Reconciliation or Revenge: Gambia’s Post-Election Dilemma

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Thursday December 1, 2016 will always be remembered as an historic day in the annals of the Gambia’s political history. It marked the beginning of a new dawn of democracy in our country, as the opposition coalition, led by Adama Barrow, defeated President Yahya Jammeh to win the Presidential race. As President-elect Adama Barrow is set to be inaugurated at State House in January 2017, thus ending the 22-year old misrule of outgoing President Jammeh, in my view, there are at least, eight high-priority and all-important areas that need to be addressed (by the new government) immediately, namely: 1) selecting his (Barrow’s) members of cabinet (preferably a gender-sensitive one) to ensure a smooth three-year transition period; 2) promoting national reconciliation through confessions and ownership of one’s crimes (forgiveness but ownership and accountability as well); 3) focusing on Gambia’s prospects for governance reforms; 4) revisiting Gambia’s current economic situation – assess the state of the Gambia’s economy and economic reforms; 5) analyzing and improving civil-military relations in the country; 6) challenges of establishing security and safety; 7) challenges of restoring rule of law and strengthening Justice; and 8) initiating a range of new capacity building programs to support both local and central governments.

It is an understatement to say that the incoming transitional government faces a number of daunting post-election challenges, and the questions now arise: Will the coalition government have the capacity to address these challenges? Is reconciliation possible after Jammeh?

The road ahead, no doubt, is going to be tough. Yet, it is also not an unfamiliar road. We can learn valuable lessons from countries like South Africa, Liberia and Tunisia. First and foremost, Gambians should not be naive about the scale of the challenges ahead. The Gambia indeed faces significant challenges, following the historic election of 1st December, and the new transitional government would have to do a lot of rebuilding. The real challenge facing the country, now that the polls are over, is to have a smooth and peaceful transition to the new administration, under the leadership of the likeable and humble President-elect Adama Barrow. Barrow’s government is supposed to last 36 months, and it has to be pointed out that for these three years, we will be in uncharted waters. Therefore, coalition leaders must be effectively organized, united in spirit and purpose, as any mistrust among coalition partners or any misstep by these leaders could derail the transition. President-elect Barrow must reunite a country that has been badly divided and polarized, especially in recent months. Although the 2016 Presidential election was relatively peaceful; yet, it would be an understatement to say that the country is still deeply divided and ethnically polarized.

The Gambia, regrettably, has been fractured along ethnic and religious lines, to a large extent, because outgoing President Yahya Jammeh used to mix politics with religion, ethnicity and economics. While Christians were being marginalized and discriminated publicly by state policy, it was in fact, the Mandinkas who bore the brunt of Jammeh’s hatred and brutality. Jammeh had used bigotry, derogatory comments and openly promoted hate speech, as well as incited hatred against the Mandinkas.
He willfully promoted hatred towards the Mandinkas and sadly, the country is, today, to some extent, still polarized along ethnic lines. Gambians used to be totally at ease with one another, but the increase in intolerance along ethnic (and religious) lines became noticeable under Jammeh. Gambians were pretty good at getting along with one another, and at supporting each other, but under President Jammeh’s divide and rule strategy, many Gambians did not get along, due to the politics of polarization in the country and the fact that moderate voices in the Gambia had lost influence. Thus, President Jammeh, to some extent, succeeded to pit, not just ethnic groups, but also blood families, against each other.

Therefore, it will take perhaps several years to assess the full extent of the damage wrought by President Jammeh on Gambian society, but this much is already very clear to me: the moral decadence in our society today cannot be solely blamed on Yahya Jammeh. Before judging Jammeh, and the evil he represented, we (Gambians) should properly look at ourselves in the mirror. The level of the erosion of moral standards in our society under Jammeh was just mind-boggling. Our religious leaders totally lost moral authority. When you watch GRTS, you will not fail to notice that shame and shamelessness became the order of the day in Jammeh’s Gambia. The effects of the moral decadence in Gambian society could be felt everywhere. Traditional family values declined considerably. Irresponsible parents and kids lacking proper upbringing and home training have become more prevalent these days to the extent that indiscipline, mediocrity, sexual promiscuity and immorality among youths in the Gambia have now become the norm in the society.

The root causes of the Gambian crisis are multi-faceted and complex, spanning political, religious, social, psychological, sociological, economic, and institutional factors. I can easily identify more than a dozen variables that directly or indirectly impact on the Gambian crisis. There has been a significant shift in the attitudes and values of Gambians since 1994. Jammeh’s rule, therefore, has had sobering effects and changed our lives and Gambian minds in ways that would be unimaginable pre-1994 days. In effect, Jammeh (or his reign) has undermined our social, moral and religious values and this has negatively impacted on our collective behavior as a people, the consequences of which manifest themselves in the form of this moral decay that is gripping our society today. The Gambian society is bleeding and breathing pain. Even more striking are the glaring changes and shift in some of our core political, religious and social values.

Jammeh’s actions over the years, have had a corrupting influence on culture and cultural values. The social fabric itself has been destroyed to the extent that restoring this damaged social fabric, through reformation of our attitudes, must be the sine qua non for an effective solution to some of our many problems. Our social cohesion has been undermined and our sense of national identity destroyed. Large-scale changes in our values can be observed across the country and the shift in attitude can be attributed to several factors such as human greed, hypocrisy, dishonesty, immorality, corruption and selfishness. Yet, the myriad crises afflicting Gambia can only be solved with a holistic approach, not a piecemeal one. Tackling the Gambian crisis now that Jammeh has been unseated will require a comprehensive intervention strategy.

What has happened to our good virtues, moral purity, moral straightness, which in fact, are at the very heart of both Islam and Christianity? The Gambian society today, I reiterate, is so infested with human greed, indiscipline, sexual promiscuity, stealing, cheating, moral laxity, hypocrisy, jealously, hatred, immorality, corruption, selfishness, dishonesty, mediocrity, manipulation to the extent that I would even argue that the moral decadence in our society today is perhaps one of the most important issues facing our people as a nation. The moral decay (or this cancerous growth) in the Gambian society, in my view, even ranks above the challenges the country faces in the health, education, agricultural sectors.

As Gambians took to the streets in a joyous celebration of Adama Barrow’s election victory, to mark the end of Jammeh’s brutal rule, there was a sense of unity across the nation. Yet, it was only several months ago, that the country was in a period of mourning, after the killing of Ebrima Solo Sendeng, whose tragic death dampened our collective consciousness and hearts and in fact, served as “the Gambia’s moral conscience”. Because of his courageous act and moral convictions, Solo Sendeng, who was willing to risk his own life for what he believed in, became the nation’s symbol for justice and change and inspired Gambians at home, and abroad, to help bring down the repressive regime of Jammeh. May his soul rest in peace!

The coalition’s victory at the polls will, by no means, immediately end the divisions, wounds, and the bitterness that defined Jammeh’s 22-year-old misrule. Equally speaking, the pain, trauma, fear and rancor between Gambians will not disappear altogether, unless and until the Gambia was ready to set up a truth commission or truth and reconciliation commission. Post-Jammeh Gambia remains a fractured society and therefore, learning from South Africa’s reconciliation process in particular, could be vital to avoiding witch-hunting, vindictiveness and vengeance. For the first time in its history, the Gambia, in my view, is going to need a post-election reconciliation strategy to deal with the wounds and divisions in the country opened by Jammeh’s reign.

For example, we need to know what has happened to Daba Marenah? All the locations of the mass graves in the country needs to be disclosed, in order to exhume these graves and take out the bones (or remains) of the deceased, so as to give them proper burial or funeral. Can Gambia rebuild itself after Jammeh and people move on? Well, unless and until there is both ownership (repentance) and forgiveness, the divisions and wounds opened up by the Jammeh era will never be fully healed.
Reconciliation will only occur if the offenders (Jammeh and his ilk) accept full responsibilities for their actions and we (the victims) forgive them.

Revenge and retributive justice would be too enticing, but reconciliation and healing, in my view, would be the way forward. Those who suffered under Jammeh would now be ready and prepared to wreak vengeance on the Jammeh loyalists and team of enablers, now that the tables are turned, but a tooth for a tooth (or tit for tat) should be totally avoided. The aim, as it were, would be to overcome the barriers that separate our people along ethnic and political lines, in order to effectively heal the country’s wounds and divisions. Rebuilding and forging authentic, long-term relationships, after 22 years of Jammeh’s misrule, are crucial. The Gambia’s new political dispensation, post Jammeh, must put rule of law and democracy at centre stage.

The three-year transition period will have to be navigated very carefully, and Gambians at home and in the diaspora, have to play a very vital role during this critical period. President-elect Adama Barrow and team require our prayers, and they must be given the necessary support and space to find a navigable path toward consolidating and sustaining this new and very delicate democratic transition, because at this stage, our new democracy is a fledging one and could be vulnerable without our collective support and encouragement. The incoming government of President-elect Adama Barrow will be confronted with a number of fundamental political, economic, and social challenges. Yet, these hurdles can also be turned into opportunities. Gambians and the international community have already started showing a good deal of goodwill towards the incoming government.

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