding peace the country enjoys has been an attractive unique selling proposition for tourism and investment. Gambians are aware of this. On voting day, of dozens of voters I interviewed, many said they were voting for peace. Now, though, that peace is visibly hanging by the thread.
As one young man told me, “I condemned all the previous coup attempts on Jammeh. Even though I do not support his government, I wanted peace and I believed we could achieve a change of government through the ballots, not bullets.” He lifted his head to catch my eyes, and told me in no uncertain terms, “Now, He MUST GO,’ referring to Jammeh.
And, such views have become widespread, both locally and international.
Saikou Jammeh is a senior Gambian journalist and Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union.