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A Book Review of Alagie Saidy-Barrow’s The Dictator is Us: My Truth Commission Journey

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Dr. Ousman Gajigo

Many accounts have been written about Yahya Jammeh’s brutal 22-year rule. And many more will surely come. In Alagie Saidy-Barrow’s The Dictator Is Us, the reader goes on an eye-opening journey with the author on his return to the country post-dictatorship. The gripping account is centered around key events and characters that mirror the focus areas of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), on which Mr. Saidy-Barrow served as its first Director of Research and Investigations.

In clear and unpretentious prose, Mr. Saidy-Barrow draws upon his stint at the TRRC to provide a vivid and insightful account of Jammeh’s rule and its aftershocks. Looking at the book’s table of contents, one could be forgiven for thinking that a keen follower of the TRRC’s hearings would find nothing new. That assumption would be a major mistake. For one, the public hearings, as captivating as they were, comprised just one facet of TRRC’s work. Away from the glare of the camera, tedious and meticulous investigative work was needed to identify, profile, build trust and eventually convince witnesses, victims, and perpetrators to cooperate with the Commission. It is a level of the unglamourous and painstaking detective and psychological profiling work that is difficult for us to appreciate, given that most of us only followed the TRRC’s hearings on TV and radio.

Mr. Saidy-Barrow uses this unique vantage point to provide an unprecedented level of insight and forces the reader to confrontcomplexities that are hard to avoid when dealing with human beings. Like many others, I had been quick to tag specificindividuals that appeared before the TRRC as simply monsters. Barrow’s accounts of his professional engagements with many of these individuals remind us about their human elements despite the heinous crimes some of them committed. Monsters are easy to demonize and dismiss. That simple, one-dimensional creation cannot be further engaged in any meaningful way but only as an object of moral outrage and ostracism. But going beyond simple retribution and vengeance, as would be required for a true reckoning of Jammeh’s rule, we must grapple with these “monsters” as complex beings, understanding theirmotivations, fears, and anxieties. It is sobering to read how professionally and humanely these witnesses, victims, and perpetrators were engaged, not in an instrumental way to get their cooperation or testimonies but as an end in itself.

The biggest character in the book is, of course, Jammeh. The book’s title leaves no doubt about the central role the Gambian society played in Jammeh’s emergence and endurance. As Rwandan president Paul Kagame said, “coups are the result of bad governance,” and The Gambia was no different. The AFPRC coup d’état was a direct consequence of the failure of the incompetent Jawara regime, which presided over a long period of stagnation where the veneer of democracy masked the failure of a ruling class that achieved little progress. The resulting weak edifice of a state could not withstand a less than formidable challenge from a small band of frustrated and ambitious young soldiers.

The book does a good job of laying out the main factors that led to the AFPRC coup of 1994 matter-of-factly. But those are proximate causes and are best understood as manifestations of the Jawara regime’s shortcomings. To get at the main underlying cause, it suffices to look at one particular factor that Mr. Saidy-Barrow highlights, which is the frustrations of Gambian army officers at the monopoly on the high-level positions held by Nigerian soldiers in the Gambia National Army (GNA). At the invitation of the Jawara regime, the Nigerian Army Training Team and Assistance Group (NATAG) arrived in The Gambia in 1992 to train and equip the GNA. Recall that the government in Nigeria in 1992 was a military dictatorship headed by General Ibrahim Babangida. Think about this monumental failure of judgment and leadership: the Jawara government decided that the most appropriate country to appeal for providing professional military training for a fledgling democracy was from one rule by a military dictator. How can there be any reasonable expectation that a military from such a country canembody professionalism, devotion to duty, and respect for civilian authority? 

To cement his rule, Jammeh’s currencies were mainly fear and reward but their effectiveness was enhanced by the willing acquiescence of many individuals. When Jammeh’s rule is broken down for what it truly was, as Saidy-Barrow doesmethodically and without any rhetorical flourish, what stands out is its banality. It is as if Jammeh followed a script for dictators with absolute fidelity. The highlights and contours of dictatorship adhere to a familiar arc. It usually starts with feigned devotion by the dictator to a transition period when in reality, there is never any intention to relinquish power. Then a methodical extermination of all possible threats to power, beginning with those closest to the dictator. As the dictator becomes more comfortable in power, the inevitable turn to cult of personality starts, and concomitantly, an unsatisfiable appetite for titles and accolades grows. A persistent and all-consuming paranoia emerges where the dictator sees enemies everywhere – real and imagined – which predictably leads to human rights violations and worse.  Underlying all these is a grandiose narcissistic personality that grows ever larger as it is fed in almost every imaginable way. That sociopathic personality is usually always present but is now unleashed with disastrous consequences due to the absence of any constraints.

No matter how skilled he was in executing the standard script of dictatorship, Jammeh would not have endured as long as he did if he hadn’t found a society appropriately primed. Given the failure of leadership under Jawara, there was no shortage of malcontents and frustrated have-nots in our supposedly peaceful and stable Gambia. The civil service and security services were full of sycophants, yes-men, and spineless individuals who were ready to do the dictator’s bidding. Some of these individuals include highly educated people and supposedly learned religious elders. Of course, The Gambia is not unique with regard to these sorts of characters. But going through Mr. Saidy-Barrow’s thoughtful account should disabuse anyone of the notion that we are a country endowed with some unprecedented level of camaraderie. To put it differently, Yaya Jammeh was born, but The Gambia created and molded the individual known as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa.  

The Dictator Is Us would not do justice to its title if it only highlighted the enabling roles of prominent individuals such as Isatou Njie-Saidy, Neneh Macdouall-Gaye, Mamadou Tangaraor Dr. Tamsir Mbowe. As George Orwell said, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The same could be said about the difficulty of recognizing the problematic nature of behavioral trait when it becomes a norm. Some of the most effective enabling factors are behaviors that are hardly frownedupon in the country. The almost near absence of taking personal responsibility in a society is one that is fertile ground for a dictator because self-preservation becomes an all-purpose excuse. Despite the incessant claims about community, the extent of social indifference shown to victims reinforced the pain of Jammeh’s punishments to a very high degree. The prioritizing of personal and immediate gains without a thought to its long-term impact on the wider community means there was no shortage of people lining up to do various dirty deedseven before Jammeh asks for it. We have all played some part – whether big or small – and therefore some degree of introspection is essential as we move forward.    

There are a few things in the book that Mr. Saidy-Barrow tantalizingly touched on but never expanded upon unfortunately. One is the effect of the current government’s attempts at forming a political alliance with the former dictator. This was serious enough to undermine the cooperation of potential witnesses at the TRRC. Another was the reason for Mr. Saidy-Barrow’s early departure from the TRRC. The reader is left with the impression that more relevant details on these could be shared. Alas, a book cannot be everything to everyone, and the perfect must not be made the enemy of good.  

Reading Mr. Saidy-Barrow’s account leaves the reader with many questions. The first is that after all the investments we have made in the TRRC, where do we go from here? Are we any closer to transitional justice than we were in January 2017? Would another Jammeh be able to emerge? And if such a dictator should emerge again, will the going be tougher or not? Paying attention to current events in The Gambia leaves us with no doubt about the answers to these questions. The road to truth and transitional justice will be a long one, and The Dictator is Us shows that we are only at the beginning stages in The Gambia.

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