The Mouse, the Cat and the Bear: On Jammeh and the Gambia


The Mouse in many regards is perhaps not the most fitting metaphor for The Gambia and its people. For one, a mouse is considered a pilferer, thieving away food — a scavenger at best. What a scathing appellation for The Gambia, this would be, but on the flip side, The Mouse finds similitude with The Gambia not least because of its size relative to its environment. It’s rather a small country in comparison to most nations on the globe, rather obscure on the map of Africa and one could miss it without squinted eyes. That small landmass harbors an even smaller population but the similarities between The Mouse and The Gambia, do not lie only in proportions or mass, they lie also in social characterizations. The Mouse is coy and stealth in its movements, almost cunning — if you will. The foregoing would not be a fair characterization of the average Gambian, it is indeed not intended as such, it is merely a characterization of the collective (at least politically). As The Mouse outwits The Cat, for it is no fit for its adversary in muscle, so too have The Gambians outwitted their very own cat, Jammeh. Not through a violent revolution and distasteful Molotov cocktails, oh no, for that would be a recipe for disaster, instead they opted for a pinch of class and a dash of cleverness. The Gambia from the jump of its post-colonial era has been revered for relatively fair polls and even though that reputation has intermittently been tainted by The Cat Jammeh. The Mouse-esque Gambians were not to be caught flat-footed as they seized upon their opportunity when it presented itself. The hitherto little known real estate agent and ex-security, Adama Barrow was to be the visage for this stealth movement and so the cream of the opposition coalition did indeed rise to the top.

The Cat on the other hand is without a doubt a suiting metaphor for Yahya Jammeh, or more accurately “The White Cat” A fitting moniker when you take into account his idiosyncratic white raiment, his ice cold stares and unrelenting assertions — such as “only Allah can remove me” — by no means delivered in blusters but with the coolness of the coolest cat on the block — probably even on the map, the African map. As The Cat pounces on The Mouse, so too could squeaks from The Gambians as whimpers from repression be heard. Even if only for a moment, let us refrain from the temptation to take the road more travelled, which is to essentially demonize Jammeh as a strongman and a cankerworm to civil society. Let us roll back the years when that budding 29 year old army lieutenant seized power in a coup d’état from the supposedly corrupt Jawara regime, the argument could be made, that he did so as both a revolutionary and visionary. His first mistake? Probably not? Revolutionaries such as Jammeh would be quick to cite The American Revolution as an epoch when the rude interjection of democracy — albeit a monarchical democracy — was fully vindicated in the aftermath. Then again, should every Tom, Dick and Harry OR Castro, Buhari and Jammeh seize power whenever they are at odds with any policy of government? Isn’t that a precedent for cyclical anarchy?

“Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”
Excerpt From: Thomas Jefferson. “The Declaration of Independence.”

Above are the indelible thoughts of Thomas Jefferson, a leading figure in The American Revolution, immortalized in The Declaration of Independence — the most significant documentation of the time, sharing equivalent seminal status as documents such as The Magna Carta and The Communist Manifesto. Still, the argument was made that (revolutionary) changes — often indicative of violence or the threat of it — to political status quo should not be for light causes and should be done only when political conditions are truly insufferable. Perhaps here the idealist could find common ground with the intrusive revolutionary, but who’s to say what conditions are sufferable and insufferable, who’s to say the condition Jammeh so rudely interjected were insufferable and if they were replaced with more tenable conditions under his watch? All these questions are now purely academic, as the past cannot be undone, however the future can provide succor for the pain of the past — if any — and evidence suggests that The Gambian people have opted for that succor. One undeniable fact however, is that Jammeh didn’t intend to seize power with muscle to remain in it with muscle — at least not military muscle. In record time, Jammeh held fresh elections and became a civilian President — once a lion, but now a different sort of cat, a domestic one, or so we thought. The significance of this move is that Jammeh acquired legitimacy for his political maneuvers, seemingly even garnering postdated consent for his coup. The Gambian constitution allows unlimited five year terms for the presidency and so Yahya Jammeh has warmed the seat of power since 1994 after his successful bloodless coup and 1996 after his successful presidential campaign.

A young Gambian in his early twenties would have known no other president but Jammeh, so were the people just saturated with monotony or were they genuinely peeved by government transgressions? Was The Mouse just tired of the same old house cat or has The Cat actually wounded it from a past encounter? Despite the largely unindustrialized economy of The Gambia, its meagre GDP and affinity with agriculture, Jammeh made considerable strides in the right direction for The Gambia — essentially making a good lemonade from the lemons he was handed — with a steady GDP growth of 5%-6% in recent years. Conceivably, the blowback is a consequence of his less magnanimous actions such as his declaration of a constitutionally secular Gambia as an Islamic Republic, the holes in his civil rights records, his clampdown on journalists, and abuse of apparatus of state for the stifling of oppositions — phantom and real alike. The visionary who had intended to stay in power without military muscle, resorted to institutional abuse of power, to hold on to that very power. Jammeh (at least in his younger days) may view himself as a true patriot akin to the likes of Lee Kuan Yew. Evidence of this, appears even in his ruling party’s name, APRC — Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction. Again, how many times have we seen the hero live long enough to become the villain? Castro in Cuba is perhaps the most notable — even notorious — of the bunch. Unlike Jammeh, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t come to power by revolutionary means nor did he remain in power by abusing the apparatus of state, he did so with the continuous popular support of the people. Achieving far more economic heights in the same time Jammeh spent in power than Jammeh could ever dream of. Never once did he iterate his legitimacy to leadership through some divine means or by the mere claim of having fought for Singapore’s liberation, he did so through his pioneered doctrine of meritocracy. Even then, he stepped down when the time was right and counseled his successors from the sidelines, understanding fully well, that every dog has its day. In Jammeh’s case, he would have done well to recognize that every cat has its day too. In the aftermath of the election results, many were pleasantly surprised to hear Jammeh concede defeat — doing the right and honorable thing. Then almost immediately, he reversed his decision, for what reason? Fear of prosecution upon abdication? Or does the sweet taste of power still linger on his lips? Whatever the case, it created a tense and precarious stalemate in Banjul, with a violent confrontation in the offing.

Who was to break this stalemate? Enter the realm of The Bear, the international community — ECOWAS to be specific. The one with the economic and military clout for intervention. In what unlikely scenario does The Bear become involved in a squabble between The Mouse and The Cat? Well, most likely when the squabble between The Mouse and The Cat disturbs the peace of The Bear. Isolationism as a foreign policy has since been cast in oblivion with its failures in WWI and WWII. Nations are now more than ever willing to take keen interest in the affairs of others, because it is of consequence to them. Neighbors are now well aware that conflict in one country could mean a refugee crisis in theirs. Political change in one, could mean opportunities or obstructionism in trade and many more indices for another. The ECOWAS community make up the bulk of direct neighbors to The Gambia, little wonder why they’re taking keen interest in the matter. Careful not to label the member states “hypocrites” for paying little mind to the equally dire situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo — as Joseph Kabila also grasps for straws desperately, in his bid to hold on to power. Interventionism, especially when it involves military operations never comes at a cheap cost. Interventionism is often a pragmatic decision every bit as much as it is a moral choice. A “Risk vs. Reward” formula is often invoked; who stands to gain more is often willing to risk more, politically, logistically, militarily and even economically. The DRC not being a member state of ECOWAS will unfortunately not receive as much attention from it.

There is indeed undeniable hubris present, when one nation (or body of nations) claims to be a moral authority on right and wrong and even goes one step further to intervene. Time and again we’ve seen the failings of such hubris, as in Anglo-American invasion of Iraq on false claims of possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Sovereignties have time and again been violated and situations left more dire than the interventionists found them and ECOWAS having waved its big stick opted to use it, with forces already deployed. The situation in The Gambia was a convoluted one, The Supreme Court has been in dearth supply of Judges — largely due to Jammeh’s trigger happy approach to sacking them over disagreements on commuted sentences for figures seen as threats to Jammeh’s power hold. All seats are vacant except for that of the Chief Justice who also declined to hear the petition from Jammeh, opting instead to adjourn the matter. Stating that the court lacked the constitutionally required quorum — the minimum number of judges required to hear the case. Neighboring countries — including Nigeria — also declined to send qualified judges to sit on the matter on such short notice, citing inexpediency as the primary reason for declining. It is imperative to state for the reader that the petition from Jammeh is belated as it was filed later than the constitutionally stipulated 10-day period for electoral petitioning. The Gambian Parliament — whose majority, it must be said, are members of the APRC, Jammeh’s party — took matters into its own hands and passed a resolution to keep Jammeh in power for three more months, just a day before Jammeh was constitutionally required to vacate the presidency. The legality of this resolution remained moot while Adama Barrow was sworn in as president at the Gambian embassy in Senegal.

So on the charge of hubris, ECOWAS can be forgiven, it’d be a disservice to The Gambia not to have intervened, it’d be a violation of natural law for the member states to have sat on their hands and let one of their own slip into anarchy. With President Buhari — an ex military general — at the helm of affairs, one would imagine that the calculus of ECOWAS included swift military action through Senegal as a base rather than a protracted engagement — which I imagine would be one of the reasons they intervened, the avoidance of a drawn out civil war in The Gambia. ECOWAS often led by Nigeria in its military escapades had a wealth of experience in thwarting usurpers in Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Togo to draw from and with non-existent support from other nations on the continent for Jammeh nor any from European nations (or any other significant foreign power), one can understand why the ECOWAS member states anticipated victory.

There is a wave of democratic civility in The West African sub-region, with incumbents like Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and John Mahama of Ghana conceding defeats and handing over with no hassles. It is doubtless ECOWAS seeks to maintain this wave. Long ago there was a different wave of coups and counter coups that lasted for decades in the sub-region and the continent at large, that provided Jammeh and the self-acclaimed “reformed” Buhari with the socio-political climate to seize powers from democratically elected governments in their respective nations. Hopefully this intervention — thankfully bloodless — will be a small but no less significant step in maintaining this progressive wave for the sub-region and the continent. Perhaps the continent of Africa can give the West and the globe at large one more lesson in interventionism, while extolling noble democratic and humanistic values.

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