When the United Democratic Party (UDP) first emerged on The Gambia’s political scene in the summer of 1996, the party made a declaration of their purpose and intent; restore democratic governance, install the rule of law and fight against the impending tyranny that comes with military rule. Alongside these commitments were detailed policy plans for developing little Gambia.
No sooner had they hit the political stands than they encountered opposition, some of whom would evolve to become sworn enemies, enemies who would go on to dedicate themselves to either kill off or stunt the party’s growth, and they literally killed off party members and supporters of the UDP. The recently publicized report of the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) lays out some of the facts of the extreme measures taken to that effect.
In addition to extreme physical measures, narratives were crafted alongside to paint a negative picture of the party, not only aimed at the same goal of smearing the party, but also to justify those extreme measures whenever they were taken against the party and its supporters.
Although the blatant abuses have largely ceased since the ouster of the tyrant Yaya Jammeh in 2016, the accompanying narratives have survived and are still a tool used by political opponents who are either ignorant of the context out of which such narratives were carved or deliberately opted to use them with the same intent; rid the Gambian political space of UDP and its influence. In the brief five years since the change, when the party’s supporters encountered law enforcement, we hear the familiar line of justification for police heavy handedness; “they think they own this country”. That loaded statement is another way of saying, they deserve whatever they get. Little wonder the police who carry out such unprovoked atrocities feel bold enough to film themselves jubilating violations of citizens’ rights and use of excessive force. They knew that accountability would never be forthcoming because the party’s opponents and the executive would back each other in justifying such abuse. A leaf out of the Jammeh playbook.
Jammeh never saw himself as abusive, or at best saw his victims as deserving of whatever fate befell them at the hands of his minions. Jammeh saw himself as a savior, and anyone who opposed him was not only his enemy but cast such opponents as selfish enemies of the people. Since there was no opponent as formidable as the UDP, Jammeh cast the party and its affiliates as public enemy number one. Branded them as people who were out only for themselves and motivated only by tribal and ethnic sentiments. If left unchecked, they were a threat to national security (translate security of tenure for him). It was that simple. So, no matter what UDP brought to the table in terms of substance, Jammeh and his supporters only argued from that single perspective. Sadly, some people still hold onto that ideology and baseless viewpoint.
If two decades of interactions with Jammeh taught us anything, it is that such individuals will never engage in substantive arguments and are the quickest to cry foul about how “UDP is intolerant to criticism”. Whatever utterances they make against the party is done with one goal in mind; to solidify their viewpoint and bring others along with them, they will have no other argument because their mind is already made up and there is no room left for rational thinking whenever UDP is concerned.
You will hear them peddle such lines as “UDP is a party of illiterates”; even though per capita, no single party leadership has more academically accomplished citizens than UDP.
Or claim that UDP has no policies; even though the party’s agenda and proposed policy stance is the most accessible and most comprehensive one in the Gambia’s political space today.
Despite the obvious lies in such claims, some Gambians persist on making those claims because it furthers the narrative that they want to be upheld by all against the UDP, and that is, the party is a party of entitled bigots whose only goal is ethnic supremacy. They believe nothing else; it is as simple as that. So, they jump at any and every opportunity to further that narrative masking it in the raiment of “criticism”.
You will find them in all spheres of Gambian life, from self-proclaimed “intellectuals” in academia to political pundits and loyalists of other parties to people in the media, a lot of whom brand themselves as journalists. For context, every media personality in The Gambia is largely seen as a journalist. But you will notice very quickly that adherence to the most basic principles and ethics of journalism is found amongst only a handful.
So, from our perspective as UDP supporters (with no official designation), we have taken the stance that anything that is sought to be entered into the public record that stands against us will not go unchallenged, how we respond to the author of such claims will depend on what image they have hitherto crafted for themselves. Even in the criminal justice system, a right to defense is guaranteed. Our goal to that effect is to make sure that the records reflect FACTS. People can interpret facts based on their individual biases/expertise or inclinations, which inadvertently leads to opinions, and we all have one of those. Countering claims made against you is not even exactly synonymous with being intolerant to criticism. So, we ask that such people reassess their definition of criticism.
When people act, they can rationalize why they acted the way they acted (even if they are wrong), engaging them and understanding their rationale is the first step in the discourse leading to one of two outcomes; having a better understanding of their motives or presenting them with your own perspectives that prove to them that their decision to act a certain way was in fact wrong. But we do not expect such rational thinking from people whose mind is already made up auto-piloting towards their agenda. That is why whenever they open their mouths or put pen to paper against the UDP, we come out and counter their claims, and such counter narrative they label as “attacks” against criticism. Well, be on notice that we intend to keep up such “attacks”.
We recognize the critics in our midst. For the purposes of this write up, we will call them the skeptics. These are the fence sitters who are very committed to a better Gambia, completely rejected the status quo (Jammeh’s rule), but cannot entirely commit to any group based on misgivings on certain policy issues or leadership traits they cannot fully embrace. This segment of active participants in our political discourse consists of the ideal critics in the true sense of the word. Although we may not always embrace their criticism, we recognize that they are equally critical of all others based strictly on principle. What they criticize in the UDP, if they see in any other group, they will criticize the same. You see consistency in what they argue against, and we know them. We may not always agree with them, but such disagreements and exchanges are always civil.
Just like such people exist on the outside, we have people within the UDP who are moderate in their views, tread the middle ground and do not always tow the party line. These folks are the ones who engage each other in the public space for the viewpoints within and without.
On the other end of the spectrum are the malicious critics who obey no rules as far as engaging different viewpoints are concerned and they are very extreme in their views as pointed to above. Well, guess what, like every other political group, we also have supporters who bought into the UDP ideology wholeheartedly and cannot be swayed from their convictions that UDP has the best solution for The Gambia, which leads us to elementary physics; opposites attract each other. So, if you pick a fight with that segment of UDP supporters, they will come at you from exactly the angle you approached them. When the pushback comes from those they riled up and find out soon enough that they cannot handle the ire of the ones they riled up, they turn around and seek to brand UDP as a single entity with all the party’s supporters, members and leadership guilty of one character trait – intolerance.
You asked what the problem with UDP is? That’s it. The party is so big and so diverse that whatever angle you come at it from, there is someone within who is ideally situated to take you on from that angle and push it as far as you want to take it, from leadership and policy issues down to the petty and mundane. Is that ideal? Certainly not, but it is a direct result of a refusal to engage in substance while obsessing with personalities, and if such persists, the clash of personalities is also inevitable.
In this information age, no one wields more power than the other, but if those arguing against your narrative are larger in number, then the odds will be stacked against you because they have more capacity to inundate the information space with their narrative.
So, critics are welcome. Propagandists, roll up your sleeves because we will fight back against every false narrative.
This is perspective from the other side. Our goal is to foster mutual understanding so that we can all do our part for the country we claim to love, The Gambia. We aren’t the bad guys and will not cast as such. Our policies are not perfect, and we never claimed such. Tell us where we are wrong and we will assess and position ourselves better, that way if the party gets the people’s mandate, they will be better positioned to address their concerns.