Stuck between the new and old Gambia

People are seen moving across the street in Banjul, Gambia January 17, 2017 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The fractured Gambian opposition parties united and returned to the polls with President Yahya Jammeh, who did not know his support has dwindled.

The opposition sprinted to victory with a political newcomer and Gambians filled with hope decided, but now there is every reason to look across the aisle with existential fear.

Gambians are hoping to be in a New Gambia, under a new government that will bring them a better life.

President Yahya Jammeh was a bizarre tyrannical ruler who vowed to remain president for a billion years. Unfortunately for Jammeh, who threatened to imprison and behead gays, execute journalists and torture his opponents, he is 999,999,978 years short.

Jammeh was corrupt. He amassed more than US$1.8 billion in wealth, mostly stolen from taxpayers’ money, poverty in rural Gambia rose to more than 70%, he’s unleashed his security forces to torture, intimidate, arrest, and suppress dissenters to keep his grip on power, made unilateral decisions like declaring The Gambia an Islamic Republic, withdrawing the country from the Commonwealth and the ICC and severing diplomatic relations.

Jammeh dominated businesses and made policies to favor him.

Under this two decades ruler, the Gambia was politically sanctioned and economically isolated.

Barrow has vowed to change this all. He ran his campaign promising to end the migration crisis by creating jobs and attracting investors, improving human rights and restoring the Gambia’s respectable position in the international community.

This is, we are told, is the New Gambia. The coalition says it will democratize the country and build strong, independent and accountable institutions and reform policies and programs.

But this is not, of course, the new politics. There is still a generational divide between millennials and the baby boomers with traditionalists that make the political class of the coalition. The divide, however, can be bridged.

It may not need to take an election defeat before the coalition reverses Jammeh’s policies, largely through the centralization of policy-making, to ensure they reflect what the country wanted and not what some party caucus or political friend had managed to force through the government.

The diaspora is watching too. Throughout the decades under Jammeh, they fought cat and dog to oust him. They deployed every tool and mechanism and those never in favor of their agenda were forced to embrace it. It may sound dictatorial of them, but in a democracy, it will be a good pair of eyes to keep any government in check.

The diaspora is like an age-old obsession. Activists process matters more than the policy, yet part of the reason Jammeh did so badly at the general election was because they reached out to the electorate back home using social media, turning first-time voters against Jammeh.

They argued that President Yahya Jammeh was self-centered, his policies terrible, a murderous dictator and a bigot pushing the Gambia on a path to sectarian and ethnic violence with an unattractive foreign and economic policy.

This is the conundrum with which Jammeh and the APRC were grappled as Jammeh rants and threatens citizens. It left them with more heave that persuaded the nation of its true violent and authoritarian nature.

The coalition sat back and marveled.

Jammeh survived nearly a dozen coups, including one launched from the diaspora. Gambian people were frustrated but had always looked for a peaceful to effect a change of government.

Gambia’s old political elites clearly tried to avoid the grisly fate of a 1981 rebellion, but all that avoidance may come to a military intervention to flush out Jammeh.

Jammeh Shrugged off all the talk of a new political era and all the hopes of Gambians of a peaceful transfer of power. His refusal to step down has made the future of small Gambia very uncertain. The stable peace in a country within a volatile region is now threatened.

While the people try to reach a new Gambia, they still find themselves stuck in Jammeh’s repressive rule. As the deadline for him to hand over power looms, the situation in the country worsens.

Jammeh continues to arrest pro-democracy campaigners, shut down radio stations, detain soldiers suspected of switching allegiance to President-elect Adama Barrow and torturing detainees.

Jammeh’s attempt to use the courts to remain in power and stop Barrow’s swearing-in failed. With the help of the National Assembly, the majority of whom are members of his APRC party extended his rule for three months and Jammeh declared a 90-day state of emergency.

The state of emergency is to help Jammeh regain control and gives him powers to arrest anyone without a warrant, closed land, sea and air borders, impose a curfew, detain citizens for any given period of time and suspend the constitution.

For the most part, The Gambia has been under a state of emergency under Jammeh’s rule – borders were closed whenever he chooses, people were arrested without warrants, people detained for days and even months and years with total disregard to the constitution.

While his lawyer conceded that nothing could stop the ushering of a New Gambia, Jammeh is still arguing that a majority of voters in provincial Gambia were intimidated to return home and is locked in an all-out struggle with his ego to accept defeat.

Jammeh faces a different dilemma from Gambians: the surest by far is his deadly removal and a feasible alternative is for him to become a refugee in Morocco or Nigeria. For Gambians, they will liberate themselves and enter a New Gambia.

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