The President Who Refused to Leave
Just as Donald Trump was moving into the White House, a bitter powerstruggle ensued in The Gambia. While liberals marched against what they perceived as a threat against democracy in the U.S., the first democractically-elected Gambian president was blocked from entering his country and inauguration. For a week, Gambia’s future looked grim and regional troops prepared for an armed interference. From January 16 to 22, Blankspot followed journalist Sheriff Bojang Jr. – seven days that shook West Africa.
It’s just after five o’clock in the morning and still dark when Sheriff gets in his car. The air is cool and the streets of Senegal’s capitol, Dakar, are empty. He hasn’t gotten many hours of sleep but that doesn’t seem to faze him. His body is operating on adrenalin. It is January 18, 2017, and at midnight Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s mandate expires.
Sheriff Bojang Junior is on his way toward the southeastern border of The Gambia and Senegal. Tomorrow he may be on a ferry across the Gambia River.
“All I need is a clear sign. Before this day is over, we should have some kind of answers, at least,”he says, leaning back on the worn out passenger seat.
It has been 10 years since his feet last touched Gambian soil.
The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country. On the map, the border of the tiny West African nation looks like a worm, digging its way into the belly of Senegal—the result of a few pencil lines drawn a continent away, a remnant of the colonial power’s “Scramble for Africa” and the struggle for control of the African slave trade.
Since the independence from Great Britain in 1965, The Gambian Republic and its nearly 2 million citizens have only had two presidents. President number one, Dawda Jawara, was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 1994 by president number two, Yahya Jammeh. He has since ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years, with a number of failed coup d’états as the only threat against his power. The population has been kept in check by fear—torture, lawlessness and unpredictability.
All forms of dissent have been silenced.
Outside the car window, the dawn unfolds and a new day begins. The fog, which covers everything like a big white blanket, is oozing up like smoke from the ground. And the tops of the Acacia trees appear to be floating in a sea of milk. Heavy-duty trucks roar by on the roads, the drivers trying to put as many miles behind them before the sun gets high in the sky and the heat kicks in.
Sheriff’s cellphone buzzes constantly. And in the passenger seat he’s anxiously keeping himself abreast, scrolling down twitter accounts and WhatsApp lists, checking Facebook updates, answering calls—loudly—from friends and colleagues.
“What? Are you asking if I have any news?” he yells, jokingly, into his phone. “Don’t you think I would have called you if that was the case? Call me when you have some information.”
Sheriff is in charge of the West Africa Democracy Radio’s English broadcasts and at 34 years old, is one of West Africa’s most notable journalists. He has won several international awards for his coverage and works with some of the world’s biggest media outlets, including Al Jazeera, The Guardian and the French radio station RFI, on a regular basis. But it was home in The Gambia he began his career. At the end of the 1990s, he worked for the privately owned newspaper, Daily Observer, and after that, The Independent, where he tried his best to produce good, independent journalism. The media climate was tough, the press suffered constant harassment and in 2001 Sheriff moved to London to study law and literature.
It didn’t work out so well. His home country gave him no peace. Nearly half of the population of The Gambia live in poverty and the dependence of money sent from family members living abroad, make up the core income for many families. Suddenly, Sherrif was expected to help relatives, friends and neighbors. He took as many extra jobs he could find: janitor, security guard and chauffeur.
“I could be working as much as 18 hours a day, but still didn’t have enough money to buy shoes for myself,” he says.
For six years he struggled and it took a toll on his studies. Sheriff grew more and more frustrated and when his father fell ill, he had enough. He packed his bags and bought a plane ticket home to Banjul, the capitol of The Gambia.
Looking back, it was bad timing. Sheriff moved home in March of 2007, and almost exactly one year after Jammeh had struck down the third coup d’état against him and his regime since he took power in 1994. The repression had escalated. Suspects of the coup had been abducted and executed. Newspapers had been stormed. Two journalists had been arrested and tortured, a third—murdered. Sheriff knew what was going on and had arranged several protests in Great Britain against the developments in his country. In the diaspora, Sheriff was a known face. It turned out that he was also a known figure, back home.
“I was arrested as soon as I stepped off the plane and brought to the headquarters of the national security police in Banjul. Everyone knows that’s where they have their torture chambers, so I got petrified as soon as I realized where I was,” Sheriff says.
He was locked up in a cell where there was no difference in night and day. Every so often, he was brought down to the underground holding cells to be “questioned.”
“They yelled at me, ‘You move abroad and preoccupy yourselves with destabilizing the country, and scaring off the tourists!’”
Along with the peanut export, tourism is the most important source of income for country—The Gambia is usually marketed as “The Smiling Coastlane of Africa.” The pleasant climate, the white beaches and an abundant wildlife draw about 100 000 tourists annually, half of which come from Great Britain.
“That’s the closest I’ve come to an explanation as to why they arrested me, but it could just as well be something completely different. There are so many crimes you can commit in a dictatorship,” Sheriff says.
They kept him imprisoned for five days, thoughts and fears swirled around in his head, and he hardly slept at all.
“I have interviewed people who have been assaulted, slashed with bayonets, and given electric shocks to the genitals, in those exact holding cells,” Sheriff says. “At night I lay there waiting for them to come and take me there. It was mental torture.”
The physical torture never came. Instead, Sheriff’s identification documents were confiscated and he was released in return for a promise that he would come back and register himself the following Monday.
“Right then and there, I had enough and I went straight home to my father, who was dying, and spent, maybe 15 minutes, with him. Then my brother drove me to Casamance, where I crossed the border over to Senegal,” he says.
Sheriff tilts his head backwards and closes his eyes when he talks about it. His father died a few weeks later. And Sheriff, he never dared to return.
The road between Dakar and the border town, Karang, is in pretty good shape, but it still takes a few hours to make the drive. Sandy savannah and steppe swoosh by the car windows. Dust finds its way through the car-window seals, cell phone coverage goes in and out with the populated areas along our path. Sheriff slavishly scans the latest news, as soon as his phone gets a signal.
After a standstill in the country, everything is suddenly moving very fast. Less than one year ago, there were no signs of a change for the better in The Gambia. It was 2016 – an election year – and most analysts assumed that Yahya Jammeh would win, as usual. The previous election had been so controlled and colored by intimidation and repression against the opposition that the Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas, didn’t even think it was worthwhile to send election observers to the Gambia. Elections were coming in December and the only visible signs of popular discontent were the thousands of Gambians risking life and limb boarding rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of a better life in Europe. And then, April came around.
A small, yet significant number of oppositionists (considering the Gambian population), took to the streets demanding reform of the election system. Those in power responded as they always had in the past—with police officers firing live bullets straight into the crowd. They assaulted and arrested about 50 demonstrators but this being 2016, people had smart phones and Internet and within a few hours, Facebook was filled with photos of Gambian police beating up protesters.
One of those arrested was Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a father of nine and a prominent member of The Gambia’s largest opposition party UDP (United Democratic Party.) It didn’t take long for reports to reach the news that he had been tortured to death. New protests broke loose in the streets, followed by new arrests and assaults. Outrage grew. For more than two decades, all information in The Gambia had been under intense governmental scrutiny, but leading up to the election in 2016, there were new platforms where Gambians, and their fellow countrymen and women in exile, could meet and join forces.
WhatsApp groups were launched, in which testimonies from the victims of the regime were published. Political meetings were broadcasted live. Seven different opposition parties came together and formed a coalition that backed the real estate developer Adama Barrow, as a presidential candidate. Then money was collected for the exorbitant candidate registration fees, which Jammeh had enacted in order to make it as hard as possible for the opposition. In 23 days the Barrow campaign had raised $50,000 via the website, GoFundMe.
“It was as if social media was created to help The Gambia. In just a few months, people became aware of what was going on and nobody paid attention to the state propaganda anymore. Up until then, most people had ignored politics, but now many people were even prepared to go and vote,”Sheriff says.
The regime also noticed what was about to happen and tried to block WhatsApp and Facebook. So on the election day, December 1, they simply pulled the plug on both the Internet and the international telephone network. But it was too late. Total voter turnout was 59 percent, and when the votes were counted, Adama Barrow had won 43.3 percent of them compared to Jammeh’s 39.6. A shocked, and seemingly confused, defeated president called his opponent in a live broadcast and congratulated him on the victory. People danced euphorically in the streets of Banjul, wearing shirts and flying banners with the coalition slogan “#gambiahasdecided.” Jammeh’s portrait was tore down from billboards, the commander of the army swore his loyalty to his new commander in chief and the congratulations poured in from all around the world.
It was a historical and completely unexpected event for everyone, aside from maybe the Gambians themselves: One of the most ruthless regimes had been forced out of power—with pen and paper.
It was also too good to be true, of course. The celebration of the election had hardly settled before the sitting president Jammeh had a change of heart. He claims irregularities in the vote and the country’s electoral commission, which after admitting certain mistakes had been made, was forced to write down the first published election results, to Jammeh’s advantage. At the same time, one of the leading politicians within the coalition had started talking about charging the outgoing president with human rights violations. Suddenly Jammeh appeared on state-owned TV, rejected the election results, demanded a new election and promised to take the matter to court—stating that until then, he would not leave power.
The cheering changed to panic, the party turned into a crisis. And the army chief, General Ousman Badjie, switched sides again. One mediation effort replaces another. All of them fail. In December 2016, Ecowas promise to send troops to The Gambia to oust Yahya Jammeh, if he won’t leave his post when his mandate period runs out on January 19.
Twenty-four hours before his reign is supposed to end, Jammeh declares that he will “defend the country against every form of aggression” and instates martial law. The opposition is forced underground, “disloyal” soldiers are arrested en masse and seven Gambian ministers defect and flee.
The inauguration of Adama Barrow is scheduled for the following day, January 20, at the national soccer arena in Banjul, but the place is surrounded by regime-loyal military forces. Barrow has been flown to Dakar, because Ecowas deemed his life endangered in The Gambia. A violent confrontation appears more and more unavoidable. There are rumors that the borders will close at midnight. And now, Gambians begin fleeing their country.
The sun is setting, but it is still very hot when Sheriff reaches the Senegalese town of Karang. It’s a small community with just over 10,000 citizens, strongly influenced by the flow of the border and the people crossing back and forth. Twenty kilometers south, is the ferry crossing from Senegal to The Gambian capital. Citizens can travel, without visas, back and forth between the two countries. Now the flow has turned into one-way traffic. People pour into the Karang dragging roller suitcases behind, carrying mattresses and bags. Cars with Gambian license plates are lined up for miles to get out and the women who sell fruit and peanuts outside the border post are making bank. Phone cards are sold out almost everywhere, as is bottled water. Red Cross volunteers scan the newly arrived, trying to discern whether anyone needs medical care or temporary housing.
Over a course of a few days, more than 45,000 Gambians flee to Senegal. A tall man named Aboubakar stands in the line outside for the border station with his niece, waiting to get his papers stamped. He has made several trips between Banjul and Karang during this past week.
“My mother, my wife and our five children are already here. Yesterday I brought 14 people across the border and I’ve rented an apartment for all of them not far from here,”he says.
Now Aboubakar is going to hurry and drop off his niece with the others and go back home. He doesn’t want to leave their house in Serrekunda, which is south of Banjul, unattended.
“But if felt best to bring the children and the women out of the city. Jammeh is a power-hungry man who’s backed by people who have a lot of weapons. If the Ecowas troops march on Banjul tonight, it could get ugly,” he says, stroking his head with a worried look on his face.
Many Gambians have roots on both sides of the border, which is why there isn’t a refugee crisis in full effect. Yet. For those who don’t have relatives or a place to stay, the local soccer club has set up a makeshift refugee camp in a house still under construction in the outskirts of the city. Right now there are 150 people staying there. Huray Jalo, a 24-year-old from Serrekunda, has installed herself in a room that consists only of walls and a roof of unfinished concrete. She holds her cellphone underneath her headdress, and talks to her mother who is still back home. Huray and her husband made a quick decision and left the Gambia the night before.
“There has been a lot of rumors that Ecowas will invade us and the president has made threatening statements on TV. Everyone around us picked up and left, so we fled too. There were so many of us that we had a hard time finding someone to drive us,”she says.
The ferry from Banjul was so full there wasn’t even sitting room onboard. Huray, who’s never left her home before like this, thought it was very hard.
“But you know, I have two daughters, one that is four and the other a three-month-old baby. We had to leave with them before… well, before there’s a war.”
Huray is sure that many of the people in the refugee house will be glued to the radio and their smart phones when Jammah’s mandate period is over at midnight. She would rather not tune in.
“I think I am going to try to get some sleep instead,”she says. “It’s a disaster, I don’t want to witness it.”
The cellular network in is overloaded but the local Red Cross headquarters has Wi-Fi. As darkness descends and the crickets start their song, Sheriff, the mayor of Karang, and a couple of foreign journalists follow the Gambian drama, minute by minute. Everything and everyone is on high alert. Reuters has managed to get ahold of the Senegalese Army Colonel Abdou Ndiaye, who delivers sound-bite friendly quotes.
“We are ready and are awaiting the deadline at midnight. If no political solution is found, we will step in,”he says.
A Nigerian warship is sailing off the coast, and now it’s the Gambian vice president’s turn to leave his post.
The president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, traveled to Banjul earlier in the day as a last-ditch effort to convince Jammeh to relinquish power. Rumors that Abdel Aziz is about to leave The Gambia along with Jammeh, are trending on Twitter. Sheriff’s cellphone rings again. He looks at the display and quickly pushes the green button when he sees that it’s a colleague of his who is still inside the country.
“Hush! I think this could be good news,”he hisses, pressing the phone close to his ear.
Everyone silently watches his facial expressions, witnessing how the expectancy changes to a grimace.
“Are you sure? Really? But why do they keep on doing this to me? Shit!”
He clicks off the conversation and blows air into a big sigh.
“Abdel Aziz left. Without Jammeh.”
Then things die down and there is no news. The time snails by, passing midnight, and the Gambian president’s mandate period has officially come to an end. There is no news from Banjul and there is no trace of the intervention by Ecowas. Around 2 am, Sheriff gives up. He grabs his backpack and cellphone disappointedly begins his trek back to the hotel. It is cold and quiet, and the air is dry. The night sky is a pitch-black canvas for thousands of stars glimmering high above him.
The always-clad-in-white Yahya Jammeh fit the caricature of an African dictator to a tee—unpredictable, convinced of his own grandeur and with a taste for everything shiny. Even more so with the abrasive, constant human rights violations of that have made him infamous on the international circuit. In 2007, the Gambian leader made headlines when he claimed to have found an herbal cure for HIV and AIDS. In 2009, he sent the presidential guard to arrest more than a thousand people accused of witchcraft then forced them to drink an herbal remedy that resulted in severe hallucinations and several cases of kidney failure. Three years after that, he reinstated the death penalty on a whim and ordered a firing squad to execute nine prisoners on the spot. And in 2015, he declared, without any warning or preparation, The Gambia as an “Islamic Republic.”
As can be expected of a dictator, Yahya Jammeh constantly bestows himself with new nominations and titles; his name grows longer with every year in power. The latest is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh” – or the slightly shorter—“Sheikh Professor Doctor President.”
The strange and gradually-growing-more conservative regime has slowly been isolated from international politics and Jammeh has helped accelerate the process. In 2013, he withdrew The Gambia from the British Commonwealth; in 2016, it left the International Criminal Court, ICC. Most people expected that Jammeh would not accept the election results if he lost. In an interview from 2016, he claimed that he was ready to rule The Gambia “for a billion years, God willing.”
The African continent seems cursed with dictatorial power, their respective expiration dates long overdue. Twelve of the 20 longest-ruling presidents and prime ministers in the world today are in Africa. Over the past two years, the heads of state in Burundi, Rwanda, Chad, Kongo-Brazzaville and Kongo-Kinshasa have, in different ways, tried to manipulate the constitution in order to remain in power after their mandate periods end. And in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, Paul Biya and Robert Mugabe seem ready to rule to their graves. Considering this, Yahya Jammeh is only one part in a much larger and depressing trend.
But there are some important differences.
In East and Central Africa, the majority of the regimes are more or less authoritarian. Those leaders rarely have the legitimacy, or inclination, to interfere in the democratic problems of their neighbors.
In West Africa, a number of countries, like the Ecowas-members Liberia and Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, have undergone peaceful transitions of power after democratic elections. Their leaders are in office by popular mandate and have an interest in upholding democratic advances in the region. These are also the countries that have been instrumental in putting pressure on Jammeh. Now the eyes of the world are on them. If Ecowas manages to solve the conflict in Gambia, it would show the progress and power of West African democracy efforts. If they fail, despots across the whole African continent will rub their hands and gloat.
There is no inauguration in Banjul. At the very last minute it’s decided to hold the ceremony at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar instead. It’s a pragmatic but slightly sad solution to something that risks becoming both a dangerous and bloody event. Adama Barrow takes the presidential oath in front of about 40 officials and diplomats, and then gives a short speech.
“This is a day no Gambian will ever forget,”the new president says. “This is the first time since The Gambia became independent in 1965 that The Gambia has changed the government through the ballot box.”
Then he calls to all civilians and military personnel of the state to stand behind him as the new president of The Gambia.
“They are assured that they will not be subjected to any injustice or discrimination but will be provided with better working conditions and terms of service,”he says.
To an outsider it all may seem like a formality, but in the diplomatic world this ceremony is of great importance. Now President Barrow has been installed and recognized by the outside world. With this he has the power to give orders—and, ask for help.
He does, and now everything happens very fast.
A few hours later the UN security council unanimously votes for a resolution in support for Ecowas in its “commitment to, with political means as a first choice, ensure that the will of the Gambian people is respected.”
The Gambian Army chief switches sides for a third time and promises that they will not fight any troops from the region but ”welcoming them with flowers and make them a cup of tea.”
Shortly thereafter, Nigerian fighter planes set course on Yahya Jammeh’s hometown Kanilai, and long lines of tanks roll through Senegal and toward the Gambian border. “Operation Restore Democracy” has begun. Jammeh gets a short grace period and is told to leave the country by the following day at lunchtime.
The commentary about ”political means as a first choice” appears to hold, because the Ecowas troops are still holding back and no one is marching toward Banjul. The troops stop at the border to give the presidents of Mauritania and Guinea a last chance to convince the uncooperative former president to leave peacefully. Black-polished diplomat cars with armed escorts drive back and forth between the luxury hotel Coco Ocean, where the two negotiators are staying, which serves as Jammeh’s palace all day long. Rumors are buzzing. The telephone network is about to explode. Barrow tweets that Jammeh has agreed to relinquish power, but then the message is quickly deleted. The coalition is holding confusing press conferences. It turns into afternoon; day becomes night. Nothing happens.
Much later, in the middle of the night and when many have fallen asleep in sheer exhaustion, the state-owned TV-station blips on and a familiar face appear on the screen. The confident and jerky attitude Yahya Jammeh usually shows off, is gone. He just looks tired.
“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians,”he declares. “My decision today was not dictated by anything else than the supreme interest of you the Gambian people and our dear country.”
When this will happen or where he will go, the man who’s ruled the country for two decades does not say.
Still, this is the sign Sheriff had been waiting for. It is January 21, 2017 and nothing can stop him any longer. The ferry between Barra and Banjul is at a standstill, but together with friends he rents a small skiff and putters across the sound. It’s a hot and windy day along the West African coast and before he knows it, Sheriff stands in ankle deep water on the beach next to the port of Gambia’s capital, inhaling the smell of fish, seaweed and diesel. A decade-long exile is over.
The journey takes just a few hours. No grim-faced security police await him, just a happy border patrol officer who recognizes him from pictures he’d seen on the Internet. The border patrol officer shakes Sheriff’s hand and thanks him for all that he’s done for The Gambia. It’s almost anti-climactic.
Banjul is a strange capital city. It’s located on a small island where the Gambia River meets the Atlantic Ocean with only the 200-yard-long Denton Bridge as a link to the mainland. A palm oil factory, a cemetery and the notorious prison “Mile 2” lines the road into the heart of the city, where the presidential palace, parliament, ministries, headquarters of the security police and the court are located. The peeling paint of the colonial-styled buildings, the sandy streets and overgrown hotels give the gnawing feeling of abandonment and the travel site “Lonely Planet” notes: “It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely or consistently ignored capital city than the tiny seaport of Banjul.”
Few Gambians want to live there, most people prefer Serrekunda, on the other side of the bridge, where the nice hotels and tourists are. But at the moment, there is no bigger difference between the two. The last tourists were flown home under chaotic circumstances the day before and the stores are closed. In the residential structures, the curtains are closed. People have either fled, or stayed inside. Wise from previous experiences, the Gambians are scared of taking to the streets as long as Yahya Jammeh is still in the country. And he is.
Sheriff checks into a deserted hotel which houses a couple of other journalists as its only guests. From the terrace, shiny diplomat cars with Mauritanian and Guinean flags are visible across the street at the luxury resort, Coco Ocean. It’s the second day they are driving back and forth between the hotel and the presidential palace, almost like a shuttle service.
The haggling with Jammeh appears to be ongoing until the very last minute.
A group of journalists have parked themselves at the airport since early this morning. They report that two airplanes are fueled up and ready to go on the tarmac, but nobody is there to board. Sheriff calculates that Jammeh’s convoy should pass Westfield in Serrekunda on its way to the airport, so he heads there with a couple of colleagues. None of them have managed to get press passes since the Minister of Information has defected, so they sit down at a soda stand, trying to keep a low profile. It’s not very successful. In just a few minutes a tall man comes around the corner and starts hollering.
“Sheriff Bojang Junior? The man? Is it you? How cool! Welcome home!”
Sheriff looks at him, hesitantly.
“I am sorry, but do we know each other?”
“We are friends on Facebook. I am a huge fan of everything that you do, man!”
He gives Sheriff a bear hug and demands they take a photo together before he leaves. Sheriff shakes his head and looks after the tall man who disappears into a cross street.
“Surreal, totally surreal,”Sheriff mumbles.
Suddenly the ghost-town comes to life and there is movement on the street. People walk by carrying cases of drinks, groups of teens move about seemingly without a destination in mind. Many are wearing the T-shirts with #gambiahasdecided, printed on them. A good sign. Few have dared to flaunt the coalition slogan during the past weeks. Khadija Jallow and Fatoumatta Fatty, two girls wearing large sunglasses, stop for a second.
“There’s a group of us who are thinking about putting up a banner in the roundabout when the convoy passes that says: ’Prosecute Jammeh,’” they tell us, then move on.
The day turns into afternoon, and still nothing has happened. The roundabout is still clear of banners and the prepared-for-takeoff airplanes remain on the ground. Anonymous sources inside the negotiations delegation hint that Jammeh is still trying to negotiate the terms for his departure.
Finally Sheriff and his journalist colleagues in Serrekunda return to the hotel to eat dinner. The joy of his return to the homeland again has already turned into frustration of the unsolved situation. Who is really helming the nation? At the moment, Barrow has two spokespeople—one in Dakar and one in Banjul—and they constantly contradict one another. Yesterday morning the spokesperson in Dakar said that Jammeh had agreed to resign, while the spokesperson in Banjul held a press conference denying that information. The latter then ended the press conference by stating that the press should listen to him “and nobody else.”.
“Seriously, are these the people who are representing the answer to our prayers? I’m already wondering how this will end,”Sheriff hisses and stabs the food on his plate with the fork.
“And what about Ecowas? These guys are too soft! They should have taken him out day one!” Sheriff continues. “That man terrorized us for 22 years, he should be begging us for mercy, not sit there and make demands!”
It has turned dark and the mosquitos are swarming around the garden lights when a man from the hotel staff comes running out to the terrace, short of breath.
“The president of Guinea just left Coco Ocean to pick up Jammeh! Hurry! You’ll get to the airport before them if you leave now!”
There’s a commotion as people scramble for their cameras, computers, phones and notepads, and yell for their checks while trying to find drivers. In the street, cars are honking, doors are slammed and people yell excitedly to one another. In the midst of it all, stands Sheriff. He is completely still, unsure of what to do. Then he slowly shakes his head.
“The airport will be full of Jammeh’s supporters, it is not the right place for me to be tonight,”he says.
And then finally—the culprit leaves. A red carpet is rolled out onto the tarmac and an out-of-tune brass orchestra plays marching music. Journalists and devoted Jammeh supporters crowd the runway. Stone-faced soldiers are pushing them back. Yahya Jammeh is visible from afar. His white cassock is almost glowing in the dark as he strides toward the small private aircraft that will fly him out of the country.
“This is a historical day, the end of the man who swore he’d rule for a billion years,”a British radio journalists shouts into his microphone.
Then his voice is drowned by trumpet fanfare. A Jammeh supporter reaches his hands toward the sky and yells in a deep voice: “Congratulations, your excellency!” Thank you for your loyal service. Congratulations!”
The ousted president stops at the top of the plane stairs, kisses the Koran and waves to the crowd. Some women start screaming hysterically. One falls, unconscious, to the ground. Several soldiers are crying.
Jammeh takes a window seat where his silhouette is clearly visible. The engines rev up and the cabin door closes.
A 22-year-long epoch is over.
Already the following morning Gambian refugees start returning to their homes. The ferry from Barra, filled to standing-room-only, docks in Banjul. Free buses, sponsored by the local Lions Club chapter, are waiting to pick them up. Customs officer Ousman Sosso is standing by, impatiently waiting. When he sees his cousins he starts laughing and waving. Last week he drove them to the ferry and now he’s here to pick them up again.
“It has been a couple of rough days, but now everything will be fine,”he says. “I called my sister who lives in Kerewan, the village where I was born, and she told me they have already started drumming and are buying meat. Soon, there’ll be a celebration for our new president.”
That afternoon Ecowas troops roll toward Banjul. The new president has invited them to secure the capitol city before his arrival and prevent potential coup d’états in the immediate future. They meet no resistance whatsoever. People come out of their houses to wave and on the bridge to Banjul, the troops are welcomed as promised by the chief of the army—with tea and flowers.
For the first time in many years Gambian citizens can now get close to the presidential palace. They climb the tall fence and run across the large lawn. It’s a public celebration. People sing, dance and wave the Gambian flag. Steady streams of young people want to take selfies with the Ecowas soldiers, the girls passing them little notes with their numbers.
Sheriff celebrates with his fellow citizens late into the night. When he sits down at the breakfast table the following morning with red eyes and a raspy voice. The sleep deprivation of the past weeks has taken its toll.
The fatigue makes Sheriff a little melancholy and he back to the previous night and Jammeh’s exit. When everyone else headed out to the airport, he went to his mother instead. There were a lot of hugs and love, but there was also sorrow. Sheriff’s father died a long time ago, the neighborhood boys are now grown men, and he has begun to view things from an outsider’s perspective.
“It was, I mean, more scruffy than I remember it and people are so scrawny and grey. Maybe it’s my memory that plays a trick on me. I guess I’ve been living too long in Dakar where everyone is so well fed,”he sighs.
Sheriff sits silent for a while and then he adds: “In order to live happily in exile I had to switch off the Gambian part of me. I’m beginning to realize that it will take longer than I first thought to emotionally reconnect.”
It’s a morning for reflection, in more ways than one.
Yahay Jammeh is gone. International troops are patrolling the capital. The first democratically elected president of the Gambia is on his way home from exile.
It is the beginning of a new era. The need for reforms after 22 years of misrule seems like an endless task. The constitution is a mess, the judicial system is in shambles and the national security institution directly threatens the new regime. The economy needs a horse’s kick for a jumpstart. And all of it needed to happen—yesterday.
“We need jobs and to create ways to make it easy for entrepreneurial efforts. It was the young people who led Barrow to his victory and if he forgets that, leaves them behind in all of this, I can promise you they will riot and take to the streets in no time,”Sheriff says, picking at his omelet.
There is another, in many ways much tougher, issue awaiting the Gambians—one that all nations that have been ruled by terror with terror and oppression wrestle with: reconciliation. The election results between Barrow and Jammeh were very close. Almost 40 percent of the population actually voted for Jammeh, which means that a significant proportion of the Gambians actually wanted to see everything remain the same. How does one react to that and to those people? Sheriff poses the questions, but doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer.
“I’m not saying that those who have gotten their fathers murdered by the regime have to forgive the murderers, I don’t think that’s possible. But the Gambians who did not partake in the violence—we probably have to find a way to reach out a hand to them if we don’t want to remain a polarized nation,” he says.
Exile forced Sheriff Bojang Junior to pick a side, turned him into an activist. But that time is now behind him. He has already started looking for a suitable location for the radio station he plans to start. The goal is to be on air before the end of 2017. He is a journalist and that’s what he wants to continue to be now that The Gambia, for the first time ever, is about to introduce freedom of the press.
“My role is to examine and scrutinize the power, not being it,”he says. “Now we have new politicians and if they forget their promises, my colleagues and I will be there to remind them.”
Two pale tourists, whom the Dutch Embassy apparently forgot in the evacuation chaos, sit down at a table nearby. Monkeys play on the roof. A layer of fine sand is swooped up by the wind. Somewhere inside of the hotel a woman sings, her voice echoing between the concrete walls.
Sheriff remembers something that happened the day before, on the bridge between Banjul and Serrekunda. A group of Gambian soldiers came driving in a covered flatbed truck when a band of young men stepped out and blocked their way, demanding to see what they carried in their cargo hold. The soldiers stopped reluctantly and when the young men looked in the back, they were surprised to find that it was filled with stolen tiles. To Sheriff it’s much more than a funny anecdote. Just a week prior, no Gambian would have dreamt of doing anything like it, stopping a military vehicle that is. Now the group of young men just stood there on the bridge and demanded that their former tormentors listened and obeyed—as a symbol of the new country still taking shape.
Sheriff wants to believe that it’s just the beginning. He dreams of one day watchinh his country turn into a model for others—a nation where democracy and human rights are cornerstones of society.
Maybe that will happen, maybe not. The future is still an unwritten chapter in the history of The Gambia.
But after one decade of involuntary life abroad and rootlessness, of one thing Sheriff Bojang Junior is sure: “No man will ever sit in Gambia and brag about how he will rule us for a billion years again. We won’t allow it.”