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Celebrating Yaya Jammeh’s Birthday

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Thursday 25th May was public holiday in The Gambia, marking according to official sources, Africa Liberation Day, but to the understanding of most Gambians, to honor the 46th birthday of the country’s peculiar dictator Yahya Jammeh. That confusion itself is a telling metaphor of the style of reign Jammeh has managed to maintain over the small West African state and its people for over a decade and a half now. The man may not be anywhere near the doctoral and professorial ambition that he pathologically carries, but he is not the fool that many take him to be and he has grown to be a master of some sort in the art of scheming and deceptive politics over the years.

Before international pressures forced him to “civilianize” himself and hold multiparty elections in 1996, President Jammeh almost convinced the majority of Gambians that he indeed hated party politics and was not available as candidate for the then coming elections. Jammeh continuously ranted against the “dishonesty” of politicians and repeated claimed he was no politician while at the privacy of his residence, at State House, he and his cronies were busy scheming how the thuggish July 22nd Movement would help pave the way for his election.

When he was later named the leading candidate of the elections, Yahya Jammeh and his APRC went on an unrestrained ethnic propaganda and politicking while loudly denouncing the supposed “tribalism” of the opposition parties, particularly the main opposition United Democratic Party. While using all the forces at his disposal, both men in uniform or Gaddafi-trained civilian thugs, to intimidate, terrorize, kidnap, arrest and torture political opponents in the 1996 presidential election, Jammeh kept on telling Gambians that he would not risk the peace and tranquility of the country. It is a style, not to say policy, Yahya Jammeh’s since the early years of his rule and it still remains so up to this day. Just the other day Jammeh denied that he had anything against President Wade of Senegal or any other Senegalese, but he has twice over the past half a year issued special official statements condemning the Senegalese leader for various allegations. Such politics saying one thing while doing the other has become a trade mark of the Jammeh style of rule and this has left many people permanently disillusioned with even party politics in general and hence the mass boycott of the current voter registration, in the opinion of many. Such politics of deception leaves many dizzy with misunderstanding public issues, the stance of the authorities and low confidence for those in authority.

The style of official deception can be traced not only in the domain of the articulated or declared words but also on the front of the unsaid, what is practically done or being carried out, at times coming out of the natural inconsistencies of people out for mischief, but often with the intention to misinform, confuse or hoodwink the general public.

Waging a so called campaign of “no compromise” against drugs after record cocaine catches and various allegations of presidential involvement may be understandable for its obvious purpose. Pretending that Gambians have forgotten about the “oil discoveries” is also understandable since the only other thing to do is the impossible admission it was all hoax. Letting delegations of chiefs trekking all over the country to call for Yahya to be elevated from position of president to king while he pretending to be above it all is also somehow understandable. They are all understandable because however morally repugnant, the confines of their rationale or logic are easily decipherable. Take the ongoing campaign to make Jammeh king of the country for instance, Jammeh must know the danger and backlash such buffoonery can lead to, including the negative publicity it may attract, the slide into a deeper pariah status that may befall his government and possible boycott by the donor community. All these, too much and for so little gain, one that is only nominal because his grip on power is already too monarchic and cannot be stiffer than any king. So while this example may be decipherable but it is rather weak in rational as much as the Birth Day celebrations.

It is doubtful that President Yahya Jammeh knows what his real birth date is. The date might have been one coined by a school head-teacher of the mid 1960s, but what is the fun of having ones anniversary celebrated in disguise, letting the whole country go on a holiday for a purpose that is hidden and swapped? For the cult of personality of course, the magnification of a person and his image to a size larger than life, supernatural and super-human. A person most suited for the post of life presidency by an awed and bewitched population of subjects.

It is rare that a country's entire condition can be hanging on the solders of a single man. That is true of The Gambia of today and this is indeed tragic. There are many indices of this tragedy, among them the growing poverty, unending violations human rights and the basic freedoms. But the most painful is that of the stolen July 1994 promises of transparency, accountability and probity. From independence in the early sixties against a global doubt that the tiny country can ever make it, the Gambian people struggled to maintain the longest continued multi party democracy on the continent only for their achievement to be snatched away from them so abruptly. Today, Gambians are living with the consequences, and trying to understand why and how their nation's history took such a cruel twist. The answer, for very many of us, lies in the political character of one man: Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh. It is perhaps the celebration of his birth day that closed the country’s offices, workplaces and the whole establishment but for many the official lie that it is in celebration of African Liberation Day is much more palatable and they therefore rather fall for it.

Before July 1994 Gambians had maintained their ideals even under pressure of drought, economic crisis hoping that soon they would build a state that embodied those ideals. They were determined that their social cohesion, strong work-ethic, low levels of crime and corruption, and tolerant ethnic and religious co-existence would continue to be the trademarks of their new stat to come.

Some falling short from such high aspirations is forgivable, but to be transformed into the bondage of a mad, HIV/AIDS-curing, witch-catching and fetish president was something they never bargained for.

President Jammeh is paranoid, irrational, eccentric and highly superstitious. There may be some truth in each of these descriptions, but in seeking to make sense of decision-making in today's Gambia they may also mislead. For to consign Yahya Jammeh to the realm of the insanity is to underestimate him: an examination of his political record of having effectively eliminated all potential rivals, including Barrow, Sana Sabally, Baba Jobe, Abdoulie Kujabi, Edward Singhateh and Lang Tombong reveals him to be an often astute political leader, far from random or erratic in his approach. But remember political astuteness is at times just the same coin but different side of madness. Too much power breeds insanity, We think.

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