From soldier, to dictator, to president, to dictator. All in 22 years.
Jammeh remained in the State House like his life depended on it. Like he had done since he came into power over 22 years ago. Perhaps in the trying weeks since his ballot defeat, he reminisced on his beginnings. Perhaps he remembers his teachers always complaining that he talked about Politics too much. Or how he was just another guard, warding off people trying to get too close to the president he toppled.
Perhaps, he’s spent the last few weeks, thinking about the events of July 22, 1994.
From Independence in 1965, Gambia’s history was one long page of a peaceful democracy; the longest streak in a region that had seen 34 successful coup plots. Towards the bottom of this page, corruption crumpled it, negligence blotted the ink, and overall dissatisfaction doomed the author of this page to the bad books.
One major grudge against Dauda Jawara, who had been President since 1970, was the poor salaries being paid to soldiers. In fact, this factor was what sowed the seed to the country’s first coup.
On Friday morning, the soldiers were scheduled to have a military training exercise on the Denton Bridge, an important bridge that connected two major parts of the capital.
That training exercise was in reality the beginning of the coup.
When security forces, the police to be specific, got wind of what was happening, there was a standoff at the bridge.
Both sides traded gunfire, with the Police putting up a good fight. It wasn’t long before they took off at the might of the military’s superior firepower.
They seized the National radio station, the airport, and a few key government buildings in Banjul the Gambian capital.
Ebrima Chongan, who led the policemen in the shootout at Denton Bridge, said the coup couldn’t have happened without the help of Nigerian soldiers. Much of the Gambian military and judiciary had Nigerians in powerful decision-making positions.
“The masters of coup de’tat,” Ebrima called the Nigerian soldiers.
Dauda had just returned from overseas the night before, and news came that it appeared that a coup was in motion to oust him. He quickly sought refuge aboard a U.S warship, which just happened to be in the area at the time. When the coup plotters, entirely junior officers, reached the government house, there was no resistance from guards, most of whom had fled. There was no President either, but before them was the State House, and the country’s seat of power, vacant.
A bloodless coup had been accomplished, to their own surprise.
An Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) was formed with four men being the most significant, all Lieutenants — Signateh, Sabali, Hydara, and Jammeh.
Yahya Jammeh emerged as Chairman, and in standard military fashion, the constitution was suspended, curfews were imposed and borders were closed. Jammeh justified his coup saying Dauda Jawara was corrupt, even saying the President hadn’t built a single hospital or university in 30 years. He was right.
He claimed in his speech, that theirs was a “coup with a difference”, which was going to hand over to a civilian government in three months. In three months, there was still no civilian government. Although there was a coup attempt in September that was quickly crushed.
In January of 1995, Jammeh accused his deputy, Sana Sabaly, and Sadibou Hydara, of trying to overthrow him, and he sent them to the famous Mile II, an infamous prison in the Gambia. Hydara died in months, while Sadibou remained there for 9 more years.
He took off his uniform and ran for office in 1996, winning the elections under a party he formed. Signateh, the last of the four, was his running mate.
In 2001, he ran again, and won. By this time, he was on a construction spree. Gambia now had a University, hospitals, schools. But there was another side to Jammeh.
He had a firm grip on the country. He silenced his enemies, and didn’t play nice with the press. Journalists were turning up dead and dozens of people are believed to have disappeared.
In March of 2006, a coup attempt failed while he was in Mauritania. Later that year, he ran for election again, and one with over two-thirds of the votes.
And so, a new Jammeh was born.
His official car, a regular SUV, was replaced with a Hummer Stretch. That’s not all. He now claimed he could cure HIV/AIDS and asthma using herbs and traditional methods. He even claimed to cure high blood pressure.
He’d throw money and biscuits on the road for little kids as his motorcade drove by.
It was at this point that Jammeh adopted the title of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa.
In 2009, 1000 people were forced to drink potions in order to prove they weren’t involved in witchcraft. For gay people, he said he’d “cut off the head” of anyone he found.
There was another coup attempt in 2009, which failed, but the outcome of this was different. And by the time he won in 2011, Jammeh tasted invincibility.
“I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so,” he had said that year.
Jammeh no longer felt like just a President. He had become a cult figure.
Jammeh still threw biscuits and money while standing through the roof of his Presidential car, while people were still disappearing. He banned female genital mutilation and child marriage, but still had enough time on his hands to
detain political opponents.
His grip on the country grew tighter, especially after another coup attempt in 2014. And it seemed that maybe his people were growing tired.
Fast forward to the 2016 elections on the 1st of December. Jammeh suffered a surprising defeat to Adama Barrow. In the spirit of sportsmanship, he called Adama on live TV to congratulate him on his victory.
But on December 9, Jammeh came out to say he wouldn’t accept the result of the elections, and so he filed a petition to the Supreme Court to contest it.
No one seemed to give a damn.
23rd of December, ECOWAS warned that if he did not hand over on the 19th of January, they would remove him by force. The African Union said he would no longer be recognised as president on the 19th too.
Jammeh tried to block Barrow’s inauguration, but the Chief Justice refused to rule on the matter.
By January 17, most of his ministers and cabinet had resigned. His Vice President of 20 years, Isatou Njie-Saidy, resigned the next day.
That same day, the parliament voted to extend his term by 3 months.
No one gave a damn about that. Last time he asked for 3 months, he sat there for 22 years.
An ECOWAS mission led by Senegal, with Nigeria sending ships as part of the operation, marched to Gambia’s borders.
If he wasn’t going to leave, they were going to push him out by force. His Military chief, Ousman Bargie, by this time, already pledged allegiance to Barrow.
Jammeh came into power, with the army strongly behind him, and the people rallying their support, for change. Now, 22 years, 5 months, and 28 days later, they came together, demanding he leave immediately.
If there is anything Jammeh would have felt in those moments, it is true loneliness.
But still, he remained in the State House, even after the deadline had passed, like his life depended on it.
Presidents came in to further negotiate. And finally, a break came.
In the middle of the night on Saturday the 21st, Jammeh announced on a live broadcast that he was stepping down.
A new sun rose in Gambia that Saturday. The streets were quiet and empty for most of the day, but when a plane at the airport started warming its engines in the evening, the people knew the end had come.
People flooded the streets wearing “Gambia Has Decided” shirts. Everyone from herb sellers to sweet sellers started selling photos of Barrow. Everyone likes to have the photo of their president.
By the time Jammeh got to the airport, a military band played as he walked down the red carpet for the last time.
Few tears were shed, but they were easily overshadowed by the jubilation from the majority. He climbed up the steps to the plane, and turned around to wave one last time.
If you were standing right there on the tarmac, you would see the face of the man, who tasted defeat for the first time, and hated it.
His plane was headed for Guinea, but for the Gambians, he was headed out of their lives forever.
He outdid his predecessor in many things, like building more schools, more hospitals, among other things.
But he’ll also be remembered as the dictator who tried to stay beyond his time, but got kicked out by his entire nation.
A 22-year old page has closed forever, by the collective power of the people. A fresh one has been set before them.
The people of Gambia, have truly decided.