Few ever predicted that fear had indeed faded from The Gambia as last Thursday’s historic election finally ended a dictator’s grip on power in that country. And though the election of opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow might not have had the same magnitude as that of Donald Trump a month ago, it bore perhaps an equal and opposite measure of the element of surprise that characterized the US elections. The world is indeed astonished – in a good way – not just by the result but also the reactions.
What surprises many, probably the entire world, in this newest episode of this Gambian story, is the electric level at which the nation’s autocratic president, Yahya Jammeh conceded defeat. Jammeh had made no secret of his autocratic rule, vowing to govern “for a billion years if Allah decrees it”, declaring himself “proud to be a dictator” and threatening to bury the “evil vermins called opposition … nine feet deep”. His change of tone is a mystery to the ears of many.
On the day of the election, the country experienced a telecommunications blackout that raised suspicion that the 2-decade entrenched dictator, who once claimed a “billion-year” mandate to rule, may have been trying to manipulate the vote and reinforce his grip at the helm. It therefore came as a huge surprise to the world that he peacefully conceded defeat after the electoral commission has announced the results in favor of Barrow.
Whether it was Jammeh’s own conviction that led to his concession or an intervention on behalf of the oppressed Gambians, or perhaps a spiritual force, there is one thing that is sure—Gambia, as in the words of one of its renowned journalists, is “free at last.”
Barrow’s election has brought relief to thousands of Gambian citizens and non-citizens at home and abroad who felt the wrath of the Jammeh’s government. Most of those affected were opposition politicians and journalists, many of whom had to flee into exile.
Journalists were indeed the easiest of prey of Jammeh’s regime. Scores of Gambian journalists suffered at Jammeh’s hands. Some of these were exiled for several years. Those including Fatou Jaw Manneh, one of the several female journalists trained by veteran Liberian Journalist, Kenneth Y. Best; Ebrima Ceesay (PhD), Baba Galeh Jallow (PhD) Sheriff Bojang, who served as Minister of Information in the Jammeh government, Cherno Baba Jallow and Alieu Badara Sherif, both holders of Master’s degrees in Journalism from Columbia, and Sheriff Bojang Jr., a Dakar-based international radio and television correspondent. These and many others could not hide their excitement over the news of President-Elect Barrow’s success in the elections. They and many others have all lived in exile for 20 years or more.
Sheriff Junior, who has not seen his native land for the past 15 years, told the Liberian Daily Observer, “Barrow’s victory is the voice of the Gambian masses.”
For the past 22 years, he said, Gambians were enslaved by one of their own. “As Gambians we got it wrong for 22 years and we were enslaved in our own backyard for 22 years. Finally we got it right and this is the moment I want to remember, a moment that will be embedded in my heart for many years to come… the bravery of the Gambians to remove a brutal dictator. We are free at last!”
A close friend of his posted on social media that, “Junior couldn’t hide his joy upon hearing that Jammeh had been ousted.”
Another of Junior’s colleagues, Winnie Kamau—a Kenyan, put it this way: “Amazing how an election can set a new tide to a great nation. My friend Sheriff Junior is going back home to Gambia after 15 years of exile. How many more people will be going back to rebuild this great nation?
No foreign journalist ever felt the brunt of the Jammeh tyranny than renowned Liberian journalist and founder and publisher of the Liberian and Gambian Daily Observer newspapers, Kenneth Y. Best.
However, no one can speak of journalism in The Gambia without mentioning the name Kenneth Y. Best — the man who established that country’s first daily and first professional newspaper (the Gambian Daily Observer). Best also trained scores of Gambian journalists (including most of those mentioned above) that nation can now boast of. But sadly, he was deported from that country by the Jammeh administration for his critical stance against that government.
Best and his Daily Observer newspaper, who were escaping the anarchies that had engulfed their homeland (Liberia), saw the Gambia as the as that ideal place to seek asylum as well as that fertile ground to introduce the craft of professional journalism. But in no time did this enthusiastic and vibrant media practitioner get to know that his thoughts were actually unwelcome, that country’s newest young leader who had just seized power by overthrowing a democratically elected President, Sr. Dawda Jawara.
After successfully launching and operating his newspaper for nearly two years, the Publisher of the Gambian Daily Observer, that nation’s first independent daily, was put on a plane and flown back to war-torn Liberia because, according to Jammeh, Best was very critical of his government.
With that move, Jammeh was just beginning to flex his muscles against free speech and freedom of the press and the Gambian Daily Observer was just one of his first examples.
Best himself had faced fierce oppression and media censorship in his native Liberia during the dictatorship of Head of State and later President Samuel K. Doe when Mr. Best’s Daily Observer suffered numerous arson attacks and he, himself, was jailed several times, once along with his wife, Mrs. Mae Gene Best, and their staff.
In a congratulatory message to the Gambian people, Mr. Best said, “Your beloved country has been through 22 years of persistent anguish, during which so many of your compatriots have been ruthlessly imprisoned, tortured and even killed, beginning already with some of Jammeh’s own fellow lieutenants with whom he overthrew the democratically elected President, Sir Dawda Jawara.
Among Jammeh’s victims, too, Best noted, were scores of journalists, many of whom were imprisoned and brutally murdered, “beginning with our beloved colleague, Deyda Hydara, Publisher of The Point newspaper and former President of the Gambian Press Union.”
“In addition, an untold number of other journalists were driven into exile, beginning with those trained by me personally between 1992 and 1994, when I myself was deported by Jammeh and his immigration officials.”
“We thank God.” Mr. Best continued in his message, “that many of these journalists, forced into exile, became some of Africa’s most prominent media practitioners. At least two of them have now their doctorate degrees; two have graduated from the world’s most prestigious Journalism training institution, my alma mater, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York; and many have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and all are gainfully employed in reputable institutions around the world. Some, like Sherif Bojang, Jr., are international correspondents for some of the world’s leading media institutions.”
Another media colleague, Prue Clarke, said the election of the new president is a new dawn in Gambia. Bravo to my brave Gambian journalist friends, including Sheriff Bojang Jr., who is heading home for the first time in 15 years, and Rodney Sieh, who fled Jammeh’s ruthless tentacles. Rodney, who also served on the staff of the Gambian Daily Observer, was also to have been arrested, but fled the country with the help of diplomats.
Change is in the air in the Gambia, and Barrow, a real-estate developer who once worked as a security guard in London, is now that agent of change.
Opposition parties for the first time formed a coalition and chose Barrow, who hails from several of the Gambia’s tribes and hence commands support spanning the divides many say Jammeh has deliberately widened over the course of his rule.
But it is indeed the country’s youth, who were so desperate for change, for hope of jobs who made the difference in the election. Many of their colleagues have lost their lives at sea trying to cross over to Europe for greener pastures, but the largely literate at home who were armed with information from social media, had been galvanized to effect change and surely change did come.
On the eve of the elections, it was reported that most Gambians had loosened themselves out of their entrenched positions of fear and were ready to make the bold move. Women and young people were talking about their grievances. Everybody was shouting, not just for change, but the one that comes with freedom and opportunities.