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The Smile Strikes Back – Gambia Nice Again

Dec 9, 2016, 12:59 PM

“The president-elect of the Republic of the Gambia, Adama Barrow.” Say it once more. “The president-elect of the Republic of the Gambia, Adama Barrow.” And again and again. No matter how many times you repeat the words, it will probably take some time before the reality truly sinks in. Simply extraordinary, isn’t it? Where we had expected, perhaps unjustifiably, an exit with a destructive bang, we had instead, an entrance with a dignified and nation-redeeming whimper. The most resonant whimper in our political history.

 The ‘wind of change’ had been wafting in the air for some time, and when it finally broke through the airwaves, on 2nd December 2016, we received it as one might receive a guest, an eagerly-awaited guest: we flocked to the streets in a spontaneous and infectious euphoria, feet stomping, hands waving, and voices, long castrated, regained their proud timbre, and screamed to their hearts’ content, in complement to the honking vehicles streaming past.  But not even the leaping merriment could hide the wary bewilderment on people’s faces. “Is this really true, is it not a sick ‘April fool’s’ joke? The unnerving uncertainty formed a nagging backdrop to the festive charge in the air. But as evening beckoned, our fears diminished – it seemed we had crossed an epochal Rubicon!

The riot squads parade the avenues like lion prides testing their sinews

and every trembling heart retires as evening falls crushed by the weight of hours till daylight comes.

Daylight broke for this slow-moving scorpion on the 3rd Dec, when we woke up to no riot squads, no sinew-testing uniformed functionaries, to choke the heart or crush the spirit. We had indeed woken up to a new dawn. The ‘impossible’ had happened, we had just escaped an ‘Alcatraz’, and people can now ‘exhale’, the waiting (patience?) had paid off. Never again, that servile watchfulness, which made us look over our shoulders before we opened our mouths to speak, worrying about whom to trust, or whether one’s conversation was being secretly recorded. No more intimidatory check-points, arbitrary arrests, or indeed singing for our supper. Never again should we allow ourselves to be in the sort of toxic atmosphere where one was forced to fudge, hedge, and trim our views to please the caprices of narrow and unsalubrious egotisms.

Fast-forward to 5th December, around 6pm, and should you find yourself on Kairaba Avenue, you would have seen the crowds that had come out to welcome Ousainou Darboe, following his bail-release by the Court of Appeal. The atmosphere was carnivalesque, and the queue stretched from the American Embassy to Westfield. It felt, for me, as though the Notting Hill Gate carnival of London had come to Kairaba Avenue: a carnival of liberation, an event that stands in noble judgement of what I call “the battle of Kairaba Avenue”, the state’s sickening show of sinews on harmless marchers on the same avenue on 16th April this year. “The Gambia’s Nelson Mandela is free”, screamed a happy voice, and his sentiment could be taken as the sententia of the occasion. My mind went straight to William Wordsworth’s poem, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven”. We are a country in romance.

All this romance will, of course, come with its baggage of expectations, some of which will be obvious and realistic, and others will range from the obviously barmy and to the utopian. Sooner or later, disappointments will come, and discouragements about the pace of change, or even ‘betrayals’ of some of the ideals of the struggle. But that’s the nature of democracy: its progress is gradual, piecemeal and imperfect. Politics, like life, is a crooked timber out of which nothing straight can be wrought. We will argue and argue and argue. We will fall out with one another, make up again, debate a bit more, perhaps change our minds or harden our positions, fall out again, make up again – you get the picture.

But you’d have noticed that what allows the debate, the disagreements, fallings out, and so on, is essentially a ‘process’. An open process that is big enough to accommodate dissenters. Under the first Republic, our ‘process’ was as good as anything that Africa had to offer. So when 22nd July 1994 happened I was gobsmacked at how quickly we had welcomed what was essentially a travesty of process. No one had ever complained that Jawara rigged elections or that there was electoral unfairness, somehow. But for some reason, we opened our arms to people who had crept in through the window as if they had walked in through the door. No wonder, in the end, we were up in arms to get rid of them. Quite clearly, history was not on our side: military governments have caused more damage than good to Africa’s political evolution.

So what made us embrace them so swiftly? I will suggest that political naivete made us do it. And this naivete became our baptism, our twenty-two year old baptism of fire. “No pain, no gain”, an American might say, and perhaps this was the sort of experience we needed, to remind us of what was significant, valuable and godly in man, in both the political and social realms of our existence. There should not be any bitterness – only understanding; no revenge, but justice; no looking back, but forward. Let us tune the experience to melody, to effect, to love.

This ought to be a revolution of political culture no less than one of conscience. We are so quick to jump on the wagon of present power. Quite soon, we will be spectators to a tour-de-France of back pedaling on political allegiances, or ‘more about-faces than a battalion parade ground’.  But so is the way of the world: opportunism will trump principles each time.  The new leadership has a ‘hard row to hoe’. They will need the brightest and the best of Gambia, to even begin. But how quickly we will steer our way out of the current mess will depend on the leadership style. It is said of Abraham Lincoln that, when America was going through very difficult times, he steered the ship of state ‘as the pilots on his western rivers steered: from point to point, setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see’.  We astonished the world with our ‘velvet revolution’; we can do it again with our recovery.

Author:  Momodou Alieu Sidi M’boge