By Sheriff Baba Bojang
On a brisk Thursday morning on January 10th 2017, I drove my former cabinet colleague and friend Alieu Jammeh to a nondescript building housing The Gambia Embassy in Dakar in a cul-de-sac in the area called Yoff Toundoup Rya. He was going to witness Barrow’s “historic” swearing-in. I wished him good luck and sped off. From that moment, I pledged to grant one(which I did to my high school mate and journalist friend Fatou Camara) and maintain a silence de morton public political matters for the next three years.
You see, I am my worst critic. I am tougher on myself than even Nderry Mbye of the so-called Freedom newssite with all his sulphuric ehems. Gambians had rejected us, the APRC and Yahya Jammeh, in the most unclouded voice. And since we do not engage in hara-kiri – dying by falling on your sword from dishonour –we can at the least take a chill pill and literally vamoose for a time. It is not about being caged; it is about being gaged.
So like the Trappist monks, I took a vow of silence. For whatever sins that may have issued from my mouth or uncircumcised pen over the two years I served at the pleasure of His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh, Nasirrudin, Babili Mansa Baa, as Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure I was going to lose my voice for the next 36 months.
And impressively, I had pretty much stuck to it. Over the period, I had been approached to take up high public office, join political parties or even actively re-engage with my former party the APRC. I declined everything. The period of my imposed abstinence ends end of December, and here I am breaking it!
Silence is beautiful. When I was sacked as the managing director of Daily Observer in 2004, I went to college in London and refused to speak for years and was given the name ‘The Silent Londoner’ by my old pals Foday Samateh and Dida Halake. The brilliant American Trappist monk, writer, mystic and poet, Thomas Merton, wrote in The Asian Journalabout silence: “I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. Great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation — without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening.”
So what matter of great importance must have occurred to make me break my pledge? Actually nothing. On Tuesday, The Standard came with a banner headline ‘BARROW SAYS HE IS A MANDINKA’ and it is like standing in the middle of the damel’scourt and telling the people of Cayor and Kabrousse in Senegal that the Yacine Boubou and Aline Sitoe Diatta were hermaphrodites because they were so ballsy! The Interneteratti went unhinged. It trended on Gambian Twitter the whole day and snapshots of The Standard front page were all over Facebook. As Peter Gomez wryly told the editor Lamin Cham, if it was the UK, it would have won the Headline of The Year at the British Press or National Journalism awards!
One reason I do not engage in public debates on the Internet, notably Facebook, is that it is like a very cracked mirror. Most people do not see the whole picture. One cursory look and they have their own skewed views and they fly with it, their own truth. And they try to outdo each other in nastiness and meanness;acting all Moe Ebrahim Seckha and Abs Ceesay even with an upper arm circumference of 10 inches! People you teach in the classroom – not even among the brightest – would want to lecture you and those not even fit enough to untie the lace of your shoes would curse your mother. Since I consider it beneath me to engage in tittle-tattle or as Mandinkas say jali kunda song ko, with faceless idiots and idiottes, I stay away. Let them hang themselves with their own petards in their idiocy.
The Standard is promoting tribalism. Journalism in The Gambia is dead! Sheriff Bojang is a bad journalist. The editor of Standard is a UDP supporter. Mbojo mbojo journalism. Sensationalism. This story is insensitive. It is irrelevant. This story could bring about Rwanda in Gambia.All the editors should be sacked! And blah blah, the comments go on. I was a tad pissed that even people I considered serious journalists in The Gambia would serve as echo chambers for these bland statements. Just in case you have missed it, this isThe Standard story:
Barrow Says He Is A Mandinka
By Omar Bah
President Adama Barrow has strongly dismissed claims that he was playing tribal politics by accepting to meet an exclusively Fula Association.
Addressing the audience from the Tabital Pulaagu, whose leaders split over the planned meeting with him, President Barrow categorically stated that he is a Mandinka. “My father is a Mandinka and my mother is Fula and the Sarahules are my uncles. I think my this connection with all these tribes is what is driving fear in some people about me,” Barrow said. Mr Barrow said the meeting was not in any way inspired or motivated to mobilise the Fulas to support him, arguing that his connection with Fulas, Mandinkas and Sarahules was destined by God.
He reminded his audience that the Sarehule community visited him but there was no outcry about that. “Why should they be worried about the Fulas’ visit? This is purely political and hypocritical,” he explained.
The Gambian leader reminded the group that Fulas, Mandinkas, Wolofs, Jolas and all the other tribes are equal in the country. “I am the president and I love you all and you are all my family. The Fulas who are here today should understand that they are part of The Gambia. I want you to join me we work together and develop this country because I cannot do it alone. Wherever you maybe if you want to progress you have to speak the same language with government,” he told the visiting Fula group.
There is a saying in journalism that it is not what you write but what you highlight. But what is so bad or genocidal about the president of The Gambia saying he is a Mandinka? And why would any journalist worth his salt contend that is an irrelevant piece of information in the country today given the recent contemporary historical context and the political calculus? If you do, you are in the wrong job, my friend.
In its Question of The Day column, of November 4, 2019 Foroyaa, my favourite Gambian paper (after The Standard of course), wrote:
“It is common these days for President Barrow to be accused of building the support base among the Fula ethno-linguistic group. However, the leader of the NRP and GDC are also accused of doing the same.
The leader of the GDC stood against Barrow in Jimara Constituency and won, but stood against Barrow as a presidential candidate and lost. What role did tribe play to make either person a winner or loser?
During the first Republic Mr Dibba was painted by many of his ethnolinguistically inclined opponents as a tribalist and Jawara was referred to by most of his ethnolinguistically inclined opponents as a sell out to other ethnolinguistic groups. But Jawara continued to win elections until he was removed through a coup d’etat. Jammeh who was considered to be from a smaller ethnolinguistic group continued to win elections against UDP whose leader Mr Ousainu Darboe and Deputy leader Mr Yahya Jallow, were considered by those who were ethnolinguistically inclined as belonging to the most populous ethnolinguistic groups in The Gambia, the Mandinka and Fula ethnolinguistic groups, respectively.
Now, some who are ethnolinguistically inclined are saying Barrow is not a pure Mandinka, because his mother belongs to the Fula ethnolinguistic group while others are saying he is not pure Fula because his father belongs to the Mandinka ethnolinguistic group.
If one takes the ethnolinguistic characterisation of Gambian politics a bit farther, one would discover that the leaders of the NRP and GDC are classified as belonging to the Fula ethnolinguistic group. The leader of the UDP and GMC are classified as belonging to the Mandinka ethnolinguistic group. The leaders of PPP and GAP are classified under the Serahule ethnolinguistic group.
Hence if the people vote purely on ethnolinguistic lines who would they vote for?
It is therefore not proven by empirical evidence that one could win presidential elections by solely relying on ethnolinguistic loyalties.
In fact, the more one drums up ethnolinguistic loyalties the more other ethnolinguistic groups feel threatened and thus congregate around a winnable candidate on the other side. This is how Jammeh survived for 22 years…”
We have entered the season of ‘idlepolitics’ what Alex Ferguson calls in British football, ‘squeaky bum time”. As politicians and their surrogates strategise on how to maintain their stranglehold on to power or wrest it from the incumbent, they will use everything at their disposal, overtly or covertly to politically neuter their opponents. And unedifying as it may appeal to your higher sense, one of key issues will be the “ethnolinguistic” bearings of the protagonists since a greater percentage of our people are not interested in the retail politics of issues but wholesale politics of identity – of kith and kinship in its many forms.
The issue of Barrow’s identity is interesting in many ways.
I was sitting front row at that meeting in Tallinding on 6th June, 2016 when my boss wrote his political obituary. In the poem The Masque of Pandora by Longfellow, Prometheus said when the gods wish to destroy a person, they first make him mad. It was Jammeh’s moment de folie. Utter madness.He stated in his all hail thou omniscience that till the end of times, The Gambia will never be ruled by a Mandinka government and a Mandinka will never sit on the seat of the presidency. That if so were to happen, let him die and burn in hell. Remember, some of us believe in AJJ’s omnipotence, and it might interest us in knowing whether the real Omnipotent One has answered his hauteur by replacing him, right after with a Mandinka, a very average Joe one, at that!
What is even more beguiling is that on 13th February 2019, the same Standard in the same position published a story in which the good imam Baba Leigh made a public declaration: “Each of you can support any political party of your choice but you must all recognise and respect your culture and tribe as Fulas. You cannot change that. Adama Barrow is a typical Fula; if anyone wants to make him something that will be just to use him but even his parents, grandparents are all Fulas from Barrow Kunda in Futa Toro.”And apart from a couple of barbed comments on the story link on standard.gm, I didn’t see an outrage!
Barrow is many things to many people. He’s a cracked mirror personified. People make of him what they want. A Moses one day, Judas the next. A Mandinka one day, Fula the next. Adama Humble one day, Narcissus the next. One of us today, one of them tomorrow. And these labels have expensive political costs, for Barrow and for those who make them. He has every right to define his identity. You have every right in your jaundiced view to say it is insensitive or irrelevant. Go shout it out on the top of the hill. And we at The Standard have every right to publish all we deemed fit for publication. So take a chill pill. No hara-kiri this crisp Thursday morning.