INSIGHTWith Julius Spencer
LESSONS FROM THE GAMBIA
Last year by this time, I’m sure if anyone had told former Presidend Yayah Jammeh that a year later he would no longer be the one determining the fate of Gambians and that he would, in fact be living in exile after being rejected by the majority of Gambians, he would have regarded that person as a madman. Yet, here we are today after a lot of drama, the Alhaji, Professor, Dr. etcetera is no longer the president of the Gambia, having lost the elections.
In fact, many of us did not believe he could lose the elections, but lose he did.
The drama that played out in the Gambia over the past two or so months is a bit difficult to decipher and has left me wondering what really happened. Was it a case of Jammeh’s intelligence agencies having failed him by not giving him the early warning signs? Is it that Jammeh had surrounded himself with psychophants, like some other President I could name, and so could no longer hear the voice of the people? Was it that the opposition coalition became so effective that Jammeh’s machinery could not keep up with them? Or was it simply a matter of God’s time?
When I first heard that Jammeh was losing the elections, I thought it was one of those numerous hoaxes or fake news as Trump calls it, but then one heard the same thing from several sources and eventually the electoral commission announced the results and indeed, Jammeh had lost the elections to a virtual unknown, someone most of us had not even heard about. And as if the election results were not surprising enough, we then heard Jammeh conceding and congratulating his opponent.
Thanks to social media, we saw videos of Jammeh talking to Barrow (nicknamed wheelbarrow by some people) on the phone.
When I saw the videos and realized that Jammeh had indeed lost the elections and seemed to be gracefully conceding defeat and was willing to hand over power, I concluded that some agreement had been reached between himself and his opponent in relation to his future. But trust the international media, questions soon started to be raised about Jammeh’s human rights record and justice for those who had suffered at his hands. While the president elect seemed not to be planning to go down the route of retribution, other members of his coalition seemed to have other ideas. It was therefore not quite surprising when Jammeh reversed his decision to concede and grabbed hold of the electoral commission’s admission that there had been some errors in the results, to claim that there had been massive irregularities that rendered the election results invalid.
ECOWAS leaders and other world leaders were alarmed at this turn of events and calls started coming in from all over the world for Jammeh to step down, with some calling for him to hand over immediately, even though the Gambian constitution provided for a transition that would have ended on January 19. ECOWAS threatened military action to remove him from power if he did not hand over by the stipulated date, but still Jammeh remained recalcitrant, rebuffing the mediation efforts of his colleague heads of state, including our own Ernest Koroma.
I’m pretty sure Jammeh was surprised that he did not get any support from those who a few days earlier had been referring to him as brother and with whom he wined and dined. He was offered asylum in a number of countries but he rejected all such offers, insisting that he was going to go through a legal route to have the election results overturned.
Unfortunately, for Jammeh, he fell into the hole that he had dug for his opponents and could not climb out and for me, this is one of the major lessons some African leaders and other despots need to learn.
Apparently, the Gambian Supreme Court had been rendered un-operational due to the fact that apart from a Chief Justice, no other judges were in place. Speculation is rife that this was a deliberate act by Jammeh to ensure that the opposition would have nowhere to go with election petitions. It has emerged that judges from Nigeria and Sierra Leone had been appointed since September, but their arrival in the Gambia had not been facilitated, so the Supreme Court had not been fully constituted. Now, whether Jammeh had engineered this or it was an oversight, this is what came back to haunt him because it turned out that he needed the Supreme Court to be able to hang onto power.
If the Supreme Court had been properly constituted and had been allowed to do its job all the time without fear or favour, if the rule of law had been respected by Jammeh and all citizens were treated fairly under the law, then he would have easily gone to the Supreme Court and had his case heard. Whether he would have got what he wanted is another matter.
In some other jurisdictions, judges are appointed based on their real or perceived allegiance to the government in power, the judicial process is interfered with by government officials, judges are given instructions by the executive branch of government about who should receive bail, etc. And all this is done without a thought about how this will play out when the government is no longer in power.
They fail to realise that if they do not change the way of doing things and ensure that the system works the way it is supposed to regardless of their personal preferences, then when they are no longer in power, those individuals they have put in place and ensured were “yes men/women” will continue being “yes men/women” with those who take over after them.
The Americans have a saying “what goes around comes around”, and whether we like it or not it is perfectly true. This is what happened to Jammeh. He dug a hole for others but he fell into the hole. There is also the Biblical saying “do unto others as you would be done unto you”. If our leaders followed this principle, they wouldn’t do many of the things they do when they are in power.
But I believe at the end of the day, Jammeh got what he wanted: an amnesty and the possibility of living in peace without being held accountable for his alleged human rights abuses, even though he won’t be able to live in the Gambia for the foreseeable future. This may however now be in some doubt if indeed it is true that he looted the Gambian treasury during his last days in power.
So for me there are a number lessons coming out of the recent Gambian experience. One is that if a leader ceases to hear the real voice of the people, he will wake up one morning and find himself in a shipwreck. The second lesson is that if those in power create or operate a system designed to disadvantage those who disagree with them, they will find out one day that the system they created will come back to haunt them.
The third and final lesson is that those who become your friends when you are in power will be the first to abandon you when you no longer wield that power.
I hope other African leaders have learnt from Jammeh’s experience.