OUR CHOICE, OUR INAUGURATION, OUR PRESIDENT – GAMBIA HAS DECIDED
The Gambia, not big on Twitter, have embraced it totally with #Gambia HAS decided and on 18 February 2017 Gambian’s confidence was evident and rewarded. But it did not come easy.
Because if you valued your hair, handbag, shoes, suit, enkincha, camera – then the stadium in Bakau, was not the best place to be to experience this. Yet, this was Gambia’s time, because Gambians HAD decided – on their own. (The inauguration in Senegal was a mere technicality – this one counted – it was the show for the people who had supported Adama Barrow – and particularly for those who hadn’t “run away’’ the phrase being used for everyone who had left before Jammeh did). It was for this slither of a country to announce a new dawn, a new freedom and they did so with fanfare. The streets were draped in flags and banners. A free concert had taken place in Westfield the night before and there would be another in the stadium after they had cleared everyone after the inauguration ceremony.
At first I felt slightly underdressed – I did not have an ashobi, neither was I wearing my ‘best attire’, with gold jewellery, but had decided to be at one with the crowds with my gold on white Gambia HAS Decided t-shirt amidst others with flag colours, shine shine, and various other colours and styles. With my locks hanging loose, I looked distinctly like a toubab trying to look Gambian but hey! I was here and I had a valuable red invitation that would give me a seat in the covered pavilion!
But what I didn’t know was that people had been arriving since 2am and were kept outside the stadium until 5am so by the time they were allowed into the general seating area, it immediately became full. Therefore by 7am, it didn’t matter if you were a special guest, VIP, press with a big badge, (especially if you had a pen and not a camera), with bodyguards, visitor from another planet to witness this occasion, the Senegalese soldiers were not letting you in. The Gambian solders were a bit kinder I was informed – yet at a certain point, soldiers/security, Gambian/Senegalese they were all the same and as ever, at such events, so many stories about the handling of the situation – some were told this, some were told that – which is why it was a mess… It was always going to be chaotic – they had been forewarned. It took a colleague of mine seven hours to get out of Banjul airport on the day Adama Barrow arrived from Senegal – people had to leave their cars and return for them the next day. That experience made him decide to give away his invitation to the inauguration.
I didn’t really expect it to start on time as the programme outlined and in fact it was a bit misrepresented. On the front it said it started at 10am, but inside, the seating of dignitaries was to start at 8.50am – which I had no idea of until I was in the taxi. I was panicking but knew I would get there before 10.00, so not unduly concerned (hah!) until I arrived at the stadium and saw that I might have to climb over the wall. At 9.30am I pulled up at the stadium gates, flashed my red invitation and stepped in, leaving my escort, invitation-less, outside.
But to which gate with the hallowed ticket? “Go dere,” from the gate security didn’t mean much so I headed for the gate that I usually went into for concerts, the gate that allowed in the cars. But as I got closer it was clear they were not letting anyone else in. I had arrived the night before from the UK with the intent of being at the inauguration of the decade. I had been at Obama’s first inauguration and had stood on the edge of the mall with my purple gated ticket – it wasn’t going to happen again.
It seems even with Presidential inaugurations there is some nervousness whether or not the supporters will turn up in abundance to cheer the leader they voted for. And it seems that decisions were made to purposefully over extend the tickets, without any caution for health and safety issues.
The wall above the gate that I found myself at looked as though it would topple over. Some male had noticed a gap on how to get ringside – by climbing across a dangerous part of the wall. Other males from 6–60 years old followed like ants – all equally as agile – with security at the bottom shouting for them to get down. They made no impact whatsoever. Security were usually up there, protecting that weak area – it had become vulnerable today.
Coach loads of people had arrived from the rural areas for this, in a country where a generation of young people had only known Jammeh as leader. I wondered what Jawara was thinking about at that moment? Was he recalling the time when he had been ousted for Jammeh 22 years before? The people had spoken then, after 32 years that Jawara’s time was up but for very different reasons. Was he watching this at his home? An elder statesman, the first Gambian President after independence, is now sadly suffering from dementia.
I finally got in, 40 mins later. I decided to fall in step with an ambassador and his bodyguards and that got me close to a door, faced only by a soldier. Then thanks due to a very rough crowd (This was not The Smiling Coast of the brochures), I was pushed so hard I tumbled with my back against it. The soldier standing guard said to me, “If you are going to come in, you can’t come in backwards, turn around and walk through the door.” So I did, I was in, but I still faced a fight to get into the pavilion covered area.
In the end I tried only half-heartedly to get into the pavilion; many people with their VIP tickets, higher ranked than mine had given up too. We succumbed to folded chairs under a white tent or under shade; we were ok. I revealed my ‘toubabness’ when searching for a chair. I was told to take one from those reserved for uniformed personnel. I asked the young man next to it if it was free, he said “no,” resting his hand on it and I walked away, chairless. The security who had indicated the empty chair looked at me strangely, “Why did you ask him? – no one has been sitting there for a long time –just go and take the chair!” I had learned. I noticed another one where somebody mistakenly stood up and I swiped the chair and walked off swiftly with it as if I owned it. It was mine until the end of the event. I stood on it, waved my ECOWAS and Gambian flag from it, rested my bag on it, (sometimes I sat on it), but that chair was mine, till 16.30.
Traditionally as I was told, the big national events in the stadium started early and finished by 13.00 – it was too hot to be sitting in non-covered seating. Leading military personnel took bottles of water to their men and women, still standing to attention in the middle of the stadium and although it’s part of their job, they deserve much praise. The Red Cross also deserve much praise which the MC acknowledged. The fact that no-one as far as I know was seriously hurt that day would have marred the start of this major historical point in history.
Everyone stayed until 14.00. The programme was about to start – four hours later than advertised but somehow, the time, at that time didn’t seem to matter. Gambians (in Gambia) are not known for great timekeeping and I desperately wanted Adama Barrow to set the pace and tone for his people. Not today.
This really was a proud moment for Africa, and in particular ECOWAS. An African nation had had a free and fair election; the outgoing president, after some thoughts (and the reasons why, only he really knows) had tried to stay, ECOWAS leaders had met, negotiated and finally convinced him to leave without a gun being pulled, a bullet being shot without anyone being hurt, no lost lives, no (visible)interference from Western nations (!) which had led to this auspicious moment.
All ECOWAS countries were now represented. President’s or their deputies were present. President Mackey Sall from Senegal was revered as a guest of honour and a massive cheer went up for him when his carcade drove through with his own gendarmerie.
Yet I found out later that the late start was not due to bad ‘Gambia time’. Although some dignitaries had arrived the day before, others did not arrive until the 18th itself and this was simply because intra West African flights are appalling. West African Airlines are almost nonexistent. The latest news being that the Nigerian government have taken over Arik Airlines. So would it not have been better to have started late afternoon/early evening? Which would have still allowed time for the free concert to be set up post the inauguration event.
My one hope from this day and show of unity is that with all the ECOWAS representatives being there, they would have taken the opportunity before during or after the Gala dinner if the heat hadn’t withered them to make a pledge that there will be at least one new West African airline in the next few years otherwise this backing of Barrow is all a farce as none of them will dare come back unless in special non-environmentally friendly private planes. Can ECOWAS finance an airline?
I had been in The Gambia in 2006 during the AU gathering. I attended the private sector meeting with my friend, Marilyn. We highlighted two things we felt were important for diaspora business.
Firstly, visas for Diasporans across the borders, were discouraging to SME startups; even psychologically, it is telling those who want to return home that they are still foreigners rather than African Homecomers.
Secondly, flights across the continent. What can be done?
What is the solution for West Africa? Can ECOWAS provide financing for a new airline for the region? In the ten years since that AU meeting (when there was a direct flight between Freetown and Banjul) it has got much worse.
Adama Barrow took a long walk about which the crowd appreciated. He double backed on the red carpet and walked again. That personable action made up for the fact that the new president does not always look 100% comfortable in this new role – eyes down, head slightly bowed – so maybe the walk was more for himself – to hear the roar of the crowd for HIM! It made me think again, that myself, like many others, had flown in and waited to be part of a crazy day for the-man-next-door-who-had-become-president. We would shout, scream, jump, become dehydrated, be too afraid to go and get food as there was no guarantee you would get back in.
Once having stepped outside (and perhaps never getting in), the big screen outside the stadium seemed to serve a better purpose than the inadequately low placed one inside. (and dare I say, seemed to have more fun – access to home cooked fry-fry snacks, rice an’ chew, soldiers dancing, and a comedy spoof of Jammeh).
This is when GRTS (Gambia TV ) played its big role and for some, it was time to leave to go somewhere else to sit in comfort with a cold drink and listen to the inaugural speech of their leader of the next five years. Yet they could still say, they had been present at the announcement of the dawn for a New Gambia.