Monday, January 26, 2015

GAMBIA : A Strategy of Effective Isolation

Sidi M. Sanneh

In July 1994 when the Gambian dictator seized power, the current Chair of ECOWAS, President  Mahama of Ghana had not even entered politics.   He was working, at the time, as a Research Officer at the Embassy of Japan in Accra.  It was not until 1996 when he entered politics as member of parliament, and has risen since to become Ghana’s president in July 2012.  He became Chairman of ECOWAS two years into his presidency.  

By contrast, Jammeh has been at the helm of Gambian affairs for 20 years and has yet to lead the regional body which speaks for itself.  Sir Dawda had chaired the regional body twice and chaired CILLS once during his 30-year stint as president of The Gambia

It takes extraordinary effort and a deft piece of fancy political footwork to prevent a Head of State from assuming the ECOWAS leadership role for 20 years  - a chairmanship that is supposed to be rotational, in an organization where seniority is sacrosanct.   Despite these odds, 15 of the 16 Member States have managed to keep Jammeh off the Chair – the latest maneuver was in Yamoussoukro, last year, when he was denied, once again, from claiming the chairmanship.

Even at the friendlier African Union, Jammeh’s hosting of the AU Summit in 2006 was almost scuttled by Presidents Obasanjo and Wade of Nigeria and Senegal respectively only to be saved by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa who stopped the momentum building on rule changes for AU Summit which was sprung on the Summit by none other than the Summit Chair Obasanjo with Wade sponsoring the motion.  

The duo, representing a formidable opposition to any sub-Saharan president, wanted to change the rules governing hosting of future AU Summits starting with the Banjul Summit of ’06 which, if passed, would have doomed it or, at least, delayed it for several years down the line.

The political leadership in the West African region has not been very friendly towards the regime in Banjul because of the potential regional security uncertainty Yaya Jammeh poses.  He has the well-earned reputation as an unreliable partner with a fiery temper. 

Jammeh is also being prevented from chairing ECOWAS because it will mean Washington, Paris, London, Brussels and other Western capitals closing their doors to Jammeh which spells disaster for the regional body with adverse financial implications for the organization’s programs, including security-related and peace-keeping operations. 

ECOWAS refused to send election monitors to the 2011 elections because it felt that the playing field wasn’t level enough to allow them to be conducted freely and fairly.   Instead of holding on to the lifeline ECOWAS had thrown at them, the Gambian opposition elected to ignore it and chose instead to swim against the cold Atlantic currents.   The rest, as they say, is history - they were trounced at the polls like never before, further legitimizing the regime of Yaya Jammeh.

The Gambian opposition parties on the ground may have been late in discerning the emerging and evolving perception of the regime in Banjul that has been increasingly less friendly but the Diaspora dissident groups were not oblivious of the shifting currents.   The advent of the online media only provided the necessary tools that facilitated the dissemination of information to educate the public, further isolating the regime from its former supporters thus swelling the ranks of the opposition both at home and abroad.  

The formation of the various civic groups and organizations did not occur in a vacuum.   They rose from the sweats of dedicated individuals who wrote position papers, draft constitutions, set up bank accounts, fundraised, organized meetings, demonstrations and conference calls.

The activism of DUGA, CORDEG, GGC, CCG, GDAG and numerous other groups has spurred the imagination and enthusiasm of many that led to the current level of awareness of the plight of Gambians in the homeland.  The 30 December events at the State House in Banjul made front page news across the globe, and with it Jammeh’s tyranny. 

The world’s biggest newspapers from the Washington Post, New York Time, Financial Times and television organizations like CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have focused attention on the “African dictator who claims to have the cure for HIV/AIDS.”  Most importantly, small town newspapers and local television affiliates were not far behind in the coverage of not only the events of 30 December but the heinous acts of extra-judicial killings, torture, forced disappearances and mass arrests of innocent citizens.
Keen observers of the Gambian political scene who live outside of the Banjul bubble and thus are not blinded by the propaganda of the regime have noticed the shift in international awareness which is a necessary first step to ‘internationalize’ the plight of the Gambian people.   Let me quickly add that the word “internationalize’ is not synonymous with ‘outsourcing’ Gambia’s problems.
Moving forward, we must lead by taking full charge of the strategy of effectively isolating the regime in Banjul – a process that was started by an external organization called the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which underscores the value of collaborating with.  By denying Jammeh the Chairmanship for 20 years running, the regional body has denied the dictator a propaganda platform from which he can try to cement a degree of legitimacy and international respect.   Can you imagine Jammeh chairing ECOWAS not once but twice or thrice with all the frills and prestige that come with the position?

The LGBT community in the United States has lent its full weight and support to the efforts of Diaspora Gambians by demanding further punitive actions from the Obama administration following Jammeh’s crack-down of gays and lesbians in the Greater Banjul area.   Senior members of the Jammeh regime may soon find themselves subjected to travel bans and visa restrictions as a result of direct action of American citizens. 

These achievements, however modest in the eyes of some, did not come about by waving a strategy document (with action plan and budget) in the face of ordinary Gambians and non-Gambians alike.  It came out of sheer persistence and belief in the Mission to get rid of Jammeh, one way or the other; no reconciliation, no constructive engagement.   After all, a strategy is nothing more than “a pattern in a stream of decisions” and some of those decisions do not have to come from us but from the “competition” as in the case of a competing firm or in our case from Jammeh himself.  In fact, he has inadvertently helped us a great deal in the recent past as a result of some stupid decisions he took.  

Strategy can occur in two forms – unwritten and written, intended or  emerging  from a pattern of activities, as we’ve tried to catalogue above with everyone contributing - from Obasanjo to Wade to Thabi Mbeki and from ECOWAS to LGBT community in the United States, not to mention our own efforts, individually and collectively, then we need not be bugged down with fancy words and trying to reinvent the wheel.   The wind is at our back.  To paraphrase what a great American icon, musician and entrepreneur once said :  we cannot change the direction of the wind but we can always adjust our sails to reach our final destination.  We must never allow anyone to take the wind off our sails.