Open Letter to President Jammeh: On Living by Mandela’s Legacy

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By Baba Galleh Jallow

Dear Mr. Jammeh,

 One cannot help but agree with you that following Mandela’s passing “all that we need to do is to live by his legacy and live by the ideals and virtues that he stood for.” These, according to the Daily Observer griot, are your very words uttered in Paris as part of a tribute to Mandela. Inspired by those words of yours, some of the questions we wish to reflect upon in this open letter are these: What is Mandela’s legacy? What are the ideals and virtues he stood for? And to what extent might we reasonably expect you, as president of our country, to live by this legacy and these ideals and virtues? First of all, we must admit that it is very difficult to mention all of Mandela’s legacies and the virtues and ideals he stood for. We will therefore be content to mention only a few of the key legacies and highlight some of the virtues and ideals that he stood for.

As far as we are concerned, the legacy most pertinent to our current Gambian and African situation is the fact that Mandela spent his entire life fighting for the freedom of his people, black, white and colored. He spent twenty-seven of the best years of his life in prison. He came out of prison and was elected president of South Africa with a constitutional mandate to serve two terms. He served only one term and stepped down from power, allowing South Africa to move on without him at the helm. He was neither coerced nor compelled to step down. At the very least, he could have served a second term; at most, he could have stayed on in power after serving a second term. And while this might have raised many eyebrows in South Africa and beyond, he could have continued winning elections for as long as he wanted. However, he knew that was the wrong and unethical thing to do. And so he did the right thing. He knew very well the corrupting influence of power. As he said in a 1996 impromptu statement at his official residence in Pretoria: “The history of liberation heroes shows that when they come to office . . . they often lose their common touch, and turn against their own people.” Of course, these liberation heroes would never accept the fact that they have lost their common touch, or turned against their own people. They are always able to justify their positions, to insist that everything they do is for the good of their own people, to pretend that they are the only ones capable of leading their people, that without them, their countries are doomed. They fall into a chronic state of denial, much like Pharaoh, Hitler, Mussolini, Mugabe and, sorry to say, your very good self, Mr. Jammeh. It takes real courage to acknowledge our errors when it is much easier to insist on our correctness. It also takes honor, integrity and wisdom which many profess but few possess.

Anyway, back to Mandela’s legacy of stepping down after only one term of five years. How does this particular legacy compare with yours, Mr. Jammeh? You seized power from a regime that was nowhere close to the vicious Apartheid regime Mandela dislodged. After your unconstitutional seizure of power, you claimed that you “are not here to stay” and that your intention was merely to rectify the wrongs of the Jawara regime and step down. You also declared that “ten years is too long” for anyone to stay in power; and you promised to make sure that no president would ever again spend more than two-terms of five years in power. Twenty years later, you are still in power, and determined more than ever before to stay in power for as long as you possibly can. Are you therefore morally suited to talk about living by Mandela’s legacy? Do you think that merely saying that we should live by Mandela’s legacy makes it so that we are living by his legacy? If you wish to live by Mandela’s legacy, a good starting point is to consider stepping down from power and handing over the leadership of our country to another person. If you are not willing to do this, you have no moral right to mention anything about living by Mandela’s legacy and you are in the process of destroying our country, whether you choose to believe this or not. Have you ever heard what Mandela said about freedom? He said:  “The purpose of freedom is to create it for others.” You don’t fight for freedom only to deny it to others. Indeed, Gambians enjoyed more freedom under Jawara than they do under you. You can deny this all you want; but that doesn’t change the reality that the Jawara regime was never half as oppressive as yours.

A second major legacy of Nelson Mandela is the fact that within the short span of five years in power, he was able to unify a nation that for over 340 years had been characterized by racial oppression and animosities. Through the Truth and Reconciliation process, through his words, and through a series of personal actions, he literally embraced his former tormentors not out of meekness or fear, but out of a deep-seated conviction that South Africans were one nation and that they either had to swim together or sink together. In the end, he taught South Africans to live together as one united family, in spite of their differences – racial, political, material and otherwise. Mandela visited the widows of the people who unjustly threw him in jail and relentlessly spoke about the need to place South Africa over and above personal whims, caprices and grievances. He loved the prison warders at Robben Island and other places where he was incarcerated, even though they were the instruments of the unjust system of Apartheid used to oppress him and his people. He never threatened his critics with death and damnation or called his opponents animal names. How many times have you called members of the Gambian media and the opposition donkeys and illegitimate sons of Africa, even though you know that the All Mighty Allah frowns upon such a practice?

Clearly, The Gambia had no history of the kind of oppression and racial or political divide that characterized South Africa when Mandela took over in 1994, the very year that you seized power. Gambians had legitimate political differences and quarreled, even fought about them. But by and large these political differences were endured if not actually tolerated. And while South Africans have learnt to work together across political and racial divides, Gambian society under your watch has become more polarized and divided than was ever imaginable back in 1994. You have therefore failed a second test of following or emulating Mandela’s virtues, his ideals and his legacy. If you are truly sincere in your believe in the truth-loving All Mighty Allah you like so much to sing about, then you must be brave enough to recognize how far you have caused divisions among the Gambian people and make amends. One way of stopping the damage you have done and are doing to our social cohesion is by stepping down, for you have no moral right in the face of the solemn oaths you swore and the solemn promises you made back in 1994 to the effect that you were not here to stay and that ten years was too long for any single person to stay in power. You have stayed in power for twenty years. Do the morally right thing by fulfilling the promises you made to the Gambian people, the promises you swore by the All Mighty Allah that you would fulfill. If you are unwilling to do this, you have no moral right to talk to anyone about following the legacy of Nelson Mandela or living by his ideals and virtues. And you know deep down in your heart that the All Mighty Allah frowns upon those who break their promises and cause disorder in the earth. You must have come across the Quranic injunction: “Do not cause disorder in the earth.” Have you ever reflected upon the deeper meanings of this injunction Mr. Jammeh? Unless all your endless All Mighty Allah protestations are mere sound and fury, signifying nothing, you ought to live by the ideals and lessons that the All Mighty Allah ordains in the Holy Quran.

Now Mr. Jammeh, how do you think Mandela would respond if he were ever asked whether it is okay to call you “The Gambian Leader His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Jammeh, Naseeru Deen and Babili Mansa?” Judging from what we know about him, Mandela would have said it is not proper for any human being, however great, to carry such a lengthy and superfluous title upon his shoulders. Mandela won over 250 honors during his lifetime, including an endless string of honorary doctorates from the world’s most prestigious universities. Yet, he insisted on being simply called Mandela or Madiba; not even Dr. Mandela. Suffice it to say that you cannot even begin pretending to live by Mandela’s legacy, his ideals and his virtues as long as you carry that heavy burden of superfluous and meaningless titles on your shoulders. One can safely conclude that the All Mighty Allah for whom you profess so much love and respect does not approve of your long string of titles because they smack of arrogance and the days of darkness. Allah loves humility and your superfluous titles make you out as anything but humble. Mandela was a paragon of humility and you cannot even begin to approach thinking about his legacy without making that virtue a reality in your life. So until you start being the humble Muslim and believer in the All Mighty Allah you so like to sing about, please spare us the sermons on living by Mandela’s legacy, his ideals and virtues.

And one final observation Mr. Jammeh: Upon arrival in Banjul from Paris and still paying tribute to Mandela, you said that “the struggle has now started for total liberation of Africa because the conditions that exist [today] were the same conditions that existed before the white man came to Africa.” Now this statement really made us scratch our heads and loudly groan. What exactly do you mean, Mr. Jammeh? Was this another unfortunate slip of the slippery tongue? How could the conditions that exist today possibly be “the same conditions that existed before the white man came to Africa”? Are you suggesting that we have gone back in time to pre-colonial Africa? How then do we explain the fact that we all exist in 2013 and not 1320? Or are you suggesting that it is okay for African rulers like Yahya Jammeh to behave in 2013 like Sumanguru Kanteh behaved in 1230, long before the white man came to Africa? You have made many confused statements in the past that are all part of your legacy, Mr. Jammeh. Maybe we should just add this one to that long list of confused legacies because we simply cannot wrap our noses around it. We won’t even try, Mr. Jammeh, for 1230 and 2013 are centuries apart and we are not going back even if we wanted to. We do not live in a kingdom under an unaccountable king. We live in a constitutional republic of laws overseen by a constitutional head of state that we will hold accountable. We insist on living by the example, the legacy, the ideals and the virtues of Nelson Mandela: fair play, freedom, honor, justice, human rights, the rule of law, and humility among others which are totally beyond the reach of arrogant and power-hungry persons who pretend to be pious.

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