Gambian soldiers are not my enemy

Gambian soldiers are not my enemy

Throughout American history, there have been notable American political leaders who have served in the military. Some veterans turned legislators played down their military backgrounds or made it a point that they could also view the military through a critical lens.

Veterans and military service also played a significant role in the past election cycle. Former U.S. President Barack Obama faced challenges winning against Senator John MacCain because Mr. Obama had no military services to brag about.

Americans take pride in serving and protecting their homeland. Sons of presidents, vice presidents, senators, and the most senior officials are in the military. If you hold the door at a coffee shop open for a U.S. soldier, it could be one of them.

I am a Starbucks addict and so are many men and women in uniform. Often times, I will pay for the coffee or latte of a person in uniform. When I see them, just like many Americans, I thank them for their service and they will proudly say “you’re welcome and it is an honor to serve.”

At gas pumps even in small towns like Acworth, I see people fill up the tank of a veteran or service officer at the pump, would thank them and you will see hugs and graciousness that could bring you tears.

My name is Samsudeen Phatey; I come from the small West African nation of The Gambia and I am wondering, why is it not the same in my native country and across Africa. I pondered over this for years.

Americans see military service as a stepping stone to success and to build an honorable future. Where I come from, there is a prejudice towards the army. It is seen as a place for school dropouts, the hopeless, the jobless and the poor.

That discrimination and that stigma of being a sort of an outcast have helped Africa’s iron fist rulers turned those that should be proud to serve and protect us become our abusers. The hopeless, jobless poor soldier now has to show he too has some form of power. The power that only comes with wearing that military uniform.

In America, when I see a soldier, I can be looking at my next state senator, congressman or even president. With my prejudices about African soldiers, I could see my torturer and next dictator.

While being recruited in the army is seen to be for the “aimless and useless,” wearing the uniform for that man or woman becomes a license to abuse.

As a result, the trust that should make us thank our men and women in uniform and that pledge to protect us that should make them proud to serve eroded.

In The Gambia, a Lieutenant I rode on a bus with from the Westfield Square to Brikama threatened to drag me out of the bus and get his juniors to give me the beating of the millennium.

I was a young high school student, who skipped physics and further mathematics classes for the love of government, history, and economics. I decided to preach to him what his role as a soldier was.

I escaped a beating that day because I had in my phone former army chief, Lt. Col. Lang Tombong Tamba’s cell phone number. Not so many would have been as lucky. The soldier would have never been disciplined for his actions but in America, a soldier abusing a citizen would land him or her in jail for a long time.

In fact, I was not as lucky more than half a decade later, in 2014 when I was given a slap on my face in an attack by Jammeh’s security detail, specifically his elite presidential guard unit chief, Lt. Gen. Ansumana Tamba in Washington. I took off running faster than Usain Bolt, I guess.

With all of this, however, soldiers still protect us, keep our homeland and we sleep every night while they patrol and make sure nothing happens.

But have oversight this and used the abominable action of a few to describe the entire military.

The Gambia emerged from decades of dictatorship and the former authoritarian ruler, Yahya Jammeh was militarily-backed. But when he was defeated in the election last year, the military sided with the people and refused to defend him. He had to flee when West African troops were deployed.

This is the same military that has thwarted nearly a dozen coups to keep Mr. Jammeh in power but allowed democracy to be birthed without more Gambian losing their lives.

Soldiers in Jammeh’s government suffered abuse too. Those that tried to oust him and those that were not close to him were left powerless, maltreated and underpaid.

When Jammeh fled, it came to light that less than 1% of the army committed human rights abuses for him and they were mostly his closet aides with all of the best military training. The rest of the army had little training, no equipment, and some left to help him weed his farm.

These soldiers are not my enemy. When I see them, I would hug them and tell them “thank you” for your service and the sacrifices you make. Some of them go for weeks and months without their families while we sleep every night with ours.

In America, being in the army comes with benefits: education, health care, financial stability and of course discounts everywhere. In countries like The Gambia, it comes with low wages, perpetual poverty and looking for a lift from drivers.

You will never see the son or daughter of a Gambian president, minister, permanent secretary or from a so-called rich or middle-class family being in the army, “unless he or she is useless or of less use.”

In America, when I hear one say” I will be proud to serve my country,” it means they are talking of enlisting into the army. In The Gambia, I would be proud to serve my country is referring to the presidency, ministerial position or some senior government post.

We must all take part in changing this culture and build the trust between the military and society. Many soldiers are afraid about their own safety not because they have committed any crime, but due to the way they are being perceived by the society.

A journalist friend of mine, Saikou Jammeh visited Banjul the night that West African troops took over The State House. Gambian soldiers were booed by their very own people for not standing up to Jammeh.

A majority of these soldiers were handicapped by the fact that they were not close to Jammeh. Even those that dared to oust Jammeh were among the few close to him.

Many children are growing up without their fathers. Their fathers were not politicians, journalists or political activists. They were soldiers close to Jammeh who felt our pain and heard our cries and wanted to end it for us. They were all killed and many spent years in inhumane prison conditions.

Saikou approached one of the Gambian soldiers at The State House for a chat.

“Here, we want just peace,” he told him. When Saikou asked the soldier for his name, he felt unsure whether to tell him his last name.

“Badjie,” he whispered.

“There was no confidence in his tone. He’s apparently a Jola. I looked at him closely. Then I realized that what I thought was anger was actually fear,” Saikou said.

Let us just take the time to shake the hand of a soldier and hug them affectionately and say “thank you for service and for protecting us.” If you think they monsters, trust me, it will touch their emotions and bring their humanity back. Remember, they are doing a job that most of us will not do.

We will recover our lost trust, find common ground and build that bridge that was damaged by the former regime. All a dictator wants to do is to divide and conquer.

As part of the new government’s reform program for security agencies, the military should have more incentives, better salaries, and benefits, including free university education for careers after military service.

Soldiers should remember, respect is earned not out of fear but out of the dignity and humility one portrays. Fear causes people to rise and fight when they are tired. Soldiers should be more community oriented and training for them should target peacekeeping, community and relationship building, and ethics of their profession.

While most of us, whose parents were once at the top of the civil service traveled, got educated in the Western world and have great opportunities, those that served and protect are barely feeding their children not to talk of clothing, educating or able to afford good shelter and health care for their families.

If you, therefore, see a Gambian veteran or a man or woman in uniform, the least you can do is to thank them and in return, they will be grateful and proud to serve. And slowly, what some of us see in America, we will see in Gambia and other African nations.

Happy memorials day to all the members of the Gambia Armed Forces. I say thank you. Thank you for your serving and for protecting all of us. Really, thank you!

So many of you have sacrificed your lives and made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety, freedom, and liberty. May you all rest in peace and in this New Gambia, no soldier is my enemy.

Let us make our men and women in uniform proud to serve like those Gambians, who join the U.S. Army and the Queen’s Army. This is the part we must play to secure a professional army for The Gambia.

I would be very proud to serve my country someday and be part of an army that our people can be proud of. It will be my greatest honor and I hope it will be yours too. It is up to all of us to help build a military that all citizens can trust.

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