August 2005. It is midnight in Banjul, and I am sprawled on the bed in my room at the Palm Beach Hotel. By the flickering lights of the television set, I try to make out the several bite marks on my body which the mosquitoes that swarm about the hotel premises in their hundreds had inflicted on me earlier in the day. While the hotel room is protected from mosquitoes, the same cannot be said of the premises of this very beautiful hotel located on Gambia’s famous long sandy Kotu beach. Although because of its long and pleasant beaches, Gambia has been nicknamed “the smiling coast of Africa,” judging from the manner mosquitoes harass tourists, the country could be appropriately renamed, ‘the biting coast of Africa.”
Suddenly, the local television station changed its program as clips of the 40th-anniversary celebration of the country which took place two days before my arrival came on the air.
A very small country, (population 1.4 million) The Gambia became an independent nation on 18 February 1965 after 200 years of British colonial rule. A coalition government led by Sir Dauda Jawara which took over from the colonialists was toppled by a military coup in 1994 led by the then Lt Yahaya A. J.J.Jameh. Two years later, Jammeh changed his military fatigues for civilian robes and became a civilian President. In October 2001, he won a second election to return for another five-year term which terminates in 2006. As I watched the television, the President himself came on the air. Now addressed as His Excellency, Alhaji Dr. Col (rtd) Yahaya Jammeh, the forty –something-year-old man was in his trademark white robes with a tesbih and traditional stick in his hands. A close ally of the late General Abacha, the President, was in an angry mood as he took the salute during the march past ceremony by groups of his countrymen and women. His grouse was that the largest ethnic group in the country, the Mandiko due to allegations of marginalization had boycotted the anniversary celebrations.
And as television footage showed newly constructed wide roads, hospitals, and schools, the President was expansive in self-adulation. “The British were here for over 200 years, and all they built was an abandoned cow shed called an airport terminal, but in ten years, I have built schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructures for my people”. Then in an apparent referral to Nigeria, he boasted. “All this feat is unsurpassed even by the so called big oil-rich West African countries. Go to these countries, and you cannot see this kind of progress in spite of the billions of dollars they make from oil.”
He went on to accuse the Mandikos of ingratitude since most of the new infrastructures were located in their province. And as he continued his harangue, it was obvious that the young President had no tolerance for dissenting opinions, especially from the opposition. In this respect he must have learned some bad habits from his fellow African leaders for as he put it; “Anybody who is not for us is not for progress and anybody who is not for progress will be left behind. We shall not put any project in a place where we are not being supported”.
It was also obvious that the fellow also like some of his fellow African leaders was not in a hurry to leave office even after ten years as President because as he put it. “come next year, there will be no more opposition in this country. The elections will be a landslide”. When I asked a Gambian Parliamentarian if the Gambian constitution allows for an indefinite stay in office by their President, he retorted; “Which constitution? The man you saw yesterday on TV is our constitution. He does what he likes with the document”. The following day, I decided to take a tour of parts of the 100 square kilometer country reputed to be the mostly densely populated in Africa.
From Serrekunda which is the largest town in the country on to Brikama, Farato, Yundum and Lamen among other towns, the presence of good road networks, schools, and hospitals which I was told were built in the last ten years attest to President’s Jammeh'ss hard work and industry. Villagers at the fishing villages of Gunjur and Tanji near the Atlantic Ocean were full of praises for their president who had connected them to the main cities of the country by hitherto unmotorable roads. It could, therefore, be true that Jammeh was able to do with groundnuts for The Gambia what Nigeria’s leaders have not been able to do for Nigeria with oil. A deeply religious man, when asked how he was able to achieve this feat, President Jammeh's reply according to his countrymen is that he got the money from “Allah’s world Bank.”
I was able to visit the Medical Research Council Laboratories on Atlantic road where many Nigerian scientists could be found. I also spent some time with Her Excellency, Hajia Mariam Mohammed, the amiable and hardworking Nigerian ambassador to The Gambia who informed me that about 10,000 Nigerians made up of mainly professionals live in the country. As with many of our foreign embassies in Africa, the Nigeria High Commission in Bakau near Banjul is in dire need of funds. Apart from the poor physical appearance of the embassy, the ambassador had to receive me in the parking lot due to a power failure that made the office very stuffy.
As if to stamp his authority on his people, President Jammeh's photograph could be seen adoring all the major road junctions in The Gambia. A generally peaceful and hospitable country, The Gambia is a haven for tourists who flock the place in droves round the year. While Tourism has continued to provide a big chunk of Gambia’s revenue, the influx of tourists some of whom are there for what has come to be generally known as “sex holidays” has increased the rate of prostitution and HIV infection in the country. As a Gambian put it: “prostitutes come from as far as Nigeria and Ghana to service the huge tourism industry in Gambia.”
Also worrisome to Gambians is the high incidence of human rights abuses that have occurred since the inception of President Jammeh's rule. This development has been connected to the President’s military background which has little room for the rule of law and democracy. This development which is not peculiar to The Gambia is a further testimony of the lingering negative after-effects of military rule on the African continent. And as Gambians wait anxiously for next year’s elections, the prayer on their minds is that nothing would be done by their rulers to destabilize the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful “smiling coast of Africa.”
Dr. Okediran wrote this article as a Member of the House of Representatives, Abuja in 2005.