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Is Hon. Darboe Tribalist?

President Barrow with the people of the Foni

On his recent comment about the appointment of former APRC officials to prominent positions and the rationale behind it, one could argue or agree that phrasing his statement may have put his meaning across a little better, but going as far as labelling him a tribalist is beyond ridiculous. Who in their right mind even comes up with stuff like that?

Just a few weeks ago when Counsel Essa Faal asked Mafugi Sonko if he would like to say something “to the Jola community” as part of his closing remarks at the TRRC, his statement was greeted with similar reaction; “why would he ask Mafugi to say something to the Jola community, why not say something to the country?”

Again, the wording could have been different but we all know that what he meant was that Mafugi being Jola and having conducted almost all of his testimony in Mandinka, sugesting he give his closing remarks in his native language may help put his message across better or that he could express himself better, or maybe that’s me looking at it objectively. But what’s wrong with that? Imam Baba Leigh was called out recently for somewhat similar remarks about Fula unity.

But maybe we should ask ourselves why we are so sensitive whenever the word “tribe” is mentioned. Or why we started seeing everything through a “tribal lens” especially the recent spates of land disputes. Once we answer the question as to why we are so uneasy about the mere mention of tribe, we will get to the real issue, and that answer lies in our very recent history, which chapter was closed in December 2016.

I have, severally in the past condemned divisive language emanating from people in leadership or influential positions because no matter the goal, it is wrong and I will not hesitate to do the same if Hon. Darboe were the culprit especially knowing how the party he leads is already viewed as “tribalist.”

But there is a difference between somebody singling out a tribe for scorn or ridicule (like Yaya Jammeh did to the Mandinka) and someone calling out a particular tribe for consideration in recognition of a demographic difference with no ill-intent but rather to avoid an imbalance or a feeling of marginalization (like Darboe did). Agree to it or not, we notice these things and none is to blame for that wary feeling about ethnic fault lines besides Yaya Jammeh and his divisive politics, but not every reference to our demographic differences is sinister or is meant to widen the fault lines.

To put things in proper context, a few facts are worth looking at.

Foni has the largest concentration of our compatriots who belong to the Jola ethnic group even though there are large communities of other ethnic groups present, especially Mandinka.

Until his defeat in 2016, all the constituencies in Foni were no go areas for opposition politicians; no candidate contests for the National Assembly or local councils except on the ruling APRC party ticket. Foni was literally declared a de facto “No Oppose” region guaranteeing a 100% electoral victory for the APRC.

Opposition convoys driving through the region to other regions of the country have been attacked on several occasions.

I have argued in the past that with Jammeh’s tyranny and his intimidation tactics, coupled with having local authority figures completely subjugated and fearful of him could be responsible for that blatant bias. Any local chief whose village or community hosted an opposition politician, especially a UDP sympathizer had to answer to Jammeh’s feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA) operatives or Jungulars. But there were also willing accomplices who swore loyalty to ethnicity and to a kinsman; we cannot lose sight of that.

We have seen witnesses at the TRRC, including the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense in the first republic acknowledge that there was an imbalance in the officer corps of the army and the gendarmerie during the first republic thanks to nepotism and such imbalance manifested along ethnic and regional lines. We look at the composition of the officer and senior cadre corps of the army and other security outfits during the second republic, especially towards the tail end; we see exactly the same imbalances along the exact same line. Not only that, the civil service was replete with similar biases.

In fact, right after the overthrow of the Jammeh government we all witnessed how quickly the new government was tagged a Mandinka government and cries that the Jola were being unfairly targeted by purging their kinsmen from the public service even though we know some earned their positions based only on nepotism.  We started counting heads and identifying their ethnic lineage based on last names, that was a mere 20 months ago. The noise was even louder when CDS Bargie was replaced. Yes, he was a long serving soldier with a wealth of experience and was adored by his officers and men, and the nation even, but those dying days of Jammeh’s regime did him some PR damage and questions were raised about his ability to reform a post Jammeh army.

Are we going to pretend that we have forgotten that prominent sons of Foni and members of the Jola community had meetings with the current president (pictured above) and that there were several community outreach efforts into that region in an attempt to reconcile past political differences? Why was that necessary? Why Foni and not other regions if it was based on political differences only?

The fact is, through a combination of coercion, intimidation and fear tactics, a large segment of the community took ownership of the APRC government and saw it as theirs to protect and preserve, but in the process they were also preserving themselves from Jammeh’s brutality. But in that self-preservation mix also were those extremists we find in every group who embraced the government voluntarily out of kinship loyalty alone.

We know for a fact that one of the reasons why M.L. Shyngle Nyassi was so severely tortured was because of his leadership within, and prominence in the UDP (labeled a Mandinka party) and using that platform to “attack and vilify” his own tribesmen (Jammeh and APRC) when in fact he was exercising his civil rights and condemning the wrongs of the government. You think Darboe is not aware of that knowing how close the two were?

Our main fears after the change of government were fears of reprisal attacks along ethnic line; that fear was not borne out of a vacuum, there are reasons for it.

In those early days, we heard of skirmishes and even injuries in Somita where families were attacked by APRC supporters because they were celebrating the coalition win and some had to flee Foni to relatives in other regions. There was a clear ethnic distinction between the victims and the perpetrators. Community and political leaders intervened to restore sanity.

Remember when rumors (or should I say news) was circulating around town that a militia was gathering in Tallinding area with weapons (machetes) and creating codes to identify each other in preparations for an attack based strictly along ethnic lines, have we forgotten that?

What do we mean when we say Jammeh’s divide and rule tactic? Along what lines did he divide us? Is ethnic one of them? In that case who was favored and who got deprived? Let us be honest and objective, on such sensitive issues.

Yes, we can argue or acknowledge that Hon. Darboe could have rephrased his statement to put his views across better. But that may be the problem; the man is too sincere and honest to say something he did not mean. There was a real fear that the people of Foni and the Jola community feel marginalized due to Jammeh’s tactics and to allay those fears, the new government had to be seen to be inclusive and proactive in its outreach efforts aimed at reconciliation. That is simply all that the man was trying to say, not that out of the entire Jola ethnic group Mr. Bojang was the best. Who in their right mind would even think that?

Political leadership in the later part of Jammeh’s rule, disproportionately favored Jammeh’s ethnic minority over others and that is a fact. With a new government, political appointments get rescinded, that’s also a fact; but in a situation like ours it’d help to make some attempts at inclusivity by reinstating some of those political leaders. These were people who were all community leaders and holding political offices, preserving some of those appointments or reassigning them went a long way in fostering community relations.

We all want a country where such trivial matters never see the light of day, but currently that is a utopian dream. We just emerged from a period in which such divisive agenda was nurtured and we need to face that fact and work together to remedy it rather than pretending they do not exist.

Let us be honest and objective and know when politics should not be employed in certain affairs.

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