Yahya Jammeh’s tribalism

How the Jammeh regime reproduced power in Gambia for more than two decades.

The Jammehs with the Obamas. Image Credit: US Department of State via Flickr.

The Gambia’s outgoing President, Yahya Jammeh, appears to be going nowhere slowly. After conceding defeat in the December 1 presidential election, Jammeh – who has held power for the past 22 years – made a U-turn. In spite of the country’s electoral commission confirming opposition candidate Adama Barrow’s victory, Jammeh filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to void the entire election result. A pattern of rule through continuous firing and rehiring has come back to haunt Jammeh, however, as the Supreme Court has not been able to hold a sitting since May 2015, when Jammeh sacked two of its justices. The countdown has started to January 19, when the constitution requires Jammeh to hand over power.

Outside The  Gambia, Jammeh faces widespread opposition to his latest power grab. ECOWAS, the African Union and United Nations issued a joint statement calling for Jammeh to step down. ECOWAS Commissioner Marcel de Souza asserts that a military intervention may be considered, and neighboring Senegal has indicated that it is willing to take part in military action to secure the transition to democracy. On December 16, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement calling Jammeh to accept the results of the election, and many African heads of state have confirmed they will attend the inauguration of Barrow.

Inside The Gambia, Jammeh has held a tight grip on power and the citizenry, and has done his best to gag both the press and the opposition. His government is widely criticized for human rights abuses, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

After Barrow’s victory, and Jammeh’s conceding defeat, however, there’s a marked change in the political tone inside the country. Jammeh has never been more isolated. A range of civil society organizations – including the Gambian Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Student Association, the Teacher’s Union, and lately, the Islamic Council – have asked Jammeh to accept the voice of the people. Eleven of The Gambia’s ambassadors abroad have done the same. The question is not whether Jammeh’s era is coming to end, but whether it comes to end with or without bloodshed.

The insistence on bringing a valid election result before a non-functioning Supreme Court is not the incumbent’s only impasse. Another, more dangerous gambit has been Jammeh’s repeated invocation of “tribe” in politics. Jammeh has made rule by division his trademark – and he has made identity issues, ethnicity and religion in particular – relevant in politics in ways they were not before.

Gambians are used to Jammeh’s predictable unpredictability. It has played out in a variety of bizarre, discredited and violent proclamations, including on state religion (declaring Gambia an Islamic state through a unilateral presidential decree in 2015), medicine (claiming to be able to cure AIDS with herbal medicines), gays (“vermin” whose throats should be slit), and women’s dress codes (skinny jeans causing infertility in women).

Jammeh’s spin on tribalism has been to accuse members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Mandinka, of tribalism. In continued attacks on Mandinkas, he has made criticism against his rule by decree and human rights record into an ethnic issue. He has threatened the Mandinka with extinction (“I will kill you like ants and nothing will come out of it”). In June 2016, Jammeh spoke in a rally in Tallinding and asserted that “since 1994 all the trouble makers have been Mandinkas. If you don’t behave I will bury you nine feet deep.” The speech led to condemnation by the UN’s special advisor on the Prevention of Genocide.

Jammeh’s singling out of the Mandinka is partly related to the ethnic belonging of his predecessor, Dawda Jawara, President of The Gambia from independence in 1965 and ousted by Jammeh in a coup in 1994. The Mandinka make up about 40 percent of the Gambian population. Yet, “tribe” has not been a basis for collective action. In fact, ethnicity in The Gambia is far from a categorical label of personal belonging which such numbers would imply.

Three years of living in The Gambia have taught me that questions about personal “origin” always unleash stories of migration, change and interchange: “We who are surnamed Kebbeh were Fulbe while living in Senegal five generations ago but are now Wolof”; “the families surnamed Cham are Wolof or Mandinka now but were originally Fulbe from Futa Toro”; or, “My father is Mandinka but I moved to my Serahuli grandmother and was raised by her so I guess I am Serahuli now”, and so forth. When Gambians talk about their background in ethnic terms, the stories they tell reveal layers upon layers of social integration across differences of language and tradition. Marriage across ethnic lines is more a rule than an exception. Social mechanisms for integration across “tribe” are everywhere, in notions of equivalent surnames (Juawara and Mbow, Willan and Fofana, Tunkara and Kanteh, Nyang and Sanyang) and in humor.

It is no small irony that Jammeh’s spin on tribalism echoes colonial techniques of divide and rule. The British operated with a split between the tiny colony in today’s urban Banjul (and Kombo St. Mary’s) and the remaining rural area of the protectorate. Administrative positions were located in the colony and dominated by urban Wolof and Aku. Former President Jawara represented a political voice from the countryside. Mandinko-speakers were in majority in the rural areas, a demographic reality that was reflected in Jawara’s political party. His task following independence was to integrate the interests of the protectorate with those of the urban elites. His government did not play on Mandinko dominance. On the contrary, Jawara’s strategy to keep political legitimacy was to incorporate newcomers into government, from both the former colony and the protectorate, of all ethnic affiliations, a strategy disliked by many older members of the party that took part in the independence movement.

Jammeh’s rhetoric has unleashed rumors about his privileging of his Jola ethnic minority, for instance about the channeling of development resources, schooling in particular, to his own southern areas. It is difficult to verify these rumors, or tell them apart from Jammeh’s overall strategy of rewarding those who are loyal, regardless of ethnicity. There is also widespread speculation about his preference for Jolas in government positions and over the existence of an armed “Jola militia” in the south toward the areas of the Jola separatist movement in Senegalese Casamance. This fuels fear of a future rebel Jola movement loyal to Jammeh that will create a merged conflict area across the southern Gambia-Senegal border.

The rhetoric on “tribe” does not seem to have convinced the majority of Gambians. Today, social media are peppered with slogans that counter Jammeh’s spin: “My tribe is Gambia,” “Tribalism has no place in our nation,” and “To hell with tribalism” – the latter version also a subtle reference to president Jammeh’s reply when the UN Secretary General criticized human rights abuses in The Gambia (“Go to hell”). Nonetheless, any attempt to understand the dynamics at work in The Gambia’s crisis will have to take into account two decades of “tribal” discourse by the country’s president.

Barrow won the election, but Jammeh got nearly 40 percent of the vote countrywide. Reconciliation efforts must address the traffic in ethnic stereotypes, about Mandinka, Jola, the diaspora, and all groups that have been subject of libel. The most acute task for the new government is to address the economic disenfranchisement that gives fertile ground for demagogues who seek power by portraying valid grievances as tribal conflicts.

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