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New Gambia

New Gambia

By Sait Matty Jaw

I bet most of you think that this is a Manifesto. Well, it is not. But when critically discussed, we might be able to come up with one that highlights the agenda for a “New Gambia.” For now, let me share some lessons learned from the Students at Risk Conference in Oslo.

Last weekend, I attended one of the most refreshing workshops on Non-violent action thanks to the Norwegian Centre for the Internationalization of Education (SIU) and Students and Academics International Help Fund (SAIH). I must admit that the time was too short, but the lessons learned within the six or so hours of interaction can change a society for good. While seated and as the workshop lead from the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) took us through the principles of non-violent actions, all I could think of was our very own struggle in The Gambia: the things we did right and those we either did not know or took for granted. I took away so many valuable lessons that the New Gambia movement can learn from. The purpose of this blog is to share some those ideas and hope that with clear reflection we will be able to continue our journey to not only liberate Gambia from autocratic rule, but to also inspire every Gambian to help Gambia adopt democratic principles for our own advancement. The interesting part about all I am about to raise is for us to discuss and debate amongst ourselves. As such one could either agree or disagree. But we must also pay attention to the very principles of the game.

In my study of People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) I used Gene Sharp’s theory of power to help me understand the approaches and strategies of PDOIS. In case you do not know who Gene Sharp is, he is the world’s leading writer on non-violent actions (Google him). Sharp uses power to distinguish between rulers and subjects and on the withdrawal of consent as the key to effecting political change. That is, the power base of the ruler is constructed on the approval of subjects. The minute the subjects withdraw this consent, the ruler loses their support as well as the legitimacy to rule.  My interest at that time was to see how PDOIS, a political party and a non-violent group was mobilizing the masses to withdraw the support base of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. We all know that it did not work due to many factors both structural and otherwise. Today, we have many groups (civil society, political parties, and movements) and individuals in The Gambia and in the diaspora working to effect political change in the country with the slogan “Jammeh Must Go.” However, the question with all that is going on, the misinformation, the blame game etc., I would like to ask whether we are trying to withdraw the support base of Jammeh or alienating the masses and forcing them to reject our movement?

I must admit that I am a very active participant in the New Gambia movement. I also strongly believe that Jammeh Must Go. He has done his part over the past 22 years. We appreciate all the projects he has to his name including my favorite: The University of The Gambia. Nonetheless, this does not guarantee him the right to continuously flaunt the laws of our land, abuse the rights of dissenting citizens and even those that support him. His actions and ways are not the ways of our country and people. He has divided us against each other, instilled fear in the minds of every Gambian, and forced many to leave the country in exile; there’s also less employment opportunities for our youth and above all, his attempt to turn the Gambia into an Islamic State. This, for me, is the last straw.

That being said, I think we need to revisit our approach so as to have an effective campaign that not only removes Jammeh but also changes the entire Gambian society. I have had this debate many times before.  Jammeh is just part of our problem. One may argue that he is the greater part or the lesser part of it. I think he may sound and look rash, but he has great influence on us as a people. For a very long time, he directed the game and all we did as a people was to react. For change to come we must turn the tables around, we must control the narrative and attack with evidence so as to weaken his support base. We must also know this support base. It is not only the security forces. It is his personal economy and the many people promoting his agenda. Again, we must be able distinguish between civil servants and what we call the “Jammeh enablers.” For most of us, we consider anyone working for government as an enabler. I don’t think that should be the case. This whole struggle is about who controls information. What Jammeh wants to do like many other lunatics before him is to control the flow of information; under-serve the masses and keep them ignorant and disenfranchised. We have been helping him to some extent by sending out scary images­–some of them seemingly propaganda material– that do not reflect what was on the ground around April 14th and 16th.

We have also weakened his power, yet we do not realize this. Solo’s march for electoral reform shocked the entire Gambian community. In one of my previous writings, I did warn that Gambians are no longer governed by fear. I gave an example of the standoff at Fass Njaga Choi as well as NRP’s defeat of the APRC government in the Saloum by election. What is happening now is just part of the entire game. Everything happening slowly but surely.

So, what do we do now to maintain this momentum? Firstly, as active participants in the New Gambia movement, we must realize that each individual or group have their personal and group agenda tied to the removal of Jammeh. My own agenda is to change Gambian society (democratize) and I believe my greatest obstacle like many of us is Jammeh. However, I believe we will not be able to achieve this if we continue to tell the people — that we expect to act through mass protest or election — what we want and reject especially where we do not understand their own personal agendas. I have quite often seen many people in the diaspora or even at home and on the same team calling each other hypocrites. The reason I believe is, we do not understand our personal interest in this whole movement. I strongly believe and it is evident that people only engage in most cases when issues affect them personally. It is true that unemployment is high; the human rights abuses are rife, but why are some people indifferent and why do others act? For the activists, we can argue it is their work and that even where they are not paid to push an agenda, the abuse of human rights makes it personal for them. But for the ordinary person to act, either a family member or close relative or friend must be affected. I must also say that in my own experience, I saw many people that I did not know on a personal level show concern about my safety. This, however, could be a limitation to what I am trying to put across.

Secondly, the general picture in The Gambia is a weak opposition and a strong incumbent party. For the longest, the contention has been between the weak opposition parties interested in political power and the ruling party that will do anything to stay in power. Now enters a third group mostly young people with no interest in political power. Dealing with such group especially when they are extremely organized is a huge challenge for any autocratic government. However, the danger with this group, especially when they realize their worth, is that they can threaten the survival of the state and society. Hence, they need to be controlled and by control, I mean there needs to be a form of leadership within them — people leading the actions. Power within such group must be horizontal and not hierarchical. The current challenge with our movement is that power is diffused randomly. No one knows who does what and when. It must be harnessed. When Ibrahim Ceesay, based on his activism, stood up, putting his life and that of his family on the line, we could detect a huge interest in the youth. With our situation, what the young people need is a face that will lead them. I have had this discussion with friends and the consensus was that if people are really concerned they will not wait for a face to lead, however, based on our context and history, our movement needs a face to champion the course.

In my last article, I argued that even if the opposition in The Gambia formed a coalition, they will be defeated by the ruling party. Yes, that was before all these events happened. It might be too early to conclude the outcome of the election later this year, but now more than ever, the movement must put pressure on the political parties to unite. I am sure the fate of UDP has also shown the party the need to stand up together to achieve their dream for political power. Even if we lose the election to Jammeh this year, I can guarantee that this will be his last term in office. I know some of you do not want to hear that, but it just might happen.

The third point or lesson that I have learned from the workshop and want to conclude with is the organizational bit. I briefly mentioned the leadership issue, I think the reason why the New Gambia movement — despite having people on the ground ready to get to the street and face the paramilitary — did not materialize, was due to lack of proper planning and organization. Everything was spontaneous. I learned that the worst enemy for a non-violent action is spontaneity. Our approach this time like always was reactionary. I think this should serve as a lesson for all of us involved. We must organize and strategize, understand deeply the need of our people on the ground and attract them to take action. We must not in any way also underestimate our opponent — Jammeh.  His tactic is to not inform the people, whilst ours is to use information to bring him down. Hence, the information must be credible and should be channeled in a way that will make people act. I also do understand that there is a whole team on Jammeh’s side posting information to distract us from achieving our agenda. Their aim is to discredit our movement and render it untrustworthy. We must be careful before sharing anything. We must make sure the sources are credible. I can understand that at some point, the idea is to get people to act, but for a country with a history like ours, people do not react to things they have no idea about. We should take note of that.

Finally, what is our vision of tomorrow? What is it that we want to achieve from this engagement? What capacities do we have individually that can help us get to where we want to be? How do we harness all our efforts and channel it towards a strong movement that is responsive to the need of every Gambian; one that is respected and trusted by the international community? These among others are questions we need answers to. Our quest should not be to make Gambia ungovernable. We need the institutions no matter how ineffective they are in governing.

We must continue to engage in non-violent actions, not actions that may cause injury or lead to death. This was a valuable lesson that I learned. In non-violent or peaceful struggle, we need our numbers and every life counts. We will not move ahead if we lose our ranks. We must understand that we are dealing with a government that is willing and ready to shoot people to death. Hence, let us not give them that opportunity to kill and maim. It is true that non-violent actions are not usually violent free; however, we must always try as much as possible to avoid actions that might lead to death. As yet, I do not have answers to questions regarding the best actions that suit our context, but I hope in due course we will come up with various campaigns that will slowly weaken the power base of Jammeh and shift it to the people.

Aluta Continua

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