President greeting his supporters
President greeting his supporters

(JollofNews) – It’s very obvious that there is an urgent and desired need for change in The Gambia. In fact, the need for change is so dire that one could describe it as, “The Fierce Urgency of Now”; the title of the book authored by Julian Zelizer, a Historian and Professor at Princeton University.

The last two decades have been devastating and gruesome for many Gambians. Since 1994, hundreds of people have either been killed, tortured, imprisoned, or just disappeared. The government of Yahya Jammeh never came out to give any credible explanation as to what might be responsible for the plight of these people. Yet, many of the killings and disappearances have been-allegedly- directly linked to the President himself or members of his security team.  The government’s handling of these matters is always in some form of innuendo or outright lies and denial.

They continuously defy, and openly influence decision of the courts, and showed no respect for the constitution. In other words, President Jammeh ruled with an iron fist, subjecting Gambians to constant fear and intimidation.  The people are left with no choice but to succumb to the mercy of this brutal dictator. Under such a political climate, fear is the order of the day, which- unfortunately- is exactly the reality of life in Gambia.

And so, if for the first time- after so many unsuccessful attempts to unseat Jammeh- members of the opposition finally decide to come together to put up one solid candidate against the incumbent, then every Gambian who had, and continue to wish for change, must be encouraged by this development. Whether Adama Barrow would pull this off remains to be seen. There is- undoubtedly- a lot of enthusiasm and momentum behind the opposition (from reports I am monitoring from Banjul) and if that is translated into votes, then The Gambia will have a new president come December 1st. It sounds like a farfetched dream (if not impossible), one might argue-  considering how past elections have been conducted- but I am hopeful that it’s doable in this tiny West African country.

Mr Barrow flanked by other opposition leaders
Mr Barrow flanked by other opposition leaders

However, the question that continues to bother me, is the question of what kind of change will Gambians wake up to in the morning of the first day of the new Government. It is startling, if not clearly disturbing, of the kind of change that some yearn for the Gambia. I want to take a moment, and make a realistic and an objective analysis of the kind of change that one could expect.

It could either be a meaningful change, in which case the country would see improvements in the current deplorable human rights situation: freedom of the press and expression, the rule of law and respect for the constitution. Or, it could just be the change of the “goal post”, with only a facial change at the State House with no real changes to the fundamental institutions of democracy such as the courts and the press. Make no mistake, there is an equal, if not an even more desire and urgent need for improvement of the livelihood of the average person.

Poverty level in Gambia is at an all-time high, compounded by hyper-inflation, with employment almost non-existent. This hopelessness is what is sending the unemployed youth to the “death row” of the dangerous Sahara Desert and into the deadly seas of Europe. These challenges are what awaits the next president and must be swiftly addressed. The people deserve nothing less.

It will be unrealistic, and perhaps even foolish for one to assume that such a change could occur in the immediate aftermath of the Jammmeh presidency. True political change does not occur overnight. It takes time. It’s a process that progresses over time. However, unless the foundation is laid down upon which to build, civil society and the basic fabric of our democracy will continue to suffer. The current political system needs a complete overhaul. The next president must be ready and willing to tackle these challenges head-on. That is the fundamental challenge before the next commander- in- chief. And that should be the solemn promise he must make to the Gambian people.

It will be a disservice, if not an outright insult to the efforts of the thousands of Gambians who risked and lost their lives; those who have been tortured and are imprisoned, to do anything less. And the Gambian people shouldn’t settle for anything less either. We shouldn’t seek change just for the sake of it, but to demand change when our basic survival and democratic institutions are threatened. People demand change when lives have been decimated; as they have been under a Jammeh rule, and with no hope in the future for either their lives or their children’s lives. They demand change when their leaders failed to be leaders and turned out to be authoritarian, brutal dictators, who kill, torture, and imprison their political opponents.

Mamma Kandeh, Leader of GDC
Mamma Kandeh, Leader of GDCents.

President Jammeh has demonstrated a basic and total lack of understanding of how to govern or how to deal with his opponents. The guy is a dictator who lacks basic respect for those he governs. His use of vulgar language; denigrating people, is just beyond the pale. He has recently reembraced his divisive rhetoric and idea of putting tribe against tribe.  As we speak, many members of the opposition are in jail for basically exercising their fundamental constitutional rights.  Jammeh is just acting like a lunatic in domestic matters and an amateur on the world stage. Through his utterances and actions, the Gambia has lost a significant amount of hard fought respect from world leaders. The country is the laughing stock of her neighbors and regional partners. To put it bluntly, we are perceived in many quarters as unserious players. This has done a devastating blow to our image around the world where serious actors are competing for a seat at the table.

I am not making blanket statements or accusations against president Jammeh and his Government. I don’t believe in unsubstantiated or outrageous accusations, because I believe such kind of behavior could unjustly harm the accused. I also believe in the due process of the law. Every citizen should be assumed innocent unless proven otherwise in an independent court of law. President Jammeh should be accorded this opportunity should the circumstance change even though he has denied thousands of Gambians that same opportunity. There are enough evidences that are out there to support these allegations. Just listen to what he says around the country in this campaign season or past elections. And in a court of law, I believe the Gambian people would be on a very strong legal footing to successfully prosecute Yahya Jammeh.

Ironically though, what is being offered as an alternative- at least from some of the supporters of the opposition- is to maintain the status-quo or perhaps even expand on it. I think that is very unfortunate. To hear some supporters of the opposition-especially those who live in Europe and America- literally ordering their friends and family members in Gambia to do what they, (diaspora supporters) want them to do or risk forfeiting their financial support, is just insane. We all understand how our friends and family members rely on us for support. And in fact, to provide that support has been the fundamental reason why many of us left Gambia in the first place. But to dictate to voters or advocate a quid-pro-quo mentality as to which political party to support or how to vote is pure foolishness and total disregard for democracy. It is called “voter intimidation”.

The leadership in the “Coalition of Opposition Parties”, must use their enriched experience and knowledge to educate their supporters of the need for civility in their conversations with voters. They should advocate for ideas and policies they believe would improve and better the lives of Gambians so as to persuade and in

Gambia opposition UDP protest
UDP Leader Ousainou Darboe, fourth from the right, leading protest on Saturday.

fluence potential voters. People should be allowed and able to exercise their constitutional rights and make independent decisions as to who to vote for based on what is presented to them by the candidates, without being coerced. It should be about the battle of ideas in the political arena.

I understand the various challenges that voters are faced with: lack of political education, poverty, harassment, and intimidation. But these challenges ought to be fought through the various established institutions and legal processes, but not to be acted upon as a justification for the same fear and intimidation being perpetrated by the Jammeh administration.  If its true democracy that we want for Gambia, then Gambians deserve real democracy and not a banana republic. In a democracy citizens disagree. In a dictatorship, citizens agree. They agree, because to not agree, they risk being in jail, if lucky, or get killed. So if those in line as successors to this evil are manifesting signs of the same behavior, then the Gambian people are in for the worst. They are going to be the losers.

The leadership of the opposition should immediately embark on a civic education program of their members to realize, that to disagree is the cornerstone of democracy, and those we disagree with are not our enemies or unpatriotic- as Jammeh claim them to be-, but rather, they are fellow citizens seeking for what is best for the country just as we are, only doing so on a different path.

The Gambia is a very divided country at this moment and it would take courage and real leadership to unify the country and heal the wounds of division.