– Deposed coup leader’s artwork consigned to museum, as communities take ownership in Africa’s most daring democracy
Pictured above: Students of the Gambia Press Union’s School of Journalism.
When a country overthrows a brutal dictator after 22 years, as The Gambia did in December 2016 elections, the only way is up.
Until two years ago, the dictator sowed distrust in every community. Who was a spy? You never knew. The repercussions of voicing criticism could be deadly.
People are now much more at ease within themselves, their homes and their communities.
Demba Jawo was a journalist whose life was under threat, but the tables turned when democracy won out. The people dared to vote against the dictator, following which Jawo was appointed The Gambia’s Communications Minister for the first 15 months of the new government.
“Now there is a lot of hope in the air,” he told me earlier this year. “You go out in the street, you see everybody is happy with the new dispensations, the freedom of speech and freedom of movement.”
In 2016, Gambian people found their voice, the dictator lost the presidential election (being too arrogant to rig the vote) and an alliance of West African countries ensured there was a peaceful transfer of power. Once Yahya Jammeh heard Senegalese jets fly over the presidential palace, in January, 2017, he knew the game was up.
Diaspora Gambians, many pining to go home, followed every dramatic turn on social media.
But the historic ousting of one of Africa’s most brutal dictators did not get quite the international coverage it merited, because global media were pre-occupied with unfolding events in the USA.
Adama Barrow, a compromise candidate representing the hopes of all the main parties, was sworn in the day before Trump took office on the other side of the Atlantic. One democracy restored; another lost. ‘The Smiling Coast’, as the tourism department like to call it, was smiling once more.
“However, expectations are much higher than what is possible,” warned Minister Jawo.
People are again looking to the government for answers, but they are also placing trust in community organisations. EU aid is increasing and many diaspora Gambians have returned from exile to invest. Some have set up charities to help fellow citizens in one of the world’s most materially impoverished countries.
I met two Gambians, separately, who returned with good intentions.
Claudius Taylor, a lawyer based in London, runs ‘Banjul Open Box’: “We send law books to the Ministry of Justice and Gambia University. We reach out to Gambians through education and other social welfare means.”
Musa Sanyang, now living in Leipzig, Germany, is involved in a charity called ‘Schools for Gambia’.
“We have built, renovated and expanded numerous schools, sent and distributed containers of school furniture, school supplies, textbooks, clothing and other donations to The Gambia,” he said.
I lived and worked in The Gambia, via APSO, during the mid-1990s when the country’s media practitioners were to the fore pushing for democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and proper governance. Without those basics, community development and national development could not progress.
Jammeh had his critics arrested, tortured and sent murder squads after those whose reporting he feared most. He bought out one newspaper, through a third party, and had another burnt down.
His face was on billboards everywhere – quickly torn down when he lost the presidency – and also on banknotes that are slower to replace. He had homes in various countries, a fleet of flash cars and insisted on being addressed as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa.
Jammeh was a thief, a torturer, a mass murderer and he twisted religion to suit his criminal pursuits. His legacy is now being dissected at truth and reconciliation hearings deemed essential to the country’s recovery.
Gambians still complain plenty about the new government, but it was democratically elected and people genuinely enjoy freedoms they had not known since 1994, if they were even born then.
But what of community life for ordinary people?
It’s a small country, the smallest on the continent, where everyone feels they know each other. Villages still held ceremonies to mark births, comings-of-age, marriages and deaths. Soccer matches and wrestling continued.
However, in regards to community development, people need to be open and trusting of each other.
“You could not trust anyone but your family and closest friends,” said Lamin Sanyang, a civil servant who (quietly) opposed the regime throughout.
Jammeh fired village Alkalos and community leaders who did not support his regime. In 2012, he began to terrorise communities by sending out a team of witch-doctors with military backing. Communities, including elders, were humiliated.
This helped to drive people to oppose his rule, said Mr. Sanyang. Abroad, tens of thousands of Gambians forced into exile began to organise via social media in protests that helped ultimately to topple him.
Mr. Sanyang brought me to a naming ceremony in his native Busumbala, Western Division. He said, “We have freedom now to do and speak what we want.”
However, the Gambia’s version of Tidy Towns has for the time being collapsed. Monthly ‘set-settal’ clean-up operations became an involuntary activity under Jammeh.
“During Jammeh’s time it was kind of forced onto people. There was a period from 9 o’clock to 1pm when no vehicles were allowed to move and shops were closed. People were not happy with the situation,” said Minister Jawo.
After Jammeh’s demise, the new government struggled to get communities involved in clean-ups and earlier this year it gave up, realising people had enough of top-down mandates.
“When this government came to office we tried to continue with these cleaning exercises, but people would just stay at home. So, we thought the best way is to allow people to do it on their own on a voluntary basis. We abandoned the idea of trying to do it the way Jammeh used to do it.”
Bottom-up community development is now stronger in The Gambia. For example, two clean-ups were organised in December by a civil society group to tackle plastic polluting the country’s beaches.
“People are now free to do things on their own, without having to look behind them to see if somebody is watching them all the time,” said Minister Jawo. “With freedom of speech, freedom of movement and everything, people are encouraged to take matters into their own hands and do things exactly the way they want them done. So, community development is definitely picking up very fast.”
Communities groups are now free to organise, hold gatherings and fundraise. There has been a sunburst of activity the length and short breadth of the country.
An example of one of the many local community groups to launch this year is Sanjonding Youths Association for Development (SYAD). Its president, Mustafa Saho (left) told me, “We want the community to reflect on the role of youths participation in community development.”
The youth-led community organisation had done charitable works for some years, but without ever formally launching. So, SYDA ran a high profile event to highlight its successes to date and to “inspire and create partnerships with other organisations.”
Mr. Saho said, “Youths are the cornerstone for any community development and we have to be centre-stage as far as community development is concerned. We want to take ownership and take responsibility in our communities. We want to make sure that all community facilities are better available and that people benefit from these facilities.”
Afterwards, he heralded the launch as a success “because it fostered the spirit of unity, tolerance and understanding amongst the young people of Sanjonding community. This is one of our top priorities in the peace and reconciliation proccess at the community level.”
It is normal practice for the Government-funded National Centre for Arts and Culture to involve communities, as senior staff member Siaka Fadera explained.
“In every project, the community has to be involved from planning to implementation, including maintenance and upkeep. They have to be involved so they have the ownership from the beginning. No project can succeed at community level without involving the community.
“We take a bottom-up approach – then people take ownership and they make sure that it succeeds.
“The community were involved from the beginning in the development of the Kankurang Museum in Janjangbureh and this is important because it is (about) their culture,” he said.
Central to recovery and to building a new democracy are the local and national news media outlets. In Fajara, I called to ‘The Point’ newspaper and met former colleagues of murdered co-founder Deyda Hydara.
Jammeh in particular sought to silence reporters who asked how he enriched himself. He said his millions came “from Allah”, but his blasphemous claim was at Gambian people’s expense; many died escaping poverty and violence on the treacherous journey to Europe.
Later, with Lamin Sanyang, I visited the street corner where Mr. Hydara was killed. Previously, people who visited this place were followed and beaten. Now, the talk is of one day erecting a statue, or symbol, in tribute to Hydara’s peaceful resistance.
The printed newspapers that survived are now prospering, relatively speaking, and are very sincere in purpose.
Pap Seine, a 2010 World Press Freedom Hero, was arrested “many times” and witnessed much suffering as the other co-founder of ‘The Point’. His vision and optimism is however undimmable.
Looking forward, he sees his newspaper spawning a television station. Yet, what remains uppermost in his mind is that The Gambia “upholds democratic values”. This is more important to him than any profit margins.
“We are working tirelessly to promote good governance, respect of human rights and the rule of law,” he said.
‘The Point’ – while critical – enjoys good relations with Barrow’s government.
“There is no censorship, thank God,” he said.
While a minority still support Jammeh’s old party, most Gambians, having won freedom through the ballot box and in street protests, share Mr. Seine’s values. Today, ‘The Point’ is the most popular newspaper in The Gambia.
Mercifully, community radio stations survived the cull of the mainstream media. They stuck to safe subjects such as giving agricultural advice. Now, they are expanding in number and in confidence and training is provided to their broadcasters by the Gambia Press Union (GPU).
“We recognise community radio as very important,” said Sam Mendy, head of the GPU’s School of Journalism.
In 2017, 25 broadcasters from ten stations received training. The stations are seen as “a mouthpiece for rural communities and as a tool for development”, according to Yusupha Bojang, co-ordinator of the Network of Community Radios of The Gambia.
Mr. Mendy showed me around the journalism school, uselessly flicking the light switch in the studio. It remained dark. One of the biggest challenges facing the government is improving the electricity supply.
From the early 1990s to now, The Gambia’s population has almost doubled (to over two million people) but average income remains low (€100 per month, said a bank clerk). The Gambia ranked as the 13th poorest country in the world in 1995 and was in much the same position when Jammeh was deposed. Unemployment is high and the country is over-reliant on agriculture and tourism.
But, change is coming. Diaspora remittances are now a significant help to the economy, the EU has promised more aid and specific European countries promise investment.
While Jammeh reintroduced the death penalty, pulled The Gambia out of the Commonwealth and declared the country an Islamic state, all three positions have been reversed under Barrow.
However, his government has been less decisive on environmental issues. A new Chinese fish-pellet factory found to have polluted a pristine area, ruining a fresh water source for the local community, had little difficulty renewing its licence to operate, despite protests.
The fish-meal processing operation is lucrative for its owners. However, it is leading to – say reliable national newspaper reports – a reduction in fish stocks off The Gambia’s coastline. Some local pirogue fishermen have turned to supplying the fish-meal processor (it pays attractive rates). Further offshore, illegal fishing by factory ships adds to the pressure on fish stocks. This all makes life harder for traditional fishermen in small pirogues that set out daily from places such as Bakau and Sanyang to supply local markets.
It is an important issue, because without fish, households will suffer. The majority cannot afford to eat meat, but can afford fish. The trouble is that there is no easy replacement for fish if they disappear. The once plentiful and cheap bonga fish is now reportedly rare.
Declining fish stocks also impact on employment opportunities, propelling even more young people towards thoughts of departure for Europe. In September, the country’s armed forces were involved in a rescue mission after 72 would-be emigrants were found in a boat 100km off the coast, apparently heading for Spain. Parents live in dread of finding that their offspring have taken ‘The Back Way’ across the Sahara.
These are issues that targeted EU funding could help to turn around in favour of The Gambia’s populace. (The EU owes the Gambia. For years, the EU sent its own super-trawlers to fish the West African coastline under agreements that undermined local communities).
When environmental and related community issues are not addressed, it erodes credibility in the new democracy, in particular when deaths occur. Harmful sand-mining from Jammeh’s time has continued and it led recently to the shooting dead by police of two peaceful environmentalists.
Sand-miners had been permitted to operate in Faraba Bantang, but the community was not consulted. Hence, there were protests – to which the police responded as they learned to in the past, with live rounds. Whereas Jammeh might have had the officers decorated, at least this time those responsible for firing the fatal shots were taken into custody.
This action and a visit by President Barrow helped calm the situation. But the fact remains that, under his new government, two environmental protesters have been killed.
Generally speaking, I heard more voices of dissent on the streets than I expected. The new government, as well as protecting the right to freedom of expression, has given people new reasons to complain. Accusations circulate of tribal favouritism and greed. There was a hullabaloo when members of parliament earlier this year received free cars.
However, Jammeh’s former supporters have no hope of regaining power like before. Only a very small minority want to see him return. On the side of a major road junction, I debated with one man in his late 20s who was sore about The Gambia’s transformation. As a Jola, he was better off under Jammeh and he wanted him back.
While we argued, heavily armed Senegalese soldiers in a troop carrier were stationed outside a bank on the other side of the street. They had politely but firmly declined my request to photograph them earlier. From what I saw – I passed their barracks and occasional checkpoints – the ECOWAS military is subtly deployed, quietly doing its job while ensuring it has a visible presence at strategic locations.
However, Barrow’s government is vulnerable to the very forces that brought it to power, public dismay and street protests. Gambian youths are much more politicised now than their counterparts in other countries and feel empowered, while women have come of age politically. The first female major of the capital, Banjul, was elected in April.
Peace has come and it is beautiful to experience – I last visited in 2004 when many people were politically mute with fear. Now, people speak their minds.
The ECOWAS support, led largely by neighbouring Senegal, guarantees the country’s stability. In fact, the idea of a Senegambian Federation may be back on the cards. A new bridge over the River Gambia will soon neutralise the former British colony’s near physical partitioning of Senegal. (Update: The bridge was officially opened on Jan 21, 2019). One cheeky politician even recently suggested that more Gambian people should learn French. Nationalistic Gambians were outraged and the comment was condemned, but it was a sign, like it or not, of already closer relations.
*APSO background: From 1974 to 2001, an Irish government body called the Ageny for Personal Service Overseas supported the placement of Irish volunteers in developing countries.