The Republic of The Gambia is widely claimed to have gotten her “independence” on the 18th of February 1965 from Britain and that date has ever since been celebrated in grand style.
On the contrary, there are some Gambians with a strong conviction that The Gambia indeed attained her independence from Britain on the 24th of April 1970 and they too celebrate April 24th, although not in grand style. Nevertheless, February 18th has accidentally taken center stage in the independence narrative of the homeland thereby overshadowing April 24th.
Its celebration used to attract worldwide attention until the former President of the Second Republic Yahya Jammeh came to the glare of publicity. Jammeh came to power through a coup d’état on the 22nd of July 1994; a date which he said The Gambia attained her “true independence” from Western powers whom he believed were meddling in the affairs of the homeland until then. Gradually, in Jammeh’s twenty-two-year stint, February 18th lost its prominence.
It was virtually not celebrated in the latter part of his stint. Instead, July 22nd became the real deal; the date on which even bees take a rest. A personal affair metamorphosed into a national affair.
The date a legitimate government was unconstitutionally overthrown was recognized and its celebration often graced by presidents of other African states. Gradually, Jammeh became synonymous with The Gambia.
Jammeh was revered by many in The Gambia and the sub-region. He was referred to as the magnanimous Pan-African by people from all walks of life. He often received praises from his fellow presidents, the executive, the judiciary, the legislature, religious leaders, intellectuals, the common men and women, and even people from civil society organizations.
School children throughout the country used to line up happily on the side of the roads for hours cheering his name when he travels around. Civil and public servants as well as security personnel also publicly displayed their love for him.
These people, during festivities, dress up in nothing but green – Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party color. Green flags were hoisted on poles throughout the length and breadth of the country.
His picture was hung in every public institution. He was almost on every billboard and they were constantly changing. One of his diehards calls them the PPP.
Make no mistake! This PPP does not mean the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) whose government Jammeh overthrew in 1994. It means the “Presidential Photo Albums”. Jammeh was a man with many accolades.
He entered the State House “Captain Yahya Jammeh” in 1994 and twenty-two years later, he left it with “Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, His Excellency, Sheikh, Professor, Dr., Alhagie, Yahya, Abdul Aziz, Jamus, Junkung, Jammeh, Nasirudeen, Babili Mansa.
The above begs the question why the “52” Independence Anniversary of The Gambia aligned with President Adama Barrow’s Inauguration was celebrated once again in grand style.
On the eve of February 18th, all directions pointed towards Bakau where the Independence Stadium is; the venue earmarked for the anniversary and inauguration. People traveled from afar to witness what was to unfold the following day.
“At least 20 Heads of State from neighboring West African countries will be in mainland Africa’s smallest country for its independence celebration and the inauguration of its new President Adama Barrow”, Sam Phatey of SMBC Gambia reported on February 14th.
On February 17th, Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, host of President Barrow during the political impasse, and special guest of honor arrived in Banjul. People from provincial Gambia also arrived in droves. At 1am on February 18th, there was a long queue at the main entrance of the stadium.
Commercial vehicles taking people to the stadium from Westfield, the place where the fearless Solo Sandeng and his fellow protesters were arrested increased the fare by three dalasis and no one seemed to care. Such move on a normal day can get a driver mercilessly beaten by angry passengers. By 4 am, one-third of the pavilions were filled. By 7 am, the entire stadium was inundated with people. Many people had spent the night there in order to secure seats.
February 18th was a day people could not afford to miss. By 9am, the diplomatic corps, judiciary, press (both national and international), permanent secretaries, former ministers, other invited guests, and ordinary men, women, and children were all present and stranded outside.
The gates of the pavilions were shut because the pavilions were packed full, except for the VIP Section. Everyone on the outside wanted to get in. Since there were no markers indicating which categories of people should go where people tried to force themselves in through almost all of the entrances. The glass doors leading to the VIP section were shattered.
For the first time in my entire life, I saw a gathering that large in The Gambia where a fight did not break out and where security personnel did not physically abuse people in the name of crowd control. After several hours of struggle, some people gave up and went home to watch the event on their televisions. Some went on the sideline drumming and dancing while others staged a protest outside chanting the “Gambia Has Decided” slogan.
Was it the traditional independence anniversary, the inauguration, independence from Jammeh’s twenty-two-year stint which many dubbed the two decades of tyranny or all three that drew thousands of people to the stadium?
Although Jammeh was loved by many, he was equally hated by many. During his twenty-two year stint, he has brought smiles to the faces of many and pissed off much more. This was clearly manifested in the results of the 1st December 2016 Presidential Election. Although he was defeated, a good number of Gambians voted for him.
Human rights activists have accused Jammeh of gross human rights violations and are calling for his indictment. It has been said that under his rule, hundreds of thousands of Gambians and even non-Gambians have suffered unimaginably. There are allegations that he has arrested, tortured, murdered, disappeared, and made people destitute.
Political analysts said his defeat in the elections is a result of his two decades of misrule. His critics said the popular support he received was not genuine because he supposedly coerced people into it. Amidst claims that the popular support he received throughout his twenty-two-year stint was motivated by fear of reprisal, I have seen and interacted with people who are just insanely obsessed with him.
These are people who have never received a butut from him. They are not the political opportunists whose faces you used to see daily on the front pages of newspapers or the national television praise singing Jammeh. These are impoverished people who cannot afford a decent standard of living. Indeed, Jammeh was genuinely cherished by many but hated by many as well.
According to his critics, it was freedom from his twenty-two years of misrule that people came out en masse to celebrate. It was this misrule that made February 18th lost its glory and even denied Gambians a peaceful transition.
Just as his coming into power, his departure was celebrated. This should be an eye opener for President Adama Barrow.
It is interesting how the rhetoric today is more or less the same as it was in 1994. The promises made by Jammeh are being renewed by Barrow, albeit differently in the Coalition’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and in almost every statement he had delivered since he became President-elect and subsequently President.
The allegations against Jammeh are almost the same as the ones levied against Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara when he was ousted. Will Barrow unlike Jammeh deliver on his promises or journey the path Jammeh journeyed? Will Gambians see not only a change in the face of the presidency but a change in the entire system of governance? Will Gambians repeat the mistake of confusing naivety with patience and in the process create another Frankenstein monster?
Some people say it too early to forecast but can we really not assess progress from the time that has elapsed?
The Barrow Administration has been seen to be delivering on some of its promises despite the numerous challenges they come with. It has also been seen to be responding to public opinion which is a good thing. Will that continue? Will Gambians who have decided participate in building the new Gambia? Will those who have NOT decided decide?