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Yahya A JJ Jammeh: Babili Mansa – The Making of a Benevolent African Dictator

Mar 29, 2017, 1:19 PM | Article By: LAMIN SAHO

Issued Tuesday 28 March 2017

In July 1994 a group of rag tag members of the then Gambia National Army made their way to the State House and with the speed of a jet fighter flushed the   Jawara regime and proclaimed themselves the new saviors and ‘’soldiers with a difference’.

The unsuspecting population cheered on and welcomed them with open arms.  I was then a student of International Relations in far-flung and exotic Ukraine – a country then in the throes of glastnost and perestroika which equated to transition from command economy to market economy and one-party centralism to pluralism.

My Ukraine  course mate jokingly asked how can a rag tag army of 8000 men flush out a so-called democratic regime, with such speed, and further opined that the Gambia – a beacon of stability and human rights  - is about to join the club of bad boys in a turbulent sub-region.

Then the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were raging. Back home the soldiers with a difference went ahead to set up a junta – following the well-travelled road by other west African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria,  etc. What followed is now history.                         During the halcyon days of the ancien regime, youthful exuberance has propelled other writers to catalogue for posterity the achievements of the glorious July 22 revolution.  However on the eve of the anniversary of the July 22nd Anniversary, 2016 I had a strong urge to pen an article, which was published by the Standard Newspaper entitled ‘The Gambian Political Scene; Missed opportunities”. The article pinpointed the wrongs and highlighted the missed opportunities for cohabitation by politicians across the political divide. I observed that despite all the buzz about the achievements of the July 22 Revolution, “ a key point worth reiterating and amplifying based on my experience as a student in Eastern Europe during the turbulent period of transition from command economies to pluralism and free enterprise, development is all about people, their welfare and aspirations and is all inclusive in terms of individual and collective freedoms and pluralism and the ability to be heard and be listened to by the political class”.

I pointed out that there are potentials for the Gambian waters to be infested with all sorts of problems including terrorism, religious extremism and bigotry, underdevelopment, tribalism, xenophobia to point out just a few.  The need to battle all these challenges head on, and not to allow them to rear their ugly heads and derail our march to greater prosperity and larger freedom in the context of our national anthem was amplified.

The political experiment of 22 years is now over, and in my view we all contributed in one way or the other to perpetuating that type and system of governance, either by design or default. Benevolent dictators the world over understand the need to undertake white elephant projects, build a personality cult, control the media and the narrative and in our context, be ready to part with money and positions to buy patronage.  Babili Mansa realized this very early on and executed it in such mastery that at one point he was the unrivalled Babili Mansa on both banks of the River Gambia.

 Given that I studied International Relations in the former Soviet Union- the land of Lenin and Stalin, two totalitarian leaders of the 20th century; but two leaders of varying personalities and vision; I observed the developments keenly at home. Whereas Lenin was your text book intellectual, revolutionary and master strategist, Stalin was folksy and   pragmatic party functionary, who just like Babili Mansa bulldozed his way to the top and became for good or worst the most known and dreaded leader of the Soviet Union.

His strategy was simple – know the strengths and weaknesses of your people, make the “right” personnel decisions and execute development regardless of the human cost.

Stalin ruled from the late 20s to the mid 1950s of the last century, but our Babili Mansa was Stalin re-incarnate. They both understood the essence of smart moves to control a people by taking command of personnel decisions and the productive basis of society.  Before people could realize both stuffed the system with likeminded people, across all levels of government, both local and central, who were ready to go to any length to promote their agenda. According to Stalin “he who controls the personnel management of a people controls their destiny”. Babili Mansa equally understood this and witness the hiring and firing at unprecedented scale during the Jammeh era – the objective was to hire likeminded people and careerists who were not necessarily the most bright, but willing and able to play ball and perpetuate his rule.

Having consolidated his rule at home and purged the system of his foes and potential challengers, Stalin embarked on an image reengineering agenda to create the fake impression that he was the father of the people and all oppressed people everywhere. To accomplish this task he reshuffled and re- balanced the foreign policy concept of Lenin, which was rooted in “socialism in one country” to global socialism.

Any keen student of International Relations would have gleaned through the basic tenets of Jammeh foreign policy, which was masked with pan Africanism and anti imperialism, Africa for Africans, pivot to Asia and the Islamic world. The overall objective was to consolidate his rule, but unknown to him, in the 21st century there is what is known as diplomatic inflation.

In lay man language this is the era of globalization, the information revolution, and no matter how hard you work to disguise and conceal, the tools of the 21st century are there to unmask you. He equally failed to realize that in international relations, according to Lord Palmerston one of the finest British diplomats of his era “there is no permanent friend, but permanent interest”. This is a basic principle of international relations. He equally failed to realize that international relations are premised on a set of systems, interwoven with web of international organizations, alliances to ensure certain norms are universal, while certain behaviors universally unacceptable, punctuated at both bilateral and multilateral levels and the bottom line is to ensure what is understood in international relations as “limited sovereignty”.

As I write this piece the basic contours of a multi polar system of international relations is taking shape, as opposed to uni-polar or bipolar system of international relations. The Babili Mansa became a victim of his designs and invariably will go down in history as one ruler who presided over a self imposed isolationist foreign policy and agenda at the detriment of his people and country. However, compare Yahya Jammeh to Idi Amin, Mobutu, Bokassa at your own peril. The Babili Mansa was dreaded and ruthless like the big three, but unlike the Big Three, Babili Mansa left in his wake some semblance of development and created the foundation for an enlightened society by setting the University of the Gambia. He was just unfortunate to rule in the 21st century – the information age and post east and west world or simply put post-cold war era, where alliances are forged based not on ideological leanings, but real politics.

Way Forward

End the bickering and start work in earnest to craft the institutions that support democracy bearing in mind that “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men”. The endless bickering sends the wrong signals and undermines people’s confidence in government. If you doubt that ask the people of Ukraine what happened to their dreams and aspirations post Orange revolution in 2004.

Govern with good will, with a high dose of candor and set high bench marks for socio- economic development, cognizant of the fact that to jaw jaw is better than to war war and that in a democracy consensus is reached after a thorough debate and in the process we agree to disagree.

Develop the productive sectors and understand the limitations of the Gambia in terms of development options, cognizant of the fact that ours is one of the smallest countries in Africa, but a vibrant and youthful population endowed with a very open and hospitable people. If my tourism expertise is any guidepost this is the recipe for a very vibrant tourism sector and indeed if given the right attention, tourism could become the cash cow and the goose that lays the golden egg.

Pay particular attention to personnel issues, bearing in mind that it was the control of the personnel division of the Bolshevik party that Stalin was able to out fox and out maneuver all his contemporaries.  And at the same time control one of the greatest empires in history – Soviet Union (USSR), the country that first put man- Yuri Gagarin in to space, the first woman in to space- Valentina Tereshkova and defeated Nazi Germany hands down.


The author studied International Relations and diplomacy. Currently engages as a marketing and tourism consultant, given his grounding in tourism as well. He also underwent thorough series of specialized training in Tourism Management, Destination Management and Destination Marketing.