By Alhagie S Nyang, National Coordinator of Activista The Gambia
“If you do not vote for me, your community will not receive even a needle from my government.”
I watched the TV as Yahya Jammeh, the then-president of the Republic of The Gambia, spewed those words as authoritatively as he could. I wondered at the time if Jammeh knew the meaning of his words , and how ignorant they made him sound. But then he would have had to have the intellectual and moral aptitude first. He made the above statement as frequently as he could at every rally while mocking and name-calling his political opposition. One always wondered if Jammeh was running a country or a personal project. Did he think he was bigger than the country or was the best the country ever produced? This man at some point claimed to be richer than his own government.
The above were not mere utterances of a drunk-with-power dictator. He meant and in fact acted on those utterances. For 22 years, this leader and president hunted, oppressed, suppressed, humiliated, and killed Gambians and non-Gambians alike. For 22 years, Gambians were caged. For 22 years, Gambians battled to reclaim their country from a mad and uncultured dictator.
Prior to 1994, The Gambia was a peaceful democratic country. This democracy was, however, ended through a coup d’etat led by Jammeh. He won several subsequent elections, and without any term limits, many people thought he could not be voted out. Coups erupted. Many coup plots were foiled in The Gambia. The reason (at least advanced by plotters) for the many coup attempts was that people had lost hope in removing a dictator through constitutional means, and thus he must be forcefully removed. Many among those who dared try have lost their lives. Many were imprisoned and tortured, and many went on exile!
Let me tell you a thing or two. We never gave up! We never stopped fighting. We never stopped believing, even though many turned to blame and point fingers to civil society organizations for not doing enough, for not creating enough civic space, for not creating enough claimed spaces, and for not facing the dictator upfront! A lot of organizations had to make a trade off – either to get closed down or to stay relevant. Many chose the latter, and as it turns out, that was a wise choice. Staying relevant meant not facing the dictator upfront but rather focusing on the people – keeping them informed, aware, and educated on their rights and responsibilities. It meant moving them take simple yet courageous action like getting registered to vote and then voting during the election. Gambians have had their fair share of shrinking civic space. In this case, it was completely shrunk!
Did I say Jammeh an ardent, spiritual, and naughty dictator was defeated at the polls? Oh yes, he was! Think about that for a moment. Imagine having a president who changed the constitution 50 times during a 22year reign, just to suit himself. He gave himself, through our rubber stamp National Assembly at the time, all the powers he needed to make himself an all-powerful dictator.
Gambians decided it was enough! People chose to dare believe that they could remove a dictator by voting him out. Politicians decided to get their act together, have one objective – Jammeh Must Go, and forge a coalition. With the coalition, people’s hope and confidence were further nourished. A historic vote led to the toppling of a 22-year iron fist dictatorial government.
So just note the key things here – political action: getting registered, and voting. When most Gambians decided to take this simple yet courageous and duty-bound decision to go out and vote, it took us miles closer to our goal – taking back our country and restoring democratic rule. The election is not an end but rather a means. We voted Jammeh out, but we continue to fight to get our country to where it is supposed to be.
Americans must go out and vote. That is first step to bring about change. The vote will give you a real start. A chance to make your country safer and direct energy and resources towards the building up people’s lives and livelihoods. What do you want? How do you want your country to governed, and what does a democratic society mean to you? Your answers to these questions are the things you can look for among the candidates. Who offers you what you want? Identify that candidate and vote for them.
Democracy is about people’s power. Their power to decide who lead their country, and for how long. The power to decide and set the agenda, and the power to influence policy direction. Take action, and encourage those around you to.