By Dan Murage
On December 1st, we wake up in the early hours of the morning and trek to the polling stations. While we wait for the polling personnel to arrive, we regale each other with stories of a new country, a new democracy again. Some hail this moment as “The New Gambia” and have with them banners to publicize their creed. We stand in line for thirty minutes, after which everyone starts getting impatient: women begin singing victory songs, men beat their drums and children cheer, sneaking in and out of the arena to show off their amateur dance moves. By 8 a.m., the line for the poll is now non-existent as everyone has scattered around the school playground. Some people hover around the school gate, waiting for the polling vehicles to arrive, while others try calling the polling officials. The calls go unanswered. The drums maintain their rhythms and the dance continues. At the periphery of the fields, enthusiasts of the Democratic party hoist their banners; a woman holds a sign, “HUMAN RIGHTS FIRST” while another has a shirt emblazoned with the words “GAMBIA HAS DECIDED”.
Two hours later, the chortling sound of an unroadworthy Mahindra is heard struggling to make its way up the hill to the school. As the green vehicle enters the school ground, we all scramble to get back in line. The murmurs die and before long, voting begins. The wait in line is not long, and when it is, we use our banners to cover our heads and protect ourselves from the scorching sun. After the voting, we walk back home, joyful and hopeful. We hope that this election is fair – there is talk everywhere that Yahya Jammeh will lose. “The people have decided”, one of the women beside me utters. We are quiet. We believe her, we believe that Gambians will choose a democratic government over an oppressive autocratic rule.
That night, we head to the bar to celebrate the forthcoming victory. We drink Guinness and everyone buys everyone a drink. We listen to One Love by Bob Marley and Alpha stops the music to explain to us why Gambia’s one heart and one love have been reunited through this election: “It is time for love, time to end oppression – all Gambians are united by this. One heart. One love.” We all nod our heads in agreement. Sainey stands up and turns on the music, playing Exodus, the apt song for this current moment, he says. “You only need to listen to these lines and realize that Marley was singing about Gambia all along”, Sainey shouts as his voice gets drowned by our loud voices and the sound of the speakers.
We sing along and get drunk with hope and Guinness, enchanting our minds with expectations that may as well shatter our resolve if they are not fulfilled. After listening to Bob Marley for a while, the bartender decides to increase the volume of the TV so we can listen to the updates of the elections: Yahya Jammeh is winning! Our jovial faces turn somber and everyone is quiet. The bartender breaks the silence, “He can’t win!” We want to believe him but no one responds to his remark. Slowly, everyone walks out of the bar, but not without a fuss. One woman slams her beer mug on the table as she leaves while an elderly man, too weak to instigate any act of physical aggression, mutters to himself on his way out. The bartender shakes his head, “Grandpa has seen worse than this – he is tired, but he will survive. We will survive!”
In 1994, Yahya Jammeh led a bloodless coup d’etat against the then president of The Gambia, Dawda Jawara. He had run the country under military rule and was elected as president two years later. His presidency, which continued till 2017, was marred with fraud and human rights violations: kidnapping, torture, murder of journalists, LGBTQ+ persons and opposition leaders, and the stealing of state assets. So, when Adama Barrow, an affable real estate developer with a charming smile, ran against the autocratic ruler, a majority of Gambians hoped. On December 1st, when they went to the polls, they hoped that Yahya Jammeh would lose, for his dubious methods to fail. They voted and went to sleep: eager for the new day, eager for the results.
The next morning, we wake up and drink tea under the shade of a tree. It’s already 10 a.m. The children, oblivious of the current political climate, play soccer in the fields. As we sip our tea, we watch them, admiring their bubbly energy and enthusiasm. There are no goals, no goalkeeper, no referee, and seemingly no purpose to their game – they are just enjoying themselves, chasing the ball, dribbling, and committing any offenses without any repercussions. I shake my head and think, That’s how The Gambia has been. No one follows the rules and there are no repercussions. No matter how many elections we hold, there is no winning in this game; Yahya Jammeh will forever hold onto power.
As we sit under the shade, we ask one of the kids to bring out the radio, disrupting their soccer game. As soon as he brings the radio, Aba turns it on; currently, only secular songs are playing, songs of hope and love. We are all quiet. Everyone is anxiously shaking their legs or tapping their fingers rhythmically on their knees. As the song comes to an end, the rhythm quickens and some of us rise to stretch and tease one another. To bear the oncoming news, we need the jokes. We need the stretching. The song ends and immediately, a reporter presents the breaking news of the day.
The tapping of the fingers stops, the stretching is held midway, and jokes are abandoned mid-sentence. We all listen attentively, savoring this moment, recording every word that the reporters utters, letting it ring and reverberate in our ears and sink into our hearts; etched indelibly into our memories. Even after the news is over, we remain still. We let the scorching sun mercilessly thrust its rays on our heads. Sweat trickles down our foreheads as we sit and stand still, like mummies. For some, tears run down our faces and fall off only to kiss the dry earth, while others look smilingly into empty space, as if in a trance, occasionally recovering from their stupor to exclaim and shake their heads in disbelief. We share in this surreal moment, not allowing either the sun or the unconcerned children playing soccer interrupt our moment of bliss.
“The president of Gambia’s electoral commission has declared opposition coalition candidate, Adama Barrow, winner of the December 1st presidential election”, are the only words we needed to hear; words that amazed and shocked us with equal measure. What reactions are expected once a long and arduous, and seemingly insurmountable fight is won? Jubilation? Reprieve? In those first few moments after learning of Adama Barrow’s win, we did not know how to react. We recalled all the futile hard work, the tears, the imprisoned, the activism, the underdevelopment, the corruption, the poverty, the censorship, the human rights violations, and all this overwhelmed us. The possibility of a new future, a New Gambia, was too good to be true. For even in the fights and the campaigns, we did not anticipate this outcome and the possibility of success. We had always fought for the sake of fighting – after having our hopes shattered so often, and having injustice flirt and shine over our humanitarian and just efforts time and time again, for 22 years, the line between these two opposites had gotten so close that it was almost indistinguishable. Deep down, we knew this. We had resigned. We had given in. We had lost hope. We were just fighting to no end.
We waited. We tuned in to other stations on radio and TV. We confirmed that indeed Adama Barrow was the president elect of The Gambia. A New Gambia. A new president. We celebrated – we took to the streets, we danced, we waved our flags, we demanded concession of defeat from Yahya Jammeh. We knew that change is hard. Change meets resistance. More than this, we knew our president, we knew his type. His type can be found all over the continent, ruling with iron fists, unrelenting and fastidiously holding on to power. We knew Omar-Al-Bashir, we knew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, we knew Robert Mugabe, and in them, we knew that Yahya Jammeh was cut off the same cloth. But even then, we knew that the fight was not over, we had seen this fight, we had seen it lost and we had seen it won. We had witnessed Kenya overthrow its second president, Daniel Arap Moi, who had been on the throne for 24 years to begin a prosperous journey as a democracy. We had witnessed South Sudan break from the grips of Omar al-Bashir to attain independence and democratic governance. Still, we had witnessed the extent to which oppressive leadership can lead citizens to destruction and revolutions during the Arab Spring uprisings. For this, we were anxious. Till Yahya conceded, our hearts remained fickle, wavering between victory and utter uncertainty about the future. For a man who had declared that he’d be on the throne till Allah decides otherwise, we were in doubt that he’d accept defeat so easily. The jubilations, joy and optimism slowly coalesced into anger, fear, and distress. We had won the battle at the ballots, but the emotional turmoil and eventual victory lay in the hands of the one man we loathed: Yahya Jammeh. We knew him. We knew he could do anything.
The next day, December 2nd, Yahya Jammeh conceded defeat. We were bewildered. The turn of events was unusual. After living under tyrannical rule for so long, anything that signaled progress and bent towards democratic rule seemed an anomaly. We yearned for change but our intuitions and hopes, though aligned with this turn of events, ran similarly with the norms and expectations that had been ingrained in us for the past twenty-two years – we never believed our efforts would bear fruit, not in our lifetime. Yahya Jammeh had vowed to rule for a billion years. We had resigned to fighting for a billion years. Now that the fight was over, we were in awe. We did not have Yahya Jammeh to fight anymore; we could now exercise our basic human rights as citizens and now we did not know who to fight. Hence, we celebrated in sorrow – we had gained democracy, but with it, we feared we might lose our tenacity, our valor, our will.
Maybe we had been too cynical, too judgmental of our president. We had gotten too bogged down by his tyranny that we failed to consider the best in him. His inhumane deeds – journalists disappearing, opposition leaders being imprisoned – had tainted his image and, whenever we thought of him, we cringed in fear, became anxious and defensive. He was the Goliath that we could not take down. So, when he conceded defeat, we were left with our slingshots, wondering what to do. The sorrow lifted, but the celebrations did not continue. We were spent and done with the fascist regime. After all, our energies had been spent campaigning, celebrating Adama Barrow’s win and worrying over Yahya Jammeh’s decision on whether to concede defeat or not.
For a week, Adama Barrow took over the presidency of Gambia. We watched on TV and waited to reap the fruits of our labors. In Adama Barrow, there was hope and prospects for progress – he vowed to allow freedom to the press and free political activists. His affable and agreeable demeanor appealed to us. We felt safe. The youth were ecstatic, eager to take on new jobs, while hospitals filled in grants to get funding for development. The optimism in the air was infectious – every so often, someone would speak of their hopes and dreams, or smile at their own thoughts. Our hopes, dreams, and thoughts were tangible goals that could be achieved.
Yahya Jammeh had lost.
On December 9th, Yahya Jammeh decided to contest the election results– sending the military to the capital and various towns– citing that there were “election abnormalities”. Fearing for his life, President-elect Adama Barrow sought exile in Senegal. Our hopes were crushed, exiled with our president-elect. Our fight was lost and our future looked bleak. We did not mourn, we were angry. We were angry that, for once, we had allowed ourselves to trust such a mercurial man as Yahya Jammeh; we were angry that our president-elect was helpless; we were angry that we were helpless; we were angry that our victory was short-lived; we were angry that we were spent. In the coming weeks, we watched as Yahya Jammeh took on the reins again, appointing judges to decide on the election results. We watched as he steered our country in the only direction he knew: corruption and oppression.
That our president-elect fled to Senegal for his safety was expected and understandable. We didn’t hold anything against him – already, most of us had fled to Europe, trying to escape Yahya Jammeh and better our lives. Still, many more of us stuck around, braving whatever injustices came our way.
On January 8th, Adama Barrow tweeted a photo of him in an Arsenal jersey, showing his support for the team: “You can change your politics, but never can you change your favorite football team! Thank you — @Arsenal! #Gambia #Arsenal”. Knowing Arsenal and the streaks of failures to clinch the champions league cup time and again, and the tenacity and devotion associated with its fans, we were sold. To support Arsenal is to support Gambia irrespective of peaceful or tumultuous times, it is to persevere no matter the circumstances, it is to fight and fail constantly. A shimmer of hope started rising in us – we watched with mild optimism as the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) – organizations tasked with maintaining the political and economic well-being of member states – granted Yahya Jammeh protections for himself, his family and associates, if left the country. We watched as Adama Barrow was sworn in as president of The Gambia in Senegal! We watched as Yahya Jammeh, for the first time, showed signs of fear. We watched him get weak, give in to the pressure; we watched as we grew stronger and hopeful. We watched as ECOWAS ousted Yahya on January 19th. We watched Adama Barrow return home to lead our country. We watched as Yahya Jammeh left the country for exile in Equatorial Guinea. Only then did we rejoice.
Daniel Murage is from Kenya. He is currently studying fiction at New York University’s creative writing program.