Lessons from the Gambia for Africa’s Power Mongers

Monday, 23 January 2017 3384 Views 5 Comments
Lessons from the Gambia for Africa’s Power Mongers

“…Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…”

These words of the 19th Century English Catholic Historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton continue to provide invaluable insights for our understanding of some African leaders. While both traditional and contemporary media (social media) have shown that omnipotent men are simply omnipresent when they report stories of Putin’s affairs in the Kremlin to his association with almost everything evil in Syria and Ukraine as well as Xi Jinping’s increasing personalization of the Chinese political system occurring alongside his progressively belligerent posture in the South China Sea, nowhere else than in Africa does anything seem to taste sweeter than power!

Lurid tales abound of ill-reputed, eccentric and undemocratic leaders who either ruled outside the accepted rule of law, gained power by fraud or a military coup d’etat, resorting to either again to maintain their grip on power, or developed a cult of personality that rendered them autocratic, repressive and tyrannical. It is therefore, not unconventional wisdom that relinquishing it is like a tooth-removing exercise. Through the likes of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Zaire’s Joseph Mobutu, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi (the list is endless), the reality that “power is not a means, it is an end” (George Orwell) has been reinforced.


Without assuming that all these power mongers fit into one mold, it is clear that the precedence they set for this continent paints a very worrisome picture as some African leaders seem to be exhibiting a growing penchant toward their deplorable style of leadership. And this view is simply not perception! Today, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Sudan’s Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, Chad’s Idriss Déby, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the outgoing Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia continue to kill the nation state in their respective countries, establishing fiefdoms instead. This reality is well captured in the words of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Nigerian Playwright and Poet, Wole Soyinka, when he said: “Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist. All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer space.”


Well, most of these hard-to-describe power mongers who lived as though they’d never die eventually die as though they never lived, or fade slowly into obscurity, merely surviving (in their understanding of the word) at home or in some foreign territory where they wield no authority as my friend Nsaikila Melaine puts it. With the most recent examples being those of Muammar Gadafi killed like a terrorist, Blaise Compaore forced to flee Burkina Faso for Cote d’Ivoire by his own people and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh forced out of power through military might by which he ascended to power, it is clear that the end is nigh for other autarch’s in Africa.


As if I am celebrating the downfall of these men, yet not! Even if that were to be the case, “the downfall of a man is not the end of his life”, but rather a lesson for other men. For all the men who have successfully deceived themselves that they are untouchable and so can lord it over everyone else as they please with impunity, Yayha Jammeh’s exit from the high corridors of power through the hind door is should be a cause for concern. Yes, the writing on the wall is the bold message that “THE DUSK ON DICTATORSHIP IS NIGH AND THE DAWN OF AN ERA OF DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA CERTAIN.” How do I know this?


First, you will never kill a fish by drowning it in water, a statement that hardly needs any form of experimentation. A new breed of African leaders is on the rise and despite their own personal idiosyncrasies, they seem to want to get some things done right for once. As ECOWAS leader’s have demonstrated, they are willing to use dialogue and if necessary military intimidation or intervention to force power mongers out of office. If only the AMU, CEN-SAD, COMESA, EAC, ECCAS, IGAD and SADC could emulate ECOWAS’s desire for peaceful transition of power and the rule of law and democracy in the Gambia their respective regional blocs! The African Union on its part needs to move away from so much rhetoric and reaction toward being practical and proactive in their approach to elections-related and all forms of violence in the continent.

“…A new breed of African leaders is on the rise and despite their own personal idiosyncrasies, they seem to want to get some things done right for once…”

Second, as the Ethiopians would put it, “when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” The question of whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) is maliciously targeting African leaders is not my consideration here. However, using such a premise as cause for leaving the ICC is merely a ploy by many African leaders to remain totalitarian in their style of leadership, and possibly commit war crimes, crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity with impunity. Well, even for countries like Cameroon and Rwanda whose leaders made sure not to be signatories to the Rome Statute of the ICC, those with whom they dine and wine will continue to eat their bread and drink their wine, yet take them for fools. That Mauritanian and Guinean leaders spent hours to make Jammeh see reasons to concede defeat and hand over power to Adama Barrow is a warning to those who delude themselves that withdrawing from the ICC is a gateway to clinging onto power. Perhaps the words of arguably one of the world’s most cherished and exemplary democratic leaders of our time, the 44th President of the US, Mr Barrack Obama well captures the point I am making here: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. My addition: “Fail to unclench your fist and we will democratically force them open.”

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, and Mrs. Zineb Jammeh, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Third, Adama Barrow did not resort to violence in order to ascent to the will of the Gambians. Rather, he assured the Gambians that he will honor their choice of him as their leader but not through bloodshed. Now that Jammeh is in Equatorial Guinea where he will remain in exile, the path trod by the President Elect has paid off and must be lauded. Like a dream, Gambians can now say: “we do not have to watch our back before we express our opinions,” as they await with hope, the era of democracy made incarnate in the person of Adama Barrow (for now).

Youths (15-35 years) make up the largest proportion of the population in Africa (over 65%)


Finally, do not underestimate the power of the youth and the social media. Youths (15-35 years) make up the largest proportion of the population in Africa (over 65%) and those with access to various social media platforms spend averagely 3.2 hours a day on social media discussing life, love, politics, religion, entertainment, business, and all else one would expect. Through social media, African youths seek, amongst other things, to drive the much talked about change in the continent that many have stopped hoping for. The ousting of His Excellency Sheik Professor Alhadji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa (as he called himself) from the most powerful office in the Gambia was largely possible due to the fact that the Gambian youths were united in their objective of showing Jammeh the door through a peaceful protest and also on social media, and this proved too much for the authoritarian leader to ignore. Unfortunately, many weeks of non-violent protest by youths on the streets of the North West and South West regions of Cameroon and social media campaigns against various forms of marginalization by the French Cameroon regime, have seen one of the most repressive governments in Africa uncharacteristically resort to undemocratic means of resolving the issues at stake.


The rights to life, the fundamental freedom of speech, the freedom of association and assembly, and the freedom from all forms of discrimination these youths are entitled to have been and continue to be grossly violated. My friends have been killed, some imprisoned for demonstrating peacefully, my friends’ friends have been raped or tortured for no just cause and most recently, providers of Internet Services in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon have been ordered to close shop and as such, communication has been made difficult, all in an attempt to quieten the loud cries for change in the country. Thanks to Cameroonian youths in the diaspora, the cry for change has even become louder, proving that through social media, African youths are willing to change the unwanted status quo in favor of inclusive democracies.


And what better time for Africa to shun dictatorship and power mongering in all its sizes, shapes and colors than now? May the love of Africa keep this desire burning in each one of us. For it is only when the power of love overcomes the love of power that Africa will know true peace and development. Long live Africa, short live power mongers!

Hubert Kinkoh

Hubert Kinkoh currently works with the African Leadership Centre, Nairobi, as Fellowship Administration Intern and Research Assistant. He is a holder of an MA in Peace Studies and International Relations (with Honors) from Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations, Nairobi-Kenya. His thematic research interests span everything Africa; forced migration and human security; women, peace and security; youth, peace and security; transitional justice in post-conflict societies; and the political economy of conflict. Geographically, Hubert’s research interests include the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the African Great Lakes Regions.

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