Dr Ismaila Ceesay, Political Science Lecturer, The University of The Gambia

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Long Road to Democracy in The Gambia edited by Prof Pierre Gomez

It is a great pleasure for me, and indeed an honour to review this book, ‘The Long Road to Democracy in the Gambia’ by one of Gambia’s most accomplished academics, Professor Pierre Gomez. The key summary of the review I am going to make is to simply say read this book. If you haven’t read it yet, you haven’t read any book on contemporary Gambian society, on Gambian poetry and on the collective sentiments of a nation in a time of great challenge. I think the main architect of this chapter of our history, former President Jammeh, himself has to get a copy of this book.  He must read it to comprehend the collective trauma, anxiety, anger and fear he subjected a whole nation.

Quite honestly, the powerful poems in the book made me to understand how the majority of Gambians felt and still feel about their country. I had to reflect long into the night trying to put all these powerful messages into a proper context.  I assure you that when you buy a copy of the book (available at Timbooktoo) and get the chance to read it, your perspectives about how Gambians felt about themselves, their country and their thoughts on the political impasse that held the whole nation in suspense will be given a new dimension.

By way of introduction, let me say that this is the book that summarises in a few pages the collective feelings of Gambians at a time when there was great uncertainty about the nation’s political future. And anyone interested in knowing how Gambians felt when their country and democracy was raped and violated with total disregard by a group of criminals has to read this book urgently. Although the book is a collection of poems written by Gambians using social media during the political impasse, Professor Gomez has done a great job in putting together these poems in his quest to depict the socio-political situation of the country.

Professor Gomez ingeniously divided the book into four stages. Each stage representing a timeline in the run up to the December 1 presidential elections, the brief interlude that ushered in a period of hope for our democracy between 2 and 9 December, the penultimate phase full of suspense and uncertainty also dubbed as the political impasse and the final phase outlining the period between the swearing in of President Barrow at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, the intervention of the ECOMIG forces and the subsequent departure in exile of former President Yahya Jammeh.

The poems published in the first stage of the timeline carry themes that depict a challenge of decision making at the polls, attempts to incite a sense of craving and lamentations for change as in David Kujabi’s ‘Our Land Use to Smile’, Famara Fofona’s ‘A Night of Anguish’ and Musa Bah’s  ‘Culture of Sycophancy’.  In particular, Bah’s ‘Culture of Sycophancy’ is one of the most powerful poems that has ever depicted a country’s political situation and how politicians abuse the power given to them by the people to serve their own selfish interest.

 The Culture of Sycophancy.

The leaders live lifestyle, fancy

Yet we all naively call it democracy

We condone the enervating bureaucracy

They are drunken with powers ecstasy

This misnomer causes their redundancy

I call this bane the culture of sycophancy

The kowtowing behind them is pure lunacy

We have institutionalised praising incumbency. (p.24)

Bah’s attitude towards sycophancy, which he considers a bane, is that of contempt. He puts part of the blame for this bane of mal-governance and dysfunctional leadership on sycophancy amongst the citizenry. Bah fundamentally argues that when a people turn a blind eye to misrule or at worse praise it, they invite for themselves calamity in the hands of dictators. The key contention is that a people create the monstrous dictators themselves thereby contributing to their own subjugation by the monster they created. This poem reminds me of a conversation in William Shakespeare’s work, Julius Caesar, between Cassius and his friend Brutus, where the former tried to persuade the latter that in the best interests of the public, Julius Caesar must be stopped from becoming monarch of Rome. He told him, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The second phase of the timeline in this anthology of poems depicts the period of strong determination for change amongst Gambians.  This period started with the announcement of the election results by the IEC indicating that the incumbent had lost the elections to the coalition.  As Professor Gomez described, a period of intense ecstasy followed this period as Gambians began to express themselves freely once again. This new found freedom to speak their minds reached climax when the incumbent called to concede defeat.  One of the poems that capture the mood around this period was written by Marabi Hydara. The name of the poem later became the slogan of the countries new found freedom.

The Gambia has decided

The Gambia has suffered far too long

Her people have been victimised all along

From the ills of her leadership

Her body is covered with the scar of dictatorship

She endured all sorts of inhumane censorship

Her sons and daughters are force to leave their homes

As they embark on suicidal journeys

Crossing the desert and the Dead Sea to Lampedusa (P.48)

In these lines, Marabi succinctly describes the Gambia’s dysfunctional governance system under the previous government the consequence of which saw the majority of the country’s youths flee their homeland in search of freedom and greener pastures and to escape the clutches of the dictatorial machinery. Some arrived safely, but the majority perished on the high seas. As a result, Marabi enunciates the fact that the Gambia has decided to break free itself from the clutches of dictatorship under former President Jammeh who had turned his citizens into slaves in their own country, punished people who dissented and brutally supressed all forms of opposition. These lines in page 48 well capture this unfortunate circumstance:

Folks are celebrated by the colour of their political parties

Criticism unwelcomed and meted with incarceration

Prisons filled with innocent men and women

All are forced to praise-sing one man

As he became the godfather of all men

His pictures treasured and his words became law

Citizens enslaved and turned to farmers

Not on their own farms, but to Kanilai family farms

Produce of which is never accounted for

Projects became steeped and self-centred

The lines above echo similar sentiments by journalist Blain Harden in his description of the classic African president. In his book ‘Dispatches from a Fragile Continent’, he has this to say:

His face is on the money

His photograph hangs in every office in the realm

His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of him on the lapels of their tailored pinstriped suits

He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals and universities after himself

He carries a silver inlaid ivory mace or an ornately carved walking stick

He insist on being called doctor, conqueror, teacher, the big elephant or the number one peasant or the wise old man or the most popular leader in the world

His every pronouncement is reported on the front page

He shuffles his ministers without warning paralysing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to his throne

He scape-goats minorities to shore up popular support

He rigs elections

He emasculates the courts

He cows the press

He stifles academia

He goes to church or mosque.

At the climax of the political impasse, which saw a deadlock between the key political stake holders, a transition committee was to be set to facilitate the smooth transfer of power.  However, this process was undermined when exactly a week after conceding defeat, former President Jammeh announced on national TV that he rejected the election results in their totality due to some anomalies detected after some thorough investigations. This U-turn by Jammeh engendered outcry and condemnation both within and outside the country amongst Gambians and non-Gambians. But unfortunately for Jammeh, Gambians have already tasted freedom after 22 years. The celebrations in the streets of Banjul and across the country on December 2, attested to this. And Gambians had one message for Jammeh… we are not turning back and we will not be intimated by your threats.

Consequently, in a bid usurp the voice of the people, Jammeh used different mechanisms to unlawfully hold on to the presidency. First he unsuccessfully filed and election petition at the Supreme Court to nullify the election results. This move subjected Jammeh to mockery and ridicule as some of his blind followers gathered in front of the dysfunctional supreme court to hear the case. This scenario inspired David Kujabi’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Musa Bah’s ‘The Overlords’ and Marabi Hydara’s ‘Mr Dramatists’. All these poems depict the various themes that summed up the situation at the time. For instance, in Kujabi’s ‘Game of Clowns’, he draws our attention to the APRC supporters who continued to disgrace themselves by refusing to accept the will of Gambians either as a result of egocentrism or otherwise. These were captured in the following lines in page 76:

We’ve heard about game of thrones

But here comes the game of clowns

The cast is a misguided group

Living in green utopia

Their ideals if any at all are myopic and self centered

They are like the dancer who is still on the dance floor long after the music had stopped playing

Seeking relevance from a disinterested audience.

This cynicism portrayed by Kujabi in the above lines continues in Bah’s ‘The Overlord’:

The streets they arrogantly roam

Proudly pretending to be from Rome

Initially you could count each bone

Now so fat they have to hide in a robe

They have no time for the masses

To address them they hide under glasses

No respect for mosques or churches

Only interested in what fame fetches. (p.38)

Following on the same theme of self-ridicule, Marabi Hydara describes former President Jammeh’s rollercoaster behaviour during the impasse likening it to episodes in a drama where Jammeh is the sole protagonist. First he accepted the results, then sent a petition to the court, then deployed the army to the IEC and then tried to import judges from the sub-region.

First you gave a concession speech

Accepting the inevitable change

Later you fortified strategic locations

With armed men and women

Then denying the results in toto

Saying you have been cheated and not defeated

Saying your decision is final

And until we return to the polls

You will not step down. (p.52)

The poet did not stop at how Jammeh was behaving, but also went further to stress how Gambians reacted to the unfolding folly.  They had decided with their marbles and would not want to have that stubborn ink on their fingers again. The sternness in the poets tone and the diction used in the stanza that follows prove the poets maturity in being able to hammer home his ideas succinctly without compromising his literary position as highlighted in his poem ‘Mr. Dramatist’.

Mr Dramatist

Elections again, no go area

Gambia has decided

She is not voting again

She is not spending her meagre resources in vain

Swallow your pride and move on

For you were not born president

Nor shall you die president

Go and live the live you sowed

Greed is fatal and stubbornness leads to ruin

Accept the truth and don’t be a coward. (p.52)

The 4th and final stage of this whole political saga on the timeline covers the brief period between the swearing in of President Adama Barrow at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, the intervention of the ECOMIG forces and the departure into exile of former president Jammeh.  This was the climax of the impasse and it was filled with suspense. It ushered in a defiance that was manifested in the poetry scene as captured by Abdoulie Jallow’s ‘What is This’.

The whole system corrupt

The volcano about to erupt

The prices up and people angry

But some are just power hungry

We still reread the same page

And claim to be off the Stone Age

Some just love to be on stage

Sending the rest of us rage

I write this with heavy heart

Such rage beyond just sad

This is no longer just mad. (p.71)

In the same vein, in ‘Season Finale’ Marabi Hydara again expressed his contempt towards outgoing President Jammeh whose key allies had already started telling him that ‘so far we can accompany you in your madness…but not further’.

Your ills can’t get you immunity

For you lived a life filled with animosity

And today you are ostracised by thy own society

Your loyalists have forsaken you due to thy atrocity

Leave! Leave! Leave! Before you see our ferocity

For we no longer want to see thy face stained in monstrosity.

Peace! (p.72).

Professor Gomez praised the poets who contributed to this anthology. Even though most of them had not before now taken up poetry as a career, he finds their maturity in style in which their poems are composed amazing. The devices and technics used by the poets to put their feelings about the political impasse reflect maturity and dexterity. In essence, through a collection of poems, what Professor Gomez has done is to provide a narrative of the general mood among Gambians during the short journey of our history in a very long road. The ‘Long Road to Democracy in the Gambia’ proves pivotal in determining the role played by the Gambian literati and social media during this great nation’s historic moment. The poems also make apparent the quality of talent we have in the Gambia as demonstrated by the poets. Hence I conclude by congratulating Professor Gomez and the poets for this brilliant piece of work.