Anybody who has had a close interaction with The Gambian President, Yahyah Jammeh, cannot but express surprise that the man subjected himself to a proper election. Jammeh has no democratic credentials and does not care a hoot about his deficit in that regard. It must, therefore, have taken an illusion or delusion of sorts for the man to imagine that a properly arranged election would produce the kind of result that has kept him going for 22 years. In fact, if you have watched him sneer at democracy and whatever it represents, you will not be surprised that he has rejected the outcome of a democratic exercise that promises to take The Gambia out of the woods.
I can attest to Jammeh’s disdain for democracy. In June, 2003, I was a guest at the State House in Banjul where I had gone to interview Jammeh. The man was in his ninth year in office then, having come to power in 1994 through a military coup d’état.
While the interview lasted, Jammeh’s disposition, reactions and responses betrayed the private convictions of a man, who had nothing but disdain for promoters and defenders of democracy. For him, the idea of democracy rankles, especially the western variant, which places premium on democratic institutions and vests absolute sovereignty on the people. Jammeh does not recognise the universal encapsulation of democracy, as the form of government that derives legitimacy from the people’s will. Such an idea of democracy appalls him. He finds it childish and slavish for anybody to accept the western brand of democracy, which holds that power belongs to the people. He does not accept such standards. They sound peremptory to him. For him, the leader should identify what he considers good for his people and strive to attain that objective. It does not matter whether the people or the larger world approve of it or not.
Jammeh, for decades, has been holding tenaciously to this self-serving encapsulation of democracy.
After my encounter with Jammeh, I tried to compare his disposition with those of other African presidents’ whom I interviewd during that period, particularly Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, a neighboring West African country. Kabbah, who was thrown out of power in 1997 and was restored after a long-drawn power struggle, did not display the kind of arrogance we saw in Jammeh. Kabbah was calm. He had tasted the rough side of power and he knew quite well the gains of self-control and humility. But Jammeh was none of that. He was clearly self-opinionated, especially in matters of democracy.
Indeed, he has been on a roller coaster for years. When he and a band of military adventurers struck in 1994 and ousted the government of Sir Dawda Jawara, Gambians did not complain. They did not ask for change, but when it came, they aligned themselves with it. Jawara had, at that time, spent nearly 30 years in office. The people were carried away by the popular fervour that trailed his policies. Gambians, from all indications, were at home with the situation in their country under Jawara. The people are not ambitious. They are at peace with their environment.
But it was suspected that the coming of Jammeh was a product of foreign influence. At the time he struck, Nigeria’s Lawan Gwadabe was the country’s Chief of Army Staff. He was in The Gambia to impart the best traditions of military discipline and gallantry in the country’s soldiers. But somewhere along the line, they got aroused from a certain complacency. The wave of military coups, sweeping across the African continent got hold of The Gambia. It produced a Yahyah Jammeh.
Jammeh’s intransigence is easily traceable to the way he started. When he assumed office in 1994, he rolled out a four-year transition plan. He needed that time frame to transmute properly from a soldier to a civilian president. But the European Union would not let him be. Owing to their interference, Jammeh settled for a two-year transition programme. But he did that grudgingly. In order to level up with his traducers, he did what many considered unthinkable within the short period of time. A few months to the end of his transition, he promoted himself from a Captain to a Colonel. That was not all. Jammeh was both the midwife of and candidate in the transition programme. And in order to have undue advantage in the election, he placed a ban on all political activities until one month to the election. Within this period, the electoral commission was expected to register political parties and prepare for the elections. Jammeh merely enacted an elaborate charade with a predetermined outcome. He successfully transmuted in 1996, as a civilian president. Since then, he has been renewing his mandate through all manner of subterfuge. For observers of African politics, Jammeh, in many ways, reenacted what Jerry Rawlings did in Ghana, what Idris Derby did in Chad and what Ibrahim Mainasara did in Niger Republic. For this and related reasons, western countries were up in arms against him. The United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan and the United Kingdom meddled in the affairs of The Gambia. They tried to dictate to Jammeh how he must govern his country. Jammeh’s distaste for western-inspired democracy derives from his cat and mouse relationship with the West.
For 22 years, Jammeh survived the onslaught. But he apoears to have reached his dead end. Having run out of ideas on how to continue to renew his mandate through foul means, Jammeh finally bowed to pressure by allowing his country’s electoral commission to conduct proper elections. The outcome of the poll shows that Jammeh lost to an opposition candidate. But he will have none of that. He is alleging manipulation. He wants the electoral umpire to conduct fresh polls. Jammeh says he will remain in office beyond the January 19 handover date unless fresh polls are conducted in his country. That is the crossroads that The Gambia is saddled with.
But the battle has taken an international dimension. The watching world appears disturbed by Jammeh’s position on the polls. The African Union led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia has risen against him and is insisting that a new president must be sworn in, in The Gambia on the scheduled date.
Analysts of African politics will readily tell you that Jammeh is acting true to type. He is in the league of Africa’s sit-tight leaders. After 22 years in office, Jammeh is asking for more. That is clearly an aberration.
But Jammeh is guilty of something. He is a slave of phantoms. He is certainly not seeing clearly. If he were, he would have known that he has burnt out his goodwill among Gambians. If he read the handwriting on the wall clearly, he would have known that democratic election will not serve his purpose. Now, he is just crying over spilt milk. His lamentation is that of a man, who is clever by half. If he knew his onions, he would have handled the elections differently. The way things are, Jammeh is just reeling in self-inflicted red eye.
But what is truly tragic here is that he is not gauging the pulse of the democratic world. If he does that, he will realise that he has, truly, reached his dead end.