Some governors are missing in action
It was a diplomatic victory for Nigeria that The Gambia finally got rid of Yahya Jammeh, the country’s ruler for 22 years. In creating a posse against the dictator, President Muhammadu Buhari, led his colleagues of the West African sub-region in standing firmly against the attempt by Jammeh to jam his country’s peaceful choice of Adama Barrow as the new President. Now it is Barrow’s time. He would be the third African ruler of the country since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1965. The man who led the country to independence was Sir David Jawara who, in deference to his country’s Islamic heritage, changed his first name to Dawda and embraced the Islamic religion.
In his years in power, Jammeh had tried to exploit the country’s Islamic heritage for his selfish desire to remain in power at all cost. Only last year, he changed the official name of the country from The Republic of The Gambia to Islamic Republic of The Gambia. The new president has since reversed some of the extreme measures of his predecessor, proclaiming that The Gambia would remain a secular state. Ten per cent of Gambians are Christians.
Nigeria, as the leader of the West African sub-region, cannot afford to ignore The Gambia. Thousands of Nigerians are resident in the country and as it happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia, any political upheaval ignored by Nigeria could have repercussions on the country. We saw the repercussion of the turmoil in Cote D’Ivoire until order was restored from outside while the stubborn president was quietly led into jail with his recalcitrant Lady Macbeth.
The Gambia has a long standing relationship with Nigeria. Both were former British colonies and in the earlier days after Lagos was proclaimed a colony in the 19th Century, its governor also served as the governor of Lagos Colony. During the Nigerian Civil War, some Gambians, who were hold-overs from the defunct West African Frontier Force, WAFF, of the colonial era, also served with the Nigerian Army. One of them was Major Sam Silla who served at the Abeokuta Deport where military recruits were trained for the war.
Nigeria too was central to the rise of Jammeh. After independence in 1965, The Gambia was ruled by the benevolent autocrat, Dawda Jawara who appeared set for a life-tenure despite the democratic template set by his neighbour, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president of Senegal. Though The Gambia was hailed as a democratic country by the international community, Jawara was always winning every election. In 1981, there was a bloody attempted coup led by revolutionary elements within some of the opposition parties and elements of the so-called Field Force, a Para-military organisation set up by the government. The insurrection was put down with the help of Senegalese troops at a heavy cost. Between 500 and 800 people were killed during the crisis. Yet Jawara continued in power.
It was that pursuit that led to his downfall. In 1991, he had sought the assistance of General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria to help him re-organise the Gambian Armed Forces. Babangida obliged and sent Brigadier Lawan Gwanddabe to Banjul. With just 10 years experience in the army, Jammeh, who was born May 25, 1965, led his country first successful coup in 1994, ending the 29-years rule of Jawara. He was 29. He proclaimed himself president and few years later formed his party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction and became an elected leader.
Two years ago, West African leaders, in a bid to bring stability to the sub-region, had agreed that each ruler should not spend more than two terms in office. It was only Jammeh and President Faure Eyadema of Togo who disagreed. He never believed he could be defeated with his control of the local media, his influence at the mosques and his dominance on the tiny Gambian Army.
The true is that Gambia, were it to be a part of Nigeria, would be one of the smallest states in the federation. With a population of only 1,800,000, it is not more than 10 per cent of Lagos State with a population of almost 20 million. Every state in Nigeria, with the exception of Bayelsa with a population of 1.7 million, is more populous than The Gambia. Nasarawa, which is next, has a population of 1.86 million. Ekiti State has 2.38 million. Yet, Gambia is an independent country, with a standing army, a working public service, a national university, television, radio and all the paraphernalia of a modern state. Even the president has a presidential jet!
Unlike the governors of Nigeria, the president of Gambia does not expect any manna to come monthly from Abuja. For him, there is no oil windfall. His country is entirely surrounded by Senegal except the narrow opening to the Atlantic where the Gambia River empties into the sea. The country is entirely dependent on its groundnuts, its fisheries and its considerable tourist industry, thanks to Alex Haley, the author of the phenomenal book, Roots. That book traces the genealogy of the author, an American descendant of African slaves, to The Gambia among the Madinkas where a young warrior, Kunta Kinte, was captured and sold into slavery across the Atlantic. Kinte became the ancestor of Alex Haley.
In many Nigerian states, apart from the punishing drive to raise taxes, there are very few initiatives to turn the economy around. In many of our towns and villages, you see the youth gathered at the market square peddling the vocation of idleness. Some of them have motorcycles which they use in the perennial and thankless okada trade. Most of the youths would be waiting for the next train of politicians seeking one elective office or the other. Many of them, including the fortunate ones riding okada, are waiting for the next riot to happen. A state is in a sorry state where the youths have no hope.
The state governors are in a position to rekindle hope. In economic terms, you can only take two things to the market: goods and services. Many of the youths have no skill to produce goods and no training to render service. We need to create institutions and avenues for our youths to acquire skill they can market. During the Second Republic, most political rallies were attended by youths and cadres wearing printed cotton materials produced in our textile factories in Ikeja or Kano. Today most of the T-shirts used at rallies are produced from China.
We are behind in almost every area. There is no formal institution in many states for the training of plumbers, tailors, electricians and carpenters. A retired diplomat built a state of the art house in an exclusive area of Ibadan. One day he had a guest who was going to stay overnight. The guest room on the ground floor was prepared for him. In the middle of the night, the guest fled from his room in an agitated manner, waking up his host with his strange experience. He used the water closet and flushed it. He woke up at about 2 a.m. to ease himself only to find fresh human waste in the toilet bowl!! He was alarmed.Was there another person using the toilet with him? He was sure of his state of mind but needed his host to see this. The house maid, who was also awakened by the commotion, soon confessed that was the pattern for a long time and she had always clean the toilet nonetheless. When you use the toilet in the master bedroom, it would deposit the waste in the guest toilet on the ground floor! Such is the magic that can be performed by our plumbers.
It is time our governors try to recapture the magic of the past. During the First Republic, the federating regions were regarded as the center for development. It was the Premier, not the Prime-Minister, who was the focus of the people. The regions also conducted their own foreign policies, sometimes at variance with the Federal Government. For example, the Western Region had a relationship with the government of Israel. The Federal Government did not recognize Israel. The Western Region had a full liaison office in London with the Agent-General as its representative. The Nigerian House in London today used to belong to the Western Region. Times have changed and the state governors have become mostly now crying babies unwilling and mostly unprepared for the challenges at hand. They need use the new opportunities created by the current economic challenges to become more creative and more assertive.
It is convenient for our governors to look up to President Muhammadu Buhari and blame him for their lack of resources. At this critical time, many of them have been missing in action. Many of them are presiding over states that are bigger than many African countries. They may have their constraints. But they are elected to solve problems and change the lives of our people for the better. That is what President Barrow of The Gambia has promised to do. For him, there is no Abuja to blame, no Buhari to complain about. They should follow his example.